The Apologetics of Theodore Parker and Horace Bushnell: New Evidences for Christianity

David J. Voelker

[17]Although the intellectual scurrying to protect Christianity from Darwin's theory of evolution qualifies as the central event of nineteenth-century American religious thought, the religious romantics who pre-dated Darwin also attempted to insulate Christianity from outside threats, such as new historical and Biblical criticisms. Historians commonly remember the romantics, such as Horace Bushnell and the Transcendentalists, for their "revolt from reason"(1) and their glorifying of emotion. While evidence certainly supports this viewpoint, it is sometimes over-emphasized and can lead to a portrait of the romantics that does not do justice to the intellectual seriousness of their positions.

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, both the orthodox and the liberals developed a faith founded upon evidence from the "two books," nature and the Bible(2). This very rational tendency soon led to a dissatisfaction on both ends of the religious spectrum. With strong concerns for the intellectual validity of their positions, Theodore Parker, a Transcendentalist, and Horace Bushnell, an evangelical, developed parallel critiques of the entrenched liberalism and orthodoxy, respectively, aiming at the combination of natural theology and Biblicism that dominated contemporary apologetics. But despite the fact that they reacted against similar trends in the theology of the time, they differed greatly in their positive alternatives.

The Context: Orthodox and Liberal Dependence upon the "Two Books"

The intellectual atmosphere common to the both the evangelicals and the liberal Unitarians of early nineteenth-century America contained a complementary blend of Scottish Commonsense Realism and Baconianism. The Scottish Commonsense philosophy made its way to America primarily through John Witherspoon, a Scottish president of Princeton during the late eighteenth century. [18]The merit of the Scottish philosophy, which was developed primarily as an antidote to Hume's radical skepticism, was that it provided confidence in the human ability to gain knowledge. This confidence extended into the realm of religious knowledge and shaped religious thought for half of a century.

If, for the sake of explanation, the simplified realism of a later president of Princeton, James McCosh, can be taken as representative, the Scottish philosophy assumed that

reality is composed of physical objects, minds, relations, and God. These exist independently of us and are unaffected by our incidental knowledge of them. Sense perception yields true information; hence we know reality directly. Our knowledge of objects is not inferential; it is not the case (contra Hume) that we know only our ideas.(3)

This confident set of assumptions about the relationship between the knower and the external world led McCosh to his maxim: "By nature man is competently organized for truth, and truth in general is not beyond his reach."(4)

These Commonsense assumptions that informed American religious thought through the mid 1800s had important application in the theological, natural, and moral sciences. The realists believed that theology and philosophy, like physical science, must be inductive: Commonsense realism thus neatly complemented the Baconian method of induction, which was based on studying particulars and then formulating general laws. Through the middle of the century, most evangelicals believed that science, properly pursued, was not only not antagonistic to religion but was often supportive of it.

During this period, the idea of a scientific theology became important to orthodox Protestants, from the Presbyterians to the Congregationalists. The inductive method of Francis Bacon became a symbol for knowledge based upon evidence. The orthodox saw Baconianism as a weapon to use against the speculative atheists of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, whose thinking was viewed as dangerous because it was too abstract and not grounded in evidence.(5) Although the orthodox associated Paine and Allen with atheism, the two actually held deistic ideas: they accepted only the religious principles they gleaned by reason. While they believed in one deity, who would reward the virtuous and punish the evil in an afterlife, they considered many aspects of Christianity, from the divinity of Jesus to miracles, to be mere superstitions. Interestingly, many of the arguments of the deists had been used by [19]Christian natural theologians for centuries, and would continue to be used by those theologians of the nineteenth century who sought to find evidences for Christianity in nature, without relying on revelation.(6)

Samuel Tyler, in several articles on Baconianism published in The Princeton Review during the early 1840s, helped to popularize Bacon's inductive method in a more rigorous and specific form than was commonly subscribed to earlier in the century. In an article of 1840, Tyler gave a detailed explanation of Bacon's new method of investigation" and compared it to the older Aristotelian method, which "exhibited a total disregard of facts and phenomena."(7) The Baconian method of induction, as described by Tyler, was a method to gain probable knowledge about natural laws by proceeding "from particulars to a class of low degree, and from several classes of low degree to those of a higher, until we arrive at those of the highest degree."(8) Although Tyler acknowledged that some philosophers (notably those of France) had misused Bacon's methods to arrive at atheism, he believed that the proper method supported natural theology and prevented atheistic speculation by its strict adherence to observed facts.

Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), a prominent Congregationalist geologist, lecturer, and president of Amherst College, also defended Baconianism from the accusations that it led to infidelity. Hitchcock explicitly linked abstract and deductive thinking, not inductive thinking, with infidelity:

the philosophy which has thus been exalted above revelation so often and so disastrously is not that of induction, but of abstraction; not that of Bacon, and Newton . . . but that of Hobbes, and Home, and Diderot. I know that there has always been, and still is, a strong jealousy of physical science, as if it were hostile to religion; but where is the evidence of such hostility?(9)

Hitchcock's argument was not new: the rationalism of the Enlightenment, not science's demand for evidence, had long been associated with infidelity.

[20]Natural theology, the theology that sought the religious truths apparent to reason without revelation, employed the "argument from design" as a rational argument for the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent, and personal God. William Paley, an Anglican bishop, wrote the standard work on Natural Theology which was published in 1802. In this often imitated work, Paley set out to prove several points: the existence of one deity, the personality of the deity, and the goodness of the deity. Paley used the analogy of a person finding a watch to argue (against Hume's skepticism) for the existence of the deity. Just as we know that the watch, with all of its complicated mechanisms working in harmony, must have been constructed by an intelligent designer, we also know that the world must have been created by an intelligent designer.(10) The existence of the world and the complexity and perfection of its design provides inductive proof for the existence of God. Citing such anatomical structures as the human eye, which was clearly designed for the purpose of vision, he pointed to the absurdity of the belief that such things could exist if there were no intelligent God, and from there he reasoned that intelligence implies personality.

With the intelligence and personality of God established, Paley pointed to pleasure as evidence for the goodness of Cod. Because pleasure was a sensation not necessary to life, it could only be explained by the existence of a benevolent deity. Natural theology also attempted a theodicy, an explanation for the presence of suffering and evil in the world. Paley argued that although we cannot understand evil and pain, they are clearly part of design and have a purpose that human beings in many cases cannot grasp.(11) With these characteristics of God proven, Paley had produced many basic aspects of Christianity through the use of reason, without the aid of revelation. His work provided a model for several generations of American theologians.

Edward Hitchcock, popular for his work in geology, provided many examples of the argument from design as used in America. Hitchcock's works contained two common elements, the conviction that science and the Bible can never truly conflict and the belief that natural theology lays a foundation for faith. The findings of science, although they may seem to conflict with the Bible because of a lack of human understanding, could never truly disagree with revelation because "the God of nature is the God of revelation." Hitchcock employed the argument that because the purpose of the Bible was to reveal "a plan of salvation," not to be "a text-book in natural science," some apparent conflicts might [21]appear. (12) But these conflicts were not real and could be accounted for in several ways, such as a mistake in the interpretation of the Bible or a mistaken scientific understanding. Not only did science not conflict with religion, but it was, according to Hitchcock, "favorable to piety": "What is true science but an exhibi-tion of God's plans?"(13) Science thus helped people to understand the scripture and provided a natural theology that laid the ground for faith.

Hitchcock supported his dual contention that science both supports religion and helps clarify the scripture with his geological findings and with other, more original arguments. In a lecture on "Special Divine Interpositions in Nature," Hitchcock included an easily grasped design argument based on undersea volca-noes:

Let us go once more on the wings of imagination back to that remote period of our world's history, when most of its present continents were beneath the ocean. As we hover over the waters, we see. . . . submarine volcanoes are pouring forth their contents. . . . But what has this to do with special providence? Let the ages roll on and we shall see. By and by that ocean's bed is slowly lifted above the waves. Those waves, during its emergence, cover it with soil adapted to vegeta-tion. Man at length fixes his dwelling upon it. he discovers, among the exposed strata, the gypsum and salt which he so greatly needs. . . . And thereby can he greatly multiply his comforts and numbers.(14)

Thus, what began as underwater explosions finally provided a place fit for, tailored to, human existence. The divine purpose and design apparent in these developments provided for Hitchcock undeniable proof of "special providence," of Cod. Additionally, Hitchcock argued that the findings of science favor Christianity over all other "false" religions. Every other religion had real conflicts, not just apparent conflicts, with the findings of science. Christianity alone, he argued, would always be able to resolve its conflicts with science.(15)

If, to use the common metaphor, nature was one "book" authored by God, and the Bible was the other, the same method of study could be applied to both. As argued by Theodore Dwight Bozeman, author of a book on Baconianism and Protestantism, Protestant clergy of the early nineteenth century believed that the Bible was supported by empirical evidence and provided empirical evidence for Christianity. The miracles and the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible proved the authenticity of the scripture, which likewise proved the truths of Christianity. [22]Treating "biblical events and doctrines as facts directed to the senses,"(16) the religious thinkers of the time believed they could gain knowledge as valid as any other scientific knowledge.

The systematic study of the Holy Lands, first attempted during the 1830s, became another means to authenticate the Bible in a scientific way. The most scientific and influential scholar in this field was Edward Robinson, who produced Biblical Researches after several trips to Palestine. Robinson's goal was not only to find the actual locations of biblical occurrences, but to speculate about how certain events, such as the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea, happened.(17) His research, which won great popularity, displayed the same impulse as exhibited by Hitchcock and other natural theologians. The desire for knowledge about the Holy Land was a desire for empirical confirmation of the Bible.

