Remembering the “Progressive Orthodoxy”
of Horace Bushnell, Part 2/3
by Roger Olson
by Roger Olson
August 13, 2012
Bushnell was self-consciously a mediating theologian. He stood against the stream of New England Unitarianism and the accommodating liberalism while at the same time resisting the rigid orthodoxy and incipient fundamentalism of neo-Puritanism and the [arising] Princeton Theology (Alexander and Hodge). He strongly defended belief in the supernatural, including Jesus’ miracles (although he felt no need to defend every biblical miracle story), while at the same time defending the need to adjust Christian doctrines to the changing cultural context. He infuriated both liberals and conservatives. The latter attempted to expel him from the local Congregational association, but his church withdrew to protect him. The former heaped scorn and ridicule on him for being out of touch with modern thought.
Like Barth and Niebuhr in the next century, Bushnell never earned a doctoral degree; he was a seminary graduate and pastor. His only academic teaching involved tutoring Yale students. Yet he wrote many books of theology that sold well and were widely read, reviewed, discussed and sometimes condemned (especially by his opponents to the right such as Hodge and to the left). His main philosophical-theological influence was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the enigmatic English romanticist poet and essayist whose book Aids to Reflection greatly inspired Bushnell. Like Kierkegaard, but without any obvious influence by him, Bushnell believed spiritual truth usually comes clothed in paradox; and, that many of theology’s pathologies arise from attempting to make everything rationally satisfying.
Among Bushnell’s most influential books (besides Christian Nurture) were God in Christ (1849), Nature and the Supernatural (1858), Christ and His Salvation (1864) and The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866). The latter book created the most controversy as there he tried to work out an objective doctrine of the atonement that would avoid the penal substitution theory which he thought portrayed God as cold and vindictive. He became dissatisfied with what he had written about the atonement there, so he revised his doctrine of the atonement in his last book Forgiveness and Law (1874). Essentially, he held that Jesus’ death was the cost of forgiveness by God. I won’t get into Bushnell’s mature theory of the atonement here as the details of his doctrinal proposals are not my focus in this post.
One cannot understand anything about Bushnell’s approach to theology and doctrinal reconstruction without realizing that he considered all language, not only theological language, metaphorical. All nouns outside of mathematics, he argued, are “faded metaphors”—images. Words about things never match them perfectly. And that is especially true in spiritual matters where we are talking about things unseen. Therefore, according to Bushnell, all God talk ought to admit that none of its words perfectly match the Reality they seek to express. This is more than merely affirmation of analogy; it seems to me that Bushnell’s theory of religious language takes a position somewhere between equivocal and analogical. The upshot was that for him, all creeds and doctrines must be held somewhat lightly because none of them correspond exactly to the spiritual realities they attempt to describe. Some words about God and salvation (etc.) are better than others, but all are like arrows shot toward a target too distant to hit. Some go right toward it but fall short; others go way off in a wrong direction entirely.
Also, one cannot understand anything about Bushnell’s theology without realizing that he considered religion, including Christianity, primarily about experiencing God. For him, the essence of Christianity is spiritual communion with God through Christ. “A few dull propositions” can never do justice to that life even if they are necessary. For him, there is a qualitative difference between that communion with God and doctrines that inevitably flow from it. Doctrines are secondary; personal communion with God is primary. Critics charge Bushnell with repeating Schleiermacher’s subjectivism, but that’s not correct. Bushnell did not believe in a universal “God consciousness” that serves as the criterion of all religious belief, including Christian belief ....
[(coincidentally, Process Theology sounds these same themes in attempting to reconcile all the world's religions with one another, which is yet another reason that I do, and do not, like Process Theology, preferring rather that all the world's religions, including Christianity, comes to Jesus, and not to some nameless, eternal "Source of All Reality" - res)].
... In other words, he did not acknowledge any “religious a priori” to become a Procrustean bed (look it up) for Christian doctrine. Nor did he think doctrines are subjective expressions of individual or corporate experiences; he held the Bible to be the source and norm for doctrine. However, he thought the Bible communicates spiritual truth through poetry and parable and even its didactic writings (e.g., Paul’s letters) are metaphorical such that they must be interpreted anew in each generation ....
[(... a postmodernist will recognize the fluidity of language respective to the interpretive eras and social cultures of its residence. - res)].
... For example, the New Testament uses the metaphor “ransom” for what Christ accomplished on the cross. That spoke meaningfully to people in the ancient world filled with slavery; it speaks less meaningfully to us in the modern world. The theologian’s task is to develop new accounts of the atonement that are nevertheless faithful to the original images.
