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America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
by Mark A. Noll
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $97.49
53 used & new from $7.99

48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sophisticated But Flawed Argument for Reformed Theology, February 8, 2005
Noll argues that American Protestantism developed a unique religious perspective due to the combining of three historical idea forces: 1) the theology of the Protestant Reformation, 2) the philosophy of republicanism that arose from and was animated by the American revolution, and 3) the thought of the Scottish common-sense Enlightenment.

Protestantism's ability or willingness to speak the language of these three strands of thought made it the religion of choice and influence in the early republic, as its apologetic and evangelistic discourse echoed contemporary political assumptions and commitments.

But, Noll argues, there was a down-side to this success. The theology of Protestantism was itself changed by the use of this republican and common-sense language. These changes led to a literalistic, individualistic Biblical hermeneutic that made American Protestantism unable to speak definitively on the issue of slavery. North and South used the American Protestant hermeneutic to come to radically different conclusions on the morality of slavery.

This intractability ended in the civil war, which was not just a political crisis, but a theological one as well. The failure of the American Protestant synthesis to resolve the great moral issue of slavery, Noll argues, caused it to lose its social force, and opened the way for the modern era.

Noll's argument is almost overwhelming. He lays an exhaustive groundwork of 18th century religious/philosophical/political thought, moves into early 19th century theological evolution of Calvinism and Methodism, and then builds to a civil-war-era climax of heated, yet impotent, theological dispute. Each section is so rich and deep that challenging Noll on his intermediate conclusions is a daunting task. Yet, Noll's ultimate conclusion is so breathtaking in its implications for non-Calvinist theologies, that a closer look is warranted. A few key observations can be made.

Noll has a tendency to so broadly define his key terms that their essential meaning becomes vague, obscure and highly malleable. The most obvious example of this is his use of the word "republicanism," which Noll uses to cover concepts such as virtu (common good), anti-aristocracy, rule of law, proper use of power, separation of powers, representative government, and most largely, the belief in the reciprocity of personal morality and social-well being. (55-57).

He later adds to this mélange of meaning by distinguishing between civic-humanism republicanism, which was concerned with the public good and order, and liberal republicanism, which emphasized individual self-determination and, according to Noll, economic rights. (210-211). Noll himself acknowledges that "republicanism" was a "multivalent, plastic and often extraordinarily imprecise term." (447) Yet he frequently cites historical writers and speakers in support of his "republicanism" thesis, without attempting to determine which particular meaning of republicanism the historical thinker had in mind.

Noll is also guilty of this in dealing with the "common-sense" Enlightenment. Every reference to human reason, intuition, insight or other source of knowledge other than scripture becomes an example of common sense philosophy, whether the reference is before or after Hutcheson and Reid. The great flexibility of terms is significant, as it gives Noll enormous latitude in his argument to sweep in or out thinkers, ideas and theologies, depending on how they relate to his main thesis.

Perhaps the single most important argument against Noll's larger thesis is Methodism. Pre-revolutionary Methodism had the literalistic, individualistic hermeneutic, along with the "reasonable" view of God, sinners and salvation that Calvinism only moved towards as it was tempered by post-revolution republicanism and common-sense philosophy. (333-334).

To his credit, Noll himself acknowledges the "sting" of the Methodist argument, agreeing that Methodism contained the elements of "American Protestantism" before it actually came to America. (334, 340-41).

But acknowledging the sting is one thing; removing it is another. Noll does not do this, nor really try to. Methodism does seem to raise an unanswered challenge to the charge that it was the "corruptions" of republicanism and common-sense thought that caused Protestant America to turn literalistic, individualistic, and arminian, and to be unable to cope with slavery. Methodism was all these things without republican and common-sense reasoning, and it was, at least initially, forcefully anti-slavery.

Thus, an alternate interpretation to Noll's is that: Biblical protestant Christianity contained the seeds of individuality, freedom and common-sense echoed in republicanism and common-sense thinking, that the intractable nature of the slavery dispute had to do with flawed constitutional rather than theological compromises, and that Southern religious' views were shaped more by the commercial impulses of their founding than by faithfulness to a Biblically-derived hermeneutic. This view is supported, at least in part, by Noll's tracing of the process of theological development: the insights of general revelation (general human experience) interact with, clarify, and even modify, understandings of special revelation (Biblical interpretation), and vice versa.

But further discussion of this would lengthen an already over-long review. Suffice it to say that the majority of American Christian's today would claim allegiance not to Edward's God, or Lincoln's God, or Noll's God-but to the Bible's God, as they read about and understand Him in the Bible for themselves. Which is not a bad legacy for a "permanently damaged" theology. (445).

Noll's comprehensive, even magisterial work, is clearly going to be required reading for everyone on both sides of almost any discussion of religion in the early republic.
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