Midterm Exam, American Christianity
March 5, 2011
Question: Why did New England Calvinism fail to thwart Universalism? Is there a paradigm lesson for the modern church today? This question comes from Chapter 7.
New England Calvinism and Universalism both saw “the Salvation of All Men” as their primary objective (Page 158). How they sought to accomplish this objective, however, was much different. Calvinism had a “low view of unredeemed humans, wormlike creatures” in need of salvation (Page 158). Universalism taught that “the wisdom found within one’s soul” – the human capacity to reason for itself, without divine help or need of redemption of some kind – was the key to that salvation (Page 159). This is a clear deviation from Scripture. How, then, did this unscriptural movement survive?
The answer is “enlightenment rationalism” and, as a by-product, an inflated view of self-worth (Page 140). Enlightenment rationalism was sweeping across the land, a philosophy which rejected any notion of any divine being higher than humans and their capacity to reason within themselves that which is right and wrong. Thus, the Universalist movement was, in essence, a backlash against that New England Calvinism maintained by Jonathan Edwards and others which taught the lowliness of man and the need for redemption from that inescapable sin into which all men are born. This is the root from which the Universalist focus on God’s love and disregard for His justice stems. The heavy Calvinistic focus on justice, namely God sending sinners into an eternal hell and separation from Him, caused early Universalist leaders, such as Elhanan Winchester and William Ellery Channing, to be swept away in this enlightenment rationalism and form a perverse, imbalanced theology based exclusively on their own reasoning that a God of love was incapable of condemning people to eternal damnation. From this theology we get the Universalist rejection of the notion of redemption from sin and the human need for a divine Savior.
Is there a paradigm lesson for the modern church today in this theological schism? If there is one to be found it is certainly this: that modern Christians need not forget about God’s love, for it is by His love that we are saved. The Universalists believe that “the New Testament supersedes and supplants the Old” (Page 158). Perhaps they overlooked Romans 5:8 which declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). This single verse necessitates redemption from sin, and that in Christ alone, as well as the lowliness of man without Christ. Let the paradigm lesson for the modern church be found in this verse in Romans: may we practice a balanced theology of God’s justice and love, never losing focus on that fulcrum which opens the door to salvation, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary.
NG, LR, & NCU
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