History of American Presbyterianism

Lesson 4

Up to this time doctrinal heresy was not an issue in the PCUSA. Both sides in the schism of 1741 were basically sound in doctrine and supported strict subscriptionism. But now things begin to change in the Reformed churches of America. A “New Divinity” raises its head in opposition to the historic Calvinist faith of the Reformation and of the English Puritans.

The fountainhead of this apostasy was none other than Jonathan Edwards, a good and godly man, whose doctrinal errors and philosophical speculations became the basis for the “New Divinity”.

Doctrinal decline follows a general pattern of several steps:

  • Orthodoxy, where scriptural doctrines are believed and expounded from the word.
  • Traditionalism, where the traditional doctrines of orthodoxy are still believed but are separated from the active exposition of the word and based on tradition, logical systems of doctrine, and defended by reason and philosophy.
  • Heresy. This generally starts with Arminianism and winds up with Unitarianism. Jonathan Edwards was the person responsible for the transition from orthodoxy to traditionalism. His speculations defended and explained the Calvinist system he inherited by means of logic and philosophy apart from the scriptures. The results were disastrous.


We have already noted Edwards’ charismatic tendencies particularly in relation to his wife’s visions of and revelations directly from God.

We have already noted some of his strange opinions such as his belief that the North American Indians were the lost tribes of Israel.

But these were harmless compared to his speculations whereby he sought to establish a philosophical defense of strict Calvinism. His theological conclusions remained orthodox but their foundation was being removed from the word of God. Edwards adopted the Cartesian philosophy of Rene Descartes, the French Christian and mathematician of “cognito ergo sum” fame. Particularly he adopted his theory of being, based on the proposition that God is the efficient cause of every effect. This was similar to the Islamic theory of being with the same fatalistic tendencies. And it thoroughly destroys Reformed covenant theology and subverts the entire idea of a substitutionary atonement.

Secondly, Edwards redefined sin and holiness. The former was defined as selfishness and the latter as disinterested benevolence. The concepts were torn away from their roots in God’s word and particularly God’s law to the eventual destruction of the concept of divine justice.

Thirdly, Edwards postulated that as God was holy and therefore committed to disinterested benevolence God was required as a holy being to do all things in order to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, to maximize happiness in his creation. This placed God himself under law, a law defined by mere human philosophical speculations!

Fourthly, man’s depravity and fallen condition was redefined by the distinction between natural ability and moral ability, man being viewed as possessing the former but lacking only the latter. Man’s total depravity was now subjected to philosophical mutations. Man is able to do good but simply unwilling to do so.

The above are only a few of the chief points of the Edwardean system by which he sought to defend Calvinism but which became the basis for the destruction of Puritan theology in New England and eventually in the PCUSA.


Hopkins, was a student of, and a close associate of Edwards, and was his official biographer and the executor of his papers. He knew Edwards better than any minister and was most imbued with Edwards’ thought and philosophy. He started the process of taking Edwards’ speculations to their logical conclusions. In 1793 he published his “System of Doctrines” containing the following salient points. Their derivation from Edwards’ thought is obvious.

  1. All sin consists of selfishness.

  2. All holiness and virtue consists of disinterested benevolence. Since God is required to be benevolent there is no such thing as personal penal justice. God’s attributes of justice and righteousness are swallowed up by the dominant attribute of benevolence. The very character of God is changed.

  3. All holiness and sin consists of voluntary actions (Finney’s perfectionism in embryo).

  4. Adam’s sin is not imputed to the human race but God has ordained that all his progeny should be sinners but not by virtue of any connection with him.

  5. Man’s total depravity is total only of the will and does not affect the understanding and the conscience.

  6. Men have natural ability to do the holy will of God.

  7. Christ’s atonement is not substitutionary but general and is mainly a public exhibition of general divine justice and displeasure with sin. God can save whom he pleases without any connection to Christ and Christ’s death does not actually save anyone. (Here is the origin of the heretical “Governmental Theory of the Atonement” later held by Finney, Barnes, etc.)

  8. True faith requires total submission to God including willingness to be damned.

  9. God is required to do that which is best for the greater number of his creatures and therefore the present world is the best possible including the fact of the presence of sin.

  10. Sin is not evil per se but a necessary ingredient in God’s plan to work out the greater good (Hopkins was vague on the issue of the origin of sin but others including Emmons boldly asserted that God was the origin and source of all sin).

Edwards’s son also followed his father’s philosophy and used his father’s speculations to redefine the gospel. He preached that a substitutionary atonement that pays for sin cannot constitute forgiveness and cannot be gracious, since all the legal requirements of justice are being met. Therefore there is no substitutionary atonement and God’s justice is simply a general administration of divine benevolence.

These doctrines were spread through New England in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth.

Taylorism and the New Haven Theology

Nathaniel Taylor was a professor of theology at Yale in New Haven. He reacted to some of the logical conclusions of Edwards’ thought as developed by Hopkins and his followers, and developed a new divinity that sought to correct some of the problems of Hopkinsianism.

  1. He reacted against the fatalism inherent in Edwards’ theory of being.

  2. He reacted against the notion that God is the author of sin.

  3. He stated that all sin is the result of the free will of the creature. This was developed to full blown Pelagianism.

  4. He stated that all men are created without any moral character good or bad.

  5. He stated that sin is the result of circumstances beyond the control of God.

  6. He stated that regeneration is the result of moral suasion and not an act of irresistible divine power and grace.

  7. Edwards had denied our common nature with Adam.

  8. Hopkins had denied any real connection of the human race with Adam.

  9. They had postulated a circumstantial connection only as ordered in God’s providence.

  10. Taylor repudiated this fiction and denied any covenant link whether through a covenant of works or a covenant of grace.

  11. He stated that all men are created exactly the same way that Adam was.

  12. He stated that all men sin and fall exactly as Adam did by an act of their own volition.

  13. He stated that Christ died not as substitutionary sacrifice but only as act of divine benevolence towards sinners and as a display of divine displeasure with sin. This came to be known as the governmental theory of the atonement, that later became such an issue in the PCUSA.

  • In Taylor’s view the sinner is graciously pardoned but not justified.
  • In his view the sinner is forgiven but his sin is not atoned for or blotted out.
  • In his view divine justice is waived and not satisfied in the salvation of sinners.

Taylor represented the third step from orthodoxy, as Edwards represented the first. The final step was Unitarianism, logically developed from the preceding steps. The younger Edwards had to leave his pastorate in New Haven, where he had labored for 26 years because his congregation turned Unitarian. It was but the logical result of the extended years of preaching the philosophy of Edwards and Hopkins. This “new divinity” was ultimately to overthrow and replace the orthodox Calvinist theology of the New England Puritans and to also radically influence the theology of the PCUSA.