How Archibald Alexander's
Thoughts On Experiential Religion
(or the Chimera of Psychology)
Relates to the
Heresy of Decisional Regeneration
First, an explanation of the word "chimera".
The Chimera was a mythical creature with different heads that travelers in the wilderness feared. Long after the Chimeras of antiquity were forgotten, chimerical figures appear as embodiments of the deceptive, even satanic forces of raw nature. For example, Dante's vision of the Geryon his Inferno represented hypocrisy and fraud for ministers schooled in the classics.
For that reason, theologians could refer to any non-Biblical solution to the problems of man as a chimera. Instead of trusting the Bible explanation for the sin of man and how man can stop sinning, the Chimera offers a tantalizing pot at the end of the proverbial psychological rainbow.
After 300 years of theologians persuing the pot at the end of the Chimera of psychology rainbow, man is worse off than ever. Ministers in virtually every denomination (including Pentecostal ministers) have abandoned nouthetic couselling for psychological counselling with the assistence of drugs. 50 years ago. ministers were known for getting addicts off of drugs. Today, ministers are more likely to put sinners on mood-altering drugs. Satan has used psychology as the number one explanation for the condition of man, while God has never changed His view.
Psychology, since the Enlightenment, was the Chimera of liberal ministers who wanted to do away with supernatural explanations of regeneration, the sinner-to-saint change of nature and the necessity of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Archibald Alexander's Thoughts On Experiential Religion replaces the Biblical view of salvation being an immediate act of a sovereign God with a psychological view of the metaphysical moral persuasion of the Word of God.
Alexander starts off talking about religious knowledge as the important thing, but the evidence that the knowledge has been impressed upon the heart is inward experience. So regeneration must be an experience of truth impression from scripture (religious knowledge).
FALSE PREMISE #1 THAT KNOWLEDGE OF SCRIPTURE, WHEN IMPRESSED ON THE MIND CORRECTLY, IS AS IMMUTABLE AS SCRIPTURE
To the simple-minded, this seems to relieve God of the responsibilty of supernatural regeneration (change of character). But this is an illusion. Alexander took an analogy which is static, and applied it to the human mind, which is changing. Alexander did the same thing Finney did with his separation of Moral Law from Physical Law, taking a philosophical abstraction, and saying it applies to reality, as illogical as saying thoughts are separate from thinking.
The immutability of a "truth impression" is saying that the soul, once illuminated, is forever changed, something emphatically stated by John Witherspoon. Regeneration became nothing more than a soul that had been morally persuaded. This, of course, is like saying that blind men can see if given enough light, something contrary to Calvin's view that sinners are completely blind until God supernaturally gave them sight.
The immutability of a supernaturally changed (regenerated) nature taught by previous generations of Calvinists was transfered to the immutability of a morally persuaded rational mind. This was the rational basis of Finney's ideas of regeneration being a change of will. Finney did not get his ideas of moral persuasion being regeneration from the Hopkinisans or Bellamites, he got it from Scottish Common Sense Realism taught by George Washington Gale.
The knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and the impression which that truth makes on the human mind when rightly apprehended. The first may be compared to the inscription or image on a seal; the other to the impression made by the seal on the wax… If, indeed, the impression of the truth were perfect, there would exist little or no difficulty;
FALSE PREMISE #2 THAT FEELINGS ARE LESS USEFUL IN DETERMINING THE CONDITION OF THE HEART THAN KNOWLEDGE OF SCRIPTURE
Many ardent professors,seem too readily to take it for granted, that all religious feelings must be good. They therefore take no care to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious, the pure gold, and the tinsel. Their only concern is about the ardor of their feelings; not considering, that if they are spurious, the more intense they are, the further will they lead them astray. In our day, there is nothing more necessary than to distinguish carefully between true and false experiences, in religion.
FALSE PREMISE #3 THAT GENUINE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE IS NOTHING BUT ACCURATE KNOWLEDGE OF SCRIPTURE ON A HEART ENERGIZED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
If genuine religious experience is nothing but the impression of divine truth on the mind, by the energy of the Holy Spirit, then it is evident that a knowledge of the truth is essential to genuine piety
FALSE PREMISE #4 THAT THE MORE ACCURATE KNOWLEDGE OF SCRIPTURE IMPRESSED ON THE MIND, THE MORE EVIDENCE THERE IS OF SALVATION
where a true impression is made, it may be rendered very defective, for want of a complete knowledge of the whole system of revealed truth; or its beauty marred by the existence of some errors mingled with the truth, which may be well illustrated by returning again to the seal… There is reason to believe, therefore, that all ignorance of revealed truth, or error respecting it, must be attended with a corresponding defect in the religious exercises of the person.
