We all have our spiritual forerunners; like strands of thought unfolding from one generation to the next, ongoing conversations of spiritual succession, some theologians are talking to me and others to you. During the antebellum period in the United States (1781 – 1860) a sharp divide emerged between the intellectual classes and the general populous. The Second Great Awakening saw a backlash against more rationalistic forms of Christianity and a sharp rise amongst Baptists and Methodists occurred. However, amongst the New England, Harvard intellectual elite, Unitarianism was carrying the day; the key exponent of which was the eminent Dr. William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842).
Prominent in my spiritual ancestry sits Channing and his pragmatic spirituality, his disdain for Calvinism, and the centrality philanthropy and practical Christianity within his theology. While studying at the London School of Theology I discovered Channing, and I identified with him because he seemed to be wrestling with issues which I was then wrapped up in. How are we to understand the authority of the Bible, and how are we to extrapolate from it our doctrine and theology? Channing sat upon a spiritual fault-line in history; he was the last prominent Unitarian to hold to a high view of scripture, and inspired amongst his admirers the Transcendental movement, amongst whom was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882). This movement saw a departure from Biblicism and focused upon the intrinsic goodness of people and nature.
Channing then has a parabolic significance for me when it comes to the infallibility of scripture. Despite his earnest cry… “To all who hear me, I would say, with the Apostle, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves, through fear of human censure and denunciation. Do not think, that you may innocently follow the opinions which prevail around you, without investigation, on the ground, that Christianity is now so purified from errors, as to need no laborious research. There is much reason to believe, that Christianity is at this moment dishonoured by gross and cherished corruptions.”
I would agree with Channing that we are ‘dishonoured by gross and cherished corruptions’, but unlike Channing I would desist from simply trying to find that ultimate meta-narrative to put us right once and for all.