Tyler, Hitchcock, and Robinson wrote and spoke to an audience of educated Protestants, mostly Congregationalists and Presbyterians. The orthodox mainstream, through the use of natural theology and the Bible, had built a religious structure that depended upon reason for its intellectual validity. The well-developed argument from design would convince even those prone to skepticism of the existence of God--at least until Darwin.(18) Although the above writers directed their research at fellow orthodox Protestants, the religious liberals of the period not only accepted much of what the orthodox wrote but produced many arguments of their own along a similar vein.

The liberal Christians of the period, the Unitarians, built their religion upon a foundation that they believed was both more rational and scriptural than that of the orthodox. The Unitarians had broken away from the New England Congregationalists during the first and second decades of the nineteenth century and had stripped Christianity of much of its mystical content. In addition to rejecting the Trinity (and thus the divinity of Jesus) because of a lack of scriptural evidence, the Unitarians rejected the Calvinistic view of human nature. Instead, they accepted the more optimistic view that human beings were good and could contribute to their own salvation. Thus they emphasized the moral aspects of Christianity over doctrinal questions. For the Unitarians, the truth of Christianity need not be accepted with blind faith; the miracles of Jesus, they believed, legitimized his message and his moral teachings. This position, called [23]supernatural rationalism, made the liberals' belief in Christianity rest upon reason and the validity of the scripture.

The first and perhaps the most serious challenge to the religious security of both the liberals and the orthodox came from the new biblical criticism spawned by the liberals themselves. Joseph Steven Buckminster, a young Unitarian minister, founded the new method of biblical criticism in America during the second decade of the century. Buckminster's goals were twofold, to prove that the Bible could not support the dogmatism of the orthodox, and to illuminate the pure and simple Christianity. According to Jerry w. Brown, author of The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America, Buckminster employed two major tools in his study of the Bible: "a careful examination of the canon and inspiration of the Bible in terms of its history, and study of the text of the Scriptures."(19) These historical and textual tools led Buckminster to several positions that were destructive of orthodoxy.

After studying the works of the eighteenth-century German biblical scholar, J. D Michaelis, Buckminster redefined the meaning of revelation: the Bible, he argued, was not verbally inspired, but was merely written by inspired writers; because not all Biblical authors were equally inspired, not all books of the Bible were equally valid. Further weakening the reliability of the scriptures, he recognized, was the fact that the Church had not canonized the scriptures in a scientific and systematic way. But despite this criticism of the verbal inspiration and the canon, Buckminster did not doubt the authority of the Gospels. According to Brown, he believed that the Gospels were "substantiated by miracle, by fulfilled prophecy, and by their internal consistency."(20) But for those liberals who accepted Buckminster's Biblical criticism, many of the orthodox doctrines, from the verbal inspiration of the scripture to the Trinitarian view of God, could no longer be held. Nevertheless, the truth of Christianity was safely supported by the New Testament, especially by the Gospels, which were authenticated by miracles.

To most of the orthodox and liberals of this period, Christianity seemed securely founded upon reason, science, and scripture. Only a few evangelicals were beginning to distrust science, particularly geology. For those who were aware of it, the Biblical criticism of Germany was a clear attack on the scriptures, but to most people this criticism seemed too distant and radical to be threatening. Despite this common feeling of security, some voices from among the orthodox and the liberals began to dissent, suggesting alternatives to the rationalized theology that was popular among the intellectuals of the period. Theodore Parker and Horace Bushnell challenged the absolute authority of the traditional rational evidences for Christianity and proposed in their place a new intellectual justification for Christianity, based on internal and personal evidence rather than on evidence from the "two books."

Theodore Parker and Horace Bushnell

Although the Unitarians began as a group criticizing and departing from orthodoxy, they soon developed an orthodoxy of their own. During the 1830s, within less than a decade after the firm establishment of the Unitarians as a denomination, the Transcendentalists began a criticism from within the movement. Herbert Schneider, historian of American philosophy, described the causes of the disaffection of the Transcendentalists:

Unitarian orthodoxy . . . with its emphasis on rational theology, its antipathy for revelation and lesser miracles, its cool enthusiasm for higher [Biblical] criticism, and its increasingly smug use of reason at the expense of liberality, became too sectarian to hold the philosophical interests and practical devotion of those liberals in whom the love of freedom was both a political heritage and a transcendental passion.(21)

Admittedly, Transcendentalism was a small movement, but its disproportional influence suggests that it attracted some of the most capable thinkers from amongst the Unitarians, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker.

