Saturday, September 27, 2008

James Madison and Samuel Clarke

See this past post where I noted that James Madison was not a Christian, but a theistic rationalist. While very reticent to give the personal details of his creed, his most explicit discussion on the matter comes from his letter TO FREDERICK BEASLEY, November 20, 1825. Madison noted that in order to fully do justice to a theological work he'd have to "resort to the celebrated work of Dr. Clarke," which he "read fifty years ago...." Madison's philosophical argument for God is as follows:

The finiteness of the human understanding betrays itself on all subjects, but more especially when it contemplates such as involve infinity. What may safely be said seems to be, that the infinity of time & space forces itself on our conception, a limitation of either being inconceivable; that the mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect, which augments, instead of avoiding the difficulty; and that it finds more facility in assenting to the self-existence of an invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom & goodness, than to the self-existence of the universe, visibly destitute of those attributes, and which may be the effect of them. In this comparative facility of conception & belief, all philosophical Reasoning on the subject must perhaps terminate.


Even at an old age, his mind is still very lucid. Though he read it 50 years prior, he still follows Clarke's argument quite closely. From Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The main lines of Clarke's argument are as follows. Since something exists now, something has always existed, otherwise nothing would exist now because nothing comes from nothing. What has existed from eternity can only be either an independent being, that is, one having in itself the reason of its existence, or an infinite series of dependent beings. However, such a series cannot be the being that has existed from eternity because by hypothesis it can have no external cause, and no internal cause (no dependent being in it) can cause the whole series. Hence, an independent being exists.


Clarke was an Anglican Divine, an Arian heretic, and a philosophical rationalist. Here is the Encyclopedia on his Arian heresy:

In 1712, apparently against the advice of some of Queen Anne's ministers, Clarke published The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, which was accused of Arianism, the view that Christ is divine but created. The ensuing controversy culminated two years later in his humiliating promise to the Upper House of Convocation not to preach or write on the topic any longer. However, this act of submission did not silence the correct rumors that he, like Newton himself, was still an Arian. How much these suspicions of heterodoxy damaged his ecclesiastical career is unclear. However, Voltaire reports that Bishop Gibson effectively prevented Clarke's elevation to the see of Canterbury by pointing out that Clarke was indeed the most learned and honest man in the kingdom, but had one defect: he was not a Christian.


I should note too that John Witherspoon, though a Calvinist/orthodox Christian, actually introduced Madison and his other students to Samuel Clarke's work at Princeton. Witherspoon was greatly influenced by Locke and the religious rationalists of the Enlightenment who were disproportionately non-Trinitarians. Witherspoon was not, contrary to misperceptions, teaching his students to be good orthodox Trinitarian Christians at Princeton, though that is what he preached from the pulpit. On matters of government, Witherspoon, first and foremost, taught his students to be good Whig-republicans.

25 comments:

Phil Johnson said...

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I'm thinking that some history writers here, could do some work on the intellectual parallels of secular society during the Founding Era and not limit themselves so much to the religiosity of those times.
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Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

With regard to Clarke's heresy, the jury is still out. My sense is that your encyclopedia article is dated. I would check the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on him -- can't remember who wrote it. You might also check out Bill Gibson's biography of Benjamin Hoadly, who was also accused of Arianism and heresy.

All of that being said, did James Madison consider himself to be a Christian (even if he was a theistic rationalist)? That is, in his mind, were these mutually exclusive terms. Samuel Clark would never have accepted your designation of him as anything other than a Christian.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Bob,

Thanks for this. Yes, one thing I've tried to note is that many of the "unitarians" or "theistic rationalists" with Jefferson as the quintessential example considered themselves "Christians."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re Madison considering himself a "Christian" that's a tough one. The answer is perhaps, and I don't really know because there is not a whole lot of his words on the matter. Even if he were a "theistic rationalist" as we term him here, as noted they often considered themselves "liberal," "rational," or "unitarian" "Christians."

Dave2 said...

Pastor Bob Cornwall wrote:
With regard to Clarke's heresy, the jury is still out. My sense is that your encyclopedia article is dated.

