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A Tale of Two Paths

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
September 26, 2022 12:01 am

A Tale of Two Paths

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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September 26, 2022 12:01 am

American church history is a tale of two diverging paths: the way of biblical conviction and the road to cultural compromise. Today, Stephen Nichols surveys this history to help Christians keep on the right path in the present moment.

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Philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. And that's equally true when it comes to church history. It helps us be faithful disciples now, in the here and now where God has placed us.

So we learn from the examples of the past, both the steps and the missteps, so that, what's the goal? We are more faithful disciples. We are a more faithful church.

And by faithful, of course, we mean faithful to God's Word. And that's precisely why we take the time to study church history here on Renewing Your Mind. In this work, we're bringing you a new series by Ligonier teaching fellow, Dr. Stephen Nichols. His focus is on Christianity in America.

But in order to understand how the church developed in this country, we need to go back further than its founding. Well, I'd like to welcome you all to this teaching series on Christianity in America. This is a fascinating story. It really is. It's a story that's full of all sorts of fascinating characters, interesting characters.

We're going to meet a lot of them as we go along. But I want to start off with this observation. This comes from Philip Schoff from 1844. Now, if you don't know the name Philip Schoff, he was in the German Reformed Church. He's probably what we consider to be the sort of father of American church historians. He started the American Church History Society or the American Society of Church History.

He was the editor of the three-volume Creeds of Christendom, and he himself wrote an eight-volume history of the church. Schoff was rooted firmly in the German Reformed tradition, but he also was an American church historian and an American scholar. So, he has a great perspective on the American church. And in 1844, this is what Schoff said. He said, Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade. And of course, by here, he's talking about America, right?

So, every theological vagabond, every peddler comes here to drive his trade without passport or license and sell his false ware at pleasure. What is to come of such confusion is not now to be seen. Now, that was in 1844. It was on the heels of the Second Great Awakening, which was a significant moment, a cataclysmic, shifting, changing moment, not only for the American church, but for American culture. But in some ways, what Schoff is saying there, I think for many of us, summarizes that sort of ugly underbelly of American Christianity.

We just sort of see it as a place of chaos and a place of confusion. I'd actually like to present to you an idea that as we go through this story of American Christianity, we think in terms of a tale of two paths. Now, I was originally going to say a tale of two cities, but that had nothing to do with Dickens.

So, you all went to Dickens right away. It actually had to do with Augustine. And Augustine talked about the two cities and his classic text, City of God, written as Rome was collapsing and falling around him.

And everybody was sort of running, doing their chicken little thing that the sky is falling because Rome is collapsing. Augustine, solid theologian that he was, God-centered vision that he had, takes a step back and writes the City of God. And he says, there's the city of man, and there's the city of God. And we as Christians, we have a role to play in this earthly city, but our true home is heaven.

Our true allegiance is due to God. And God governs every step. He even governs the nations that, as Augustine says, that on this earth do totter.

Isn't that a great line? And he's talking about Rome. You think of the vast empire that was Rome. And Augustine says, it's just a nation that totters on the face of the earth. But what Augustine was trying to help people see in this moment back in the 400s, trying to help them to see, was that they needed to stay focused on God. They needed to stay focused on their cultural affirmation, their confessional affirmation, rather, because there's an opposite path that sometimes Christians are tempted to take. And they're tempted, as it were, to hitch their wagon to the culture.

And they're even tempted to accommodate Christianity to those cultural sensibilities and those cultural mores. So, as I look at the study of American Christianity, as we walk through this with you, all these interesting figures, fascinating events, I want you to be thinking about these two trajectories. So, on the one hand are these two paths. So, on the one hand, the first path is cultural accommodation, cultural accommodation. The other path is, and I'll try to squeeze this word in here best as I can, confessional affirmation.

Now, you see the difference between the two. It's basically a question of what is going to be our guide, what is going to be our authority as we move along. And in this trajectory, we want to have influence in culture. And in order to have influence in culture, we need to sort of speak the language, we need to have the dialect, we need to know the lingo, and we need to sort of get along. And so, it's cultural accommodation. And sometimes it's cultural accommodation for good motives to be able to influence, right?

