Monday, November 10, 2008

Babka v. Frazer Debate

A little while ago, I hosted an online debate between Jim Babka, President of Downsize DC and former press secretary to the late great Harry Browne, and Dr. Gregg Frazer who heads the history and political studies department at The Master's College, on the American Founding and Christianity. Both men are devout Christians and both, like me, reject the "Christian America" thesis. Frazer worships at John MacArthur's church and MacArthur is the President of TMC. MacArthur's theology typifies uber-orthodox fundamentalist Protestantism and consequently Frazer's Christianity is uber-orthodox; indeed he is a self-professed young earth creationist. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God and everything in life must be read through the strict lens of scripture first. Babka is a theological Arminian and embraces the teaching of evolution. Both men are orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

The reason why I bring up their respective theologies and how Babka is one step to the left of Frazer relates to an interesting dynamic I've discovered: As you will see, Babka argues more for the compatibility between the ideals of the American Founding and Christianity. Indeed, it's precisely because America was not founded on uber-orthodox Calvinistic Christianity that theological moderates, liberals and heretics can find that the American Founding better resonates with their theologies. If one believes in unorthodox heresies (Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses), has added to revelation (Mormons), believes the Bible fallible (liberal Christians) or believes in the excessive use of reason and natural law in religion (Roman Catholics and others) the political theology of the American Founding, properly understood, is far likelier to speak to you than if you are a Calvinist who believes the Bible the infallible Word of God and man's reason "the devil's whore" (as Luther put it). Calvinists can feel comfortable with their place at the table of America's political theology -- indeed George Washington welcomed them there -- as long as they understand that they didn't create it and consequently don't own it and must share it with the heretics, many of whom they wouldn't regard as "Christians" at all.

And so it is that I am going to reproduce their debate at American Creation. I will add a new post every day until the debate is finished. Here is the first post where Jim Babka left a comment on my blog responding to Gregg Frazer's assertion that the American Revolution was not compatible with Calvinism.

Jon, you know I appreciate your work. I think you're quite fair and generally accurate. But there's a lot that appears to be very wrong with this piece.

First, I think your first assertion is awkward. You move from a quote about Arminianism to Unitarianism with no transition. One could even say you leapt. These two points of view are very different and have little to do with each other. Novel interpretations of scripture were going on all over the place in America and I think you overlook the role Methodists (Arminians) and Baptists, in particular and amongst others, played in the Revolution.

And while Witherspoon may have been Lockean in his views, he was also clearly identified as Trinitarian. Today, most Christians, even Calvinists, are more Lockean in their views than were Calvinists of an ancient generation.

Second, via Frazer, you assert that political liberty is nowhere spoken of in the Bible. There are many words that aren't in the Bible. That doesn't mean the concepts aren't there. Here are but two counter-examples to illustrate my point: I Samuel 8 and Acts 5:29.

Third, while interesting, the Adams quote is a solitary and unspecific piece of evidence that Unitarianism was wide-spread for 60 years. It is possible to appreciate reason as a method of scriptural interpretation without becoming a Unitarian. And it is also quite possible to find Calvinism to be appallingly awful, while still being a Trinitarian and believer in Jesus Christ.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, why Calvin's view of the Bible is more "biblical" than others completely mystifies not only me, but anyone who is Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Anglican (Trinitarian), Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, and even some Baptists and Lutherans.

Perhaps you would say, well these groups evolved and didn't necessarily comport with the views of their respective denominations in the 17th and 18th centuries. This wouldn't necessarily be true.

For example, the ideas you identify as Lockean are more properly the innovations of Samuel Rutherford, author of Lex Rex (he was a direct influence on Locke). The King believed he had the right to control the church and Rutherford supported independent presybteries. That's the fight that really started the break from the Divine Right of Kings. Isn't it ironic, that it was a Presbyterian who launched this important historical battle?


Tom Van Dyke said...

Francis Schaeffer on Rutherford, Calvin, Locke & Jefferson. An interesting examination of the term "Christian," as well, if you read on for a few pages.