FALSE PREMISE #5 THAT ANY SAVING CHANGES IN THE HEART ARE MADE BY TRUTH IMPRESSIONS
There may be much correct theoretical knowledge, I admit, where there is no impression corresponding with it on the heart; but still, all good impressions on the heart are from the truth, and from the truth alone.
THE OLD SIDE SAID LAW WORKS WERE NOT NECESSARY – THE NEW SIDE SAID LAW WORKS ORDINARELY PRECEED REGENERATION – THE FOLLOWING IS AN ACCURATE EXPLANATION OF LAW WORKS THAT ORDINARELY PRECEED REGENERATION
For those reader unacquainted with law works, Alexander gives an accurate explanation when he says, “God deals with man as an accountable, moral agent, and before he rescues him from the ruin into which he is sunk, he would let him see and feel, in some measure, how wretched his condition is; how helpless he is in himself, and how ineffectual are his most strenuous efforts to deliver him from his sin and misery. He is, therefore, permitted to try his own wisdom and
Strength; and finally, to lead him to the full acknowledgment of his own guilt, and to justify the righteous Judge who condemns him to everlasting torment.
Conviction, then, is no part of a sinner's salvation, but the clear practical knowledge of the fact that he cannot save himself, and is entirely dependant
on the saving grace of God."
That conviction of sin is a necessary part of experimental religion, all will admit; but there is one question respecting this matter, concerning which there may be much doubt; and that is, whether a law-work prior to regeneration, is necessary; or, whether all true and salutary conviction is not the effect of regeneration. I find that a hundred years ago, this was a matter in dispute between the two parties, into which the Presbyterian church was divided, called the old and new side.
The Tennents and Blairs insisted much on the necessity of conviction of sin, by the law, prior to regeneration; while Thompson and his associates were of opinion, that no such work was necessary, nor should be insisted on. As far as I know, the opinion of the necessity of legal conviction has generally prevailed in all our modern revivals: and it is usually taken for granted, that the convictions experienced are prior to regeneration. But it would be very difficult to prove from Scripture, or from the nature of the case, that such a preparatory work was necessary.
What follows is Alexander’s view that Law Works are part of the normal process of salvation (though not necessary). He clearly states he DOES NOT believe Law Works to be necessary before regeneration, and that perhaps some Law Works are really the beginnings of regeneration - you will see he DOES believe feelings are NORMAL in law works – notice the red words – contrast this with his attitude toward feelings after regeneration in the next chapter.
When the entrance of light is gradual, the first effect of an awakened conscience is, to attempt to rectify what now appears to have been wrong in the conduct. It is very common for the conscience, at first, to be affected with outward acts of transgression, and especially with some one prominent offence. An external reformation is now begun: for this can be effected by mere legal conviction. To this is added an attention to the external duties of religion, such as prayer, reading the Bible, hearing the word, etc..
Everything, however, is done with a legal spirit; that is, with the wish and expectation of making amends for past offences; and if painful penances should be prescribed to the sinner, lie will readily submit to them if he may, by this means, make some atonement for his sins. But as the light increases, he begins to see that the heart is wicked; and to be convinced that his very prayers are polluted for want of right motives and affections. He, of course, tries to regulate his thoughts, and to exercise right affections; but here his efforts prove fruitless.
It is much easier
to reform the life than to bring the corrupt heart into
a right state. The case now begins to appear desperate,
and the sinner knows not which way to turn for
relief, and, to cap the climax of his distress, he
comes at length to be conscious of nothing but unyielding
hardness of heart. He fears that the conviction
which he seemed to have, is gone, and that he is left to total obduracy.
In these circumstances he desires to feel keen compunction, and overwhelming terror, for his impression is, that he is entirely without conviction. The truth, however, is, that his convictions are far greater, than if he experienced that sensible distress which he so much courts.
