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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

An American Experiment in Sources of Authority

Brad Gregory’s assertion that the Protestant Reformation fractured a consensus about where authority lies serves as a backdrop for understanding the American Puritan Canopy as described by Mark Noll. The colonial history of the American Church and its relationship to politics can be viewed as an attempt by the early settlers to create a consensus based on the covenant of grace in order to repair the damage they had inherited from their past in Europe. To understand this early American experiment, the collapse of the consensus during the Reformation must first be summarized, followed by an explanation of the New England Way and the Half-Way Covenant as attempts at expressing the American consensus.

According to Gregory, the collapse of the consensus occurred in the Protestant Reformation. During the later Middle Ages, a plethora of corruptions in the Church including excessive taxes, the selling of indulgences, simony, the buying of absolution, the hoarding of land by the church, and the overuse of excommunication [1] led to a rejection of papal authority and the call to return to Scripture as absolute authority, uncluttered by the corruption of the church. “The history of the Reformation and very probably of Western modernity as well would have looked dramatically different if those who insisted on sola scripture and abominated interpretative individualism had agreed among themselves about what the Bible taught and thus about what Christians were to believe and do.” [2] While the Bible was posited to serve as an authority, the difficulty of the Reformation was the Reformers were unable to agree on how to interpret it. A possible solution was to recognize the role the Holy Spirit played in Scripture and base all claims to authority on him. “But it turned out to be much easier to rail against the flaws of existing churches, disdain rival sacramental doctrines, disparage competing readings of Scripture, and condemn rancorous theological disputes than it was to convince others that one had discerned Christian truth through God’s unmediated inspiration.” [3]

It was in the wake of these disputes attempting to root authority in Scripture and the Holy Spirit that the American colonies experimented with their own consensus based on the covenant. The covenant was the source of authority for ordering all of society: “European (and their colonial offspring) simply took it for granted that Christian truth and truth about the civil order were integrally connected.” [4] However, Christian truth did not necessarily mean it was rooted in Scripture, despite claims to the contrary. “The Reformed enjoyed the great advantage of believing that all influences shaping thought were themselves theological influences.” [5] While such a view possesses great advantages, “the ever-present threat to Reformed Protestantism was its proximity to the world.” [6]

The belief that all society was ordered by God led to two events: the formation of the New England Way and the Halfway Covenant. The role of the church covenant was “mediating between regenerate persons and societies populated with sinners as well as saints”. [7] The task of the New England Way allowed early American Puritans to express their faith and provide a vocabulary for engagement with the world around them. [8] The covenant placed the Puritans as the point where God and the world met. They were then able to draw on both Scripture and the world being created around them with its forming capitalism and budding republicanism as sources of authority. The covenant served as the authoritative basis for this newfound synthesis.

However, the New England Way was unable to withstand the obstacles of the Antinomian Controversy and the Great Awakenings [9], leading to the formation of the Half-Way Covenant as a new basis of authority for the synthesis, one more equipped to maintain both sides of the equation. The Half-Way Covenant allowed members of society who did not have a personal conversion experience to take part in the life of the church as partial members. While unable to partake of communion, they were able to bring their children for baptism and take part in ecclesiastical covenants [10]. Such an arrangement elevated the world from the status it held under the New England Way.

In both attempts of expressing the covenant, the early Americans endeavored to hold together two possible competing sources of authority: the Law of God and reason as found in society. Rooting themselves in the covenant, they attempted to create a consensus in the New World which had been lost in the aftermath of the Reformation. Yet the covenant proved to be an inadequate source in the face of the Great Awakenings and American Protestants would be forced to return to the drawing board in developing a consensus which would hold together the colonies of the New World.

[1] “The Grievances of the German People” in The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, pp. 4-7

[2] Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, p. 93

[3] Ibid. p. 101

[4] Mark A. Noll, America’s God, p. 34

[5] Ibid. p. 36

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 38

[8] Ibid. p. 39

[9] Ibid. p. 40

[10] Ibid. p. 41

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