George A. (George Angier) Gordon.

Humanism in New England theology online

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The Essay here published appeared origi-
nally in the Harvard Theological Review,
April, 1907. For permission to republish it
sincere thanks are extended to the editors
of the Review.

The title has been changed from "The
Collapse of the New England Theology," to
"Humanism in New England Theology,"
because the former title indicated only the
passing of a historic system of thought,
while indicating not at all the permanent
ideas in that system. For the purposes of
the article it seemed best to take the title
from Dr. Foster's book, then under review.
The new title emphasizes what the writer
conceives to be the fundamental principle
of every attempt to interpret the mystery
of the Infinite. Fidelity to this principle at
its best — the interpretation of the Eternal
through the ideal man — would appear to

viii Note

be the final test of the worth of every
scheme of thought in the service of Chris-
tian faith.

In this tercentennial year of the landing
of the Pilgrim Fathers, attention is sure to
be drawn to the great succession of New
England divines, and it is hoped that this
little book may assist in the discovery of
what was of passing interest in their
thought, and of that which must abide so
long as faith in the God and Father of Jesus
shall abide. A few hints are given of the
heroic character of these men, their intel-
lectual strength and charm — a subject
that deserves an independent treatment.

Some slight additions have been made to
the Essay as it at first appeared; there are
also some slight omissions. In other respects
the discussion is unchanged.

George A. Gordon

January 2, 1920






HERE are in general two forms of
humanism, the historical and the
philosophical. Historical human-
ism, unless otherwise guarded, is imder-
stood to cover the revival of interest in the
Greek and Roman classics, and the devo-
tion to the product of human genius in lit-
erature and in art in Europe during the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. To be
sure, this sense of historical humanism is
arbitrary. Any view taken of human nature
among any people in any period of time is a
form of historical humanism. In this sense
of the word we have, to mention only lead-
ing races, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, patristic,

2 Humanism in New England Theology

mediaeval, Puritan, and present-day forms
of humanism.

Philosophical humanism is something
different. It is the doctrine which finds,
whether with or without clear intention, in
human personality the key to the character
of the universe. Popular forms of religion
illustrate the three ways in which this hu-
manistic principle is applied. The worship
of the sun is common in the history of cer-
tain peoples. Here the direct principle is the
interpretation of the Divine through Na-
ture; but the indirect principle is humanis-
tic. The sun is all-seeing, an eye filled with
omniscience; the human mind has taken
possession of it and moulded it to its own
uses. Besides, when reflection arrives, it is
seen that Nature in any of her great forms
is known only as force, that force is known
only as will. In the interpretation of the
Divine through Nature, while the direct
principle is sub-human, the indirect princi-
ple is a phase of human personality. In the

Humanism in New England Theology j

study of Egyptian monuments one is met
with the most elaborate attempt to inter-
pret the Divine through animal life. The
hawk, the snake, the crocodile are a few of
the great variety of animal forms employed
in this interpretation. Here the direct prin-
ciple is again sub-human, but the indirect is
another phase of the human personality; for
only through the consciousness of life is man
able to enter the vast region of animal vital-
ity and power. In polytheism, pantheism,
and theism the human personality is used,
in one way or another, as the guiding prin-
ciple. The many gods of Greece or Rome are
a reflection of the many human beings by
whom the universe is construed. The abso-
lute divinity of the whole and all its parts
is but the infinite shadow of a human life
supposed to be complete or fated to be as it
is. The one God of the monotheistic world
is the image of the one great human soul
that is fit to govern all other human souls.
Facts, real or apparent, in each case guide

4 Humanism in New England Theology

in the application of the principle. Jesus
and his gospel come from the Eternal, and
in the name of this the supreme soul and its
fullness of honor and love, we turn, look
back, and see through Him the Infinite