Although the Transcendentalist movement was by nature informal, it is possible to form a general description of their beliefs.(22) Important here are two characteristics shared by the Transcendentalists, their emphasis on the intuitive and non-rational aspects of religion and their rejection of the Unitarians' supernatural rationalism. An anonymous article of 1841 published in the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, concisely addresses these two issues. The author defined Transcendentalism against the sensationalism of John Locke: "Transcendentalism, then, is the recognition in man of the capacity of knowing truth intuitively, or of attaining a scientific knowledge of an order of existence transcending the reach of the senses, and of which we can have no sensible experience."(23) The philosophy of sensation, argued the author,

disrobes earth and nature of their chief splendor, and so does it deprive Christianity of its highest evidence. . . . Denying to man the intuition of the infinite and true, it compels us to scrutinize the claims of religion with the poor and [25]fallible logic of sensation; to rest its truths exclusively upon the authenticity of old manuscripts.(24)

This critique pointed to the Unitarian reliance upon the authenticity of the Bible; from the Unitarian perspective, if doubt could be shed on the Bible, then Christianity itself could be questioned. These criticisms soon culminated in the major conflict between the Unitarians and their Transcendentalist offspring, the miracles controversy.(25)

The miracles controversy was an extended argument between the Transcendentalists and the Unitarians about the basic evidences of Christianity. As explained by historian Daniel Walker Howe, the controversy consisted of an attack by the Transcendentalists on the Unitarian reliance upon "supernatural rationalism ..., the doctrine that Christ's teachings had been authenticated by the miracles he performed."(26) Emerson instigated the controversy in his 1838 address to the seniors of Harvard's Divinity School. Citing the "universal decay and now almost death of faith in society," Emerson attacked both the "monster" of miracle and the "noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus."(27) In place of these fountainheads of traditional Christianity, Emerson advocated a spirituality rooted in intuition.

Although Emerson's "Divinity School Address" was an early and very public expression of Transcendentalist ideas, George Ripley, also a former Unitarian minister, had clearly expressed similar sentiments in an 1836 article in the Christian Examiner. Ripley argued that intuition as evidence for Christianity should outweigh concerns such as the authenticity of the Bible:

We wish only to maintain what we deem a better mode of examining the evidence of Christianity than that which is usually pursued in the study of theology. The adoption of this mode... would remove some of the strongest objections of infidels, and convert the timid and wavering faith of multitudes into strong and masculine conviction. Let the study of theology commence with the study of human consciousness. Let us ascertain what is meant by the expression... the Image of God in the Soul of Man. Let us determine whether our nature has any revelation of the Deity within itself; and, if so, analyze and describe it. If we there discover... a criterion of truth, by which we can pass judgment on the Spiritual and Infinite, we shall then be prepared to examine the claims of a Divine Revelation in history.(28)

Ripley thus fused both the intuitivism of the Transcendentalists with their dissatisfaction with the Unitarian supernatural rationalism. He was not arguing that Christianity did not need to be supported by reasonable evidence, but that the strongest and most irrefutable evidence could be found in the human consciousness.

Theodore Parker (1810-60), the most avid student of the latest German Biblical criticism, developed the most comprehensive attack of the Unitarian reliance upon miracles and historical Christianity. Parker was distinct from the other Transcendentalists in several ways. Unlike most other Unitarian ministers who moved toward Transcendentalism, Parker retained his pulpit: more than the others (especially Emerson), he saw himself as working within the context of Christianity. He also had more respect for reason than the other Transcendentalists, and criticized Emerson's elevation of "ecstasy" over more rigorous forms of thought.(29) In 1840 Parker wrote a review for the Life of Jesus written by Friederich Strauss, a German Bible scholar. While complementing the thoroughness of Strauss's scholarship, Parker upheld that any objections to Christianity uncovered by Strauss "carried along with [them their] ... own abundant refutation."(30) Parker believed that a more apt title for the Life would be "A Fundamental Criticism on the Four Gospels." Parker did not at that time accept all of Strauss's "objections to historical Christianity," and he argued against many of Strauss's assumptions, such as the impossibility of miracles. But he also argued that Strauss's example was an important precedent of "free religious thought" because it showed that Christianity, "cherished and clung to by the choicest hopes, the deepest desires of the human race, is not in a moment to be displaced by a book."(31) To explain why such criticism could not destroy Christianity, he quoted a German writer who upheld that the memory of Jesus would never disappear because his image had been "stamped ineffaceably on the hearts of men." Parker did not at that time believe that criticism of historical Christianity could destroy the place of Jesus in religion.