We all want to see culture go in the right direction. And so, sometimes we might be motivated by this, we will come to call it, I think, the myth of influence, but we might be motivated by influence as we accommodate to culture. But the other side of the coin, of course, is no, we have a confession that governs us and guides us. It has an ideology. It has a view of who God is. It has a view of who we are as human beings. It has a view of authority, namely, the Word of God stands over us as authority. So, all of that is bound up in what I'm calling a confessional affirmation. Now, in cultural accommodation, what happens very quickly to Christianity is it begins to be what we call nominalism.

Now, this is exactly what the Reformers were reacting against and trying to reform back in the 16th century. Normalism is the idea that I am simply a Christian by default. If I was born in England and I was baptized by the church, I'm a Christian. That's nominal Christianity. You're going to see it even in some of the denominations that spring up from the Reformation as they evolve away from their confessional affirmation and instead begin to assume some cultural accommodation. It becomes nominal Christianity, and we call this cultural Christianity. It very much was a part of the American scene from the 1940s, really up until recent years, where every Christian had a copy or every American had a copy of the Good Book in their home. And, of course, they're Christian because they're American. And there's a church on the corner that's more than happy to affirm them and their Christian identity, right? Well, what do we have over here? Confessional affirmation is not nominalism, but I love this word, conviction, that we are Christians by convictions. This isn't just a social club that we belong to. These are beliefs that are a matter of life and death, and we affirm them as conviction.

And what is this going to result in? It is going to result in a counter-cultural Christianity. What's the words of the New Testament?

A peculiar people. Isn't that what the church is? You go back to the pages of the New Testament, and what you find is not cultural accommodation, is not nominalism, is not a cultural Christianity. You go back to the pages of the New Testament, and you find a group of people who are on the margins of culture because they believe entirely differently from the culture around them. They believe about God differently. They believe about themselves differently. They believe about marriage differently. They believe about their work differently.

Everything about their Christianity sets them apart as counter-cultural, and they are in fact a peculiar people. And that's really the two paths that we're going to see. And as we go through this story, I'm going to bump back into this time and time again and remind you of this and try to show this to you.

But I'd also like you to be thinking about this because you can sort of see this get played out as these events unfold. And I'm not at all opposed to using history to help us understand the present day. In fact, that's what I believe church history does. It helps us be faithful disciples now in the here and now where God has placed us.

So, we learn from the examples of the past, both the steps and the missteps, so that what's the goal? We are more faithful disciples. We are a more faithful church.

And by faithful, of course, we mean faithful to God's Word. So, I want you to be thinking about this as we go through this study of American Christianity. And I want you to be thinking about how we see this taking place right now, very much in our moment as we come into the 2020s. We are very much seeing a cultural accommodation that in one sense is saying, let's just sell our birthright. Let's just sell our fidelity to the authority of Scripture so that, what? We can maintain some kind of influence over culture, see. Or, are we going to be confessional in our affirmation and convictional?

And maybe that will make us countercultural and cause us to be a peculiar people. Well, that's the big picture. I can't wait to get into some of this with you. But before we spend more time on that, let's talk a little bit about the journey that we are going to be on. And this journey is both through the American church and through American culture. And they sort of like a ping pong game.

They sort of play off of each other and push each other a little bit. So, let me give you some of the big events we're going to be talking about and just give you sort of a mental sort of ladder that you can climb on to sort of walk your way through American Christianity. The first part that we come to, of course, is the settlements. And, you know, we're mostly Reformed here. So, we care, of all the settlements, we really care about the New England Puritans the most. But it's not just because of our identity that we care about the New England Puritans. They were the towering, they were the towering group over the colonial period. They really held sway over the early American, at this point colonial, Christian identity, the Puritans. The New England Puritans almost sort of sucked the oxygen out of the room when we're talking about colonial settlements. So, we're talking about the colonial settlement era in American history, the pre-republic. In church history, we're talking about Puritanism, and we're going to spend a whole episode on Puritanism.

