Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Problem with Out of Context Quotations

Here is a newish article by Wallbuilders entitled: The Founding Fathers on Jesus, Christianity and the Bible. The first person David Barton turns to for evidence is John Adams, the second President of the United States. The quotations Barton reproduces follow:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.1

The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered but by the Holy Ghost. . . . There is no authority, civil or religious – there can be no legitimate government but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it. All without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words damnation.2

Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company: I mean hell.3

The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity.4

Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. . . . What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be!5

I have examined all religions, and the result is that the Bible is the best book in the world.6

Okay, taken at face value, many an evangelical, the Bible is the infallible Word of God, type would think "John Adams was one of us." What Barton doesn't tell us is for his entire adult life Adams identified as a Unitarian. Adams rejected original sin, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and eternal damnation sometimes bitterly and mockingly so. And towards the end of his life Adams got even more heterodox, elevating man's reason so far over revelation that he noted if God Himself revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to him with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proves 1+1+1 = 3 not 1. And asserting exotic world religions like Hinduism and Zeus worship teach "Christian principles."

That's why you have to examine the WHOLE of what a Founder believed, not cherry picked selected quotes, taken out of context which mislead. This kind of clarification is utterly absent from Barton's presentation of the evidence.

8 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, the quotes are fine and do comport with Adams' beliefs. There's very little at the wallbuilders site hawking Trinitarianism. [I looked.]

However, the Holy Ghost quote is bunk---Adams was being sarcastic there if you read it in context. Barton did get 5 out of 6. His enemies will focus on the 6th, and perhaps fairly. But they shouldn't ignore the other 5 either.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's debatable whether he gets what the other 5/6 mean because it all depends on what "Christianity" means to the listener. I've dissected the "general principles" quote many times before and I seriously doubt an evangelical Trinitarian could endorse its content once reading the context.

Likewise with his "the Bible is the best book," -- it was not because JA thought it was infallible or taught salvation thru grace, but rather because it agreed with John Adams' personal "philosophy" that was derived from "reason," and otherwise supported republican self government.

bpabbott said...

Jon,

I think you have it correct.

Barton's folly is with the implied false equivications. Things like Barton is a Christian, the FF called themselves Christians. Thus, the FFs are the same kind of Christians as Barton.

The problem with that example, is that while FFs like Madison, Jefferson, and Adams called themselve Christian, they were arguably (certainly in my opinion) opposed to those of their day who favored the kind of activism we see from Barton; Patrick Henry for example ... not that Barton measures up to a Patrick Henry, but I see parallels in their theological/political views.

jimmiraybob said...

Barton is writing for an audience and whether the web site is explicitly trinitarian I thing that his audience is far more likely to be so than not.

bpa is right. Out of context quotes to create an impression other than would be drawn with full information, and an impression detrimental to the writer's desired outcome, is as blatantly not-so-honest as just making things up.

I know, I know, he's young and naive and not so good a amateur historian. I'll bet the sun was also in his eyes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, but by the time y'all get done deconstructing it, "Christianity" has no meaning atall. That's blatantly not-so-honest, too.

Adams' last 3 quotes stand up just fine. And if Barton were more clever, he'd have added this one:


"Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could ever have discovered or invented it."

That's revelation, as in God Spoke to Man.

bpabbott said...

Regarding the Adams quote above, in it's complete context it does not appear to me to be in support of Barton's activism ...

"[... Thomas Paine's] political writings, I am singular enough to believe, have done more harm than his irreligious ones. He understood neither government nor religion. From a malignant heart he wrote virulent declamations, which the enthusiastic fury of the times intimidated all men, even Mr. Burke, from answering as he ought. His deism, as it appears to me, has promoted rather than retarded the cause of revolution in America, and indeed in Europe. His billingsgate, stolen from Blount's Oracles of Reason, from Bolingbroke., Voltaire, Berenger, &c., will never discredit Christianity, which will hold its ground in some degree as long as human nature shall have any thing moral or intellectual left in it. The Christian religion, as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the character of the eternal, self-existent, independent, benevolent, all powerful and all merciful creator, preserver, and father of the universe, the first good, first perfect, and first fair. It will last as long as the world. Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could ever have discovered or invented it. Ask me not, then, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all."
-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush (January 21, 1810).

It is clear that Adams had a great dislike for Paine, and a great admiration for the moral principles he associates with Christianity. In this Barton and Adams certainly have congruent opinions.

However, regarding the broad net Adams casts around Christianity, this does not remind of me Barton's world view.

In any event, the suggestion that Barton might include this single sentence, respecting revelation, in the absence of its complete context, and as such miss the central point (which, I think, is not about revelation), is spot on (imo).

King of Ireland said...

Jon,

This:

"Okay, taken at face value, many an evangelical, the Bible is the infallible Word of God, type would think "John Adams was one of us." What Barton doesn't tell us is for his entire adult life Adams identified as a Unitarian. Adams rejected original sin, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and eternal damnation sometimes bitterly and mockingly so. And towards the end of his life Adams got even more heterodox, elevating man's reason so far over revelation that he noted if God Himself revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to him with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proves 1+1+1 = 3 not 1. And asserting exotic world religions like Hinduism and Zeus worship teach "Christian principles."

does not disprove this:

"The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.1"

Please read my post above about the dangers of assuming that ones political theology always translate to his theology about salvation. It does not. I did some reading on Locke. He separated the two. I think wisely.

So if Adams is talking about the principles of Christain political theology per Locke and Mayhew.... then he is right. If he is talking about salvation then he is wrong as far as it seems most key founders believed. But it would be right in what most of the population in certain key regions believed considering we had a Great Awakening that preceded the Founding.

I admire that they were able to put aside faith issues and focus on governmental principles that they agreed on. I hope we can get to that today. Faith issues wise you and I differ. Political theology wise you and I differ. But Political philosophy wise we agree. I think they same happened a lot back then. They set aside other things when it came to setting up a government that worked.

Mark DeForrest said...

Generally, I agree with your point regarding the curse of proof-texting quotes from the Founders when it comes to particular issues. I think that it is wise to look at a Founder's entire lifetime's worth of commentary on religious issues if we are trying to find out, as an abstract question, what that Founder believed when it comes to religion.

However, a narrower investigation is warranted if we are looking at what motivated a particular Founder when he (or she -- let's not forget Abigail!) to formulate a particular policy or to support a particular cause of action in a specific point in his (or her) public life or the life of the nation. So, in some inquiries it doesn't matter what a particular Founder thought about religion over the course of his or her life. It only matters what he or she thought up to and including a particular period of time.