Part VI - The Modern Age: Lesson No. 40 - Nineteenth-Century Protestantism

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The Nineteenth Century was one of great change for Protestantism. Old and cherished beliefs were being threatened by liberal theologians who had been deeply affected by rationalism. Such theologians had their followers among the laity. On the other hand, a spirit of revivalism also swept through practically every Protestant country and church during the Nineteenth Century. This spirit of revivalism emphasized fervent preaching, emotional conversion, and diligent adherence to fundamental beliefs. Consequently, the Nineteenth Century Protestant Churches experienced frequent and intense conflicts between the liberal and conservative wings.

Beginning in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century and carrying over into the Nineteenth Century was a revolt against the exaltation of human reason which had characterized the Enlightenment. This revolt was known as Romanticism. Its chief emphasis was upon man's natural feelings. Though its most apparent effect was upon the realm of art, it also impacted upon religious thinking. For instance, the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), defended the idea that man's deepest feelings were the bases for practical religious conviction and moral conduct. To him, the moral law resided in man instinctively (Rom. 1:32; 2:14, 15). One effect of Kant's thinking was to reduce religion to a mere ethical system. Others carried Kant's thinking in other directions. Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) postulated that all religion is the embodiment of mankind's deepest feelings. Therefore, the several parts of the Scriptures had to be understood in the light of the feelings when they were written. He was saying that the Bible was essentially the product of human thoughts and feelings, and the Scriptures were basically a religious literature rather than a divinely inspired literature. What is permanent and true in them must be distinguished from what was local and temporary.

Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), professor in Tubingen, asserted that the ancient church was convulsed by a struggle between Petrine (Judaizing) and Pauline theology. This struggle supposedly continued on into the Second Century but was eventually resolved by the later church, and the teachings of Peter and Paul were assimilated and reconciled to such an extent that it was forgotten that there was ever a conflict between them. Baur's thinking led him to re-date the books of the New Testament. Consequently, Romans, Galatians, and First and Second Corinthians were considered by him to be the only genuinely Pauline epistles because they portrayed traces of this conflict. Revelation and Matthew, since they appeared to be Judaizing, were therefore considered to be early. Mark, Luke, and John were considered to be late since they showed no real signs of the conflict and, in the case of the latter, demonstrated familiarity with Second Century controversies. Baur's contentions resulted in debates and a closer investigation of New Testament books. The results failed to bear out his conclusions. A greater understanding of the early church and the atmosphere of the Second Century showed that the New Testament books belong more suitably to the dates and authors which have been traditionally assigned to them.

Some of the German rationalists went to ridiculous extremes in trying to explain Jesus from a strictly historical view. One such was David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). To Strauss, miracles were impossible. Thus, some way to explain accounts of them in the New Testament had to be found. Also, the real facts and events of Christ's life had been covered over with myths. Therefore, the Gospels had to be de-mythologized, and the real facts sorted out. One German rationalist thus explained Jesus' supposed walking on water as an optical illusion in the disciples produced by Jesus' walking in the mist along the shore. Likewise, His feeding of the five thousand was made possible when His own example of generously sharing the small amount of food He had led those in the throng who also had food to do likewise. His resurrection could be explained as a revival brought about in the tomb by an earthquake, since He had only fallen into an unconsciousness thought to be death.

English churches also experienced tumultuous upheavals during the Nineteenth Century, and out of such controversies new movements and religious bodies developed. One movement of significance was the Anglo-Catholic Movement. Those involved in this movement regarded the church as possessor of the truth, and important elements of the ancient church, such as fasting, clerical celibacy, reverence for the saints, sacramentalism, apostolic succession, had been lost by the reformers. Thus, the Anglo-Catholics sought to restore many typically Catholic doctrines and practices. Some went all the way back to Roman Catholicism. Edward Irving (1792-1834) taught that the gifts of the apostolic age could be restored with sufficient faith and began the Catholic Apostolic Church which eventually had twelve apostles. John Darby (1800-1882) formed a confederation of religionists seeking a warmer spiritual fellowship in 1830. They were known as the "Plymouth Brethren" after the place of their origin. William Booth created the Salvation Army in 1878, with military organization and obedience, to focus upon street evangelism and philanthropic work.

The greatest religious movement in America in the Nineteenth Century was the "Second Great Awakening." A little more tempered than the original Great Awakening, it nevertheless produced a great renewal in religious interest in a country where only ten per cent of the population were church members at the turn of the century. The outstanding manifestation of the Second Great Awakening was "camp meeting" revivalism with all its emotionalism. Emphases of this religious fervor were foreign missionary activity educational institutions for clerical training, and correction of social problems (slavery, war, poverty, etc.). The "social gospel" got its hold the latter quarter of the century. Growth of many new religious bodies — Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses — was also stimulated. The revival also provided a hedge against the strong thrusts of theological liberalism.

Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) God's moral laws can be instinctively known.

(2) (T or F) The church is the source and repository of the truth.

(3) What were the two large, conflicting religious movements of the Nineteenth Century?

(4) To what extent were the Scriptures affected by their times?

(5) What is wrong with rationalistic explanations of Jesus' miracles?

(6) What were the effects of the Second Great Awakening in America?

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