History of an American Interpretation

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A couple of weeks ago we took a look at a much beloved passage in American Evangelicalism, 2 Chronicles 7:14. This is the one where the Lord tells Solomon, “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” The question I explored was, Who does the My people in this passage refer to today? Answer: the Church.

Now in this post I want to take a look at some of the historical underpinnings of how the My people came to be understood as America in general instead of the Church in particular and then conclude with some clarifying remarks. But before I do that, I would highly recommend that you begin by reading my first article on this if you haven’t gotten a chance already.  There I dealt more directly with interpretive matters on the passage itself. You can find that article here.

Ok.

So… just how did we make this interpretive transition in 2 Chronicles 7:14? At what point did we decide that America fit the bill of the My people here? Well it began around the time of…

A Pre-Revolutionary America

In the 16-1700’s “America” was made up of thirteen colonies carved in to three major sections: the southern colonies, the middle colonies, and the New England colonies. For our purposes we’ll be spending our time in the last group which was made up of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

There are two paths of thought here which lead in the same direction. The first I discovered while reading George Marsden’s excellent book on the life of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, represented a political ideal passed down from his Puritan ancestors of the previous century. It was that the Church, as understood from the New Testament, now functioned as the new Israel. Thus, he easily made the jump to concluding that where one sees Israel in the pages of the Old Testament, they should now read it as the Church (or, new Israel). This, in my view, is a fair interpretation of biblical principles. But the problem is that this thinking gave way in Puritan thought to the hope of their being a national Church. What happens under this kind of system is that conversion begins to play second fiddle to the goal for people to abide by Christian principles in general. Conversion may or may not come later, but that is rather beside the point. The point is that since the colonies now functioned as the new Israel, the first and primary aim was to get people to abide by the Christian code of morality. Whether or not they understood the gospel which gave rise to this moral code was really immaterial. And unfortunately, I think this is what people mean today when they lament the fact that America is no longer a Christian nation. The disappointment isn’t so much in the fact that we see fewer conversions as it is in the current generation’s failure to live by Christian principles.

It’s also important for us to understand Stoddard’s motivation. According to Marsden, Stoddard realized that if whole towns or colonies could be considered territorial churches, then guess who would receive increased spiritual and political authority? The clergy. That is why Stoddard lowered the standards for membership in his church as well as for who could be allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper. If everyone in the town was “Christian”, at least culturally speaking, then pastors would have a larger degree of say-so not only in a town’s spiritual concerns, but political ones as well.

Edwards was faced with this tension of church as those regenerated by the Holy Spirit and church as those who prescribe to a Christian code of morality. His father, Timothy Edwards, was whole-heartedly devoted to the former, while his grandfather the latter. Marsden summarizes this ideological struggle well when he writes, “Puritanism and its Reformed-pietist successors constantly vacillated between whether they were building Christendom by making towns and eventually nations into virtually Christian societies, or whether they were advocating a pure, called-out church.” (Marsden: 350).

This political ideology meshed with other factors regarding the Colonists’ surroundings.

Cultural insensitivities and struggles over land claims led to rising tensions between Colonists and local native American populations. These tensions culminated in King Philip’s War in 1675. And what followed was an absolute bloodbath for both sides.

So, life in one of these colonies was not the picturesque scene of rolling hills and quiet farms accentuated by tones of tranquility and harmony. Instead, settlements looked more like military garrisons, as they lived under constant threat of Indian raids.

In response to these and other crises Puritan pastors  (who held to the political ideology we discussed above) would often interpret these events as judgments from God in response to the moral laxity among the common people. These sermons, which were only preached on certain occasions or during particular crises, have come to be called jeremiads by scholars.

The sermons had a very discernible flavor and structure to them. They would begin by pointing out the crisis (whatever that may be), then move to interpreting it in light of their own moral failure and God’s just judgment. Finally, they would conclude with a call to colony-wide repentance and fasting (a la 2 Chronicles 7:14). But do you see what happened there? The repentance didn’t necessarily require non-believing colonists to place their trust in Christ. It might include that, to be sure. But the point of the repentance was for them to return to Christian codes of conduct, regardless of whether they actually were one or not!

Here’s is where these two paths merge together. What we see early on in these colonies is a blurring of the lines between ordinary colonists and genuinely converted Christians. Everyone was expected to live according to Christian principles. This was the priority because otherwise they might be subject to God’s judgments just as Old Testament Israel had been. Second in importance, then, was the actual conversion of souls from enslavement to sin to liberation in Christ.

This wasn’t the view of everyone, but for whatever reason it is the ideology that has managed to stick around in the corners of our minds. And it is the view that has especially influenced our interpretations of verses like 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Now For Some Clarifying Remarks…

First, I believe in Christian principles. I think a biblical ethic has much to say to help our society flourish, even among those who may not adhere to its underlying doctrine. For example, I think that even for non-believers, a Christian sexual ethic can help them lead better, healthier lives. So I’m not advocating for us to abandon our effort to influence our nation’s morality, especially as it pertains to our views of marriage and family.

However, I believe we must clearly articulate what it is that ultimately gives life to these principles. What stands at the center of our morality is a bloodied and crucified Savior. Bloodied and crucified because we did not have the ability to keep His law. He suffered the wrath we deserve for being breakers of God’s Law. And so it is His gospel which ultimately causes us to live by the standards we do now. Brothers and sisters, we must take care to always present this central aspect of our faith to a non-believing world. Which now brings me to my third clarifying remark.

It is my conviction that the line between the Church and the world should remain clear for the sake of our corporate witness. Under Stoddard’s ideology, that line sometimes gets blurred and as a result our witness as the Church is compromised. What happens under this system is that the Church begins to lower its standards for membership and is filled with unregenerated people (that is, false converts). Consequently, unregenerate people will carry their agendas in to the church and its practices; agendas that are contrary to that of Christ’s. And so, for the sake of the gospel and evangelism let us keep a clear distinction between those who belong to God’s new covenant people, the Church, and those who are still separated from Christ.

Finally, and flowing out of the one above, let us resolve to place our primary emphasis on conversion. After all that is what the human heart needs more than anything!

 

 

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