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“Against the Enthusiasts”

Last month, Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Seminary (California) and host of the popular Reformed podcast, White Horse Innconceded defeat, so to speak, for Reformed Protestants to the Radical “enthusiasts.” Horton’s piece lamented how few American Christians are aligned with Reformed doctrine, and how many have been taken by Radical Anabaptist theology, “a utopian, revolutionary, quasi-Gnostic religion of the ‘inner light’” that—according to Horton—has come “to influence all branches of Christendom.” Anabaptists were a radical, quasi-Gnostic, apocalyptic-focused movement that gained notoriety during the sixteenth century under the leadership of Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Thomas Muntzer, mainly because they were persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics. Calvin and Luther both often expressed contempt for them, because they openly denied the necessity of Scripture and justification by grace through faith alone (sola fide). Being that they lived in a new apostolic era, the Anabaptists saw no need for Scripture, but rather looked to fresh revelation to guide their secession from mainstream society. Inside their separatist communities they chased utopian society as they pursued a transcendent (as in transcendent from matter) union with God and awaited the end. Needless to say, the proponents of sola scriptura had little patience for those who relied on an extra-biblical, special word within their inner self. This pseudo-Platonic, inner-light piety, which Horton sees as having “seeped like a fog into all of our traditions,” was dubbed “enthusiasm” by the Reformers.

“Meaning literally “God-within-ism,” this penchant for confusing ourselves with God was a perennial temptation, they lamented. In his Smalcald Articles (SA III. 4–15), Martin Luther argued that Adam was the first enthusiast. His point was that the craving to identify the word of God with our own inner voice, rather than heed external Scripture and preaching, is part and parcel of original sin.”1

Luther made his position known in no uncertain terms:

“Therefore, we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and the Sacraments.”2

Horton goes on to identify this enthusiast attitude in various Christian sects and figures, especially liberal Protestantism, pietistic movements, and proponents of the social gospel. “The enthusiast in all of us does not want to hear an external word, confirmed by external sacraments, submitting to the external discipline of a visible church,” He says. “We want to be autonomous, extending our domain from the little throne of our own free will, works, reason, and subjective experience.”

Horton ultimately suggests that “many of the principle features of our modern, secularized world are driven in part by this shift away from a God who speaks authoritatively, judging and saving us, outside of us in history, to the “god within”—meaning that our own inner voice is our sovereign ruler.”

“[I]f the idea of autonomy—the self as sovereign—is at the heart of modern secularism, then its genealogy can be easily traced back to the Renaissance magus and the Radical Protestants who were shaped by that concept of the inner self as a spark of the divine.”3

He closes by asking if what is being celebrated this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is the Reformed doctrine, a “faith centered on the Triune God and the gospel of his saving grace in Christ alone, received through faith alone, communicated through the word and the sacraments alone,” or “the autonomous self, individualism, free will, and inner experience and reason,” effectively the modus operandi of both radical enthusiasts of the sixteenth century and the secularists of today.

I am less pessimistic about the state of Reformed Protestantism today than Dr. Horton is, and see the recession of Christian affiliation in America as an opportunity for a more robust return to orthodoxy for many denominations (but I am the first to admit my youth and naiveté). However, I agree with his analysis. This led me to further reflection on how we think of the American religious experience, and where the radical enthusiasm of Dr. Horton’s thesis can be seen rearing its ugly head. I fear some of our expressions, or at least, the holes in our expressions, of religious liberty itself reflect the radical enthusiasts and the enlightenment philosophes.  

For conscience’s sake?

The debate surrounding religious liberty has been a perennial one since before our nation’s inception. And with the Masterpiece Cakeshop case looming large on the Supreme Court’s docket, and Trump’s recent executive orders regarding the Johnson Amendment and the ACA contraception mandate, 2017 has been no exception. Arguments on all sides of the issue are often framed around the respect for man’s conscience. James Madison said that, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”4 The “father of the Constitution”, who was himself heavily influenced by Calvinist theology under the tutelage of John Witherspoon while at Princeton, also said in A Memorial and Remonstrance:

“Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”

Even John Leland, the Baptist preacher and champion of religious liberty in Virginia, framed his argument most often in terms of respect for conscience:

“Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile to his conscience . . . . It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God.”5

John Witte, Jr. has written on the competing viewpoints in the religious liberty debate in the founding era. Because of competing political philosophies and subsequent formulations of religious liberty, much of the language became muddled. As with most political processes, compromise led to broad-stroke agreement, and some conflicting legislative history pertaining to what was actually meant by the language agreed upon. What a New England Puritan meant by the idea of religious liberty often differed greatly from what those of the Enlightenment, or even the Southern Evangelical persuasion meant.

“The  phrase ‘liberty of conscience’ was often conflated with the phrase ‘free exercise of religion,’ ‘religious freedom,’ ‘religious liberty,’ ‘religious privileges,’ or ‘religious rights.’ James Madison, for example, simply rolled into one linguistic heap ‘religious freedom’ or ‘the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”6

Thus, “[t]o read the guarantee of liberty of conscience too dogmatically is to ignore the fluidity of the term in the eighteenth century.”7

What has always been clear in American definitions of religious freedom is a protection of voluntarism, or the freedom of the conscience. Again, though such a protection is merited by the individual responsibility every man has before God, and protects citizens from discrimination and outside coercion, a singular focus on voluntarism principles can yield a hollow conception of human (religious) freedom, one that became more reliant on Enlightenment principles in the end, rather than the other explicitly Christian ones that also influenced the early development of religious freedom. Witte notes that the influence of voluntarism was a then-recent development, especially in New England. “Traditionally, Puritans and other Calvinists had emphasized the doctrines of predestination… which left less room for voluntary personal choice.”8 But the fifth generation of Puritan, preachers had undoubtedly been influenced by both the evangelicalism that emerged more strongly out of the Great Awakening, as well as Enlightenment ideas. Hence, they had become more comfortable with the concept.9

This premium placed on voluntarism for the sake of early unified protection of free exercise was further solidified and elevated through both the influence of secularism and the growth of American Evangelicalism. Both schools of thought, as mentioned above, have always focused on this justification for religious liberty in America, and have been generally successful at it.  