[27]By the next year (1841), however, when he preached his most famous sermon, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," Parker had accepted most of Strauss's conclusions. The victim of his sermon was all of the doctrine and formalities of Christianity These aspects of Christianity, argued Parker, were merely transitory, always changing and unimportant. The important core of Christianity was morality:

To turn away from the disputes of the Catholics and the Protestants, of the Unitarian and the Trinitarian, of old school and new school, and to come to the plain words of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity is a simple thing, very simple. It is absolute, pure morality."(32)

After dismissing the importance of doctrinal disputes and singling out the essential meaning of Christianity, he attacked the Christian tendency to raise the scriptures above human beings, to make them the infallible words of God:

modern criticism is fast breaking to pieces this idol which men have made out of the scriptures. It has shown that here are the most different works thrown together; that their authors, wise as they sometimes were, pious as we often feel often their spirit to have been, had only that inspiration which is common to other men equally pious and wise; that they were by no means infallible, but were mistaken in facts or in reasoning--uttered predictions which time has not fulfilled; men who in some measure partook of the darkness and limited notions of their age, and were not always above its mistakes or its corruptions.(33)

Many Unitarians of the time accepted this view that the scriptures were neither literally inspired nor infallible, but none could accept the attack that Parker proceeded to make against the significance of Jesus.(34)

Parker aimed to eliminate the Unitarians' supernatural rationalism, which proved the legitimacy of Christianity by focusing on the person of Jesus and the miracles that verified his message, both doctrinal and moral. Parker repudiated this dependence on Jesus, arguing that "It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid."(35). So not only did he deny that the scriptures were a permanent and crucial aspect of Christianity, but he dropped his earlier assumption that the importance of Jesus was perpetual and argued that the person of Jesus, too, was a transient aspect of Christianity.

[28]The truths of Christianity, argued Parker, had support independent of his-torical Christianity. The scriptures and the miracles of Jesus were not needed to prove or justify Christian truth:

If Jesus had taught at Athens, and not at Jerusalem; if he had wrought no miracle, and none but the human nature had ever been ascribed to him; if the Old Testament had for ever perished at his birth, Christianity would still have been the word of God; it would have lost none of its truths.(36)

The enduring, permanent truth that Parker believed was central to Jesus' teachings and to Christianity was its morality, "the love of man; the love of God."(37) True religion consisted in no other creeds.

Within another year, Parker had constructed a critique of contemporary theology from the basis of the methods used in the other sciences.(38) Parker compared the progress of theology with that of other fields of knowledge, such as the natural sciences, and argued that the modern method of theology inhibited all progress. Parker used the "meaning of miracles" as an example of the defective method:

The general thesis is, that miracles confirm the authority of him who works them, and authenticate his teachings to be divine. We will state it in a syllogistic and more concrete form. Every miracle-worker is a heaven-sent and infallible teacher of truth [the major premise]. Jonah is a miracle-worker [the minor premise]. Therefore Jonah is a heaven-sent and infallible teacher of truth. Now we should begin by denying the major in full, and go on to ask proofs of the minor. But the theological method is to assume both. When both premises are assumptions, the conclusion will be,--what we see it is.(39)

Parker argued that on a logical level, theology (as it was) assumed its premises rather than using observation and induction to find and validate premises. By comparing the theological method to the Baconian method used in other sciences, Parker showed that neither Unitarian nor orthodox theologians were living up to their own standards of rationality.

[29] Horace Bushnell (1802-76), responding to many of the same influences as the Transcendentalists, developed an argument for Christianity that centered on the individual's inner experience rather than on natural theology and the Bible. Bushnell was a Congregationalist minister who was influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who also influenced the Transcendentalists). According to Sydney Ahlstrom, one of Bushnell's major impulses was to "fit the Christian message to the dominant presuppositions of his time by modifying those aspects of belief which scandalized many educated Americans."(40) Although Bushnell remained within the folds of orthodoxy, his fellow Calvinists often reproached him for his liberal understandings of the Trinity, atonement, sin, and the Bible.(41) One of Bushnell's major goals, as outlined in Nature and the Supernatural (1858), was to place the "supernatural" on "firm, intellectual ground."(42) Fighting the "new infidelity" that "propose[dl to make a science out of religion,"(43) he hoped to restore to Christianity the essential supernatural element that his contemporaries so often denied in favor of natural theology. Bushnell's use of the word supernatural defied the traditional understanding of the word, which saw a stark separation between the natural and the supernatural. According to Ahlstrom, Bushnell used supernatural to mean "every aspect of reality which is not caught up in the mechanical chain of physical cause and effect [e. g. life]. In such a view, nature and supernature are cosubstantial and interfused."(44)

Contrary to most evangelicals of his time, Bushnell rejected the infallibility of the Bible. His argument against the infallibility of the Bible centered on the fallible nature of human beings. Not only could mistakes have been made in the transmission of the Bible by manuscript, but the "canon was not made by men infallibly guided by the Spirit." Even if the Bible were infallible, Bushnell argued that human beings, with their imperfect reason, would have no way to verify its infallibility. The argument for infallibility, Bushnell believed, "must inevitably be lost," and if Christians continued to argue for it they would only find themselves making more and more concessions to naturalism.(45) Therefore, he concluded, Christians should forego trying to prove the infallibility of the Bible and focus on other issues.

