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Friday, August 6, 2010

History a Warning to the Episcopalian Diocese of Sydney (Part 2)

Herewith instalment 2 of the article by R. J. Sheehan in Issue 278, November 1986, of 'The Banner of Truth". Reference notations continue in sequence from the previous blog.


One of the effects of the eighteenth-century revivals was to turn men from mere head-knowledge of Scripture and the creeds to a heart-knowledge of the God revealed therein. The preaching of the utter necessity of rebirth focused attention on religious experience. In the years following the revivals the tendency was to put emphasis upon a person's religious experience rather than his belief.

Experience-conscious evangelicals had little time for creeds. Their emphasis had not originated in a conscious desire for a creedless Christianity but this was its tendency. It was precisely that danger which had opened the door to Deism in the early eighteenth century and had enabled it to gain victories. At the end of the last century Robert Shindler warned evangelicals of the lessons from history,7 and C. H. Spurgeon pleaded for a creed distinctive enough to exclude the rationalists from non-conformist denominations, but failed to get a hearing in the anticipated creedal atmosphere of his day. 'The pietistic quality of the revival put primary emphasis on individual Christian experience and valued correct doctrine only as a means to the creation of such experience. As a result evangelicals would tolerate almost any divergence in doctrine provided the individual concerned was known to have a fervent evangelical experience, and above all if his ministry awakened the same experience in others'. Evangelicals had a 'general lack of interest... in theology'.8

C. H. spurgeon noted the tendency to accept any doctrinal statement as long as the person who made it was, 'a clever man and a good-natured brother'.9

The nineteenth-century evangelicals argued against creeds and for a 'freer' view of Scripture on the grounds of freedom of conscience and the Protestant rule of the right of private interpretation. By rejecting creeds altogether - or accepting only such creeds as were sufficiently vague to mean little - the advocates of the higher-critical view of the Bible ousted the evangelicals from their dominant position in the denominations with hardly a fight.


One of the consequences of the eighteenth-century revivals was to unite evangelicals in a common faith and in a mutual desire to work together in missionary and evangelistic activity as well as in theological education. The desire for unity had not always been able to be realized during the revivals because of the contentions between the evangelists over the doctrines of grace. The eighteenth-century preachers had not been able to resolve this question. The nineteenth-century evangelicals generally gained unity by abandoning or modifying their Calvinism.

A study of the eighteenth-century advance of Deism makes it clear that it made least advance where Calvinism was strongly maintained.10 C. H. Spurgeon stated, 'We believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which holds men to vital truth'.11 In reviewing the nineteenth century, the neo-orthodox writer W. B. Glover acknowledged, 'Where Calvinism had been supreme, its decline left a theological vacuum'.12

Not only did the decline of Calvinism with its high view of scriptural authority make the higher critical view more easily accepted, but other doctrines began to be debased also. 'The awful sternness of the Calvinistic God gave place to milder ideas which may be summed up in the popular phrase 'the Fatherhood of God'. The emphasis on God's love and mercy went so far as to call in question the time honoured doctrine of eternal punishment'.13

The friends of higher criticism soon understood the antipathy towards Calvinism amongst many nineteenth-century evangelicals. Consequently when conservative evangelicals attacked the higher critics, they retorted by accusing them of Calvinism, and the general evangelical public accepted the charge. Constantly C. H. Spurgeon had to protest against this diverting ploy. 'The present struggle is not a debate upon the question of Calvinism or Arminianism but of the truth of God versus the inventions of men'.14

It is, however, undoubtedly true that if the Calvinists had maintained their strength within evangelicalism in the nineteenth century the higher critics would have had a more difficult task capturing evangelicalism. As it was, 'the theological uncertainty that accompanied the dissolution of Calvinism made the non-conformists less able and less anxious to defend traditional views from new views'.15


The Christian church has often been able to defend itself much more easily from attacks from outside its ranks than from within its own number. Attacks from apparent friends are always less expected and more difficult both to detect and oppose. We have already noted that many of the leading advocates and friends of higher criticism had a reputation for gospel preaching.

The friends of higher criticism were often very cunning. They described their theology as, 'broad and full'16 rather than 'narrow and limited' like that of the Calvinists. James Dann attacked ministers who were unorthodox in doctrine but stayed in the churches to undermine the faith.17 That this happened is beyond dispute. W. B. Glover approved of this subversion. He wrote of, 'the tendency of some who were in advance of the general movement of opinion to hide their more unorthodox views from the public. This was unquestionably an instance of sound political sense.18 This ethically questionable procedure undoubtedly was successful in fooling the evangelicals in general.

The cunning of the higher critics was also seen in their concentration on the Old Testament. It was far easier to question the historicity and accuracy of Jonah than of our Lord. (Evangelicals still sometimes put the words of Jesus in red and the rest in black!). A full frontal attack on the gospels had to follow the undermining of the Old Testament, not precede it.

The decline of Calvinism also led to the promotion of worldliness. C. H. Spurgeon commented, 'The fact is that many would like to unite church and stage, cards and prayer, dancing and sacraments'.'' In this atmosphere of 'freer' life-style, conservatism in theology was not likely to prosper. Loose living and loose theology were not unconnected. To accept higher criticism was to be in fashion. To maintain the old evangelical doctrine of Scripture was to be an anachronism.

Instalment 3 to follow in a few days. Bear with me, this is all going somewhere.

Sam Drucker

7. Shindler, R. The Sword and Trowel, March 1887, p/) 122-126.
8. Glover op. cit. pp 93-4.
9. Spurgeon, C. H. The Sword and Trowel, August 1887, p 400.
10. Shindler, R. The Sword and Trowel, April 1887, pp 170-171.
11. Spurgeon, C. H. The Sword and Trowel, April 1887, pp 195-196.
12. Glover op. cit .p93.
13. ibid.p92.
14. Spurgeon, C. H. The Sword and Trowel, April 1887, pp 195-196.
15. Glover op. cit. p 205.
16. J. B. Brown cited in Spurgeon, The Early Years, 1962, Banner of Truth, p 494.
17. Dann, J. The Sword and Trowel, April 1887, pp 172-174.
18. Glover op. cit. p 41.
19. Spurgeon, C. H. The Sword and Trowel, August 1887, p 398.

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