Bushnell was appalled at the vicious theological debates tearing churches apart in New England ...
[(not unlike today's inflammatory rhetorics being heard. Part of my pulling away from Evangelicalism was in my disappointment with Evangelical response to Emergent Christianity - res)].
... Much of what he was about was trying to provide ways of thinking about doctrines that make such heated debates unnecessary. To that end he developed (or at least began developing) what he called “Christian comprehensiveness.” Contrary to what his critics charged, he did not advocate throwing out all creeds and confessions of faith. However, he said of them “the more, the better.” All express something of the truth; none express truth perfectly. “Christian comprehensiveness” was Bushnell’s ecumenical endeavor; he thought a major task of theology is to draw out the truth in all the major, historical forms of Christianity and hold its various expressions in tension with each other. Unlike liberals, he was not interested in finding the “kernel within the husks” (essence of Christianity separated from all its historical forms) and discarding the husks. For him, there is no culturally neutral, transcendent propositional truth to which we have access. All expressions of Christian belief are culturally shaped. And all are metaphorical.
All this is vague without an example. Much of the heat of New England Protestant controversy in Bushnell’s time centered around Calvinism versus Arminianism. Bushnell argued that there is truth in both and neither is true alone. They need each other. His approach to this and other controversies among equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians was “both-and” rather than “either-or.” He rejected both Calvinism and Arminianism insofar as they were represented by their adherents as closed systems; he accepted both insofar as they are viewed as human attempts to express equally important truths of revelation. Both agree that God is sovereign; both agree that humans are responsible for sin and evil. The problem that gives rise to the controversy tearing churches apart, he argued, is that defenders of both go too far in speculation and deny the truth in the other's soteriology. He knew that inquiring minds will inevitably seek to explain mysteries, but he believed these explanations ought to be held lightly and not as fortresses to be built up and defended and used as bases for forays against the “enemies.” He wasn’t in favor of Methodists giving up Arminianism or Presbyterians giving up Calvinism; he was in favor of Christian comprehensiveness in which both and all sides can come together, admit that their systems of belief are human attempts to understand something about God that humans cannot fully comprehend and unify around the truths about which they agree—that God is sovereign and humans alone are responsible for sin and evil. By “unify” he meant at least stop fighting each other and have fellowship and cooperation.
I think if Bushnell were alive today he would find himself most at home in a postliberal, narrative type of theology. Many things he wrote about doctrine anticipated that. I’m not saying he would agree with any specific theory of doctrine such as Lindbeck’s, but I think he would agree heartily with Hans Frei’s approach to the Bible and doctrine. The Bible, he would say (I think) is not a not-yet-systematized-systematic theology. All systems of theology are human attempts in a certain time and place to bring the truths of the biblical narrative to expression. More important than that, however, (and I’m not sure Frei would agree) is spiritual communion with God through Jesus Christ. It is that that the Bible is meant to create and promote and govern by its stories, parables, poetry, images and, yes, propositions. I think Bushnell would agree with Moravian leader Zinzendorf who, about a hundred years earlier, said that "Whoever attempts to put Christianity into a system kills it." He would certainly agree with Alfred Lord Tennyson who said,
“Our little systems have their day;
they have their day and cease to be.
They are but broken lights of Thee,
They are but broken lights of Thee,
and Thou, O God, art more than they.”
Of course, predictably, both liberals and conservatives of his day accused Bushnell of relativism. (It might be difficult to conceive that liberals would accuse him of that, but it’s important to know that the liberals of his day were, like the conservatives, under the influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism. Both liberals and conservatives then believed that propositions can correspond to reality (they just disagreed about what propositions correspond to reality.) I consider him to have been a precursor of critical realism in theology. He certainly was not a relativist even though he admitted and argued for the relativity of all human propositions—especially about God and spiritual realities. He believed in absolute truth; he denied human absolute knowledge of it.
An excellent example of Bushnell’s approach to theology is the atonement. He believed that Scripture does not communicate a “theory” of the atonement; it expresses what Christ accomplished on the cross with metaphors: sacrifice, conquest, ransom, cancelling a debt, etc. In his time and place, liberals and conservatives had staked out theories of the atonement and opposed each others’. Liberals by-and-large promoted a subjective view of the atonement called the moral example or moral influence theory. Conservatives virtually all promoted some version of the satisfaction or penal substitution theory. (Many Arminians and Wesleyans promoted the so-called governmental theory, but to Bushnell that would be just a modification of the penal substitution theory.) According to Bushnell, both (all) theories express some aspect of the truth of the atonement. Their faults lie in their claims to be comprehensive and exact as if they could look right into the mind of God and know what was going on between Father and Son before, during and after the death of Christ on the cross.