[30]Bushnell understood the Bible's truth in a metaphorical way, as opposed to the more literal and factual way common to the orthodox The Bible, in Bushnell's eyes, did not consist of a series of facts: it could not be treated scientifically, and no scientific theology could be built upon it. Bushnell argued that human language itself, and the poetic Bible in particular, did not lend themselves to scientific treatment:

Is there any hope for theological science left? None at all, I answer most unequivocally. Human language is a gift to the imagination so essentially metaphoric . . . that it has no exact blocks of meaning to build up a science of. Who would ever think of building up a science of Homer, Shakespeare, Milton? And the Bible is not a whit less poetic, or a whit less metaphoric, or a particle less difficult to be propositionalized in the terms of the understanding.(46)

The words of the Bible, he believed, were not "exact blocks," like those of mathematical language (or empirical observations).

In addition to rejecting the possibility and utility of any scientific study of the Bible, Bushnell also argued against the use of natural theology to "prove" God. Because natural theology looked only for God acting in nature, in natural ways, it completely ignored the supernatural aspect of God, which was not observable in nature. Attempts to prove God through natural evidence, Bushnell argued, actually worked to the detriment of faith "because the God we prove does not meet our living wants, being only a name for causes, or a God of causes." The result of limiting God to what is evidenced in nature is that "Christianity dies out on our hands, for the want of a christian God."(47)

Bushnell found natural theology flawed because of its assumption that empirical evidence was the superior form of proof. Bushnell critiqued modern theologians for elevating natural theology to a "fundamental" position. They assumed that "any thing which can be proved for religion out of nature ... is ... specially solid, and impossible to be doubted longer." This elevation of natural theology "requires all supernatural evidences to give way to it, as being themselves a more questionable kind of verity."(48) Thus with natural theology taking over, the more important supernatural aspects of religion became second-rate, and Christianity, deprived of its meaning, would be left to wither.

As an alternative to the mainstream rationalism, Bushnell recommended a faith rooted in personal experience. Bushnell did not, however, abandon the notion of seeking evidence for Christianity, but shifted this quest for evidence [31] from the external focus on nature and the Bible to an internal focus on the human experience of faith. Bushnell upheld that Christ and Christianity, because of their supernatural origin, could not be derived from reason, but must first be accepted by faith. This experience of faith, he argued, provides subjective but compelling evidence for Christianity:

When [Christ is received by faith] ... he is, of course, experienced or known by experience; in that manner verified--he that believeth hath the witness in himself. The manner, therefore, of this divine experience, called faith, is strictly Baconian. And the result is an experimental knowledge of God, or an experimental acquaintance with God, in the reception of his supernatural communications.(49)

With this rather ironic redefinition of empiricism to include subjective experience, Bushnell apparently hoped to appeal to the reason of his contemporaries. But his fideistic position, which consisted of accepting Christianity on the basis of faith rather than on the basis of reason, was in fact a very old argument.

The alternate method of theology that Parker proposed went beyond Baconianism in its application. Baconianism, argued Parker, was too exclusive, sweeping "Love, God, and the Soul ... clean out of doors."(50) In place of Baconian sensationalism, Parker advocated the development of a systematic theology that centered on intuition:

[The theologian] must direct his eye inward on what passes there, studying the stars of that inner firmament, as the astronomer reads the phenomena of the heavens. He must also look outward on the face of nature and of man, and thus read the primitive Gospel God wrote on the heart of his child, and illustrated in the Earth and the sky and the events of life. Thus from observations made in the external world, made also in the internal world, comprising both the reflective and intuitive faculties of man, he is to frame the theory of God, of man, of the relation between God and man, and the duties that grow out of this relation, for with these four questions we suppose theology is exclusively concerned. This is the philosophical method, and it is strictly legitimate. It is pursued in the other sciences, and to good purpose.(51)

With these reflective and inductive tools, theologians could construct a new theology. Parker's plan to study human intuition and the world in a philosophical, even scientific, manner bears many similarities to deism in both its method and its outcome. Whether Parker defined himself as a deist or not, his focus on evidence from nature (including the intuition of human nature) was consistent with deistic standards of evidence. His innovation lies in his elevation of intuitive [32] evidence above evidence from the external world. Parker's conclusions also resembled those of deism, from its rejection of revelation to its stripping down of religion to its moral basics.

