theology of new england

We usually tend to skip the introduction and forward to a book (much the way we skip the genealogies in the bible) as not really contributing to the real content and meaning of the book we’re reading. Well, below is an introduction that should not be skipped. It was written by a certain Daniel Dana and purposed to introduce a “pamphlet” entitles The Theology of New England1. It was published in 1856, whilst the introduction by Dana was written in 1855.

This introduction sketches some of the theological world of his time, which he terms a “new theology” and a “modern theology”. Although it focusses on the context of 19th century New England, the issues he addresses is as relevant to our times as it was in his day. He claims the importance of Sola Scriptura – which is at the base of his argumentation, moving on to some key doctrines and the impact of twisting them. He focusses on the doctrine of man’s total depravity, and links it to the doctrines of regeneration and justification. He shows the error of the modern theology in placing man’s sinfulness in his actions, rather than his nature. This has a spiral effect on the doctrine of regeneration, meaning that denying man’s total depravity, leads to a redefining of regeneration and justification.

An interesting section is his classification of reactions to the errors in these doctrines. He identifies no less than five classes, each with its own reaction. 

I place this introduction as I see it as a very important assessment of erroneous doctrine (and a lesson why you don’t skip the introduction and forward).

Introduction to The Theology of New England by Daniel Dana (published 1856)

It is generally admitted as a fact, that the Scriptures of God utter their great and saving truths in much simplicity and plainness. Miracles, it is confessed, are not excluded; but these miracles are propounded, not so much to our reason, as to an unquestioning and child-like faith. Far from obscuring the doctrines at large, they set them in their purest light, and reveal them in their heavenly beauty, and glory, and harmony.

Yet, paradoxical as it may seem, their very simplicity has proved a fruitful occasion of their being misunderstood and misrepresented. Speculative men, men of acute minds, and reasoning talents, coming to the Bible, and finding there nothing which a well-instructed child cannot understand nearly as well as themselves, are dissatisfied and disgusted. Hence philosophy is summoned to supply the defects, and adorn the artlessness, of scripture. But the attempt is fatal. By these devices, men’s minds are unhinged, reason takes the place of faith, and endless doubts, and misgivings are substituted for positive and satisfying certainty. Breaking loose from the eternal truths of God, men are seduced into a labyrinth of interminable and destructive error.

When we read the Epistles of St. Paul, we find that he rebuked this arrogant species of philosophy, viewing it as eminently and irreconcilably hostile to the pure truths of the gospel. In one passage, he brands it with the epithet ofscience falsely so called. And most justly. For what a wretched thing is that science which understands everything but the truth of God, and the way of human salvation. How mis-called is that philosophy which arrays itself against divine and everlasting truth. Genuine philosophy is modest and unassuming. It delights to open its eyes to the light of heaven. It finds its most honorable and delightful place at the feet of Jesus. While the proud and self-sufficient reasoner, feeling no need of divine instruction, turns away from heavenly light, and clinging to the feeble taper of his own reason, wanders in the path leading to eternal darkness and eternal death.

These remarks are strongly confirmed by a signal passage in the New Testament history. The great Apostle of the Gentiles spent some days at Athens, a city which was not only the boasted light of Greece, but the seat of a great portion of the science, art, literature, and refinement which then existed in the world. And what was the Apostle’s success in this favored spot? Less, probably, than in any other which was visited with his preaching. For while in some regions, comparatively dark and uncultivated, he witnessed many trophies of divine grace, his success in Athens was so small, that a few scattered individuals comprise the whole catalogue of his converts.