Bushnell believed a new theory of the atonement needed to be constructed—one that would take up the truth in both subjective and objective theories and avoid their problems. But his own constructed doctrine of the atonement, expressed differently in two books (mentioned above), was not to be final, closed or total. It was to be a new arrow, so to speak, aimed in the direction of the truth from a particular social, cultural context and frame of mind. In developing it he used a lot of the budding science of psychology as well as recent theories of justice. Basically, in a nutshell, his theory was that forgiveness is always costly and the death of Christ was God’s experience of the cost of forgiving. He thought that all Christians could rally around that even as they might hold onto their own theories as other arrows aimed at the truth. None hits the target’s bullseye. But Bushnell thought his own came closer to that for his own time and place.
In Part 3, the final installment of this series, I want to suggest ways in which Bushnell might be a model for contemporary theology.
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Remembering the “Progressive Orthodoxy”
of Horace Bushnell, Part 3/3
by Roger Olson
by Roger Olson
August 15, 2012
Needed: A New “Progressive Orthodoxy” for the 21st Century: Part Three (Final) of Series about Horace Bushnell.
In the first two installments of this three part series (cf., A Case for Progressive Orthodoxy: Horace Bushnell, Part 1 ) I talked about what Gary Dorrien calls Bushnell’s “liberal-leaning experiment in progressive orthodoxy” with special focus on the 19th century theologian’s theological method. Here I want to suggest some ways in which Bushnell’s progressive orthodoxy can be helpful today.
As in Bushnell’s time and place (New England in mid-19th century), Protestant Christianity in America today is deeply divided between conservatives of various kinds and liberals of various kinds. And, among evangelicals, a gulf is widening between those I call postconservatives (including progressives and moderates) and neo-fundamentalists (conservative evangelicals). Notably missing is viable, attractive, influential middle ground.
In my estimation, what American theology needs is what Bushnell (and a few others) provided in mid-19th century New England: an attractive mediating theology that takes orthodoxy seriously but is willing to explore new horizons and frontiers in doctrinal reconstruction. Theologies of retrieval abound and are attracting many conservative-minded young people. These are either paleo-orthodox (retrieving and renewing ancient Christian teaching) or neo-fundamentalist (retrieving and usually entrenching the “received evangelical tradition”). Needed is a vision of orthodoxy in which it is living. Jaroslav Pelikan quipped that “Tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Too often, I fear, orthodoxy today is the dead faith of the dead. Progressive orthodoxy is the attempt to breathe new life into it and make it relevant (without relativism) to contemporary people.
Theologies of revision also abound. Among so-called “mainstream” Protestants there is new interest in process theology and various left-leaning political theologies of inclusion and social transformation. Among evangelicals, many younger people are attracted to revisionist theologies as espoused by some of the more progressive emerging church gurus. These often seem to repeat the liberal Protestant experiments of the later 19th century and early 20th century.
In the midst of the theological convulsions shaking New England Protestantism in the mid-19th century Bushnell attempted to provide a middle way, a via media, that took seriously the new knowledge of the sciences and new paths of philosophy while at the same time holding on to crucial doctrines of orthodoxy such as the Trinity. (Bushnell was a strong defender of the Trinity against the growing Unitarianism of his time and place.)
When people hear the phrase “progressive orthodoxy” there are usually two reactions. Conservatives hear only the “progressive” part and are deaf to the “orthodoxy” part. They react to it as if it were nothing but a new form of the old liberalism. Bushnell was no liberal. He believed in and defended the supernatural, the deity of Christ, the atoning death of Christ as more than a moral example. He was not a reductionist nor was he anxious to rush into accommodation to “modern thought.” Although he did believe it important to moralize dogma, he was not interested in reducing Christianity to ethics (which was the trend among the true liberals of his day).
The second reaction is from liberals who only hear the “orthodoxy” part and are deaf to the “progressive” part. They react to it as if it were nothing but a new form of fundamentalism. But Bushnell was no fundamentalist. He did not believe in biblical inerrancy (a concept he thought was foreign to the nature of Scripture as narrative and imagery), every biblical miracle (although he believed some biblical miracles are necessary such as Jesus’ resurrection), or that correct doctrine is the essence of authentic Christianity.