The general conclusion here is that every
positive view of the imiverse is attained on
the humanistic principle; the special con-
clusion is that every form of theism is at the
same time a form of humanism. Still fur-
ther, the two great t)^es of theism, the In-
dividual God and the Social God, the Uni-
tarian Deity and the Trinitarian Deity, are
the issue of two different forms of the hu-
manistic principle. For one type, the Uni-
tarian, the individual man is the instru-
ment of interpretation; for the other type,
the Trinitarian, man the social being is the
guide. The New England theology sets
forth the Trinitarian type of theism. It is
theological humanism of a certain kind.
The type is bound to endure; the form in

Humanism in New England Theology 5

which it Hved is gone. A criticism of the
New England theology, first upon more
obvious grounds, and then upon humanistic
grounds, is therefore in order. It is here
undertaken in the interest of the permanent
type which the writer believes that theology

What is the New England theology? In a
general way it is the philosophy of the
Christian faith originating with Augustine,
reduced to severe order and expounded with
energy and consistency by John Calvin, re-
vived by Jonathan Edwards, and by him
and his successors related to the speculative
questions and reHgious conditions of a new
land and a new people. From first to last it
consisted in five main determinations, the
old five points of Calvinism slightly rear-
ranged: the sovereignty of God, the deprav-
ity of man, the atonement for sin made by
Jesus Christ, the irresistible grace of the
Holy Spirit, and the perseverance of be-
lievers in Christ. The system began with the

6 Humanism in New England Theology

Divine sovereignty, with the predestination
of all events, with a world fallen, yet under
the purpose of God, and with a scheme of
salvation limited to a certain predeter-
mined number, and exclusive of or indiffer-
ent to the rest of mankind. Nathaniel W.
Taylor here speaks for the entire school. In
his discussion of the doctrine of election he
remarks: ''The simple matter of fact which
I would state, and which constitutes the en-
tire doctrine of election, is this: that God
has eternally proposed to renew, and sanc-
tify, and save a part only of mankind.'*
The perseverance of true believers must be
read in the Hght of the irresistible grace of
the Holy Spirit; this again must be traced,
through the sacrifice of Christ, back to the
elective decree of the Most High, and still
further this determination to save only a
part of mankind must be seen to be one
phase of God's absolute sovereignty in the
Upon this general framework of belief all

Humanism in New England Theology 7

the New England theologians were agreed.
For them there were but two systems of
theology, the Calvinistic and the Arminian,
and for the latter they had, in general
and in particular, something very like con-
tempt. So far as I have been able to search
their writings, no one of these thinkers has
defined the science of theology. They did
not conceive definition to be necessary.
They had absorbed from childhood the Cal-
vinistic scheme; it took tremendous, almost
exclusive, hold of their intellect. When they
studied the Bible it seemed to look into
their souls nearly from every page, and the
history of this sad world was the conclusive
witness to the truth of its doctrine concern-
ing man. Jonathan Edwards, the elder and
the younger, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hop-
kins, Nathanael Emmons, Nathaniel W.
Taylor, and Edwards A. Park — the great
masters of the school — were at one here.
Horace Bushnell is the pioneer of a new
movement, and therefore does not in this

8 Humanism in New England Theology

connection concern us. Samuel Harris was a
deep thinker in theology, and an eminent
teacher; but he too had outgrown the old
New England categories. Professor Park
was the last of the New England theologi-
ans. These thinkers without exception held
to the sovereignty of God, whether con-
strued as including or as not including the
fall; they held to the innate depravity of
mankind — they traced this universal con-
dition of the race to the sin of the first man,
however they may have differed with older
thinkers or among themselves in the ac-
coimt given of the relation of the individual
to Adam; they were agreed that without
atonement there is no forgiveness of sin,
and that this necessary atonement had been
made by Jesus Christ; they were united in
the belief that the Holy Spirit is essential to
the conversion and regeneration of man —
that till the Spirit's influence descends upon
him, man is helpless in the presence of
his moral obligation, that when the Divine

