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LETTERS TO THE REV. HORACE BUSHNELL, D. D., Containing Strictures on his Book entitled "Views of Christian Nurture, and Subjects Adjacent thereto." By BENNET TYLER, D. D., President and Professor of Christian Theology in the Theological Institute of Connecticut, Hartford: Published by Brown & Parsons, 1848.
WE have watched with deep interest, the progress of the controversy on Christian Nurture, which has grown out of Dr. Bushnell's Discourses. This interest has been an anxious one, while we have seen views set forth obviously calculated to subvert great and vital truths, and to misdirect the minds and efforts of Christian parents. But it has also been the interest of high satisfaction, when, on the other hand, we have seen errors on the subject firmly and successfully met. This controversy has awakened an unusual interest in New England and elsewhere. Voices have mingled in it in unusual numbers, and from various quarters, denominational and editorial.
This is a controversy in which every Christian parent, church, and minister in the land is concerned; and with these, every child of the church; aye and of "the world" too, in our country. For the question at issue essentially is, shall a theory of Christian nurture be received and carried into practice, which disowns great and fundamental truth, respecting the natural character of the sons and daughters of men, and on the way of their salvation from sin and death? Or shall we abide by the sure oracles of God upon this great subject; and setting out with the full admission of the doctrines of God's word respecting the natural condition of every child of Adam, look for renovation and rescue from ruin, through "the power of the Spirit of God?" We earnestly wish to see Christians carefully discriminating between sentiments on Christian Nurture which look well on paper and read finely in the parlor; but over which it is difficult to pray, in the closet, and which it is equally difficult to reduce to practice and to realize in religious family education. Let the experiment be faithfully tried, whether Dr. Bushnell's book will lie harmoniously by the side of the Bible. We predict that it will be found at variance with the Bible on almost every essential principle entering into the great work of training children for God and heaven.
We cannot do better by our readers, than to give them the views exhibited in the Letters of Dr. Tyler on the prominent points at issue. The author, with his usual good temper and self-government, has passed by all which was personal and provoking in Dr. Bushnell's last book, and has gone directly into the merits of the subject. And while he has annihilated the arguments of his opponent one after another, he has still done it in the exercise of that Christian courtesy which belongs to the good cause of Christian truth.
The first of the Letters before us, is devoted mostly to the examination of the charges of misrepresentation brought by Dr. Bushnell against Dr. Tyler's former Letter. The author of the very quiet epistle," as Dr. Bushnell styled Dr. Tyler's former letter, very quietly puts him into a corner, whence it must require something besides random charges of misrepresentation, to escape. The second letter is devoted to the examination of Dr. Bushnell's main proposition, "THAT THE CHILD IS TO GROW UP A CHRISTIAN; 99 or, as he had stated it more at length, that "the aim, effort, and expectation should be, not as is commonly assumed, that the child is to grow up in sin, to be converted after he comes to mature age; but, that he is to open on the world as one that is spiritually renewed, not remembering the time when he went through a technical experience, but seeming to have loved what is good from his earliest years." It was exceedingly unfortunate for Dr. Bushnell, not only that he thus gave statement to a palpable error; but that he should have supposed it necessary for him to attack as an error a sentiment which nobody believes. The questions occurred to our own minds, on reading Dr. Bushnell's statement of it as a common assumption, "that the child is to grow up in sin, to be converted after he comes to mature age;" Who has ever taught such a sentiment as this? Who, in the whole circle of Orthodox ministers or of private Christians in our country, believes, or ever has believed in it? We have been for some twenty years accustomed to observe opinions in New England, particularly, on the subject of religious education; opinions both true and false; and we never met with this notion, till it was stated by Dr. Bushnell as "commonly assumed." A man of straw can be formed, and set up to shoot at, easily, and at any time. A false and dangerous sentiment can be imagined or invented; or a true one caricatured, so that
it shall be essentially false; and then in the way of odium, such sentiment can be imputed to the great mass of Christians. But is such treatment just, kind, and honest?
Dr. Bushnell had brought forward thirteen arguments for his position; and had complained that none of them had been answered. Dr. Tyler, therefore, patiently goes to the task, states them in their author's own terms, and answers them effectually in detail. We had drawn up a condensed abstract of the whole of this part of the Letters. But we find that Dr. Tyler's refutation is itself so condensed, that no just opinion can be formed of it in fewer words than he has employed in this part of his undertaking. We can only offer a few remarks upon the discussion.
Having shown the utter irrelevancy of Dr. Bushnell's first three arguments, Dr. Tyler comes to the fourth, which is presented in the shape of this inquiry; "Assuming the corruption of human nature, when should we think it wisest to undertake, or expect a remedy? When evil is young and pliant to good, or when confirmed by years of sinful habit?" The pliancy of evil to good is a new idea to our theological vision. Dr. Bushnell must have been favored with a knowledge of some very rare specimens of human character, to have seen any evil, however young, so ductile and accommodating in denying its own nature. This argument is overset by Dr. Tyler, by an appeal to plain facts; and by showing that the wisest time for the change of character to be attempted, is for the Divine decision, not for ours; and that with all the susceptibility of young minds to religious impressions, it is the special agency of the Holy Spirit alone which can renew the youngest heart.
