Reflections on “Without God, Without Creed”

by W. Jackson Watts


I recently read James Turner’s significant 1985 work, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America [1]. It’s rare to find such a thoughtful work which combines social and intellectual history and extensive theological discussion. Moreover, it is refreshing to find a book which provides significant explanatory power for our present religious environment in America, even if the occasional detail is debatable.

The book is decidedly descriptive in nature, setting forth an account of how disbelief in God became plausible in late 19th-century America. This particular argument requires Turner to offer extensive commentary on religious and social developments at different epochs in American history. These developments cumulatively paved the way for agnosticism and atheism to be viable options. Since these trends have unavoidably contributed to our contemporary spiritual environment so significantly, in this post I intend to offer a few reflections on these and their bearing on the church today.

Christianity: Doctrine or Morals?

Turner describes evangelicalism, especially in the early-mid 1800s, as having taken a decided turn toward thinking of the Christian religion as being a code of morality rather than a confession of truth claims. While typically the latter wasn’t denied, it was minimized, especially as orthodox Christianity gradually lost mainstream intellectual influence. He develops this claim by pointing to historical incidents as well as direct citations from a number of writers in the past—orthodox Christians as well as those of a heterodox sort. Indeed, it will offend the sensibilities of many to read quotes from pastors such as Jonathan Mayhew in the mid-1700s, who described Christianity as “principally an institution of life and manners, designed to teach us how to be good men, and to show us the necessity of  becoming so” [2] [emphasis mine]. Many other examples abound.

There were more facets to this shift from doctrinal or truth claims to “Christianity as a superior brand of morality.” For our purposes, it should (1) provoke us to consider how our approach to faith embodies and explains the way that truth and morality relate, and (2) consider whether our engagement with the world forces us to erode or deemphasize either of the two. Let’s consider the first of these.

I think Leroy Forlines said it well in his valuable pamphlet Morals & Orthodoxy. He raised the question, “ “If orthodox thought is necessary for sound morality, the question might be asked if a sound morality is essential for orthodoxy?” [3] Forlines poroceeds to answer in the affirmative, stating, “Orthodoxy and morality [orthopraxy] are inseparably bound together. Each needs the other. Anemic morality cannot continually support orthodox theology and orthodox Cheristian experiences” [4].

Much more could be said about the relationship between doctrine and practice, or theology and morality (or ethics). Readers may see my 2012 Theological Symposium paper for some further insight and secondary sources to consider on this topic.

Christianity: World-Affirming or World-Denying?

The way Christian communities understand the fundamental essence of their faith informs how they engage the world in word and deed. Seeing Christianity as a set of metaphysical claims about God’s existence and personal salvation, or envisioning it as principally about the reform of society and its citizens, will inevitably shape how the church postures itself in the world. Christians in the past and even today can be found on various ends of the spectrum in their approach to ministry.

Yet Turner notes that the nineteenth century witnessed a wide-scale rise of moral reform organizations, including societies for temperance, sabbatarianism, antislavery, anti-dueling, and more [5]. Ironically, Turner’s narrative of early American religion also includes significance evidence of how many orthodox Christians enthusiastically embraced scientific advancement and discovery prior to and during this same period. Some even embraced such changes with the mindset that these advances were the means by which God was establishing His kingdom in the world. Not surprisingly, many theologians were postmillennialists in this era.

These trends force us to ask some significant questions about how Christianity relates to the world. “World” is indeed one of those tricky words which, like most words, has a range of meaning. Theologically speaking, it can refer to God’s good creation, the nations of the earth, or fallen humanity and the brokenness of the present order. Context is everything in making the determination of what “world” means in a given passage.

However, there is a larger, practical concern beyond word studies. Is Christianity world-affirming or world-denying? When we consider any number of passages[6], we could find different answers to this question:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

 (Psalm 19:1)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

 (John 3:16)

 “Do not love the world, or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

 (1 John 2:15)

 And Jesus, looking at [the rich young man], loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

(Mark 10:21-22)

Such passages create tension in our minds as they  suggest an array of potential understandings of the world and the things therein. Certainly context, specific word studies, and reading with the overarching grain of Scripture help us ascertain the meaning of the word in each passage. These are the very things we must do to preach a sermon or teach a lesson. However, they are also essential for forming an ethic of vocation and leisure, a Christian vision of politics, and an overall understanding of culture.

Forging an understanding of this diverse range of subjects is dependent on a biblical worldview, but doctrines such as general revelation, common grace, sin, and eschatology are especially critical also. Otherwise the church will affirm what it must deny or deny what it should affirm. The wrong type of entanglement or withdrawal both yield the same result: unfaithful compromise. The church cannot build a fruitful ministry around uncritical affirmations nor hasty negations. It needs biblically-informed wisdom to avoid both.

I’m not suggesting that the church has an simple task in avoiding different versions of the errors committed by Christians in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. One could argue that we’re still sorting through the ruins of twentieth-century errors as I write. However, Turner’s work is an in-depth treatment of some important issues that helps us evaluate misunderstandings that we likely will be tempted to repeat. Perhaps the way of escape from some temptations can often be found by looking at where we failed in the past.


[1] James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

[2] Turner, 67 (citing Mayhew).

[3] F. Leroy Forlines, Morals and Orthodoxy (Nashville: FWB Commission on Theological Liberalism, 1974), 5.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Turner, 125.

[6] All Scripture citations come from the English Standard Version.

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