Humanism in New England Theology g

grace comes it is irresistible, and that its
dispensation is ruled, not by the forlorn
condition of a humanity lying in wicked-
ness, but by the Divine decree; and they
were imanimous in their conviction that true
believers in Jesus Christ will persevere to
the end and be saved with an everlasting
salvation. Upon this last point great em-
phasis was placed. It represented the final
issue of the aboriginal sovereign decree; it
was held with a vigor answering to the cer-
tainty of that decree; and hence any hesita-
tion here was regarded as a reflection upon
the Supreme honor and power. Oliver
Cromwell, in his question, *Does once a
Christian mean always a Christian? ' repre-
sents the seriousness of the entire New Eng-
land school upon this subject. A certain
minister once complained to President
Sparks, of Harvard, that his church was
greatly distressed over the perseverance of
the saints; to whom President Sparks re-
plied in the modern spirit, but at the same

10 Humanism in New England Theology

time failing in insight into the Puritan char-
acter, *Our trouble here is with the perse-
verance of the sinners.' It is a sign of the
distance we have come that the famous re-
mark of Dr. Williams, of Providence, upon
this subject is cherished as a supreme ex-
ample of humor in theological debate. It
was, however, far enough from this charac-
ter in the mind of Dr. Williams. Meeting
one day a preacher of Arminian opinions
and demanding of him a proof-text for the
monstrous belief that a soul once converted
to God could fall away and be lost forever,
and receiving in answer the citation of the
parable of the ten virgins who all went
forth to meet the bridegroom, but of whom
five fell away and were lost, the contemptu-
ous rejoinder of Dr. Williams was, that any
man who believed a doctrine of Scripture
on account of what five women said, and
five foolish women at that, deserved to go
to perdition.
In the presentation of these five points

Humanism in New England Theology ii

there were among the New England theo
logians noble rivalries and generous differ-
ences; there were, too, marked superiorities
and inferiorities in acuteness and vigor, in
force and felicity of exposition, in dialectical
and apologetic skill; but with the single ex-
ception of Edwards, they rarely went out-
side the Calvinistic plan, and without ex-
ception that plan stood as the final thought
upon man's origin, history, and destiny.
Dr. Foster,^ while sensitive to the personal
force of Edwards, is strangely wanting, for
a mind of his candor, in appreciation of
Edwards's rational strength. In ranking the
founder of the school below Taylor and
Park, Dr. Foster cannot be said to appreci-
ate the solitary distinction of Edwards.
Taylor and Park are, after Edwards, the
acutest thinkers in the school, but in com-
pass, in depth, in fertility of rational de-
vice, and above all, in speculative genius,
they are not to be mentioned by the side of
* Tke Collapse of the New England Theology,

12 Humanism in New England Theology

Edwards. A full examination of the unpub-
lished writings of Edwards would show a
mind of singular openness and of unceas-
ing movement. When a young man he

I observe that old men seldom have any ad-
vantage of new discoveries, because these are
beside a way of thinking they are used to.
Resolved, if ever I live to years, that I will be
impartial to hear the reasons of all pretended
discoveries, and receive them, if rational, how
long soever I have been used to another way
of thinking.

It can be said that this resolve, made in
his early manhood, exerted over Edwards
a continuous influence, an influence more
decided in his last years. In his published
writings Edwards occasionally forgets the
traditional system and goes forth in the
great quest of truth. His essays on "The
Will,'' "The Nature of Virtue," "The End
for which God made the World," and "Re-
ligious Affections" are untrammeled dis-
cussions. They are related logically to what

Humanism in New England Theology ij

in Edwards is deepest and most truly his
own — his conception of the absolutely per-
fect God — and they succeed or fail accord-
ing to their fidelity or infidelity to that con-
ception. Edwards's size and passion win
even for his errors a kind of consecration;
while his occasional free movement in the
pure vision of truth, out beyond the bound-
aries of tradition, marks him as unique in
his school.