Very interesting, very relevant, recommended.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'll have to go back and read what Schaeffer wrote more carefully; but on the surface I see some errors, at least error of omission. First, Locke's (and then Jefferson's and company's) ideas may bear some faint resemblance to Rutherford's -- the outcome is similar: You get to resist the King. But the ideals are by no means identical or closely analogous. Second there is no connection shown (because no connection I believe exists) between John Witherspoon and Rutherford or John Locke and Rutherford. Indeed, you can show how Locke influenced Witherspoon, but can't show how Rutherford influenced either of them. When it comes to Rutherford's influenced on the American Constitution or Declaration there is no there there.

Thought Rutherford may have influenced the American Presbyterian masses who supported revolt and then the Constitution. Rutherford is useful in showing how the Founders ideas are compatible with the orthodox Calvinistic thought of that era, not that he was in any way the source of what the Founders were doing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm cool with your objection, Jon. I won't vouch for Schaeffer. He seemed to hate anything that smells of Catholicism, for one, even though Catholicism was Christianity for all practical purposes until the Reformation. Without "Catholicism," Christianity goes the way of Zorastrianism, if not Mithraism. [Schaeffer may have mellowed toward papism at the end of his life, though. Another story.]

Still, if he's a bad historian, he's a mighty theologian.

The Puritans were Calvinists, devoted to the bible but, um, revolted by any idea of the divine right of kings. Schaeffer is onto something here. The Puritans had already stood up to the king during England's "Puritan Revolution" of 1640-1660.

So, I think we have a problem here positing some sort of Calvinism as the definitive bible-thumping, normative American Christianity for whom Romans 13 says you can't revolt against the Man. The Puritans were quite revolting.

If your and Dr. Fraser's thesis is that Calvinism was the definitive Christianity, then it was ready to rock'n'roll for revolution. But "Puritanism," like "Calvinism," as an umbrella term, loses any definitive utility. Puritanism and Calvinism weren't formal churches; their adherents were all over the map---more of this, a little less of that.

Like Schaefferism, I'd think...

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, I tend to be from the John MacArthur side of things in terms of my theology. I'd say I'm a cross between MacArthur and Rick Warren. And, yet, I find much to commend related to America's founding ideals.

Brad Hart said...

First off, sorry for my absence. Busy week for my family.

Jon writes:

"If one believes in unorthodox heresies (Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses), has added to revelation (Mormons), believes the Bible fallible (liberal Christians) or believes in the excessive use of reason and natural law in religion (Roman Catholics and others) the political theology of the American Founding, properly understood, is far likelier to speak to you than if you are a Calvinist who believes the Bible the infallible Word of God."

Yes and no.

While I agree that those with an unorthodox "heretical" view of Christianity tend to relate better with the theology of Jefferson, Madison, etc., I think that they also tend to downplay or omit the impact of orthodoxy AND unitarianism on early America. For example, a number of my Mormon friends will insist on the belief that the founding fathers were Christian in the same sense that they consider themselves a Christian. And while many founders (and Mormons) can be labeled as unorthodox, this does not mean that they share a common belief on the divine (no matter how much they insist upon it).

A good example of this (and it is something I have written about in the past) can be seen in the theology of Jefferson. In my opinion, Jefferson was a Christian restorationist, in the sense that he believed in restoring the original teachings of Jesus, before they were corrupted by ecclesiastical leaders. Because of this belief, many Mormons have equated Jefferson's theology to that of Joseph Smith, since Smith also believed in a RESTORATION of Christ's original gospel.

Despite this apparent similarity, Smith and Jefferson have little in common when it comes to their theology. Jefferson rejected the miracles of Christ and believed that Jesus was more a philosopher than a divine Savior of mankind. Smith, on the other hand, believed in a resurrected Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of mankind

So, while "heretical" views of Christianity may appear to come closer to the theology of the key founders they too often miss the mark.