What attitude is implied in using reason to interpret scripture?
In our struggle to understand "reason trumping revelation", or "reason trumping church authority", and whether reason is exalted by the FFs, or whether they were humble in applying reason as the only tool available to them, we come to interpretation of, e.g., Jefferson's advice to Carr, cited both by myself and by Jon Rowe.
What attitude is implied in this passage, and others more or less like it?
I'll not repeat the quote; it is available in full here. The question before us is, does this advice exalt reason?
I've already tried arguing the point directly; let me now try arguing by analogy. Saying that we must apply our reason to interpreting scripture is like saying we must use hammers (of the appropriate size) to drive nails. They just are the right tools for the job.
Does this exalt hammers? Yes, in a very limited sense: they are being elevated above other tools for the job of driving nails. Hammers are exalted above various expedients for that one specific purpose. But note two limitations, one kind of obvious, one less so: (1) hammers are not being exalted above other items, like hacksaws, or poems, or helicopters, each is (presumably) superior to hammers in some other context; (2) hammers are not being exalted above nails.
In the same sense, saying that we must apply reason in interpreting scripture only exalts reason above expedients that could be applied to the same task; and it does not exalt reason above scripture itself, let alone exalting reason above revelation (keeping scripture and revelation separate, as we must, at least for the purposes of this discussion).
But what are those expedients that could be applied to the same purpose? I have suggested before that church authority is the principal alternative to reason; there was, in the founders' time, or at least in their imaginations, a danger that church hierarchies would usurp the task of interpreting scripture on behalf of their congregations, as perhaps occurred in Europe (I don't want to get into denomination-bashing about whether the charge is true or not, I'll settle for the notion that the founders had that concern).
If we return to Jefferson's advice to Carr, we see that this sort of exaltation of reason above church authority is exactly what Jefferson had in mind. In the very beginning, Jefferson points out the alternative to application of reason, namely crouching servility. Now this begs the question: crouching beneath whom, and servile to whom exactly? This is clearly a reference to some sort of authority, and who but the church could he have in mind? The House of Burgesses? Not likely.
But Jefferson underscores the point when he urges his ward to study not only scripture as it is found in the accepted text of the Bible, but also the apocryphal gospels. Why would he give this advice? Precisely because, from a historical point of view, what separates the writings in the Bible from other writings similar in topic but excluded from the Bible is the authoritative finding of the church. To a man who rejects church authority in interpreting scripture, it only makes sense to also reject church authority in deciding what writings are scriptural to begin with.
Jefferson is clearly exalting reason above church authority, which I have identified as part of his unorthodox (indeed anti-orthodox) American Christianity.
But what of exalting reason above scripture? Does he do that as well? My first answer to this has been, and remains, that the question is ill-posed, relying on a category error. Reason and scripture are not comparable.
But if that answer is too glib for you, then lets avoid the category error and return to a related question: does scripture have a special (irrational) place for Jefferson (and, by extension, for the founders more generally), or can it be relegated by reason to the ash-bin of history, with books of science and philosophy recommended instead as the only proper reading for the enlightenment man of reason? Surely a few founders thought so, but ultimately very few, and apparently none of the "key" founders.
Look in length at Jefferson's advice to Carr, see the reverence for scripture that is not based on any reasonable criterion. There is, first, Jefferson's complete concession of the Christian Nation hypothesis in two sentences: "You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then...". Of course Jefferson urges a critical reading of the Bible, but it is still the "religion of [the] country." But let's not make too much of that.
The question remains: is scripture special? Is Jesus special? The answers would seem to be affirmative. For what other book of ancient history would Jefferson recommend such diligent study of? What other famous person must we form our personal assessment of? Did any founder ever earnestly insist that their children study, weigh and consider, every superhuman feat claimed in the epic of Gilgamesh, or form a considered opinion of the merits of Gilgamesh? Of course not. Such detailed study itself would be irrational. One of the things that we normally call on reason to do is to decide for us is what is worth spending our time on.
In repeatedly telling Carr that "you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides", Jefferson is conceding more to scripture than a modern man of reason would concede to Gilgamesh, or any other ancient epic. By modern standards, they do not deserve a "fair hearing", but a skeptical one, or else no hearing at all.
For Jefferson, reason is exalted as a tool, but scripture is exalted as source material, and it is the application of the former to the latter that will lead to some magnificent sculpture (pardon the attempt at metaphor). Each is exalted above the alternatives: reason rather than church authority, and scripture and Jesus rather than Gilgamesh and his epic. Note also in Jefferson's advice to Carr the degree to which reason is secondary to conscience, our God-given "sense of right and wrong", at least in moral matters.
All this is entirely in keeping with Luther at Worms: "Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason ... I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience." Reason, scripture, conscience, all exalted; each supreme in their proper application.