In fact, we'll probably do that next with you. What happens? This is the story of church history.

It's a sad story. Declension happens, and we begin to lose the fervor, the zeal. We begin to lose a little bit of that commitment and conviction, and all of a sudden, we begin to slide into more and more normalism, and that starts to happen. We start to see decline in the 1690s, 1710s, 1720s. Jonathan Edwards is chastising his congregation for leaving behind their Puritan sensibilities and being too worldly.

This is the 1730s we're talking about, and he's up there condemning them for their worldly materialism. Well, what comes on the heels of that decline, right? The first Great Awakening, and I'll give you dates for it. 1739, George Whitefield arrives in Philadelphia. That's a great start date for the first Great Awakening. 1739, it starts. 1745, it pretty much comes to an end. Now, there's a lot of aftermath as the literary term has it, the denouement after the effects of the Great Awakening, but that's the significant moment. So, are you with me? We've got the Puritanism.

We've got the declension or the decline. And one particular way we're going to get at that is looking at the so-called halfway covenant, or what I'm calling halfway Christianity. And yes, if you're wondering, halfway Christianity is no Christianity at all. So, yes, I'll draw the connect the dots there for you. Then it's the first Great Awakening.

But then what happens? Well, on the American scene, we go into the Revolutionary War, and we go into the early Republic. And this period from 1790 to 1840 is a very significant moment in the formation of America. It's also a changing moment in American Christianity. And what happens over those same years, roughly 1801 to the late 1830s, is the second Great Awakening, and figures like Timothy Dwight, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, is involved. Edwards casts a long shadow over the American Christian story, but the key figure of the second Great Awakening is none other than Charles Grandison Finney. So, we'll see him and what he was up to back in the 1800s and his influence with the second Great Awakening.

Well, coming out of the second Great Awakening, of course, America goes into the Civil War. And in the post-Civil War era, there is the rise of modernism. Now, we tend to think of modernism as a 20th century thing, the optimism of 1900 that is going to be…we even speak of the progressive era of the early 1900s in American culture. But you see the seeds of it back in the late 1800s. And it's very interesting to trace how that rising modernism affects the church, cultural accommodation, and we see the rise of liberalism.

So, as we're talking about the years 1850 to 1900, we're going to focus on the rise of liberalism, and that is going to be responded to in the early 1900s by a really feisty group of people. And sometimes they're seen as fighters, and these are, of course, the fundamentalists and fundamentalism. And this is a variety here, fundamentalism.

Think of just sort of some sort of like umbrella term, and underneath that umbrella, there are a lot of really interesting people and also very different from each other. And it's almost better to speak of fundamentalisms than fundamentalism. But that dominates the story really right up until pre-World War II. So, from 1910 to 1930, it's fundamentalism. So, if you're keeping track, it's Puritanism, decline, the halfway Christianity, then it's the First Great Awakening, then it's the early Republic and the impact that's having culturally, but the impact that has on the church, which leads to the Second Great Awakening. After the Second Great Awakening, it's the rise of liberalism, and the response to liberalism is fundamentalism. Well, that gets us up to the 1940s, and it gets us to that very suave and debonair-looking Billy Graham. And so, in the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s, we have the birth of evangelicalism, and evangelicalism is going to have a long and strong generation and get us right up to 2000, and then who knows what happened in 2000, and who knows what is happening now.

I'm sort of joking with you. But we will talk about evangelicalism, and then we'll ask the question, what does post-evangelical American Christianity look like? And I sort of feel like bringing up Shoff's quote again, what is to come of such confusion is not now to be seen, right?

So, Shoff couldn't predict everything that was going to come on the heels of the Second Great Awakening back in the 1840s. We have seen, since the 1990s, a massive cultural, a seismic cultural shift, and it has had impact on the church. And all kidding aside, what is to come of all of this confusion is not now to be seen.

But what do we know, right? We know that in the midst of all this, we can affirm our confessionalism, we can be a church of conviction, and we recognize that we are called to be a peculiar people. We are a peculiar people.

