Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lecture #3: "Trampling the Tulips: The Unitarian Break from Calvinism"

[This lecture is number 3 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

The previous lecture concluded with a list of similarities that present day Unitarian Universalism shares with the tradition from which it emerged, the Puritan tradition in New England. I described many of the features of those old Puritan churches that we often see present in Unitarian Universalist congregational life today.

Even though we came from that tradition, we also broke from that tradition. And, we broke most powerfully from that tradition in our rejection of the doctrine of “five point” Calvinism. In other words, 250 years after Michael Servetus, our first Unitarian martyr, was burned at the stake, our religious forebears were ensconced in the theological system of John Calvin, the man who ordered Servetus’ execution. Our forebears were about to deal Calvinism a powerful blow.

So, what is “five point Calvinism”? It is best remembered by using the acronym TULIP. The five points are as follows:

Total depravity. The Puritans believed that human beings were absolutely sinful and that human nature was wicked. As the first couplet of the New England Primer, a book for children, began, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Unconditional election. The Puritans did not believe in free will. The Puritans believed that our lives and our fates were predestined. You were born either saved or damned, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. Your salvation was not contingent on how you lived your life.

Limited atonement. This position essentially meant that there were only a certain number of tickets to heaven. Not everybody got there. Space in Heaven was limited.

Irresistible grace. This principle is the corollary to unconditional election. If it was impossible to do anything to win your own salvation, it was also impossible to do anything to screw up your own salvation. If you were one of the lucky ones who received by grace the gift of being chosen to be among the elect, there was not anything you could do to mess it up.

Perseverance of the saints. Of all five of these theological statements, this is the hardest to wrap our heads around. This fifth point basically says that the chosen, the elect, would succeed during their earthly lives.

Let me step back and make a few observations at this point. First of all, there are still churches in the United States that adhere to “five point" Calvinism. However, I am going to assume that most of you, even if you did grow up in a theologically conservative church, did not grow up in a Calvinist church. We can only see this theological system as outsiders. And, as outsiders, it almost seems absurd. However, if you do immerse yourself inside of it completely, it does have a kind of perfect internal logic. God is supremely powerful; everything plays out according to a divine plan that is perfectly pre-ordained.

However, if you live according to this system, you often face tremendously anxiety. You may wind up spending a lot of time looking for signs that you are among the elect who will be saved and not damned. To become a member of the Puritan church that held these views, you actually needed to present the minister with an account of your spiritual journey and evidence or signs that led you to feel confident about your own salvation. You spent a lot of time looking for signs and then feeling guilty because you knew it was beyond your ability to control. You spent a lot of energy trying to act the part of a persevering saint, and analyzing each success or set-back through the lens of wondering if it was a sign about the fate of your immortal soul.

The well-known Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet once wrote a poem entitled, “Verses upon the Burning of our House.” In the poem she relates the experience of her house burning down. The poem quickly becomes a deliberation about what sign God was sending. What did this event signify about the fate of her eternal soul? Here are a few lines from the middle of the poem,
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
But, by the end of the poem, Bradstreet has twisted the meaning of the fire into one that suggests the fire is a sign pointing to her own salvation,
There's wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.
Talk about anxiety. This Puritan system has been described as a pressure cooker. A lot of steam needed to be released. Beginning in the mid-1700s, religious alternatives to “five point” Calvinism started to take hold. Among the most popular and most successful was Methodism. Early Methodism was a revivalist movement and stressed emotionalism. It preached that if you felt God’s presence or God’s love than you were saved. In this kind of context, it was very easy to feel the Spirit.

At the same time that Methodism was gaining steam, there was also a movement within Puritanism that was growing increasingly liberal. This liberalizing movement tried to walk a middle path between the strict harshness of Calvinism and the emotionalism of the First Great Awakening. One of the leading ministers who helped to usher along liberal thought was a minister named Charles Chauncy. Chauncy was called to the First Church in Boston at age 22 and served that church until his death at age 82. (You don’t find 60 year ministries anymore.) Chauncy penned a piece in 1743 entitled, “Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England.” This piece argued for a middle way between orthodox Calvinist teachings and the “unseasonable” revivals of the day.

Chauncy, along with several other ministers of like mind were among the figures responsible for the gradual liberalizing of Puritanism during the 1700s. If you will permit me just a minor digression, I might also point out that at just about this same time the world of Biblical scholarship was coming completely unhinged. In Germany, a new form of Biblical criticism, known as “Higher Criticism” was rising towards prominence. At the same time, also in Germany, scholars and philosophers were beginning to research the figure of the “historical Jesus.”

