Reasonableness The Evidential Temper

The quest for theological rationality found its earliest expression among seventeenth-century New England Calvinists who employed concepts of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy derived from Protestant scholasticism and who organized their thought with the aid of rhetorical schemes borrowed from the sixteenth-century humanist reform of logic. The second generation of New England theologians expanded the interest in rationality, partly in response to the earliest English deists and partly in harmony with English natural philosophy, and during the eighteenth century, their successors adopted an understanding of reason in religion that can best be designated as "evidential." Deeply informed by parallel patterns of thought in England and on the European continent, this evidentialist position consisted of the claim that rational evidence confirmed the uniqueness and truth of the biblical revelation. Such a claim stood behind the rise of "evidential Christianity," a form of theology different in important ways from either the scholastic thought of the medieval church or the theologies of revelation that came out of the Protestant reform.

One feature of evidential Christianity was the importance accorded to natural theology, a mode of Christian thinking that arose as early as the second century and had a continuous history in the church but assumed unprecedented importance during the eighteenth century. The claim of the natural theologian was that reason, reflecting on either the visible world or the workings of the human mind, could produce evidence for the existence of a transcendent God apart from the revelation in scripture or the tradition of the church. What distinguished natural theology from "natural religion," the religious ideal of eighteenth-century deists, was the further claim that natural theology pointed toward and confirmed truths above the capacity of reason to discover—truths accessible only through special revelation.

By the end of the thirteenth century, natural theology had assumed two distinguishable forms. The first, rooted in Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophies and exemplified by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), found evidence for divine transcendence within the depths of human consciousness, for when the mind turned inward toward the ideas implicit within its own thinking, it discovered the presence of eternal truths, including the idea of truth itself, which had an eternal reality transcending time and space. Such ideas suggested the reality of a supraindividual, eternal, divine mind. The second, rooted in Aristotelian thought and exemplified by Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-74), found evidence for God by reflection on the existence and order of the natural creation. The physical world pointed toward a cause sufficient to explain its creation and a designer adequate to explain its order. The growing interest in the natural world in late-seventeenth-century natural philosophy advanced the prestige of the argument from natural order, and most American theologians never abandoned it.

A second feature of evidential Christianity was the degree of importance given to the time-honored ''evidences for revelation.'' Like the tradition of natural theology, this evidential tradition also extended back into Christian antiquity. The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament claimed that God attested to truth by signs, wonders, and miracles (Heb. 2:4), and by the second century, Christian apologists regularly appealed to the miracles of Jesus and his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies to prove that he was who Christians said he was. What began as an argument for the divinity of Christ, however, became by the thirteenth century an argument for the authenticity of the Christian revelation in general and the Christian scriptures in particular. The argument became increasingly elaborate, and by the fourteenth century, theologians distinguished between extrinsic or external evidences (the appeal to miracle and fulfilled prophecy) and internal evidences based on the intrinsic credibility of Christian teaching, the internal consistency of the Bible, and the consistency of biblical truths with moral and religious experience.

Such argumentation briefly fell out of favor in the early Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther contended that it was a form of self-righteousness to attempt to demonstrate the rational probability of revelation, and John Calvin allowed the proofs only to confirm the inner testimony of the Spirit to the authority of scripture. By the seventeenth century, however, both Lutheran and Calvinist theologians employed evidential reasoning to prove the infallibility of the biblical account, and Catholics like Jacques Bossuet in France used the same arguments to demonstrate the infallible authority of both scripture and the church.7

It was the battle against deism, under way by the late seventeenth century, that elevated evidentialism to the place of high status it would bear among early American theologians. After Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (15831648), argued in 1624 that every human being entertained common religious notions about the existence and honor of a supreme power — ''common notions'' that were accessible even apart from any specific written revelation — Christian thinkers turned their attention increasingly to the defense of the Bible as a unique and necessary revelation. When John Locke employed the evidences in his On the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), he confirmed the authority of evidential reasoning for a generation newly engaged with questions about the historical veracity and credibility of the Bible. Evidential-

ist arguments had American proponents in the seventeenth century, but not until a domestic form of deism drew wide attention in the late eighteenth century did the evidences become a common prolegomenon to theology.8

In establishing the place of natural theology and the evidences, American theologians in the antebellum era found theoretical support especially in the eighteenth-century Scottish philosophical theories collectively known as Common Sense Realism. Grounded in the writing of Thomas Reid at Glasgow and Dugald Stewart at Edinburgh, Scottish Realism offered a defense of rational theology against the skepticism of David Hume and yet provided a safeguard against excessive rationalism by emphasizing also the limits of reason. The Scottish defense of reason made natural theology and an alliance with natural science seem useful and plausible; the warnings against rationalism seemed to confirm the need for revelation. By grounding their conclusions in the analysis of human "consciousness," moreover, the Scots helped to make the new discipline of "mental science" a virtual subdiscipline of theology. The admiration of the Scottish philosophers for the sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier Francis Bacon prompted Americans to describe their defense of empirical reason as Baconian.

By the 1830s, the Baconian form of evidentialist thinking encountered resistance from a small company of thinkers weary of enlightenment rationalism. Although they shared no consensus about the substantive claims of either theology or philosophy, they tried to minimize natural theology and eviden-tialism altogether or they turned toward the Augustinian rather than the more empirical forms of natural theology. From Emerson and the transcendentalists to the Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, from the Mercersburg theologians Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin to the Connecticut pastor Horace Bushnell and the Lutheran confessionalists of the Midwest, the critics of the evidential temper sought alternative ways to understand the reasonableness of Christianity. Some of them, like the traditionalist Lutherans, preferred confessional fidelity rather than rational proofs. Others, like the transcendentalists, discovered conceptions of "intuitive" reason and gave them far more authority than a traditional Christian theologian could ever accept. A number of theologians turned to intuitive reason as a way of dismissing the conventional evidences as peripheral or even irrelevant and "rationalist." Their disillusion with the evidences marked one of the most serious divides in antebellum religious thought.

The critics of the evidential strategy never attained a dominant voice. By the mid-nineteenth century, evidential arguments continually held sway. The clergy preached on the evidences. The evidential strategy often governed oral debates. When the reformer Alexander Campbell debated the utopian skeptic

Robert Owen on the evidences of Christianity in Cincinnati in 1832, the crowd averaged twelve hundred a day for eight days. Well-endowed lectureships in Boston allowed Unitarian clergy to present lecture series on the evidences. Church newspapers printed popular articles that made the evidences plain for the laity. College presidents taught regular courses on the evidences. Seminary journals refined the arguments for learned readers. For many, evidential reasoning became an essential component of theology.9

Advocates of the evidential strategy could point to examples of success. In 1820, for instance, a young apprentice bookmaker in Boston named Thomas Whittemore told the Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou that he was skeptical of the truth of the Bible. Ballou persuaded him to read the Evidences of Christianity written by the English theologian William Paley. As he was reading, Whittemore also listened to Ballou's sermons on "the force of prophecy, as affecting the truth of the Bible,'' and he began to feel that the evidences provided "good and substantial reasons for the truth of the Christian religion.'' The books of the New Testament were genuine and accurate, Jesus performed miracles and prophesied future events, and eyewitnesses gave testimony to the truth of New Testament narratives. The result was his conversion: ''Christianity, I said, is true."10

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