Despite any overt similarities between the romanticism of Bushnell and Parker, the two men had fundamentally different visions of Christianity. Labeling Parker as one "who has offended the christian public," Bushnell explicitly distinguished himself from Parker. The major distinction, according to Bushnell, lay in their different conceptions of the natural and supernatural:

Mr. Parker undertakes to frame a rational view of religion, that sets it on the footing of nature. I have undertaken to frame a rational view of religion, that comprehends nature and the supernatural, as coeternal factors in the universal system of God.(52)

For example, while Parker denied the possibility of miracles, Bushnell accepted miracles not as violations of the laws of nature, but as manifestations of the supernatural that exists with nature, on a higher plane than nature. This distinction drawn by Bushnell himself supports an understanding of Bushnell as a fideist, ultimately accepting Christianity by faith, and of Parker as a kind of deist, searching for basic religious principles as revealed in nature and in human intuition.

This difference in the basic orientations of Bushnell and Parker led them to different means for pursuing their shared goal, rescuing religion from demise at the hands of modern criticism. Bushnell approached the problem of protecting Christianity in a fairly traditional fideistic way. In his scheme, the human "experimental knowledge of God," faith, allowed people to accept the traditional Protestant beliefs, namely Bushnell's pseudo-orthodox doctrines. Bushnell thus saw the subjective experience of faith as the intellectual basis for Christianity.

Parker, on the other hand, willingly sacrificed what he considered to be the "transient" aspects of Christianity in order to re-establish the security of theism. Of course, most of Parker's contemporaries did not consider him to be a Christian at all. He jettisoned everything except Christian morality. In calling for a new theology, he asked that the "theologian ... begin anew, trusting entirely to meditation, contemplation, and thought, and ask WHAT can be known of divine things, and HOW it can be known and legitimated."(53) Thus Parker would discard the traditional Christianity that Bushnell sought to save. When he looked to the already mentioned "inner firmament," Parker found three "primal intuitions of human nature": "the instinctive intuition of the divine, the instinctive intuition of the just and right, [and] the instinctive intuition of the immortal."(54) These intuitive basics could provide a foundation for a new theology that would retain the morality of Christianity but little else.

[33]While Bushnell attempted to found traditional Christianity on the subjective experience of faith, Parker opted to build a new theism rooted in the truths revealed by human intuition. Ultimately, Bushnell's thought would have the most impact on later religious thinkers. Although Parker never disassociated himself from Unitarianism or Christianity, most of his contemporaries like Bushnell believed that Parker had "offended the christian public" and had betrayed Christianity.(55) Despite the attacks of his contemporaries, Parker saw himself as working within the context of Christianity. In "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," he expressed his idea that the Christianity of his day was just one passing phase of the true Christianity:

Let then the transient pass, fleet as it will; and may God send us some new manifestation of the Christian faith, that shall stir men's hearts as they were never stirred; some new word, which shall teach us what we are, and renew us all in the image of God.(56)

Thus regardless of how his contemporaries viewed him, Parker believed that his progressive vision of Christianity was the only savior from the increasingly meaningless and increasingly endangered form of Christianity that he believed was common to his time.

Bushnell and Parker put forward their arguments with close attention to the evidence that they had to offer, and they did so with an amazing foresight. Although neither could have foreseen the challenge of Darwin, they were both very sensitive to the challenges to Christianity arising from science and Biblical criticism, and they turned to new justifications for religion that would eliminate the new threats. In Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, James Turner argued that the Christian reliance upon reason and science to support their religion led to the unbelief of the latter nineteenth century:

unbelief was not something that "happened to" religion. On the contrary, religion caused unbelief. In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges, to novel problems of knowledge, to the tightening standards of science, the defenders of God slowly strangled Him. If anyone is to be arraigned for deicide, it is not Charles Darwin but his adversary Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, not the godless Robert Ingersoll but the godly Beecher family.(57)

Viewed in retrospect from the perspective of Turner's thesis, Parker and Bushnell seem correct in their assessments of the threat to Christianity from those who tried to defend it with reason and science Both men were self-consciously trying to find support for religion in areas that would not be challenged by modern Biblical criticism and science. Their respective solutions, although they were both controversial, could have perhaps sheltered Christianity against later attacks by shifting the persuasive power of Christianity away from nature and the Bible and toward the human soul.