Still, we must return to the simple fact
that Calvinism was from first to last the
philosophy of man and man's world held
and taught by these thinkers. Side issues
there were many and important; large
questions of theodicy were often in debate,
especially in the case of Bellamy and Hop-
kins and Taylor; speculation concerning
the moral government of God was rife; the
consideration of human freedom called into
existence, in addition to the great treatise
of Edwards, a voluminous Hterature; the
Divine life in man soared away into a wild

14 Humanism in New England Theology

idealism as in the Hopkinsian conception ol
love; now and then these thinkers, and em-
phatically Edwards and Hopkins, struck
notes more akin to the music of Spinoza
than to that of John Calvin, and we hear in
them answering strains to the lofty one-
sidedness of the words, "He that truly loves
God must not desire that God should love
him in return"; yet, when this is freely ad-
mitted, it must be said that after these ex-
cursions these New England divines one
and all returned to the main outline of the
Calvinistic scheme, and settled in it as the
final account of their religion.


HAT this system of opinion has
lost control of the religious mind
of the present generation will be
universally admitted. There are many
teachers of religion with no theology, many
with a new, and still more with a crude
theology, but nowhere do we find men of
modern training and respectable intellect
holding the New England theology. Our
question then is. How came this system of
belief, dominant in our churches for more
than one hundred and fifty years, suddenly
in the last quarter of the nineteenth century
to lose its hold upon thinking minds? What
causes brought about its sudden and final

In any fair account of this collapse, while
the chief blame must He with the system
itself, some blame will be seen to attach
to the state of the public mind. There has

i6 Humanism in New England Theology

arisen within the Christian Church con-
siderable indifference to speculative think-
ing. Practical interests have been engross-
ing, as they should be, but the dependence
of living, practical interests upon funda-
mental ideas, and upon clearness on funda-
mental subjects, has not been seen. The
X mill-round of the mind has been substituted
Ijor the sun-path. An indescribable pettiness,
a mean kind of retail trade, has largely
taken possession of the teachers of religion.
The eternal spaces in which, like the planet,
the world of practical interest lives and
moves and has its being, have fallen from
the pubHc mind. Hence questions of the
origin of sin and its permission in a universe
over which God is sovereign, serious think-
ing upon moral government, the nature of
virtue, the character of disinterested love,
the decree of the Most High and the eternal
economy of his being have not appealed to
this generation. To the discredit of the
generation be it said.

Humanism in New England Theology ly

This age is characterized by a strong
aversion to severe thinking. Immediacy has
become a habit, perhaps a disease. Its
motto is he that runs may read, and the
reader who intends to run as he reads must
not choose for his race-course the New Eng-
land divinity. The New England writers are
far from dull; they know how to express
themselves with precision and vigor, but
they are thinkers, men who deal with ideas,
who set ideas in new lights, and support
their views with definition and argument.
They tax the intellect of the reader, and in
return for his toil they make him aware of
his intelligence, a thing that does not always
happen at the present day with books on
theological subjects. The discourses of Ed-
wards and Bellamy and Hopkins and Em-
mons were spoken to New England farmers,
their wives, and their sons and daughters;
and when they were pubHshed they were
read largely by the same class of persons.
There was in those days eagerness to attack

i8 Humanism in New England Theology

and master a difficult subject; keen interest
in matter that, in order to be understood,
had to be read a score of times; enthusiasm
for some attainment in rational strength
and in argumentative skill. To-day what-
ever cannot be understood in the twinkling
of an eye is generally regarded with aver-
sion. The supreme heresy in thinking is the
call to intellectual toil. The kindergarten,
while it may be good for children, when it
becomes a universal method, makes escape
from intellectual childhood difficult. If
severe thinking were as much admired in
the New England of to-day as it was in
the New England of fifty and one hundred
years ago, more respect would be felt for
the old divines, and their best works would
be oftener read.

