Contention! “You might as well argue with the wind.”
February 12, 2012 2 Comments
The balance between the rational and the intuitive (in Mormonism we might say, reason vs. revelation, or the “mantle” vs. the “intellect”) — it’s not a new discussion. Roughly 300 years ago New England pulpits rang with polemics, preacher against preacher, over things like itinerancy, extemporaneous sermons, lay testimony and emotional conversion experiences. Each might be seen as either the work of the Devil or the work of God. Clerical conferences, used to a few quiet conversations over theological points, were torn asunder by bitter conflicts between extremes. The enlightened vs. the pious.
Pulpit debate was epitomized by good old Jonathan Edwards for “piety,” revivalism, the “affections,” and an active laity exercising significant control in church affairs. At the other extreme stood Charles Chauncy and the Harvard/Yale faculties. Opposed to the revival, Chauncy logged evidence of abuse and “enthusiasm” for several years.
The stationary or “located” minister, one who liked to dive into deeper doctrine in thoughtful ways was at a disadvantage when it came to the vigorous and exciting itinerant. Chauncy represented a move to frame the church with “understanding” and reason. Familists and Antinomians disgusted Chauncy. You couldn’t argue with them through reason. “You might as well reason with the wind,” he complained (I admit to having a little sympathy with this statement in some church settings, but cast that aside). For Chauncy, the “spirit” worked according to the rational nature of man, as an “elevation” of reason. Conversion was a matter of reason over emotion – an enlightened mind rather than heightened feelings.
For Edwards, supernatural conversion was the key, whether immediate or gradual. Revivals were the salvation of New England, despite any excesses that might occur. The Holy Spirit acted on the affections of the heart.
I’m all for a middle road here, but don’t we often find ourselves in the midst of this debate still? The charge “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” is a favorite (mostly soto voice) among the Mormon Edwardsians, right? We have our share of rationalists too though.
A complaint of rationalists about the itinerants centered in the nature of their preaching. I think you might see something interesting in the critiques offered by Harvard professors of the day (1740s)
. . . extempore preachers give us almost always the same things in the applicatory part of their sermons, [and it] is very little akin to their Text, which is just opened in a cursory, and not seldom [acontextual?] manner, and then comes the same harangue which they have often used before, as an Application.
Itinerants could get away with this because they moved on. Few people trailed after them to hear the sermon in the next venue.
So, do you prefer your preachers as thinkers or feelers? (grin)
 For Chauncy, these movements, which he saw as irrational and underserving of belief, were an infective plague in New England Congregationalism. I think he used “Familists” as a kind of swear word (but maybe he was lumping them in with all the other Antinomians). Antinomianism eschewed moral law in favor of grace. Once grace overtook you, no law applied to you. You were free in a radical salvific sense. This has always been a bit of a bogeyman for Mormons I think, in the faith vs. merit debates.
 The nature of differences between Edwards and Chauncy is oversimplified in the post. In some ways, Edwards was more the intellectual. Edwards used more extrabiblical sources and current learning than Chauncy. Regarding Chauncy’s revival reporting, compare his own 1742 book, Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against.
 The Testimony of the President, Professors, Tutors, and Hebrew Instructors of Harvard College Against George Whitefield. (1747). Whitefield in his turn wasn’t shy about claiming that Harvard and Yale (ministerial schools) were spiritually empty, bankrupt. I admit to having some sympathy for both sides here. From the Harvard critique: “inafmuch as by a certain Faculty he hath of raifing the Paffions, he hath been the Means of roufing many from their Stupidity, and fetting them on thinking, whereby fome may have been made really better, on which Account the People, many of them, are ftrongly attach’d to him (tho’ it is moft evident, that he hath not any fuperior Talent at inftructing the Mind, or fhewing the Force and Energy of thofe Arguments for a religious Life, which are directed to in the everlafting Gofpel)”