First, it was written in 2003. Second, it never says that Clarke was an Arian. So I really don't get what you're saying.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Dave 2. This is what the source says:

In 1712, apparently against the advice of some of Queen Anne's ministers, Clarke published The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, which was accused of Arianism, the view that Christ is divine but created. The ensuing controversy culminated two years later in his humiliating promise to the Upper House of Convocation not to preach or write on the topic any longer. However, this act of submission did not silence the correct rumors that he, like Newton himself, was still an Arian. How much these suspicions of heterodoxy damaged his ecclesiastical career is unclear. However, Voltaire reports that Bishop Gibson effectively prevented Clarke's elevation to the see of Canterbury by pointing out that Clarke was indeed the most learned and honest man in the kingdom, but had one defect: he was not a Christian.

I don't think the source is "dated" just that Clarke's Arianism is disputed (so too is the Arianism of Milton and Locke).

Dave2 said...

Jonathan,

Right, I read the article on Clarke. It never says Clarke is an Arian. Instead, it reports the controversy over his alleged Arianism.

So, again, I don't know what Bob is complaining about.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Maybe because I called Clarke an Arian, which in my opinion of the controversy (and I've read some other debates on it by folks in the Founding era, but maybe my opinion is skewed by the Unitarians' analysis) is what he was.

Phil Johnson said...

I need to be enlightened.
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What is the consequentiality of some individual's Arianism one way or the other?
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Or is it just a bone of contention?
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Jonathan Rowe said...

Arianism denies the Trinity and is heterodox not orthodox. Arguably speaking an "Arian" as such is not a Christian. See the above quotation:

However, Voltaire reports that Bishop Gibson effectively prevented Clarke's elevation to the see of Canterbury by pointing out that Clarke was indeed the most learned and honest man in the kingdom, but had one defect: he was not a Christian.

Likewise "orthodoxy" has long held Arianism to be a "soul damning heresy."

Phil Johnson said...

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So, the question is, "What difference does it make if we believe any individual was aryan or not?"
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Human beings are NOT granitized beings that never evolve; but, we ARE dynamic beings and are constantly changing. That is, if we are able to give up our ensconced identification with some universal view of reality. Not to do so is blockheaded.
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All of the Founding generation are part of our individual history and they were as dynamic as we are today. They carried out a stage in our present day value system. To try to leap frog back to their day and to act as though our values haven't evolved to be what they are today just doesn't make any sense. Our values continue to evolve.
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The Founders were going through a dynamic process just as we are going through the same things today; but, we are two hundred and thirty some years beyond them. Our values are developing and we are as different from those people as they were from people who existed two hundred and thirty years before them. Even so, they are a dynamic part of our being today.
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We are not carved in stone.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

To me, to an outsider looking in, it makes no difference. But to insiders looking to preserve the authenticity of the orthodox Christian faith, it makes a big deal.

Phil Johnson said...

Which all ends up saying that the "insider" is stuck in time trying to prove that values are based on some never changing view of reality.
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While the rest of civilization moves with the flow of existence.
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This sets up the dichotomy with which we struggle today.
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Dave2 said...

Jonathan,

Maybe you're right, but that still doesn't explain why Bob complained about the SEP instead of about you.

bpabbott said...

Dave: "Jonathan , Maybe you're right, but that still doesn't explain why Bob complained about the SEP instead of about you."

Dave, what do you refer to as "SEP"?

Regarding those who claim to be "Christian" (but any generalization will do), as these individuals do not agree upon the definition ... does it not make sense to offer definitions and then to categorizes individuals accordingly (as Jon has attempted)?

Dave2 said...

SEP = The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

As for who counts as a Christian, I've got no dog in this fight. I'm just defending the encyclopedia article against what I think are baseless charges.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I personally think the article intimates that Clarke was an Arian.

"However, this act of submission did not silence the correct rumors that he, like Newton himself, was still an Arian."

Tom Van Dyke said...

To try to leap frog back to their day and to act as though our values haven't evolved to be what they are today just doesn't make any sense. Our values continue to evolve.

This is an interesting point, Phil, one that calls the whole point of this blog into question. If we have "evolved" past the values of the Founders, then our work here is a meaningless academic exercise. And in my opinion, if we have "evolved" past the values of the Founders, then all is lost. I do not think we can replace the baseline assumptions of man and the universe with something else (relativism, humanism, another random religion than "Judeo Christianity" [although Zoroastrianism might work]) and still have the same society.