In modern times, the experiment of the power of reason, when divorced from Revelation, has been conspicuously made in Germany. In that favored land, the birth-place of Luther and the Reformation, who would not have wished that pure religion might have lingered for many a century? But such wishes have been sadly disappointed. About a century since, there arose there certain philosophers who, closing their eyes to the light of Heaven, and trampling on the teachings of the Bible, determined to make a religion for themselves, and for the community. They were men not destitute of genius, or of learning, or of research. Still less were they wanting in selfconfidence. But they were awfully destitute of that humility to which Heaven is used to confine its holy light and aid. Their project was attended with fatal success. Being followed by a long line of successors of their own spirit, they poured darkness on the public mind;darkness which might be felt, and which is actually felt at the present day. Under its baleful influence, men of knowledge and refinement have yielded themselves to religious absurdities which would disgrace the lowest state of society. Germany witnesses at this day, in her Universities, her Theological Seminaries, and in her pulpits, men conspicuous for infidelity. The consequence of this state of things is natural and inevitable. The whole land is deluged with error and infidelity, with vices and crimes. We are recently informed, indeed, of some appearance of a revulsion. It is announced that men of sound minds and sound theology are lifting a powerful voice against the errors and abomination of the time; and that they find listeners too. Still may it not require a century, or even more, to repair the ravages which have been made on the cause of truth, and the intellects of the community?

Hence arises a question of no common interest. What is the influence which German theology has exercised for years, and is now exercising, on the theology of our own country? Of the reality of this influence, and of its extent, there can be no doubt. The simple fact that our young preachers, either at the commencement of their course, or in their preparation for it, are so prone to resort to that country, speaks an intelligible language. On this subject, we need not adopt a strain of indiscriminate reproof. A variety of motives and of circumstances may operate in the case. The history, geography and chronology of the Scriptures; their criticism, literature and antiquities, all have their importance and use. In these departments, the German religionists have exhibited indefatigable activity, and amassed immense stores of knowledge. Of these accumulations, religious students may safely and wisely avail themselves. Yet if, in these pursuits, their minds should be insensibly drawn away from the great and distinguishing doctrines of scripture, or should receive perverse or indistinct impressions of them, the evil would be immense. The largest acquisitions of such knowledge would but ill compensate for the want or loss of the essential and saving truths of God’s word.

The attribute of Scripture which preeminently stamps its value and importance, is its Inspiration. Here lies the basis of all the instruction; the hope and comfort which it imparts. To renounce this precious attribute, is to give up ourselves to endless doubt and blank despair. While to have our faith in it shaken, or impaired, is to want the first and most essential qualification of christian instructors. Surely no one will contend that our young men, destined to the ministry, and subjected to the influences we have described, are in no danger of contamination.

Another source of danger to our country is found in the introduction of German writings. These, within a few years, have been imported to our land in a profusion formerly unknown. For about a century past, Germany has been the grand corrupter of Europe and the world. By its novels and poetry, and false philosophy, by its rationalism, and pantheism, and atheism, (for pantheism is substantially atheism,) it has spread havock through the morals and religion of Europe. For a long period, however, this great and tremendous evil was much confined to the more speculative and literary circles. But in more recent time, the language being better understood, and translations being abundantly multiplied, the evil has had a far more extensive diffusion, and found its way to all classes of society. And it cannot be sufficiently deplored, that the case is substantially the same in the country in which we live. Formerly, these skeptical and infidel notions were chiefly broached in books designed for speculative readers. But more recently, they find a place in writings intended for all classes, not excepting the most ignorant and uncultivated. So that, as we are become a nation of readers, these last bid fair to become as thorough proficients in infidelity as their superiors. And it must be confessed that in this school, they are often willing and docile students. Few, probably, are aware of that awful deterioration of religious views, feelings and practice which has swept over New England within the last thirty or forty years, and which threatens to sweep away everything worthy the name of religion. One thing is certain. Unbelief is the order of the day; the fatal malady of the age. That religion which our pilgrim fathers brought with them, which they cherished as their dearest possession, and which they grasped to their hearts in life and in death, is, by thousands of their descendants, ignored, or denied, or treated with neglect and contempt.

It cannot be denied that the great and distinguishing doctrines of the gospel are, by thousands of our christian community, disbelieved and contradicted; perhaps despised and ridiculed. Other thousands there are, who, at some period of their lives, have solemnly declared their belief in them. Their hearts, however, were never truly reconciled to them. And finding that they are much opposed, especially in the fashionable world, and that much can be plausibly said and reasoned against their truth, they rejoice to employ these things as pretexts for discarding them altogether, and thus escaping their humbling and painful influence.