Like Bushnell, a new progressive orthodoxy would be a conscious via media between neo-fundamentalism that elevates correct doctrine to the sine qua non of authentic Christianity and neo-liberalism that reduces doctrine to unimportance. This new progressive orthodoxy would acknowledge that certain beliefs are necessary to holistic, mature Christianity in every place and time, namely the deity and humanity of Christ, the supernatural (that God sometimes acts in ways that transcend the laws of nature), the grace of God in salvation, and the Trinity (to name the most important ones). However, progressive orthodoxy would be open to reconsideration and revision of the ways in which doctrines have traditionally been formulated and expressed.
The new progressive orthodoxy would, like Bushnell’s, regard communion with God as the essence of authentic Christianity, and emphasize spirituality as equally important, if not more important, than correct belief. It would recognize the distance between all human doctrinal formulations and the reality they aim to express. It would encourage Christian engagement with culture (science and philosophy especially) without capitulation to secularism or consumerism or “New Thought.” It would encourage the ongoing process of devout and faithful theological research that critiques and reconstructs traditional doctrinal formulations while at the same time holding firmly to the basics of the faith “once for all delivered.”
Bushnell’s lifelong work on the atonement is the best example of his own progressive orthodoxy at work. He refused to reduce the cross to a moral example and influence; he knew the biblical imagery of Christ’s sacrifice required an objective achievement that affected God as well as sinners. But he was dissatisfied with the traditional Puritan doctrine of penal substitution because it went beyond Scripture and portrayed God as a cruel judge who demands blood before he will be loving and forgive—also an unscriptural view of God and the atonement.
Bushnell’s proposal may not have been correct, but it was a valiant attempt to push on the frontiers of doctrinal achievement and break through impasses to something new and faithful and satisfying to both traditional theology and modern sentiments. (It’s important to remember that up until Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo ,the majority of medieval church leaders and theologians thought of the atonement in terms of a ransom paid by God to the devil. Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” was initially greeted with horror because it was new and culturally sensitive. During his own lifetime, however, Anselm’s theory caught on because it did take into account biblical images of the atonement not accounted for by the traditional ransom theory and it made sense in feudal society better than the ransom theory.)
Another example of Bushnell’s progressive orthodoxy is his open belief in the suffering of God. He was one of the first Christian theologians to affirm that God himself, not just the incarnate Son of God, suffers. It was Bushnell who first said (so far as I have been able to determine) that "before there was a cross on the hill of Calvary there was a cross in the heart of God". (This is an image that has been much repeated in 20th century theology and attributed to many different poets and theologians; it belongs originally, so far as I can discover, to Bushnell.) There’s no evidence that in this he was at all influenced by Hegel who talked about a “speculative Good Friday” in God; and Bushnell certainly did not mean anything like what Hegel meant by God’s “suffering.”
Bushnell was not afraid to break out of the confines of classical Christian theism when Scripture, spiritual experience and reason called for that. He was accused by critics of “patripassionism,” of course, but he steadfastly held on to his idea that God can and does suffer the sufferings of the world, and especially of his Son on the cross, against the overwhelming weight of traditional ideas of God’s immutability and impassibility.
Like Bushnell’s progressive orthodoxy, a contemporary one would seek to be reasonable while respecting and preserving mystery. It would attempt to take into account many different perspectives on Christian truth (“Christian comprehensiveness”) and unite them as much as possible. It would value imagination and creativity in theology without falling into relativism. It would keep an ear to the ground of culture and adjust doctrines to culture without reckless accommodation or capitulation. It would regard theology as a series of research projects rooted in tradition and community.
Who are some theologians working today along the lines of progressive orthodoxy? I’m not comparing them with Bushnell in terms of specific doctrinal formulations; I’m only comparing them with him in terms of approach and ethos.
One obvious example is N. T. Wright, although he is primarily a New Testament scholar. However, his work on justification is a good example of progressive orthodoxy. Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg are other examples. The late Stan Grenz was one, in my opinion. But the field of candidates is not cluttered. We are living in a time when only extremes get attention. Look at the ubiquitous use of the word “extreme” in entertainment. Radical proposals get more attention in politics and cuture generally (than moderate proposals). If a political candidate is perceived as moderate he or she had better do something quickly to appeal to the extremists in his or her political camp.
While I most certainly do not agree with every position Bushnell took, I think his example of moderate progressivism or, progressive moderation in theology, is a model for contemporary theology today. May his tiny tribe increase.
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Please Refer to the postscript following Part 1
pertaining to Emergent Theology & Emerging Christianity -