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Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe

The American Schleiermacher

What should we make of Horace Bushnell?

What should we make of Horace Bushnell, that pivotal figure in 19th-century American religion? Brave pathfinder of fresh and relevant ways to express evangelical truth in a rapidly changing modern world? Misguided romantic whose subjectivism squeezed out biblical-theological authority and hence the gospel itself? Does he model for postmoderns creative faithfulness—or apostasy? Or is the quest to decode his (or any historical figure's) "message" for the 21st-century church itself an unfruitful, old-fashioned enterprise?

Bruce Mullin's deeply researched and well-written study of Horace Bushnell, published in Eerdmans' Library of Religious Biography series during the bicentennial of his birth, is a different sort of book than would have appeared in previous generations. Bushnell himself, one of the last great New England pastor-theologians, felt misunderstood by contemporaries and believed that only future generations would be able to appropriate his religious ideas. Most interpreters, accordingly, have presented him straightforwardly as a pioneer. Admirers have found it easy to describe what Bushnell meant for their own day. Mullin resists this temptation, aiming rather to understand Bushnell on his own terms and in his own time. If this seems a humbler approach, it is one that results in a more sophisticated piece of scholarship than that typically produced in the days of Protestant optimism.

When progressive Protestants observed the centennial of Horace Bushnell's birth in 1902 (26 years after his death), they could claim him confidently as the father of theological liberalism in America. If religious movements need a symbolic Luther or Wesley, then the pastor-theologian of Hartford, while no founder in the institutional sense, would do well enough. Washington Gladden, Theodore Munger, and similar-minded liberals looked to him as their inspiration and resonated with his call for "the softer standards of feeling and the broader compass of a more Catholic and genial spirit" ...

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