Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Providence" as Explicitly Christian God-Talk

What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution. - John Adams to H. Niles (13 Feb 1818)

One of the beliefs presented often on this blog, by Jon Rowe crediting Gregg Frazer, is the thesis that the original civic religion of America was "theistic rationalism", presented as a form of non-Christian rational theology. One of the points that I bring up, not as my own but citing David Barton, is the idea the Deism (of all things) in America counted as Christianity of some sort. This post seeks to explore Deism as it might have influenced the founding, showing that the unorthodox Christianity of early America could in some sense be called Christian Deism. Part of the link I make to Christianity is the popularity, in early America, of 'Providence' as a term referring to God.

The term "deist" dates back at least to 1563, when Viret's Instruction Chretienne applies the label to rationalists who were also believers (in some unspecified sense). Subsequent English-speaking Enlightenment Deism is a loosely defined stream of thought identified with Lord Herbert, Charles Blount, John Toland, Matthew Tindal, and many others, including even John Locke and a handful of founders.

In its origins, Deism emerged from rejection of atheism/agnosticism/apatheism on the one hand, and rejection of authority dictating faith on the other. Deists accepted God, and actively sought to understand God, through individual personal faith, reason, piety, and earnest individual interpretation of Christian scripture. In its emphasis on individual religious experience and interpretation, Deism was very much a product of the Reformation and Enlightenment.

To the extent that there was a "Deist religion", or core system of beliefs, they were roughly that God exists, God must be worshipped, piety and virtue are prescribed for us by God, we must repent our sins, God will pardon the sincerely penitent, God will ensure justice in this life or thereafter (rewarding the virtuous, punishing the wicked), God made the world but left it to function autonomously based on inviolable laws (of the sort that science learns), and true Christianity was the "religion of nature" but had been corrupted by ecclesiastical establishments seeking power over men.

Of this catalogue of core beliefs, only two really conflict with orthodox Christianity, the claim that God left the world to function autonomously, and the claim that received Christianity had been corrupted by ecclesiastical authorities. This latter belief is, of course, entirely consistent with what I have called unorthodox American Christianity, a prominent feature of which was that even the episcopally organized Christian denominations refused to have bishops in America until after the revolution. To this extent, American Christianity in the colonial era was squarely opposed to orthodoxy and firmly in the Deist camp (or, to put it the other way, the Deists were firmly in the unorthodox Christian camp).

As for the first claim, that God left the world alone to run according to laws, American Deists explicitly repudiated this in word and deed, with routine petitions to God (which would make no sense if God did not intervene in the natural order of events), and specifically with invocation of God as Providence.

"Providence" is not some squishy generic God-term, it is a scriptural name of God (or of a divine characteristic) and an important Christian dogma.

Providence is much more than provision, as we can intuit by considering parent's provision for their children in contrast to a pet-owner's provision for, e.g., a dog. The pet owner supplies all of the dog's food, and may also provide treats to reward actions of the dog that please its master (as well as smacks or kicks in response to displeasing actions). This is not providence, just as the slave-owner who provides subsistence to his chattel is not provident.

Providence is, roughly, overabundant provision given out of unconditional love, and tailored for the improvement of its object or the achievement of some other goal. Choosing to give your child a chemistry set for Christmas, rather than a video game, or edifying books rather than rap music CDs, is provident (at least on a finite, human, scale). Giving treats to a dog as a reward for amusing its master is not.

The dogma of providence (providentia) expresses that God orders and determines all natural processes, as well as guiding the consequences of all human actions, to goals that He himself has set. Rather than being a detached observer of the unfolding of history, God is enmeshed in every process and event. In a sense, providence is to panentheism as actions, events, and processes are to objects and things, and no stronger renunciation could be expressed in explicitly Christian terms of the classical (European enlightenment) Deist teaching of a noninterventionist God.

Providence is contrasted with “conservation” and “concurrence”, doctrines of God’s general activity and continuing creative activity, in a doctrinal triplet concerning God’s participation in this world. The dogma of providence is no trivial matter, e.g. Ott ranks it as "de fide" in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. American Deists, to the extent that they invoked God as Providence, were making an explicitly Christian theological claim that set them apart among Deists as Christian Deists. They expressed their Christianity in other ways as well, of course, such as honoring the Christian Sabbath, worshipping in congregations, earnestly studying Christian scripture (and preaching it in their sermons), etc. “Christian Deism” is not a contradiction in terms; it expresses a form of unorthodox Christianity.


Jonathan Rowe said...

I just posted something on top of this. Free free to repost yours so it gets top billing.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"This post seeks to explore Deism as it might have influenced the founding, showing that the unorthodox Christianity of early America could in some sense be called Christian Deism."

This is exactly what David L. Holmes terms it. What he terms "Christian-Deism" and what Frazer terms "theistic rationalism," are in essence the same thing.

Kristo Miettinen said...

I suspected that Frazer's view differed mainly in terminology, but didn't want to speak on his behalf, not having read his thesis.

The distinction between "deism" and "theism" wasn't sharp in the 18th century, but the distinction between "rationalism" and "Christianity" was. In this sense, I find that the term "theistic rationalism", though accurate in the same sense that calling a dog a mammal is accurate, underspecifies what the content of the civic religion really was.

If modern evangelicals read too much into the term "Christian" (I don't know of this personally, but then again I don't visit the same websites that you do), overspecifying it relative to how it should be used in discussing the civic religion, or relative to how it should be used in discussing Christianity throughout history (which two senses I more or less equate), then that's too bad, but that's their problem. Refusing to use the more specific term (when otherwise warranted) seems to me to be a mistake.

Brad Hart said...


Have you ever read Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David Holmes? I think you would like it. His arguments are quite similar to the ones you are making here.