In 2005 Christian Smith and Melinda Denton published a study of American teenagers in which they offered a “conjecture” that the dominant religion among adolescents was “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). Suggesting that the MTD creed was operative among mainline and evangelical Protestants as well as Catholics, they reduced it to three basic claims: 1) being a good and moral person is central to a happy life; 2) religion is mainly concerned with feeling good, happiness, or being at peace with oneself and thus has therapeutic benefits; 3) God establishes a moral order for the universe and intervenes to take care of human needs.

This study launched a small publishing enterprise in which evangelical writers employed MTD to critique evangelicalism. The criticisms came especially from the Reformed branch of evangelicalism with Michael Horton , Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears , and others using MTD to talk about “Christless Christianity,” or writers like Collin Hansen employing it as a descriptor in his journey from Methodism to Calvinism.

The criticisms were not unlike the Reformed critiques that were unleashed after Philip Lee’s 1987 book Against the Protestant Gnostics and Harold Bloom’s 1993 book The American Religion in which both claimed that American religion was essentially a form of Gnosticism. Peter Jones Mark Noll , David Wells , and Michael Horton  all claimed in the first half of the 1990s that the problem with evangelicalism was its capitulation to forms of Gnosticism. Wells has most consistently maintained this line of criticism, weaving it into a larger critique of the evangelical world that he develops over the course of five books.

For those of us in the Wesleyan tradition of evangelicalism, the challenge of this line of criticism is twofold. First, it tends to be directed toward Methodism (Hansen), the Holiness churches (Noll), and Pentecostalism (Noll and Horton). With breath-taking simplicity, Driscoll and Breshears connect MTD with the rise of individualism and then leap from Augustine’s Confessions to the present in an effort to offer a genealogy of individualism. Most of the Reformed scholars listed would not make such broad-sweeping claims, but they tend to connect individualism, Gnosticism, and revivalist forms of evangelicalism.

Second, there is the problem of Smith’s and Denton’s use of the adjective therapeutic to describe modern spirituality. Within the Wesleyan tradition, the accent has been on the transformation that occurs in sanctification rather than justification. This is not to say that a doctrine of justification is absent, but the emphasis is on the therapeutic effects of sanctifying grace, which heals the disordered emotion and desire of the soul through the union with Christ the Spirit brings about. The primary focus of Christ’s atoning activity is the sinful condition from which humans must be delivered rather than the guilt that invariably emerges from such a condition. Hence the focus on perfect love ruling all the tempers, as Wesley would say.

But this second problem is also a challenge to Orthodox and Catholic Christianity in which the focus has been on curing the passions or healing the affections. In other words, there is a strong tradition of therapeutic Christianity within Christian tradition. One need only reference the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and its articulation in Maximus the Confessor or Augustine’s understanding of the Spirit as the divine love that rectifies human loves, which Peter Lombard espoused in the first book of his Sentences . The thirteenth-century development of a supernatural disposition infused by the Spirit to demarcate created grace (the infused habit) from uncreated grace is an extension of this same idea of the healing of the soul. The insertion of virtue and vice into a Christian framework as well as the investigation of the relationship between the modes of grace, the cardinal and theological virtues, and the spiritual gifts of Isaiah 11 relate to the the way in which the Spirit rectifies the soul’s movements, conforming them to Christ through the living union the sacraments effect and sustain.

While those in the Wesleyan tradition embrace sola fide and therefore reject an infused disposition of charity, there is a focus on faith as an affective movement (a heartfelt reliance) from which all other movements derive. To my mind, this is simply a particular Wesleyan vision of the Reformation idea that the faith that alones saves is never alone. One finds it in first-generation Reformers such as Martin Bucer, albeit refracted through Wesley’s synthesis of Divines such as Jeremy Taylor and William Law and the Puritan and Moravian accent on a dramatic encounter.

I know that I’m getting into the weeds a little here, but my larger point is that there is a tradition of therapeutic Christianity that some versions of Reformed Christianity tend to equate with semi-Pelagianism, Gnosticism, or some modern spirituality because it does not fit with a strong equation of the gospel and justification by faith alone. Smith’s and Denton’s use of MTD to describe the modern adolescent approach to religion merely complicates any discussion of this historic tradition of a therapy of the soul. Wesleyans should resist the tendency of certain Reformed theologians to see the Wesleyan vision of Christianity, whether in its Methodist, Holiness, or Pentecostal versions, as part of the problem rather than an important contribution to the solution.

I might add that part of the challenge for those in the Wesleyan tradition stems from an overemphasis on Christian nurture to an exclusion of the dramatic encounter that has been central to revivalism. In certain forms of Methodism, for example, encounter has been almost entirely submerged into “stages of faith,” to borrow James Fowler’s terminology. This is an important difference between more evangelical forms of Methodism and more mainline forms. One can trace a lineage of this process-centered Methodism from the Personalism of Boston University professor Borden Parker Bowne to the Process theology of Schubert Ogden and John B. Cobb, Jr. In this vein, a Process metaphysic becomes fused with a vigorous psychology of the soul to explain spiritual growth. It is a version of this kind of Methodism that Tom Oden broke free from in the 1970s when he returned to the patristic tradition and left behind psychotherapeutic models of the Christian life.

Where does this leave us in the Wesleyan tradition? For one, we should recognize that we stand in the tradition of historic Christianity that places the accent on the therapy of emotion and desire as part of the healing of the human soul. Historic Christianity is therapeutic and thus speaks to the postmodern condition. At the same time, within American Christianity there is a strong tendency to equate therapy with more post-Freudian psychological insights into the human person and thus reduce Christian discipleship to psychology. We have to resist any fusion of psychology and spirituality that removes the theological center of the gospel in which both become meaningful. When we read Reformed criticisms of a “Gnosticism” in evangelicalism or of MTD, they should point us toward a recovery of the evangelical stream of encounter as a counterbalance to an overemphasis on a process of transformation that can too easily become reductionistic. This does not mean, however, that the Reformed critique is correct in all of its particulars.

Finally, therefore, Wesleyans should not allow Reformed critics to set the agenda within evangelicalism as though the Reformed tradition has the final word. Historically speaking, Reformed Christianity offers no more safe haven from theological positions that ultimately deny the central truths of the gospel than Wesleyanism does. John Piper can wax eloquent about the Reformed Christian, but any historical analysis of Reformed Christianity in the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, or the United States reveals that it too has had its share of fractures in the faith and departures from the faith. The Wesleyan tradition can be an iron that sharpens iron if it remains true to its fundamental impulses of which therapeutic Christianity is one.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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