What I am advocating for here is not a repudiation of the Evangelical and Enlightenment principles ingrained in America’s religious liberty doctrines in toto. I am not one who sees everything that emerged out of the two movements as worthy of wholesale repudiation. Rather, I seek a reintegration of the Puritan (and even civic republican) attitude as well, which looks first to the sovereignty of God and the work of the Spirit before it looks to the responsibility of the individual, yet holding both in tandem as Scripture does.

There is no doubt that such arguments for conscience’s sake are well-established and effective. Yet, it is strange that Christians, especially Reformed Protestants, rarely argue for the “first freedom” from the standpoint of honor to God (though Leland nods toward it in the quote above) and the ordinary means of grace (preaching of the word, and the sacraments).10 through which the Holy Spirit works upon the hearts of men. Of these ordinary means, the preaching of the word was of first importance. Chapter one of the Second Helvetic Confession expresses this best:

“Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.”

Whilst the socio-political legacy of the Reformation might be the freedom of conscience for conscience’s sake and the (qualified) autonomy of the individual, this was not its theological legacy. Luther appealed to his conscientious convictions at the Diet of Worms (1521), but it was an appeal to a conscience captivated by the Holy Spirit by and with Scripture. Luther was championing the freedom of the individual only secondarily. Luther was arguing for the ordinary means of the operation of the Spirit to be the sole causes of conviction. He was decidedly not comfortable with radical enthusiasts who appealed to the authority of their own autonomous “consciences” (inner light).

It seems to me that the conscience argument, while logically valid and theologically true, is a man-centric argument when argued singularly; with its appeal resting on the free choice and dignity of human beings. Men are made in the image of God and therefore they deserve freedom, so the typical argument goes.

The Reformed understanding of the operation of the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of grace presents at least an additional and confessional argument for religious freedom, one that rests on veneration for God himself, and only secondarily (logically) for man’s inherent dignity and conscience. Though it should be noted that Reformed confessions often address liberty of conscience—it is not argued in a vacuum, but comes after the doctrines having to do with Scripture, the Trinity, and justification are covered. Arguing for freedom of conscience outside of this context risks suggesting radical enthusiast sympathies, where the autonomous self is the goal in and of itself, a demigod within.  

Inside a Reformed view of the ordinary means of grace (word and sacrament) as being the primary conduits, if you will, of operation for the Holy Spirit (see Luther’s quotation above), there is no room for man-made coercion. The only “coercion” comes from the Spirit himself through the word proclaimed. While we are commanded to contend for the faith ardently and to be prepared in our defense of the Gospel of Christ, this instruction is predominately about representing the truth of Scripture for its own sake; because it is right and honorable to do so. It is not our eloquence of argument or speech that compels men, only the Holy Spirit working with and by the proclamation of the Word that men are “coerced” into love of God. To consider “coercion” by any other means, whether systemic or otherwise, would be an affront to the ordinary means of grace handed down in the deposit of truth, and by extension, an affront to the Holy Spirit himself.

“[T]he transformation of the heart comes through the action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8), and thus cannot be legislated or forced; and. . .  efforts to confront spiritual matters with carnal, coercive means are both morally wrong and counter-productive (2 Corinthians 10:4; Ephesians 6:12).”11


Religious liberty is not so much a God-given “right” as it is a God-given “fact,” proven by the law’s demand on individuals to obey God’s moral statutes, and ultimately to respond to the Gospel. As Isaac Backus said in his 1773 pamphlet, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty

“Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”12

When our institutions and individual practices (e.g. the ordinary means of grace) reflect this fact, they represent a conscious submission of our lives to God’s truth and reality; a glorifying of him with his own creation (the Church). My suggestions above may seem overly nuanced or like hair-splitting to many, but as a Reformed Protestant, I am convinced that the full counsel of God must be brought to bear on all areas of life, including how we think of, and defend, America’s religious experiment. Though arguments hinging on the sanctity of conscience alone may be effective in many debates and in fending off government encroachment, I submit that it behooves us to understand our freedoms before God, such as they are, and use language to describe them, in a way that is most honoring to our God and his revelation. Backus said that “religion is ever a matter between God and individuals.”13 The individual answers to God and ultimately cannot profit off of another’s standing before God. But this fact does not override the even more basic fact that all of redemptive history points away from the individual and toward God; his holiness, grace, and justice ultimately manifested in Christ. As Augustine surmised, it is God who commands what is pleasing to him, and then creates in us what is pleasing to him.14 “God by his grace converted to the true faith the wills of men, which were not only averse to it, but even adverse to it.”15

Appealing to conscience alone (as if it possesses its own sanctity and inner light) without reference to how God compels and instructs the conscience through the ordinary means of grace, thus claiming primacy over control of men’s hearts and minds for his own glory, is (in my view) man-centric, and Scripturally and confessionally neglectful. And I do not wish to cede our deepest understanding and expression of our first freedom to the radical “enthusiasts.” 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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