To summarize, in the late 1700s five point Calvinism was struggling in the United States. It was facing challenges from within, from congregational ministers and lay people who were challenging the theological ideas put forward by “TULIP.” And, it was facing challenges from without, mostly in the form of revivalism. Puritan churches were not yet going through schisms because of controversy between the orthodox conservative position and the more liberal position, but could a schism be far off?

What had been missing up to this point was a person who would dare to take the liberal position and carry it through to its full conclusion. That person would turn out to be William Ellery Channing. In 1819, Channing preached in Baltimore at the ordination of Jared Sparks. The sermon was a deliberate attempt to make a statement. In fact, ahead of preaching it, Channing distributed the sermon in pamphlet form. The crowd gathered not so much to hear what he was going to say, but to see if he would say what he wrote. The sermon’s title was, “Unitarian Christianity.”

In this sermon, Channing does two things. First, Channing lays down principles for reading and interpreting the Bible. Second, Channing dissects the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing a Unitarian doctrine in its place. It is a powerful and ambitious sermon. The first part, I think is better. But the second part is certainly more daring.

I’m going to quote fairly extensively from Channing’s oration, because I want you to hear how powerful this is. Here is how Channing approaches the Bible:
“Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.”
He then strongly defends this position,
“We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to the remarks now made on its infinite connexions, we may observe, that its style nowhere affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment.”
In other words, not only do we not read the Bible literally and uncritically, but we need to read the Bible more critically than other books. All this, though, is the set up for the brilliant argument on which his sermon hinges. Here is what I consider to be one of the most important paragraphs in all of Unitarian thought:
“We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism. If reason be so dreadfully darkened by the fall, that its most decisive judgments on religion are unworthy of trust, then Christianity, and even natural theology, must be abandoned; for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine original of Christianity, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it. If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason. It is worthy of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion over every truth. We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.”
What Channing has done here is to catch those who believe that human nature is “totally depraved” and helpless in a trap. The second that you begin to argue that human beings are totally depraved and that we are sinful and powerless beings who are incapable of reason, you need to ask, “What does that say about your ability to form an argument?”

To accept any theological statement, you need to have faith that human beings are capable enough to form those theological statements. The logic here is just fantastic. By destabilizing the first principle of “five point” Calvinism, he puts the rest of it on wobbly ground. The other four points are set up like dominos.

Channing elected not to knock the whole system down, but it is easy for us to infer how the whole system would collapse. If human nature is not totally depraved, human beings are in some ways capable. If we are capable, it is possible for us to pursue the truth that might change the course of our mortal souls. If some human beings are capable, perhaps all are capable and atonement is not limited. And, if we are powerful in our use of reason, we can also use our reason for ill, thereby acting in ways that will take away our salvation. Finally, salvation becomes not a matter of a pre-selected group persevering. Instead, it is possible to work for the betterment and salvation of all humankind, “onward and upward forever.”

But in the Baltimore sermon, Channing doesn’t go for the knockout. He has bigger fish to fry. He is about to completely rewrite the doctrine of the Trinity. He makes the following five points.

First, Channing insists that God is a Unity and not a Trinity. Second, he insists that Jesus Christ is a Unity as well, that is, fully distinct from God. Third, he insists that God is morally perfect and frames this moral perfection by presenting God as a loving parent. Fourth, Channing argues about the significance of Jesus’ life. Channing writes,
“We believe, that he was sent by the Father to effect a moral, or spiritual deliverance of mankind; that is, to rescue men from sin and its consequences, and to bring them to a state of everlasting purity and happiness. We believe, too, that he accomplishes this sublime purpose by a variety of methods.”
Channing does leave the door open for different arguments about how Jesus “rescues men from sin.” Fifth, Channing argues that the importance of Jesus’ life is that it inspires morality. Jesus is more a teacher and a role model than he is a metaphysical savior.

I like to call the Baltimore Sermon “The reasoned argument against Calvinism.” A little later, Channing would attack from a different flank, offering an argument against Calvinism from the place of morality. In his 1820 essay “The Moral Argument against Calvinism” Channing argues that the Calvinist image of God is an insult to God and presents a God who is downright immoral. Channing talks about God as supremely good, merciful, and loving. He appeals to our idea of justice and says that the theological system of the Puritans is morally bankrupt.

So, in Channing we have both a refutation of Puritan theology that is based in reason and a refutation that is based on standards of morality. However, insofar as reason and morality are possible as human beings, Channing’s theology invites us into a deep consideration of human nature. That will be the topic of the next lecture.

Reflection Question
In the quotes by William Ellery Channing that I included in this lecture, did anything surprise you?
If you had not previously read Channing, how did these excerpts compare to what you might have imagined?