Continuities and Discontinuities

Sounds like a post on dispensationalism, doesn’t it? It is a post about historiography, and so it is a post about hermeneutics, and if dispensationalism is principally a hermeneutic, then there is no wonder that it sounds like a post on dispensationalism. It was a hermeneutical and historical issue for the early church to distinguish themselves from the OT economy without separating themselves from the OT message, after all.

I’m studying the period known as the modern church in most periodization, which in terms of what I need to know can also be described as the American church (the other periods leave it out, so perhaps it is only fair). The American church begins with the puritans in the 17th century, leads into that struggle over its heritage of the 18th century as experience gains prominence and collides with doctrine, as the resulting kaleidoscope highlights one thing and another and you come into the modern sensibility of what were then first called Evangelicals. The great awakening is when they take the stage, and it really is a watershed.

You can tell it was because preaching changed. The history of homiletics seems to me a useful one for marking some of the most important changes in Christians’ sense of what their religion is. One of the things that would spark awakening in New England was exchanging pulpits, which seems like a very curious fact. It was also the time for the introduction of a greater informality not only in venue but also in manner of preaching, and this of course led to a flowering of informality in worship and adherence. Here, then, is a study in continuity and discontinuity.

Individualism, for example, is often bandied about. One of the reasons that Benedictine monasteries were allowed to grow and thus grew up in Europe the Christian civilization without which the Reformation would not have taken place was that there was a weak sense of the individual in the early middle ages. If a person could have monks on his land praying and doing holy things, then it was really perceived as a spiritual benefit to him just by virtue of his connection. It cannot all attributed to superstition but was in large part due to a weak sense of the individual. If you read C. S. Lewis’ Discarded Image you’ll get an idea of the connectedness that the premodern notion of the cosmos encouraged.

Emerging from an animistic cosmos into one more deterministic and mechanistic meant strengthening the sense of the individual which had been simmering along in the Renaissance and in humanism. A person who is cut off from his connections stands more alone. The protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone strengthened it also, coming as it did from the nominalist world in which declarations and power were the overriding realities, a world of a profoundly legal character. When you go to the law you are no longer in a world of presiding ontologies, you are in a world of relating persons.

Relations require individuation, and the more immediate and newly forensic soteriology of the protestant reformation, as opposed to the mediate and mainly ontological soteriology of the medieval church, leads eventually to the logic of personal conversion, and a further individualism of personal experience, and to a further individualism of personal preference and taste, and so on.

Empiricism is another factor. No Nominalism, no empiricism, as Heiko Oberman has argued. Once you dismiss the overriding reality of the invisible, then you affirm the overriding reality of the visible, and you turn to it with all your philosophy. The trajectory is suggested in Roger Scruton’s quip about the Enlightenment being a form of light pollution. The Enlightenment is the exclusion from consideration of anything violating the Nominalist prejudice. Attention was focused on the visible; that is, the lights were turned on and turned up so that the stars were no longer visible. The stars of metaphysical reality were relegated to the land of fairy, and the result was a boon in applied science by which modern man defends all his ignorance.

The epistemology of Nominalism is experimental. Not surprisingly, then, as Aristotle’s instrument of education is abandoned for Bacon’s new one, you also get in theological circles a concern for experience. It begins to overshadow doctrine because it is part of the bias of its underlying and presupposed Nominalism to be empirical. So you begin to see Pietism, and Preparationism, and experimental Calvinism.

What strikes me as interesting in experimental Calvinism is that Jonathan Edwards takes a Lockean sensualism and psychology and does more than merely idealize or ‘spiritualize’ it. It is common for people with Nominalist assumptions to think that metaphysical realism is nothing more than a premodern idealism. No doubt the exact nature of realism and idealism and that continuity and discontinuty is something more than less characterized by confusion in our times. What, after all, is mind? What was it for Edwards? As Ahlstrom comments about The Nature of True Virtue, “One who consults it now can see clearly how Edwards’ highest thought moved out of the realm of Lockean psychology and into the great tradition of Christian Platonism.”

Great tradition indeed!

And that is my point. How are these things to be interpreted? Mercersburg theology held that the Reformation was the flowering of the best medieval piety, which is a way of accenting the continuities, the way the Oberman – Steinmetz – Muller – historiography is once again doing . . . with discontinuities. There can’t be history, there can’t be an account of how one things develops, or breaks with, or comes after in an intelligible way without continuity or discontinuity. The question is which do you accent. And why.

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