There is in the public mind the absence of
a due sense of the difficulties that inhere in
every possible view of the world. Criticism
of the New England system has been cur-
rent for so long that it has gained possession

Humanism in New England Theology ig

of the thoughtful public. The criticism is
largely well founded; but it is apt to lead to
utter revolt from the works of these able
and honest men. They are blamed for failing
to do what no mortal man has yet succeeded
in doing, presenting a philosophy of man's
world true to all the known facts and giving
complete satisfaction to the reason. In our
new thinking we accept at our own hands
a philosophy far enough from complete ra-
tionaUty, and we refuse to do the same by
the men of the older thinking. It would do
our philosophy of religion good to be con-
sidered and debated by the New England
divines. We might find, perhaps, that all
the difficulties and impossibilities are not
with the ancient creed, that some serious
mysteries need clearing up at our hands.

While fair-minded men will, I think, ad-
mit the truth of this indictment against the
public mind of to-day, the charge must be
renewed that the chief causes of collapse
must be found in the character of the an-

20 Eumanism in New England Theology

dent creed. The New England theology had
taken for granted that it was substantially
the final theology. While resting in this easy
assumption it was, to the amazement and
incredulity of its latest masters, suddenly
outgrown. It fell from power and passed
away because it was outgrown by the reli-
gious consciousness whose interpreter and
servant it professed to be. On this ground
its discharge was inevitable. The full sig-
nificance of this explanation will become
apparent, I hope, through the following

It must never be forgotten that the New
England divinity was not in any profound
sense an original movement of thought. It
was a new version of the system of John
Calvin, in whom again it must be observed
the system was not original. As is well
known, the New England theology, while
derived from Calvin, dates from Augustine.
Thoughts of infinite moment are found in
rich profusion in the writings of Augustine,

Humanism in New England Theology 21

and next to his ecclesiasticism, the outline
of a theological system contained in his
works is the least of his services to the
Christian intellect and spirit. There are in
the profound spiritual and speculative life
of Augustine hints toward a philosophy of
Christianity other and infinitely nobler than
that which he outlined, an implicit philos-
ophy which continues to invest his great
spirit with enduring fascination.

Still, the outline of dogma made by
Augustine has been the basis of the tradi-
tional scheme from that day to this. His
idea of a race universally depraved, traced
to the sin of Adam as its source, has been a
ruling idea. His doctrine of salvation on the
ground of Christ's atonement, by irresist-
ible grace calling into existence saving faith
and securing the perseverance of the be-
liever, has been a ruling doctrine. His
scheme of deUverance as originating in the
decree of God, and as contemplating the
redemption of only a part of the fallen and

22 Humanism in New England Theology

miserable race of man, has been the domi-
nating scheme. From Augustine's day to
this the traditional theology has never held
the idea of anything other or better than a
salvation of the remnant. Therefore, not-
withstanding the order and vigor imparted
to this scheme by John Calvin, and the
valid distinctions, fruitful modifications,
and noble expansions introduced by Ed-
wards and his successors down to Professor
Park, in whom the line terminates, the
philosophy of man's life in this world and
in the next presented in the New England
theology is essentially that of the great
Bishop of Hippo.

The New England scheme is thus wanting
in fundamental originaHty. It arises out of
no face-to-face contact with the problem of
man's existence; it never occurs to it to
interrogate the vast and tragic reality at
first hand. Man and man's world were not
independent and absorbing objects of study
to the New England divines; man and his

Humanism in New England Theology 23

world did not possess their imagination; the
knowledge of human beings already in ex-
istence did not in them raise the hope of
richer knowledge; the scientific spirit, of
which Bacon was the great modern prophet,
the attitude toward their world of inquiry,
concrete and severe methods of study and
hope, did not control them; the human real-
ity before them did not win tjiem into an
original relation to it, nor fascinate them
onward to fresh discoveries, nor so engage

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Online LibraryGeorge A. (George Angier) GordonHumanism in New England theology → online text (page 1 of 5)