Further, I'm not sold that all change or currents in human thought represent an "evolution": Manich├Žism made a huge splash for nearly 1000 years of man's history, but now has quite vanished [theories that Dubya and the neocons subscribe to it notwithstanding].

Christianity might pass; secular humanism might pass [Habermas already writes of a "post-secularism]. We shall see. In the meantime, I find it useful to look at the Founding era, and to what of it still survives, and in my opinion is what continues to sustain us.

We might look at Arianism or various other minor "heresies" that were floating around then, but in the way Maimonides could only speak of God in terms of what he is not, so too we can speak of the Founding. It was not pagan, nor was it purely philosophical, because to this day, we still can't get around that "endowed by their Creator" thing, which is neither pagan nor derivable by reason.

Phil Johnson said...

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Phil: "To try to leap frog back to their day and to act as though our values haven't evolved to be what they are today just doesn't make any sense. Our values continue to evolve.
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Tom Responds with: "This is an interesting point, Phil, one that calls the whole point of this blog into question. If we have 'evolved' past the values of the Founders, then our work here is a meaningless academic exercise."
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I wonder how you can possibly come up with such a response.
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The facts of the matter are that my statement shows the critical importance of this site where we are able to gather critical knowledge of our history--so that we know how our values have evolved. Other than that, are we to think we are--somehow--born with a set of values already worked out in our being? Or, are our values revealed to us through some spiritual process? Do we get them out of a book?
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Phil Johnson said...

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Which brings us to my point about one of the most important Founding values which was the development of the potential of each and every person.
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Our Founders believed in that so much that they pledged life and fortunes to secure this free nation for us.
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And, I'm saying that we deprecate them and what they did for us when we fuss over their religiosity.
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They must have writ about their desires for their prosperity. There must be some great stuff out there.
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Phil Johnson said...

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But, Tom, it appears you have put your finger on the dichotomy.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

If we look at other societies, Phil, many or even most are organized primarily for the well-being of the whole.

So we might posit that "human flourishing" is at the heart of the notion of liberty, of the centrality of the individual in Western thought. Further, we seem to acknowledge an obligation, a duty to each other to defend their liberty, their capacity to develop their own excellence. Why is that? Why do we value not only liberty, but an obligation to secure it for each other? What is it about the West, specifically America, that holds such values?

And will the primacy of the individual give way to more "evolved" philosophies like radical egalitarianism, which are geared to the average rather than the exceptional?

You've kicked over a very promising rock here.

Phil Johnson said...

Tom writes, "If we look at other societies, Phil, many or even most are organized primarily for the well-being of the whole."
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I think our society is put together, primarily, for the well-being of the individual.
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But, I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to get at with your second response.
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We know that government, necessarily, limits some liberties--that is its purpose in an important sense. Otherwise, the strongest among us takes possession of whatever suits his desire.
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And, over time, we develop new technologies and understandings all of which impinge on us in such ways that we must adjust our values.
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When some among us reach back in time and impose ancient or out of step values to obtain their desires we run into trouble.
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That creates a dichotomy that hits us in the gut so that we struggle with each other instead of with each other to obtain the good of the greater society based on our shared values.
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It's complicated.
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Fun in congress today.

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Tom Van Dyke said...


And, over time, we develop new technologies and understandings all of which impinge on us in such ways that we must adjust our values.


Understandings, certainly. That's always been an admission on the part of natural law theorists. But technology altering our values? Heaven forbid. That's substituting one god for another.

As for the "second part," it's a corollary of the first. For instance, a saying in Asian societies is that "the nail that stands up must be pounded down" as a threat to harmony and cohesion---a complete negation of the Western worldview of the individual and his excellence.

And I believe it was Hayek who said that in a fully collectivized society, the net result is all of us becoming each other's slaves. Ick.

Told you it was a promising rock, but one that many who are afflicted with "modernity" are afraid to look under.

Phil Johnson said...

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We often confuse morality with values. .

Morals and standards are derived from underlying values.