A third class value themselves on holding their judgment in suspense between these doctrines and their opposites. This, they contend, is dictated by candor and impartiality. They hold that on these topics, the Bible itself is obscure and indecisive; not fitted to give satisfaction to inquiring minds. Yet what is this but virtually to allege that the Book of God has been given us in vain; that while possessing a Revelation from God, we need another revelation to explain it, and that that inspired volume, which was designed to guide us to truth and heaven, is wholly incompetent to its object, and has utterly failed in its effect.

We may not neglect a fourth class of the religious in our community. It is composed of those who firmly believe, and cordially love, the distinguishing doctrines of the gospel-doctrines at once lying at its foundation, and manifest on the surface. On these doctrines hang their immortal hopes, and from them they derive their best consolations. At the same time, they are surrounded by multitudes by whom these truths are ignored, or disregarded, or opposed, or treated with scorn. Yet they withhold from these truths their open and vigorous support. Here is an inconsistency which we cannot sufficiently lament. And surely it will not always last. These good men must ultimately come forward, and, bitterly lamenting their past defects, throw all their weight and influence on the side of God’s despised truth. May Heaven grant that this “consummation” so “devoutly to be wished” may not come too late.

There is a class of religionists in our community yet unmentioned. They hold that Christians at large are generally agreed; at least that they maintain no discrepancies in views which may not be easily merged. Let mutual candor and conciliation be cherished, and all will be well. To contend earnestly for particular doctrines, is needless and useless, and tending only to evil. Let this disposition subside, and Christians will remain in harmony, and the church in peace.

This train of thought is extremely plausible. But it is not more plausible than dangerous. It is proper, then, to give it a careful scrutiny.

The great and absorbing question before the christian public is this: do the doctrines which have been fashionable, and which are rapidly increasing in prevalence and extent, agree with the oracles of truth? In other words, are they the same doctrines which the church has, in every age, found in the Bible?

It has been well remarked that deceit lies in generals. To come at the truth, then, we must descend to particulars.

The Bible declares, explicitly and uniformly declares the entire and awful depravity of man; a depravity, which, descending from the first progenitor of the race, has infected all his offspring. This is the doctrine which pervades the Scripture from beginning to end. The doctrine is strictly fundamental. It lies at the basis of the structure on which human salvation is built. It gives character, complexion and features to all the doctrines and provisions of the gospel. It directly follows, that as this doctrine is received or rejected, the gospel itself is received or rejected. It cannot then be denied, that on this very spot, error, essential error is chargeable on the modern theology. It repudiates a cardinal doctrine of the Bible. It denies and discards original sin in the sense in which it has been understood and maintained by the church of God in all ages. That there may be no mistake on this vital point, we quote from the writings of a professor in the most important theological seminary of New England ; a gentleman well known as the chief Expounder and Advocate of the new system. In a note appended to his Convention Sermon, he writes as follows:

“Is it said, that a passive nature, existing antecedently to all free action, is itself, strictly, literally sinful? Then we must have a new language, and speak, in prose, of moral patients as well as moral agents, of men besinned as well as sinners, (for ex vi termini sinners as well as runners must be active 😉 we must have a new conscience which can decide on the moral character of dormant conditions, as well as of elective preferences ; a new law, prescribing the very make of the soul, as well as the way in which this soul, when made, shall act, and a law which we transgress (for sin is ‘ a transgression of the law ‘) in being before birth passively mis-shapen; we must also have a new Bible, delineating a judgment scene in which some will be condemned, not only on account of the deeds which they have done in the body, but also for having been born with an involuntary proclivity to sin, and others will be rewarded not only for their conscientious love to Christ, but also for a blind nature inducing that love ; we must, in fine, have an entirely different class of moral sentiments, and have them disciplined by Inspiration in an entirely different manner from the present ; for now the feelings of all true men revolt from the assertion, that a poor infant dying, if we may suppose it to die, before its first wrong preference, merits for its unavoidable nature, that eternal punishment, which is threatened, and justly, against the smallest real sin. Although it may seem paradoxical to affirm that ‘a man may believe a proposition which he knows to be false,’ it is yet charitable to say that whatever any man may suppose himself to believe, he has in fact an inward conviction, that ‘all sin consists in sinning.’ “

It is needful here to remark, though the remark is uttered with inexpressible pain, that the author of the foregoing paragraph has repeatedly declared his assent to the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, and as often solemnly engaged to conform his instructions to that Summary of doctrine; expressly discarding the doctrine of Pelagianism. It is needless to add, that if the essence of Pelagianism consists in the denial of the native depravity of man, that signal error is plainly couched in the paragraph cited.