It's our identity. Well, the story of American Christianity does not begin in America. It begins in the Reformation. So, before we finish off this first episode, I want to explore a little bit of our roots as American Christians, and our roots are the Reformation. You know, just as America, we often call America the melting pot, and through our immigrant culture, we are sort of a melting pot of all the nations and all the ethnicities of the world. They've all come to America. As Neil Diamond told us, they're coming to America.

See, now you can sing that song in your mind the rest of the day. So, it is with the Reformation. All the branches of the Reformation have come to America, and American Christianity will eventually evolve to a melting pot of all of that.

But what do we have? Well, in New England, we've got the Puritans. So, think of the colonies going down the Atlantic seaboard. We've got, in New England, the Puritans. They, of course, come, the first group comes in 1620. These are technically the pilgrims that come in 1620, but they are the separatists of Puritanism back in old England. One of the best ways to understand Puritanism is, again, to see it as an umbrella term. And you have Anglicans who are Puritan, among them John Owen is probably the chief example. You have Presbyterians that are Puritans. You have even Baptists that are Puritans.

That's a joke for our Baptist friends. But you also have what are called the Independents. Now that group comes to America in 1630 on board the Arbella with John Winthrop. And that's the group that we technically call the New England Puritans. So the New England Puritans dominate those New England colonies.

The exception is going to be Rhode Island, where all of the dissenters end up. And it becomes also the home of Baptists in America with Roger Williams. Now you go down to the middle colonies, and it's a little bit of a mixed bag. In New York, you've got the Dutch Reformed coming in. In New Jersey, you've got the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who also come into Pennsylvania. You also have the Lutherans who come into Pennsylvania, and later you're going to have the Anabaptists come into Pennsylvania. You have the only colony that was established as a haven for Roman Catholics, and that's Maryland. But its predominant population was Anglican, and they ended up sort of squeezing the Catholics almost out of Maryland. And then what do you have in the southern colonies? Well, it's dominated by Anglicanism, the Carolinas, Georgia. So there you have those branches of the Reformation all throughout Europe and representing these European nations coming to America and these various places.

And they very much also gave an identity, shaped an identity to those colonial cultures. Now, in addition to the story of the 13 colonies, which is primarily within the Reformation, the slight exception being Maryland with the Counter-Reformation and Roman Catholicism, you do have the Catholic settlements in the non-colony areas of what will come to be the United States. And of course, we are filming this here in Florida, so we have to talk about Florida long before the Puritans ever stepped foot in New England. The Huguenots stepped foot here in Florida, but they were driven out by the Spanish Catholics. So much of early Florida history is dominated by Catholicism. You go over to New Orleans, it too was dominated by Catholicism and traveling as they did up the Mississippi River, taking Catholicism with them into those regions of pre-America. And then, of course, you've got California and the Spanish Catholics with the missions going all the way up strategically located as you go up the California Peninsula. And so you have the Catholic presence, but it's really in early America.

It's outside of colonial America, and it'll come into play later. Well, that's the story of A Tale of Two Paths, that's the story of our roots, and next episode we're going to hop right in and get into the New England Puritans and Puritanism. And with that introduction, we kick off Dr. Stephen Nichols' latest teaching series, Christianity in America. That's our focus this week here on Renewing Your Mind as we cover these important movements in early American church history.

History helps us understand the present day, and studying the growth of the American church reveals many pitfalls that we can avoid here in the 21st century. We will be glad to send you this complete series. Just contact us today with a donation of any amount, and we will add the videos to your online learning library. There are 12 messages contained on two DVDs.

You can make your request and give your gift online at, or when you call us at 800-435-4343. Well, if today's message piqued your interest, you probably want to tune in to Dr. Nichols' podcast. It's called Five Minutes in Church History, and you can find it by searching for Ligonier Ministries in your favorite podcast app or visit Well when you hear the term Puritan, what comes to mind? For many people, it carries with it plenty of negative connotations, but Dr. Nichols will correct some of the stereotypes and misrepresentations tomorrow. I hope you'll join us Tuesday for Renewing Your Mind. God bless. God bless.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-08 19:26:19 / 2023-01-08 19:35:40 / 9

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