Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood: Edwardsean Calvinism vs. New Revival Theology

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow WoodThe indebtedness of Baptists, from a human standpoint, to the Judsons is incalculable. Because of their conversion to Baptist views, along with Luther Rice, two hundred years ago the General Missionary Convention was formed. Specifically for the purpose of combining the energies of the whole Baptist denomination for carrying the gospel to peoples that had no gospel witness, Baptists in the North and the South united. Like the conversion of the Judsons, the sustainable energy that drove these visionary leaders came from the Second Great Awakening. Along the east coast, in churches and in colleges, a great movement of the Spirit of God swept thousands into the kingdom and brought about a sustained attempt at the formation of societies of various sorts. The theology that generated all this was an unapologetic Calvinism of the Jonathan Edwards variety, focusing on action as the chief evidence of genuine religious affections, selfless abandonment to the glory of God called disinterested benevolence, and the internal sense of the beauty and excellence of the absolute sovereignty of God.

God as Creator and constant sustainer of the entire world, necessarily reveals himself in every aspect of the what he has brought into being. Properly perceived everything is an evidence of the existence of God and is a testimony to his nature. It gives this testimony in slices and slivers, for nothing in all creation can bear the full weight of pouring forth testimony to the divine glory. Creation must, therefore, be virtually infinite in the conglomerate [not absolutely] for it is to declare the glory of God and be endlessly entertaining as a display of his handiwork.

So it is with the character of human affections, virtues, will, and moral actions. Our fallenness gives witness to how destructive, cruel, corrupt, foul, and ugly is a departure from the moral image of God, while sanctification, as a restoration of the divine image produces holy, beautiful, excellent, trustworthy, loving character. Even the way we make choices, whether in the fallen and unregenerate state or in the regenerate state, we reflect the natural image of God. God is the freest of all beings and yet is the most determined of all beings. He can do nothing other than what is right, holy, just, good, in perfect conformity with his character; his purpose for the world flows from his perfect knowledge of himself and how to contrive an order outside himself that will be the most suitable arena for the eternal display of every potentiality of his inexhaustible wisdom, power, and goodness.

In God, there is no contradiction between utter freedom (the will and the power to accomplish all his holy purpose), and his immutably fixed character that determines that he can and will do nothing other than he has decreed to do. He would have the natural power to do other things but his wisdom has landed upon just these things that he does do as the perfect display of his holy nature and, thus, he can do nothing else; it would be the greatest of weakness and personal bondage to consent to actions alien to perfect wisdom, joy, desire, and benevolence and to set a course of such from which one’s perfect joy could never be restored. God’s holiness determines his perfectly free joy.

Even so, we operate with the same kind of freedom as agents of moral choice doing precisely what we want to do as expressions of our desires and preferences; yet our choices are determined—the outflow of our internal preferences in light of the finiteness of our situation as created beings.

Early nineteenth-century evangelical theology, that which informed the preaching of the Second Great Awakening, was built on this understanding of the relation between freedom and determination in moral choice. Human choice reflects the divine image in how moral action comes into being. This establishes a dialectic between the abilities endemic to one’s natural capacities within the moral realm and the specific desires or affections that control the direction of the moral choice. Affections are a part of the natural faculty of choice making. God has only holy affections and thus makes only holy choices; fallen humanity has perverse affections and thus makes perverse choices.

Human depravity that results in absolute dependence on divine election and effectual initiative in regeneration is not inconsistent with full human responsibility when one consents to this paradigm of natural ability as something of a genus and moral ability as a species. After the second decade of the nineteenth century, the theology of Nathan W. Taylor and Lyman Beecher began to collapse moral ability into natural ability, virtually eliminating the idea that depravity held the will of man in moral bondage to sin. Depravity is not the “cause” of sin, but merely the “occasion” of sin. Humanity has retained, or has been restored by universal prevenient grace to, the ability to repent of sin and believe in Christ prior to, and thus independent of, any effectual and distinguishing operation of the Holy Spirit.

This theological shift led to a new revival theology that changed the content and the timbre of evangelical discussion and ministry. The theology that drove the Judsons—to Christ, to missions, to believers’ baptism, to death—gradually was pushed aside and hidden from view giving a new face both to motivation and method. The consternation of the present day is largely the result of the Judson theology and motivation resurfacing and finding itself unwelcome in the mission movement to which it gave birth.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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