It is not denied that the term depravity is admitted into the new theology. But, wonderful as it may seem, it is represented as a sinless depravity. But who sees not that this is an abuse of terms? But why should such an abuse be admitted, tending only to vitiate and confound language, and to darken a subject which demands the utmost plainness and perspicuity?

With the doctrine of native depravity, that of Regeneration holds a close alliance. Indeed they involve each other. Nor is it less evident that the views entertained of the one, will greatly modify our views of the other. This we should naturally anticipate; and this is found to be the literal fact. If man is but partially depraved, a partial regeneration is all which he needs. If only nominally depraved, a nominal regeneration is sufficient to meet his case. Accordingly, the advocates of the new doctrine, while they admit the term regeneration, eviscerate it of all its meaning and force. They do not admit that it involves either a holy change, or a change of nature. As to the former point,” contending, as they do, that all holiness as well as sin, consists in action ; and allowing, as they must, that all holy action in the creature is preceded by regeneration, they cannot surely find holiness in regeneration itself. Maintaining that Adam, as he came from his Creator’s hand, was not holy till he began to act, must they not maintain, that those regenerated by the Spirit are not holy till they begin to act? As to the other point, they deny that human beings are, properly speaking, depraved in nature. Where then is the necessity, where even the possibility of their being regenerated? And what a strange and nondescript kind of regeneration must that be, which passes on creatures not in their nature depraved and sinful.

As to the theory that all sin and holiness consist in action, or exercise, though it assumes the proud name of philosophy, we submit that it is as contrary to sound philosophy as to common sense and the Bible. There are certain states or conditions of the mind which belong, not to the class of volitions, but of principles, propensities, dispositions, or affections. But they are not, therefore, divested of a decidedly moral character. It would be absurd to contend that pride is a volition. Yet pride, by universal consent, is the most odious of vices. Nor would it be easy to prove thathumility is a volition. Yet in the judgment of God himself, humility is the loveliest of virtues.

The doctrine of Justification by faith has ever been viewed by the church, in its best days, as a doctrine of the clearest evidence, and the deepest interest. What the great Luther thought of its importance is well known. Our puritan fathers guarded it with a sleepless vigilance, and zealously resisted every attempt to corrupt its purity. It has not been altogether so with their descendants. Within a century or less, this doctrine has lost much of the attention and respect which it’ claims. Many divines of some reputation have treated it with great neglect. Others, it should seem, have scarcely found it in the Bible. While others have manifested a wish to expunge it from the list of christian doctrines. From the modern theology it has experienced much disregard and opposition. The treatment which it has recently received, would, had it appeared half a century since, have been regarded with astonishment, not to say with horror. That Christ our Savior, being man, so needed obedience for himself as to have no merit to impart to his believing people; that the imputation of his righteousness is an absurdity ; and that men must look to their own holiness and obedience to bring them to heaven – these are among the dreams which are now extensively propagated. Thus the proud and selfrighteous are propped up in their own imaginary goodness ; and thus the self-diffident and humble are plunged into a species of despondence, and even despair.

It is much to be wished, that those who deny, and perhaps denounce the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, and Christ’s righteousness to his believing people, would carefully study the fifth chapter of Romans. Doubtless they would discover that these doctrines are stamped with the same divine authority; that both the one and the other are equally and truly doctrines of the Bible. “As by the offence of one, judgment CAME UPON ALL MEN TO CONDEMNATION; EVEN SO BY THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF ONE, THE FREE GIFT CAME UPON ALL MEN UNTO JUSTIFICATION OF LIFE. FOR AS BY ONE MAN’S DISOBEDIENCE MANY WERE MADE SINNERS, SO BY THE OBEDIENCE OF ONE SHALL MANY BE MADE RIGHTEOUS.”

