The chapters of this book first appeared as articles in the theological journal latterly known as the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, between 1830 and 1842. The Publishers describe the New Divinity as “a movement in theological thought which had pervasive influence in parts of the United States in the 1830s”, of which the leading ideas were “a revision of teaching on the fallen condition of man, the nature of the atonement and the extent to which man is dependent upon the Holy Spirit for regeneration”. It found a prominent proponent in Charles G Finney. Among its opponents were the staff of Princeton Theological Seminary and College. There are three articles by Archibald Alexander, two by Charles Hodge and one each by Albert B Dod, John Woodbridge and Thomas Cleland.
Those expecting a popular exposition of the subjects indicated in the sub-title will only be partially satisfied. Subjects of perennial importance are discussed but sometimes in a way conditioned by the historical context and in a style demanding serious concentration. More editorial elucidation would have helped. Having been invited to review this book I do so at some length (a) to help readers decide whether or not they wish to buy it and (b) to pass on to those who may not buy it some points to ponder.
Hodge, although his opening article on Regeneration begins with a plea for theology to be subject to Biblical Exegesis and not to speculative philosophy, tends to be philosophical. He argues that, contrary to the Pelagianism of the new evangelists, Calvinism teaches that the change secured in regeneration “is a moral one and takes place in a manner perfectly congruous to the nature of a rational and active being”. It is “not effected by mere moral suasion . . . there is something more than the simple presentation of truth and urging of motives . . . a special influence of the Holy Spirit”. It is “supernatural, that is, above the mere moral power of the truth, and such as infallibly to secure the results”. He discusses such matters as the distinction between the substance, dispositions and acts of the soul; the moral character of dispositions and acts; the fact that “the two sentiments of complete helplessness and of entire blame-worthiness are perfectly consistent, and are ever united in Christian experience”; and the different meanings of “will”.
In The New Divinity Tried Hodge considers its assumption “that morality can only be predicated of voluntary exercises”; its denial of the doctrine of original sin; its view of regeneration as “a mere decision of the mind . . . which neither implies nor expresses any radical change of the affections . . . the choice of God as the chief good, under the impulse of self-love or desire of happiness”. He looks at the teaching of the various Reformation Confessions and of some more recent American Calvinists on the subject of original sin. He concludes: “When sinners are thus represented as depending on themselves, God having done all He can, exhausted all His power in vain for their conversion, how they can be made to feel that they are in His hands, depending on His sovereign grace, we cannot conceive”.
Alexander on The Early History of Pelagianism provides a clear account of the doctrines of Pelagianism: for example, people become sinners by imitation not by generation; infants are born in the state in which Adam was before he sinned; temporal death is a necessity of nature, not a consequence of Adam’s sin. He recounts its history from the fifth century. He summarises the Biblical arguments by which the orthodox defended the doctrine of original sin, including “the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity”: Gen 6:5; 8:21; 17:14; Job 14:4; Ps 51:5; Is 48:8; John 3:3,6; Rom 5:12ff; Rom 7; 1 Cor 15:22; Eph 2:3. He contends that “if the doctrine of imputation be given up, the whole doctrine of original sin must be abandoned. And if this doctrine be relinquished, then the whole doctrine of redemption must fall.” He makes the general point that “it is attended with many advantages to bring into view ancient heresies; for often what modern innovators consider a new discovery, and wish to pass off as a scheme suited to remove all difficulties, is found upon examination to be nothing else than some ancient heresy clothed in a new dress”.
A major, useful part of Alexander’s article on Original Sin is his lucid summary of a work of an early Lutheran professor, D G Sohnnius, answering arguments against original sin and providing scriptural testimonies to the doctrine. He makes another general statement worthy of attention: “There has never yet been an instance in the history of the Church of the rejection of any doctrines of the gospel where the opposers of truth have been contented to stop at the first step of departure from sound doctrine. . . . It commonly happens that what was originally a single error soon draws after it the whole system of which it is a part. On this account it is incumbent on the friends of truth to oppose error in its commencement, and to endeavour to point out the consequences likely to result from its adoption; and to us it appears that nothing is better calculated to show what will be the effect of a particular error than to trace its former progress by the lights of ecclesiastical history”.
In The Inability of Sinners he is concerned about the effect on preaching of denying original sin and brings this denial “to the test of reason and Scripture”. Among many useful statements are these: Those “who are continually preaching that men have every ability necessary to repent, are inculcating a doctrine at war with every man’s experience and directly opposed to the Word of God, which continually represents the sinner as ‘dead’ and impotent and incapable of thinking even a good thought. . . . We utterly deny that, in order to a man’s being accountable and culpable for enmity to God, he should have the power of instantly changing his enmity into love. . . . The more unable a sinner is to cease from his enmity, the deeper is his guilt. . . . The strongest argument against this notion of human ability is derived from the scriptural doctrine of the necessity of regeneration by the operations of the Holy Spirit.”
Dod On Revivals of Religion reviews Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion and Sermons on Various Subjects. He repudiates Finney’s teaching: that God was unable to prevent sin; that there can be no sinful disposition prior to sinful acts, or moral responsibility for involuntary emotions; that regeneration is a change in the mind’s method of acting which can be induced by considerations presented to it rather than the implanting of a new principle in the soul by the Holy Spirit; that there would be tyranny in God’s commanding men to do what they cannot do; and that the work of the Holy Spirit is merely like that of an advocate persuading a jury. Finney’s theology determined his method, both picked up “among the castaway rubbish of past times”. According to him “the gospel, which the divine author left complete in all its parts and proportions and most admirably adapted to secure its destined ends, must utterly fail of its effect unless there be added to it a set of machinery of man’s invention”. While Finney claimed that new methods are necessary for the Church to gain the attention of the world to the subject of religion, Dod asserts that “the perfection of pulpit eloquence is when the manner of the preacher attracts no attention, and the truth is left to work its unimpeded effect upon the hearer; and so those are the best measures which themselves pass unregarded and suffer the mind to be entirely occupied with the truth”.
Woodbridge on Sanctification summarises various brands of perfectionism in history, states the doctrine of perfectionists in their own words and sets out to disprove it and to show that no saint is entirely free from sin in the present life. He discusses the arguments used by perfectionists and proceeds to state the direct evidence of the sinful imperfection of the saints in this life and to show the great practical importance of correct views of this subject.
Cleland’s article, Bodily effects of religious excitement, describes the physical convulsions and loud outcries prevalent during a “revival of religion” which took place in Kentucky at the beginning of the nineteenth century and hints at the evil consequences of the encouragement given to them. This article is more descriptive than discriminating and not particularly helpful in analysing this phenomenon.
1. A review article on Princeton versus the New Divinity, The Meaning of Sin – Grace – Salvation – Revival, articles from The Princeton Review, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 352 pages, hardback, £11.50. Obtainable from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.