In this case, he would not think his heart so incurably bad, because it could entertain some right feeling, but as it is, he sees it to be destitute of every good emotion, and of all tender relentings.
He has got down to the core of iniquity, and finds within his breast a heart unsusceptible of any good thing. Does he hear that others have obtained relief by hearing such a preacher, reading such a book, conversing with some experienced Christian? he resorts to the same means, but entirely without effect.
The heart seems to become more insensible, in proportion to the excellence of the means enjoyed. Though he declares he has no sensibility of any kind, yet his anxiety increases; and perhaps he determines to give himself up solely to prayer and reading the Bible; and if he perish, to perish seeking for mercy. But however strong such resolutions may be, they are found to be in vain ; for now, when he attempts to pray, he finds his mouth as it were shut.
He cannot pray. He cannot read. He cannot meditate. What can he do? Nothing. He has come to the end of his legal efforts; and the result has been, the simple, deep conviction that he can do nothing; and if God does not mercifully interpose, he must inevitably perish. During all this process he has some idea of the need of divine help; but until now, he was not entirely cut off from all dependence on his own strength and exertions. He still hoped that, by some kind of effort or feeling, he could prepare himself for the mercy of God. Now he despairs of this; and not only so, but for a season he despairs, it may be, of salvation—gives himself up for lost. I do not say, that this is a necessary feeling, by any means, but know that it is very natural, and by no means uncommon, in real experience.
But conviction having accomplished all that it is capable of effecting, that is, having emptied the creature of self-dependence and self-righteousness, and brought him to the utmost extremity - even to the borders of despair, it is time for God to work.
The proverb says, " Man's extremity is God's opportunity:" so it is in this case; and at this time, it may reasonably be supposed, the work of regeneration is wrought; for a new state of feeling is now experienced.
It is important to point out that Alexander at this point is not referring to new feelings of fear, peace and joy like those experienced in Law Works. He is saying the regenerate experiences a new TASTE that changes all feelings toward God. For example, feelings of fear of God are changed to reverence of God; feelings of fear of the judgments of God are changed to accepting the judgments of God as just. The Hopkinsians called this “new feeling” “disinterested benevolence”, what we would call today “agape love”, the love only a regenerate heart can have.
Upon calm reflection, God appears to have been just and good in all his dispensations; the blame of its perdition the soul fully takes upon itself; acknowledges its ill-desert, and acquits God. "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest."
The sinner resigns himself into the hands of God; and yet is convinced that if he does perish he will suffer only what his sins deserve. He does not fully discover the glorious plan according to which God can be just and the justifier of the ungodly who believe in Jesus Christ.
The above is not given as a course of experience
which all real Christians can recognize as their own,
but as a train of exercises which is very common.
And so I do not consider legal conviction as necessary to precede regeneration, but suppose there are cases in which the first serious impressions may be the effect
of regeneration, I cannot, of course, consider any particular train of exercises under the law as essential.
It has been admitted, however, that legal conviction does in fact lake place in most instances, prior to regeneration; and it is not an unreasonable inquiry, why is the sinner thus awakened? What good purpose does it answer?
The reply has been already partially given; but it may be remarked, that God deals with man as an accountable, moral agent, and before he rescues him from the ruin into which he is sunk, he would let him see and feel, in some measure, how wretched his condition is; how helpless he is in himself, and how ineffectual are his most strenuous efforts to deliver him from his sin and misery. He is, therefore, permitted to try his own wisdom and Strength; and finally, to lead him to the full acknowledgment of his own guilt, and to justify the righteous Judge who condemns him to everlasting torment. Conviction, then, is no part of a sinner's salvation, but the clear practical knowledge of the fact that he cannot save himself, and is entirely dependant on the saving grace of God.
False premise #6: There are no “black and white” Evidences of Regeneration, because the “degree of vigor” of salvation is not evidence of supernatural impartation, but rather, natural psychology. Alexander is saying it is possible that all four soils in the parable of the seed were regenerate, but with different evidences because of the condition of the soil. This is a radical departure from orthodoxy, which says only the fourth soul is regenerate. The “graying” of regeneration was an evolutionary step toward the heresy of decisional regeneration. The best Biblical evidences of regeneration had always been power over sin and the witness of the Holy Spirit, but these take a lifetime to verify. The immediate affects of regeneration are obvious in most people, but deceptive hearts wanting earnestly to be saved, worked up by an enthusiastic preacher, would sometimes experience counterfeit “religious affections” that looked like “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost”.