We have no satisfaction in multiplying these reproofs, though some of our remarks may appear unduly severe. But there is still a topic of some interest deserving a serious attention.

For many years past, the subject of man’s ability and inability has been much discussed, both in the sacred desk and in other scenes of instruction. Arguments on each side, almost equally plausible, and almost equally valid, are arrayed in mutual opposition. Still the debate continues; and still the minds of men remain either in anxious uncertainty, or in unreasonable confidence.

The truth is, that questions on this subject are much less likely to be decided by philosophic reasoning, than by common sense and the Bible.

Still there are truths in the case, the force of which- most candid minds will admit. That all human beings are under immediate and everlasting obligations to repent of their sins, to obey the law and receive the gospel-that there is no obstacle in the way, but such as arises from their own obstinacy and wickedness-and that their perdition, if they finally perish, will be of their own procuring; these are unquestionable facts.

It is equally unquestionable that sinners lie wholly at the mercy of God; that he holds their salvation and perdition in his own sovereign hand ; and that all their efforts to save themselves will be utterly abortive, without divine and omnipotent aid.

Between these two classes of propositions there may be seeming discrepancies. But they are only seeming. All truths are reconcilable with all other truths. What appears to our frail minds to be discordant, may be quite otherwise in the eye of an omniscient God. And we ourselves, in a future state, may see clear and satisfying light, where now we behold only impenetrable darkness.

The propensity of the present day seems to be to magnify human power. Thoughts are sported on this subject, obviously irreconcilable with Scripture and common sense. This is undoubtedly a serious evil. For though these views seemingly tend to excite men to action, their real tendency is to lull them into sloth and security. Let a man believe that his salvation is fully, and in every sense, in his own power, and he will delay the disagreeable task to a more convenient season. He will become proud, selfsufficient, and careless. It is worth a serious inquiry, whether that recklessness as to religion and the soul, and even that laxity in principles and morals which so lamentably prevail in our day, are not attributable to extravagant views of human power and sufficiency.

On the topic thus briefly discussed, there arise some reflections too important to be neglected or forgotten. The error in question respecting human ability was, in former times, inculcated by ministers of great seriousness and fidelity-men who, in their private speculations, cherished sound and scriptural views on many gospel subjects; and who, in their public instructions, uttered many things suited to alarm the fears, and awaken the consciences, of the impenitent. But the case is otherwise now. The modern theology is superficial and unimpressive. It contains little which tends either to awaken the consciences, or alarm the fears of the irreligious. Of course, the error in question is left unqualified and unchecked, to produce its disastrous effects on the minds of men, and lead them insensibly in the path to ruin.

Concerning many of the errors which we have noted, it may be thought, perhaps, that they arise less from substantial deviations, than from mere changes in terminology. But to this grave remark, we reply in brief, that words are things. A slight change of terms may communicate very false impressions. We have likewise a right to enter a solemn protest against a new, unauthorized and inaccurate use of language. It is not fit, that in this way, the instructions of the pulpit should become unintelligible, the minds of men filled with confusion, and the religious public kept in a state of unceasing agitation.

But perhaps the case demands an attention and statement still more serious. Can it be for a moment denied that, within a few years, words have so entirely changed their meaning, that the christian pulpit emits darkness rather than light? Can it be denied that the terms Depravity, Conversion, Regeneration, Atonement, Justification, etc., have lost their original sense, and assumed a meaning altogether new? Can it be denied, that in the principal Theological Seminary of New England, the religion taught is depravity without sin, regeneration without holiness, and justification without the righteousness of Christ? Can it be denied, that pious hearers often retire from the sanctuary, and from the instructions of a preacher whose leading views are entirely opposite to their own, yet honestly believing that they have heard the very gospel which they loved? Can it be denied, that different classes of hearers, widely distant in sentiment, have each come away in the confidence that the preacher was of their own opinion?

