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The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume IIIThe Nineteenth Century$
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Timothy Larsen and Michael Ledger-Lomas

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780199683710

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199683710.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.date: 01 July 2022



(p.347) 14 Theology
The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III

David Bebbington

Oxford University Press

Evangelicalism was the chief factor moulding the theology of most Protestant Dissenting traditions of the nineteenth century, dictating an emphasis on conversions, the cross, the Bible as the supreme source of teaching, and activism which spread the gospel while also relieving the needy. The chapter concentrates on debates about conversion and the cross. It begins by emphasizing that the Enlightenment and above all its principle of rational inquiry was enduringly important to Dissenters. The Enlightenment led some in the Reformed tradition such as Joseph Priestley to question not only creeds but also doctrines central to Christianity, such as the Trinity, while others, such as the Sandemanians, Scotch Baptists, Alexander Campbell’s Restorationists, or the Universalists, privileged the rational exegesis of Scripture over more emotive understandings of faith. In the Calvinist mainstream, though, the Enlightenment created ‘moderate Calvinism’. Beginning with Jonathan Edwards, it emphasized the moral responsibility of the sinner for rejecting the redemption that God had made available and reconciled predestination with the enlightened principle of liberty. As developed by Edwards’s successors, the New England theology became the norm in America and was widely disseminated among British Congregationalists and Baptists. It entailed a judicial or governmental conception of the atonement, in which a just Father was forced to exact the Son’s death for human sinfulness. The argument that this just sacrifice was sufficient to save all broke with the doctrine of the limited atonement and so pushed some higher Calvinists among the Baptists into schism, while, among Presbyterians, Princeton Seminary retained loyal to the doctrine of penal substitution. New England theology was not just resisted but also developed, with ‘New Haven’ theologians such as Nathaniel William Taylor stressing the human component of conversion. If Calvinism became residual in such hands, then Methodists and General and Freewill Baptists had never accepted it. Nonetheless they too gave enlightened accounts of salvation. The chapter dwells on key features of the Enlightenment legacy: a pragmatic attitude to denominational distinctions; an enduring emphasis on the evidences of the Christian faith; sympathy with science, which survived the advent of Darwin; and an optimistic postmillennialism in which material prosperity became the hallmark of the unfolding millennium. Initially challenges to this loose consensus came from premillennial teachers such as Edward Irving or John Nelson Darby, but the most sustained and deep-seated were posed by Romanticism. Romantic theologians such as James Martineau, Horace Bushnell, and Henry Ward Beecher rejected necessarian understandings of the universe and identified faith with interiority. They emphasized the love rather than the justice of God, with some such as the Baptist Samuel Cox embracing universalism. Late nineteenth-century Dissenters followed Anglicans in prioritizing the incarnation over the atonement and experiential over evidential apologetics. One final innovation was the adoption of Albrecht Ritschl’s claim that Jesus had come to found the kingdom of God, which boosted environmental social activism. The shift from Enlightenment to romanticism, which provoked considerable controversy, illustrated how the gospel and culture had been in creative interaction.

Keywords:   Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Bushnell, Jonathan Edwards, Enlightenment, moderate Calvinism, James Martineau, New Haven theology, postmillennialism, Joseph Priestley, Princeton Seminary, Albrecht Ritschl, Romanticism, Nathaniel William Taylor

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