Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Use of Reason In America's Founding Era Political Pulpits

I want to point out something else about the dialog that is occuring in the American creation comments section among me, Tom Van Dyke and Gregg Frazer. We are walking in the shoes of larger figures. Gregg and I are more influenced by the followers of Leo Strauss, especially the East Coast Straussians, like Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle and Walter Berns. Though Gregg and I play a bit more cautious with "reading in" secret atheism to Locke. Gregg's thesis, after all, states theistic rationalism NOT atheistic rationalism is the political theology of America.

Tom, on the other hand is more influenced by figures like Eric Voegelin and Brian Teirney. The Strauss-Zuckert-Pangle view sees American political theology as something more modern. The Voegelin-Teirney view sees American political theology as something that fits more within the classical-Christian natural law.

A big issue of contention is how compatible are Aristotelian notions of natural law with the Bible/Christianity. If one's religious tradition -- Protestant Sola Scriptura -- cares little for natural law as a supplement to the Bible, indeed if one, like Francis Schaeffer sees a danger in it, then the American Founding political theology, properly understood, should not speak to you.

And ironically the Christian America crowd tends to be Sola-Scriptura Protestants who care little for the natural law discovered by reason. This is one reason why they misunderstand "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" for what's shorthand for the Bible. There is very little exegesis on David Barton's Wallbuilders on natural law, how it has its antecedents in Aristotle, was incorporated into Christdendom by Aquinas and then incorporated into Protestantism by thinkers like Hooker, and that fundamentally it is what man discovers from reason, even if ultimately it must conform to what's written in the Bible.

But that -- whether natural law discovered by reason -- really is suited to conform to what's written in the Bible is also central to this debate. Aquinas used natural law as a supplement to the Bible and said he made it conform to scripture. However, some more modern natural lawyers (like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, some of the patriotic preachers) used the Bible as a supplement to man's reason, and ultimately had man's natural reason supersede scripture (especially Romans 13).

So these are the central points in the dialog, when the Founders invoked a God given substantive natural law as discovered by reason, 1) was it something more classical-Christian or more modern? And 2) is the classical concept of natural law as a supplement to the Bible necessary or even consistent with biblical Christianity or a perversion of Christianity by Aquinas?

As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “Aristotle…was used as an authority almost on a level with the Church Fathers and was assimilated to them. This was, of course, an abuse of Aristotle, who thought that authority is the contrary of philosophy….The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.” pp. 252-3.

And with that I am going to reproduce some of Gregg Frazer's summary of the very natural law/natural rights oriented political sermons of the American Founding. Most of those political sermons can be found here:

...[T]here are two ways of looking at the question of "reason over revelation"....

One is the idea that one's reason should take priority over the CONCEPT of revelation.

The other is that one's reason should take priority over the CONTENT of revelation.

It is my contention that we find both of these in the key Founders and in the preachers who supplied them with theological cover for the Revolution.

A few examples of reason over the CONCEPT of revelation:
a) Jefferson tells his nephew: "Your own reason is the ONLY oracle given you by heaven" and "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal EVERY fact, EVERY opinion."
b) Adams said that he would believe what his reason told him over DIRECT REVELATION from God and that when reason is clear, "no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it."
c) Samuel Cooke said that men "can be subjected to NO human restrictions which are not founded in reason" [inc. those given by revelation] and he equated "the voice of nature" with "the voice of God [revelation]."
d) Samuel West said: "whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is AS MUCH the will and law of God AS THOUGH IT WERE ENJOINED US BY AN IMMEDIATE REVELATION FROM HEAVEN."
e) John Tucker said of his view of government: "It is the voice of reason, which may be said to be the voice of God [revelation]."
f) Gad Hitchcock denuded Romans 13 of its supernaturally revealed status by referring to the passage as Paul's "rational point of view."
g) Samuel Cooper made conformity to reason the test of the validity of Scripture. He went on to say that his were "the principles ... which reason and scripture will forever sanctify;" but his references were to Sidney, Locke, and the atheist Voltaire -- not to Moses, Paul, and Jesus.

And, of course, Jefferson famously took a pair of scissors to the New Testament and removed whole sections which he, by his reason, had determined were not revelation at all and referred to the rest of the New Testament other than the Gospels as a "dunghill."

5 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

A very nice essay, Jon, although there is one glaring overstatement:

However, some more modern natural lawyers (like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, some of the patriotic preachers) used the Bible as a supplement to man's reason, and ultimately had man's natural reason supersede scripture (especially Romans 13).

is not quite accurate. Although perhaps true of those 3 Founders, it was provably true for precious few others.

Neither were the revolutionary-era preachers ever of the position that Romans 13 and therefore the Bible and therefore God forbade revolution, but dammit, reason said to go ahead and do it anyway.

Instead, they used a "reasonable" interpretation of Romans 13 rather than the more literal, traditional one.

Neither was using "reasoned" interpretation a particularly new idea: The churchman/theologian John of Salisbury began the "liberalization" of interpreting Romans 13 as early as 1150, which was followed and developed by many pre-Reformation, Catholic and Protestant thinkers for the 600+ years leading up to the American Revolution.

A partial listing of numerous relevant texts may be found here.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

c) Samuel Cooke said that men "can be subjected to NO human restrictions which are not founded in reason" [inc. those given by revelation] and he equated "the voice of nature" with "the voice of God [revelation]."

This is a bum quote---["inc. those given by revelation]" does not appear in the original.

http://books.google.com/books?id=5FidNi1yz2wC&pg=PA162&lpg=PA162&dq=%22can+be+subjected+to+NO+human+restrictions+which+are+not+founded+in+reason%22&source=bl&ots=Xf1gb8wiQW&sig=0-V6SwwADl5K_715DjgmAkF_RQs&hl=en&ei=gSIwSt_LN5u4sgO46MW3CA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2#PPA162,M1


For Cooke to have

"equated "the voice of nature" with "the voice of God [revelation]."

is therefore uncontroversial---"right" reason is how man discovers the natural law, hears "the voice of nature," and this goes back to Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas.

However, only right reason---not man's ordinary corrupted reason---is in harmony with God, and in being so, is also in harmony with scripture, for as the key Founder James Wilson wrote,

"The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end."

This is the "traditional" Christian natural law formulation, dating back over 500 years before the Founding.

Pinky said...

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There is a tendency to fuss over the details of this or that statement someone makes and about what it, specifically, involves. That appears to be a common trap hereabouts. And, it often takes us off on a tangent.
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Whenever anyone argues the Founding from one or another of the main factors of influence while excluding the others or, in fact, even arguing against them, they do a great disservice to any serious study of the American Founding. That is what David Barton does if I'm not mistaken.
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In any event, what comes out can be valuable for our studies.
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Using terms like East Coast Straussians is, in itself, confusing. Exactly what sets one group aside from another when it comes to being a "Straussian"? It ends up being a blind behind which one is hidden.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

One could look it up for oneself.