Dr. Bushnell's seventh argument is apparently his favorite. We give it in his own terms.
"If we narrowly examine the relation of parent and child, we shall discover something like a law of organic connexion, as regards character, subsisting between them. such a connection as makes it easy to believe, and natural to expect that the faith of the one will be propagated in the other. Perhaps I should rather say, such a connection, as induces the conviction, that the character of one is actually included in that of the other, as a seed is found in the capsule, and being there matured by nutriment derived from the stem, is gradually separated from it."
This is very pretty botany; but it is a burlesque on philosophy, and an outrage on theology. But let us hear Dr. Tyler's reply.
"In regard to this, I would say, it is mere assertion. That there is such a connection between the parent and his child as is here supposed, is an assumption without a particle of proof. And not only so, it is contradicted by experience and observation. You can scarcely find a child of pious parents, who has arrived to years of understanding, who does not know that his character was not included in that of his parents,- that he was not a believer from the beginning. The same is evident from observation. The great mass of the children of pious parents give no more evidence of piety in their early years, than the children of other parents. They exhibit the same aversion to religion, and the same sinful propensities that are exhibited by others of their age. They may act under more restraint, and be more regular in their outward conduct; but in many ways which are perfectly intelligible, they manifest the bent of their hearts. How, then, could you say, "If we narrowly examine the relation of parent and child, we shall not fail to discover something like a law of organic connection," &c. We certainly have failed to discover it. It is not a discovery. It is a mere hypothesis, as destitute of proof, as the theory that meteors are fire-balls shot from the moon. Your argument, therefore, rests on an assumed fact, in favor of which there is no proof, but against which there is conclusive proof."
Additional to this, the author presses Dr. Bushnell very hard with the facts, that Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, Eli, Samuel, and David, all good men, had wicked sons. He might have added also, the inevitable consequence of Dr. Bushnell's argument, that the child of wicked parents must of necessity be as ungodly as they are.
The remaining arguments of Dr. Bushnell, as presented in the Second Discourse, are professedly derived from the Scriptures. In examining each of these arguments, we have been constrained to inquire, "What system of interpreting Scripture has Dr. Bushnell adopted? And where has he studied logic? For both his logic and his interpretation, as exhibited in the construction of these professedly Scriptural arguments, are altogether after a fashion of his own.
But we are detaining our readers too long upon this Letter. Suffice it to say, that the dozen or thirteen arguments, the answers of which Dr. Bushnell complainingly asked for, are answered, to complete annihilation.
The solicitude of Dr. Bushnell to strengthen his positions on the subject of Christian nurture, by the authority of great and good names, has led him, in his "Argument" for his Discourses, addressed to the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, to make quite an imposing exhibition of testimony, as he called it, from some of the most prominent New England divines
of past times. Hopkins, West, Dwight, and others, were brought forward, in plentiful quotations, as substantially sustaining his views. Of course, it became a matter of some consequence, in the farther discussion of the subject by our author, that he should examine these Fathers of New England for himself, and see with his own eyes, what countenance was derivable from them for such a theory of Christian nurture. As the result of his inquiries, given in his third Letter, Dr. Tyler shows to Dr. Bushnell, that there is a very wide difference between his theory, and the views of both Dr. Hopkins and Dr. West; and wider still between him and Dr. Dwight; and he leaves him utterly alone as to any such good company and countenance. Unluckily for Dr. Bushnell, he had said, that the view of Christian education maintained in his discourses was "certainly different from that which is commonly held by our churches;" and he should have remembered that he had made this declaration, before he ventured upon an effort to show that men whose writings our churches revere next to the Bible, sustained his views.
Dr. Tyler occupies the rest of this Letter with an investigation of the Abrahamic Covenant; and its bearings on the subject in dispute.
In putting forth his theory of Christian Nurture, and in the discussion of several related subjects, in his second book, Dr. Bushnell unavoidably indicated his peculiar views relative to some important doctrines of the Scriptures. An examination of these, therefore, was both rational and proper, in the series of Letters before us. The result at which Dr. Tyler arrives, in this part of his investigations, embraces the facts, that Dr. Bushnell virtually denies the doctrine of total depravity, and also that of regeneration by the special agency of the Holy Spirit. In place of the first of these doctrines, he holds to a physical depravity, or as he otherwise terms it, "pravity," which implies no moral defilement. In place of the second, viz., regeneration, he holds to a divine influence which pervades the universe and operates only through the laws of nature. Such a system of belief is any thing but scriptural and safe. It might be expected that he who rejects such truths, and adopts in their place such sentiments, when he comes to discuss such a subject as that of Christian Nurture, would run into the absurdity of supposing that piety is "transmitted from parent to child as naturally, and