1. George H. Shirer, "Romantic Religion," The Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, ed. Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988), 1103.
2. Herbert Schneider characterized "Religious and academic orthodoxies" as having "shifted [their] interest from speculative inquiry to systematic instruction." The orthodox ambition was "to teach the truth, i.e., to instruct their students in correct doctrine." See A History of American Philosophy (New York: Columbia UP, 1946), 225-6. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the word liberal was not applied to religious belief until the 1820s, when the term began to be used to designate those "members of a church . who hold opinions 'broader' or more 'advanced' than those in accordance with its more commonly accepted standard of orthodoxy."
3. Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey, A History of Philosophy in America, vol.I (New York: Putnam, 1977), 212-3.
4. Ibid., 212.
5. Herbert Hovenkamp, Science and Religion in America, 1800-1860 (U of Pennsylvania P, 1978), 28; Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Bacon ian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1977), xiii.
6. Although deism seemed attractive to many American intellectuals of the later eighteenth century, the irreligion associated with the radical stages of the French Revolution made a major impact in America, and deism lost much of its popularity.
7. Samuel Tyler, "The Baconian Philosophy," Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review XII (July 1840): 357, 359. And "The Influence of the Baconian Philosophy," Princeton Review XV (October 1843). Interestingly, Tyler acknowledged the fact that mathematics, which Bacon had totally neglected, were important in strengthening the conclusions made by induction. See "The Baconian Philosophy," 367-9.
8. Ibid., 365.
9. Edward Hitchcock, "The Philosopher and Theologian," Religious Truth, Illustrated from Science (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1857), 78.
10. This argument, traditionally called the "argument from design," has also aptly been called the "teleological argument" because it holds that the purpose implicit in the design of the universe implies the existence of an intelligent creator.
11. William Paley, Natural Theology, ed. Frederick Ferri (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1963).
12. Edward Hitchcock, The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, Lee, 1860), 1-2. This argument of Hitchcock was by no means original, and had, most famously, been used centuries earlier by Galileo.
13. Ibid., 71.
14.Ibid., 112-3.
15. Hitchcock, Religious Truth, 36.
16. Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1977), 140-1.
17. Edward Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai, and Arabia Petraea, vol. I (New York: Arno, 1977). Hovenkamp analyzes Robinson's work and influence in chapter eight of Science and Religion.
18. James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985), 102, 173.
19. Jerry Wayne Brown, The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1969), 19.
20. Ibid., 22.
21. Schneider, A History of American Philosophy, 227-8.
22. For a brief outline of the Transcendentalist movement see Catherine L. Albanese, "Transcendentalism" in The Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, vol. II.
23. "Prophecy--Transcendentalism-Progress," The Dial, vol.II, ed. George Willis Cooke (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), 90. This article was published in July of 1841. According to Cooke, Jonathan Ashley Saxton authored the article; see Cooke's An Historical and Biographical Introduction to Accompany The Dial (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961) for a biographical sketch of Saxton. It is very interesting that Saxton used the word scientific to describe a form of knowledge that transcended the senses and was thus both anti-empirical and anti-scientific; he probably used the word scientific to emphasize that the Transcendentalists were seeking a legitimate form of knowledge.
24. Ibid., 94.
25. The orthodox also understood the Transcendentalists in opposition to the "Baconian" or "sensuous" philosophy and theology endorsed by the both the orthodox and the Unitarians. See Hitchcock, Religious Truth, 26.
26. Daniel Walker Howe, "At Morning Blest Golden-Browed," A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism, ed. Conrad Wright (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1975), 47.
27. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Divinity School Address," Selected Essays, Lectures, and Pocms, ed. Robert D. Richardson (New York: Bantam, 1990), 114, 111, 112.
28. George Ripley, "Martineau's Rationale," The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, ed. Perry Miller (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1950), 132.
29. Herbert Schneider has argued that Parker's transcendentalism was "more critical than romantic." See Schneider, History of American Philosophy (266-7) and Theodore Parker, "Thoughts on Theology," The Dial, vol.II, 492 (This article was published in 1842.). John Edward Dirks has examined the question of to what extent Parker was a Transcendentalist. Most revealing on this topic are Parker's criticisms of Emerson. See Dirk's The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (New York: Columbia UP, 1948), 25-27.
30. Theodore Parker, "Strauss's Life of Jesus," The Christian Examiner July 1840): 35.
31. Ibid., 316.
32. "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," Theodore Parker: An Anthology, ed. Henry Steele Commager (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 56.
33. Ibid., 47.
34. Brown, 158-9.
35. Parker, "The Transient," 49.
36. Ibid., 50.
37. Ibid., 56.
38. Parker used the word science to label all fields of knowledge, whether natural, philosophical, or theological.
39. Theodore Parker, "Thoughts on Theology," The Dial vol.II., 494.
40. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale, 1972), 610.
4l. Ibid., 611-13.
42. Horace Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural (New York: Charles Scribner, 1858), 520.
43. Ibid., 16-7.
44. Ahlstrom, 612.
45. Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 33-5.
46. "Our Gospel A Gift to the Imagination," Horace Bushnell: Sermons, ed. Conrad Cherry (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 109.
47. Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 508.
48. Ibid., 506.
49. Ibid, 521.
50. Parker, "Thoughts on Theology," 499.
51. Ibid., 495.
52. Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 500.
53. Parker, "Thoughts on Theology," 495.
54. These words of Parker are quoted in Schneider, 267.
55. Ahlstrom, 606.
56. Parker, Anthology, 60.
57. Turner, xiii.