The Old Lights wanted any examination of the heart to be between pastor and parishioner in the security and sanity of the local church. The New Lights said this was just an excuse to allowing dead parishioners to continue in sin. This inevitably caused a split between the Old lights who told seekers to wait on God for regeneration while using the “means of grace” and the New Lights who said “today is the day of salvation”.Counterfeit “religious affections” were an embarrassment to the New Lights in the First Great Awakening, and there was a split among the American New Lights over how best to deal with them. The ministers that adopted the theology of Samuel Hopkins moved away from “religious affections” and looked for “disinterested benevolence” as the immediate evidence of regeneration. I wasn’t that they thought “religious affections” were useless, but rather they thought “religious affections” were not as accurate a gauge of the condition of the heart as “disinterested benevolence”.
The ministers that adopted the theology of Joseph Bellamy did not abandon “religious affections”, because their primary interest was never immediate evidence of regeneration. The Bellamites also continued to use the “means of grace” and Law Works. In this respect the Bellamites were more like the Scottish Common Sense Realists. But the similarity ended there. Both the Hopkinisians and the Bellamites were not like the Common Sense Realists in the most important way – they both believed the Holy Spirit changed the heart supernaturally in regeneration, and was not limited to metaphysical moral persuasion of the Word of God.
Both the Bellamites and Hopkinians believed in the “new taste” evidence of regeneration espoused by Jonathan Edwards.
As long as “disinterested benevolence” was tied to the “New Taste” reversal of feelings toward God, sincerity meant a heart changed by regeneration (BEST system). But by the end of the nineteenth century, ungifted and lazy ministers in the inquiry room would equate belief in scripture with a change of heart (BIST system), and as such, sincerity of believing salvation scriptures was seen as evidence of “saving faith” with de facto regeneration.
It is the intent of this commentary to show how the Scottish Common Sense Realism taught by Alexander and others at Princeton Theological Seminary changed the BEST system to the BIST system in the inquiry room. By the end of the nineteenth century, the metaphysical moral persuasion of the Word of God would be seen as causing saving faith with de facto regeneration.
I know, indeed, that there are some who entertain
the opinion, that the new creature as it comes from
the hand of God — if I may so speak — is in all respects
identical or of equal value. But this is not the fact. There is as much difference in the original vigor of spiritual as of natural life.
In the new birth,
some are brought at once into the clear light of day.
They came "out of darkness into the marvellous light"
of the gospel. '' Old things are" consequently " passed away, and all things are become new." The change
is most obvious and remarkable. They are as if introduced
into a new^ world. The Sun of righteousness
has risen upon them, without an intervening
cloud. Their perception of divine things is so new
and so clear, that they feel persuaded that they can
convince others, and cause them to see and feel as they do. Indeed, they wonder why they did not always see things in this light, and they do not know why others do not see them as they do. Such persons can no more doubt of their conversion than of their existence….
While, on the other hand, some persons of an unblemished moral character, and who, from the influence of a religious education, have always respected religion, and venerated its ordinances, when brought under conviction, are more terribly alarmed and more overwhelmed with distress, than others whose lives have been stained by gross crimes.
…I think that those persons, who have been most conversant with exercised souls will
say that there is no general rule here—that very pungent
convictions and deep distress are found as frequently
in those who have been preserved from outbreaking
transgressions, as in those noted for their
immoralities. There seems, indeed, more reason for
severe convictions in the latter case; but convictions
are not uniformly proportioned to the magnitude of
crimes. And in truth, we are incapable of comparing
together the heinousness of the sins of different persons.
The moral man, as we call him, may be the
greater sinner of the two, when weighed in the
balances of the sanctuary.
…But this leads me to remark a fact analogous to what is common in the natural world; that the infant which, when born, barely gives evidence of life, may not only grow to maturity, but in size and strength may far exceed those who commenced life with more activity and vigor; and so in the spiritual life, when the incipient motions and affections are very feeble, the person may eventually become a mature and eminent Christian,
The reader can see how this attitude would lead to a “don’t ask don’t tell” view of salvation, where the minister in the inquiry room would see no way of determining the heart condition, but could only inquire as to whether or not the seeker believed certain scriptures. This is the rational for abandoning the BEST system and using the BIST system. Alexander then uses Jonathan Edwards as an example and mentions his method of determining regeneration.