In these cases, charity would perhaps forbid us to suspect that the preacher has harbored a direct intention to deceive. Perhaps his aim has been to exhibit truths so modified and ornamented as that they shall neither displace the tasteful and philosophic, nor disgust the worldly, nor repel the open enemies of religion. But surely it cannot be sufficiently lamented, that the pious should be defrauded of the food on which they feast and live, the consciences of sinners left undisturbed, the unbelieving confirmed in their infidelity, and the hypocrite and self-deceived encouraged in their ruinous delusions.

Where are the Christians who have occupied this stage for twenty or thirty years, and have not witnessed a realrevolution in religion – in its doctrinal views, its experience and its practice? The wide and perceptible distance once existing between the pious and the impenitent is almost annihilated. The irreligious are prone to imagine that they are half as good as Christians; the church, instead of communicating its stamp to the world, receives from the world its own stamp; and the really pious are too often lost in the crowd.

The decline and abandonment of the truth, so prevalent and undeniable, have unquestionably sunk our churches into a sadly depressed condition. That lukewarmness, formality and awful defections are ‘found in thousands of professed Christians is generally admitted. The fact, too, appears to be generally lamented. It is one of the wonders of the time, that the close connection that exists between these two grand evils, seems to be rarely traced and acknowledged. Yet how can it be expected that evils will be removed until they are distinctly seen-seen in their causes and connection, as well as in their magnitude and aggravations? Should it please God, in his holy sovereignty, to visit our community with the influences of his Spirit, and with pure revivals of religion, one of its first effects would be found in a return to those simple gospel truths, which were once acknowledged and prized, but are now neglected and scarcely understood. Should it please him, on the other hand, to awaken a general and interested attention to these heaven-descended truths, this would prove an auspicious omen that religion itself would rise from its depressions, and richly diffuse around us its sacred and saving influences.

The worthy and respected Author of this pamphlet has executed a task of no common importance. He has presented to the churches a view of the Theology of New England as it now exists, together with the means and steps by which it has arrived at its present position. The whole work is marked with great care and accuracy of investigation, with great clearness of statement, and with a candor which is mingled with a decided and warm attachment to the pure principles of gospel truth. In a work involving such extensiveness of general survey, and such a minute statement of particulars, it would be strange indeed, were there to be found no mistakes. In the present case, it is believed there are few, and those of small importance.

Mr. Wallace has laid our New England churches under great obligations. These obligations they will not be slow to acknowledge, or to appreciate. His pamphlet, it is anticipated, will excite a general attention. His statement will confirm the friends of truth, and will furnish matter of useful reflection to inquirers and errorists.

The writer of this Introduction is aware that, by his present and former communications to the public, he may incur the suspicion of severity towards his christian and ministerial brethren. But he pleads innocence. On this point, he can appeal to his own conscience, and he hopes also to his omniscient Judge. At no period has he felt more anxious to live and die in peace with every human being. Yet feeling that his final account is near, he is anxious to spend his last breath in defending the truth of God, and in opposing the errors which threaten its subversion. Conscious that he is liable to error, he knows that the same liability attends his valued brethren who differ from him in judgment. Nor is it impossible, that when he shall have retired from the stage, they may remember his warnings, with regret that they have not been regarded.

The Theology of New England is obviously in a state of transition. What is the point at which it will stop, is known only to Him who knows all things, and who loves his church with an affection far superior to that of the best of its friends. One thing is certain. Our spiritual condition will soon become either materially better, or materially worse. At such a time, there are reasons enough for fear and trembling, for sleepless vigilance, and active exertion; but none for despair, nor even for despondency. He who sways the sceptre of the world, sways likewise the sceptre of the Church, She cannot be swallowed and lost in the ocean, for her great Pilot is at the helm. Let Christians shake off their guilty slumbers; let them stand in their lot; let them rouse every nerve and sinew to active exertion, and all will yet be well. “God is OUR REFUGE AND STRENGTH, A VERY PRESENT HELP IN TROUBLE.” THEREFORE WILL NOT WE FEAR, THOUGH THE EARTH BE REMOVED, AND THOUGH THE MOUNTAINS BE CARRIED INTO THE MIDST OF THE SEA.

DANIEL DANA.

Newburyport, Nov. 19, 1855.

Footnotes

1. Wallace, David A. The Theology of New England. Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856 

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