Academic journal article
By Vickers, Jason
Interpretation , Vol. 59, No. 1
Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War by E. Brooks Holifield Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003. 617 pp. $35.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-300-09574-0.
THE CHARLES HOWARD CANDLER PROFESSOR of American Church History at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and the former president of the American Society for Church History, E. Brooks Holifield is a leading scholar of the history of Christian theology in America. Holifield's previous works include The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England and Era of Persuasion: American Thought and Culture, 1521-1680. This latest work is without question Holifield's most ambitious project to date. It is destined to become a landmark work in the field.
The central thesis of Theology in America is that "a majority of theologians in early America" were deeply concerned with demonstrating "the reasonableness of Christianity" (p. 4). More specifically, Holifield maintains that virtually every major theologian in the period under consideration was committed to some form of evidentialism. Thus Holifield carefully documents that it was absolutely standard among American theologians to contend that "reason, reflecting on either the visible world or the workings of the human mind, could produce evidence for the existence of a transcendent God" (p. 5). Moreover, he shows that theologians embraced natural theology largely in order to establish "the antecedent probability of a special revelation," and that they were keen to point to an array of evidence that special revelation had in fact been given in the Christian scriptures (p. 187). Like their counterparts in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, early American theologians regularly appealed to miracle, testimony, and the internal coherence and consistency of the Old and New Testaments as evidence that the Christian scriptures contained the word of God.
Alongside the central thesis of the work, Holifield pays close attention to five additional aspects of theology in early America. These aspects include the centrality of Calvinism, the denominational setting of theology, the abiding concern for the ethical implications of doctrine, the influence of European intellectual developments, and the tension between academic and populist strands of thought. In many respects, the crucial significance of this work emerges only when the central thesis is set against the backdrop of these five additional themes, especially the centrality of Calvinism and the concern for the ethical implications of doctrine. In a brilliant move, Holifield demonstrates that it was primarily an attempt by Calvinist theologians to respond to a growing ethical critique of the Calvinist doctrines of original sin, the atonement, regeneration and unconditional divine election that paved the way for evidentialism in America theology. Otherwise put, American theologians gradually came to embrace evidentialism not as a way of countering charges of irrationality, but rather as a check against antinomianism.
The concern over antinomianism was that if total depravity included the reason or intellect, then human beings would be "naturally incapable of right or wrong." A depraved intellect would "undercut the responsibility to repent." Hence, Edwardian theologians like Samuel Hopkins "refused to designate the understanding as a site of depravity." (p. 144). Through the use of reason, they argued, human persons could ascertain the evidence in the natural order for the existence of God as well as the internal and external evidence that scripture was the word of God. Having identified the scriptures as the word of God, they would learn of their moral depravity and their need to repent. Thus Holifield is exactly right when he downplays the role of skepticism as a contributing factor to the emergence of evidentialism in American theology, observing that skepticism would not become "a vital issue for theology" in America until "after the Civil War" (p. …