His work on the Affections is too abstract and tedious for common readers; but is an excellent work, although I think his twelve marks might with great advantage be reduced to half the number, on his own plan.
…What degree of knowledge is absolutely necessary to the existence of piety (regeneration) cannot be accurately determined by man, but we know that genuine faith may consist with much ignorance and error.
FALSE PREMISE #7: The more Biblical knowledge a saint has, the more “spiritual” he is. According to the Bible, spirituality is a black and white proposition. You either are regenerated or not. Like False premise #6, this notion helped promote the error that regeneration is a matter of moral persuasion. While the difference between milk drinkers and meat eaters is obvious (Hebrews 5:12-14), the idea that supernatural regeneration requires Biblical knowledge leads to a view of regeneration as moral persuasion. Supernatural regeneration instantly changes the spiritual nature of the saint, which causes the saint to seek Biblical knowledge. False premise #7 says that Biblical knowledge causes the saint to be a more spiritual saint, leading to the false idea that the more knowledge a saint has, the more “spiritual” they are. The fullest expression of this error was promoted by Horace Bushnell, who taught that the child raised in a Christian home, might always see himself as a Christian, and not remember a definite moment in time when he was regenerated from sinner to saint. This metaphysical "moral persuasion" view of regeneration was instrumental in the evolving view of the usefulness of Sunday school evangelism.
All good conduct must proceed from good principles; but good principles cannot exist without a knowledge of the truth. "Truth is in order to holiness;" and between truth and holiness there is an indissoluble connection. It would be as reasonable to expect a child born into an atmosphere corrupted with pestilential vapor, to grow and be healthy as that spiritual life should flourish without the nutriment of the pure milk of the word, and without breathing in the wholesome atmosphere of truth. The new man often remains in a dwarfish state, because he is fed upon husks; or, he grows into a distorted shape by means of the errors which are inculcated upon him. It is of unspeakable importance that the young disciple have sound, instructive, and practical preaching to attend on. It is also of consequence that the religious people, with whom he converses, should be discreet, evangelical, and intelligent Christians; and that the books put into his hands should be of the right kind.
False Premise #8: Since it is impossible to determine the true state of a person’s heart, it is better not to examine seekers.
Doubting, it is to be feared, is too much encouraged; and serious Christians are perplexed with needless scruples originating in the multiplication of the marks of conversion, which sometimes are difficult of application, and, in other cases, are not Scriptural, but arbitrary, set up by the preacher who values himself upon his skill in detecting the close hypocrite, whereas he wounds the weak believer, in ten cases, where he awakens the hypocrite in one…
False Premise #9: having seekers use the “means of grace” is useless.
In some places, anxious inquirers are told that if they will hold on praying and using the means, that God is bound to save them; as though a dead, condemned sinner could so pray as to bring God under obligation to him, or could secure the blessings of the covenant of grace, by his selfish, legal striving. These instructions accord very much with the self righteous spirit which is naturally in us all; and one of two things may be expected to ensue, either that the anxious inquirer will conclude that he has worked out his salvation, and cry peace; or that he should sink into discouragement and charge God foolishly, because he does not hear his prayers, and grant him his desires.
False Premise #10: having seekers do nothing is useless.
There is another extreme, but not so common among us. It is, to tell the unconverted, however anxious, not to pray at all—that their prayers are an abomination to God, and can answer no good purpose, until they are able to pray in faith… But this extreme is not so dangerous as the former, which encourages sinners to think that they can do something to recommend themselves to God, by their unbelieving prayers.
The Chimera of Psychology
Starting on page 48, Alexander delves into the chimera of psychology that characterizes Scottish Common Sense Realism taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. He will use the four psychological states (Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Sanguine and Choleric) to explain how it is impossible to tell who is regenerate, but that the “animal motives” involved in “religious affections” are useless and the “rational motives” involved in “truth impressions” of Scripture are more useful.
When Princeton was called the College of New Jersey before the American Revolution, John Witherspoon spoke glowingly to his students of how one day psychology would solve the questions of why man is a sinner and what causes the sinner to stop sinning.