Saturday, October 10, 2009

James Wilson on Christianity

I've had some interesting debates on James Wilson & Religion. I think one problem is the key FFs, of which Wilson was one, could be notoriously vague and philosophical in their public addresses that invoked religion. They speak of Providence, God, and Christianity in abstract terms that permitted the "orthodox" to read in what they wished (as "Christian Nationalists" continue to do to this day). And consequently the "orthodox" consented to the FFs republican project. Indeed the internal theory of liberal democracy/constitutional republicanism DEMANDS such consent or else we have a "Crisis of the House Divided" as Harry Jaffa once put it.

So their private letters often shed light on what the key FFs were really getting at. And thus far, few if any of James Wilson's have been published (as far as I know and I've looked very carefully into the record).

But we have James Wilson's vast "public works" to examine. We see Enlightenment, particularly of the Scottish kind, Locke, and natural law in there. While he doesn't cite Thomas, he sounds like him at times, and no doubt got Thomism through the Anglican and Protestant branches of the natural law.

Wilson speaks highly of "Christianity" in an abstract sense. However, it doesn't sound like "the orthodox" understanding of Christianity. Rather Wilson speaks nothing of "Grace," but substitutes "Nature" for it. Christianity becomes a generic moralizing creed whose purpose is to support the findings of "reason" and the "moral sense." After having something positive to say about Christianity, Wilson collapses it into the natural law/what's discovered by "reason" and the "senses."

It could be that Wilson was privately orthodox, that orthodox notions of "grace" really have nothing to do with public law anyway; so why should he discuss it. However I still don't think an orthodox Christian who believed the Bible the infallible Word of God would write something like the following:

III. Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive. Great and sublime truths, indeed, would appear to a few; but the world, at large, would be dark and ignorant. The mass of mankind would resemble a chaos, in which a few sparks, that would diffuse a glimmering light, would serve only to show, in a more striking manner, the thick darkness with which they are surrounded. Their weakness is strengthened, their darkness is illuminated, their influence is enlarged by that heaven-descended science, which has brought life and immortality to light. In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce his laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.

On some important subjects, those in particular, which relate to the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state, our natural knowledge is greatly improved, refined, and exalted by that which is revealed.

Got that? The purpose of revelation is to "improve[],refine[], and exalt[]," what man already knows from "reason" and "conscience" (or as he put it elsewhere, the "moral sense").

Even though Wilson doesn't mention the Trinity, what he wrote does implicitly relate to unitarianism is one important sense. People who made claims like Wilson's (that "reason" is the first revelation of God to man; scripture (or parts thereof), the second revelation supports and clarifies what man discovers first from reason) also said it was CLEAR that reason teaches 1+1+1=3 not 1 and therefore, this was one of those CLEAR discoveries of "reason" that the Bible couldn't supersede.

As Wilson put it:

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense.

Or as John Adams put it, reacting to John Disney’s thoughts:

D[isney]: The union of all Christians is anticipated, as it has been demonstrated to be the doctrine of Christ, his apostles and evangelists, as also of Moses and the prophets. Nor is it less the language of the religion of nature than of revelation . . .

A[dams]: The human understanding is the first revelation from its maker. From God; from Heaven. Can prophecies, can miracles repeal, annul or contradict that original revelation? Can God himself prove that three are one and one three? The supposition is destructive of the foundation of all human knowledge, and of all distinction between truth and falsehood. [Click the link for the primary source.]

In other words, while reason and revelation are both necessary, when nature/reason -- God's first revelation to man -- CLEARLY answers a question, you have to go with it, regardless of what you might think the Bible teaches. And on the Trinity, the answer was clear: It is, according to Adams and those who, like Wilson, followed this rationalistic method, a false doctrine.

This is why I would bet if James Wilson's private letters discussing the Trinity were found, he would deny the Trinity.

I'll keep looking for those letters.


Tom Van Dyke said...

There's nothing I've found in Wilson that's not compatible with Thomas Aquinas or the Anglican divine Richard Hooker.

"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."
James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature, 1804

This is classic Thomistic theory on scripture and natural law.

Even Locke, whom Wilson quotes often and approvingly, wrote

"Or whatever else was the cause, 'tis plain in fact, that human reason unassisted, failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never, from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the law of Nature. And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the new testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by Our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen."---Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity

As for the Trinity, true, it's quite clear the Founding era didn't want to get into that, as it would serve no purpose but division, regardless of whether most believed in it [likely], or even if most didn't.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Okay so, according to Locke, the purpose of the the Bible, mainly Jesus' New Testament teachings, was to posit perfect moral teachings.

The response is what's totally absent from Locke's "Christianity" is Jesus as the 2nd person in the Trinity, making an infinite sacrifice and the salvation of man thru grace.

There is also, in Locke, "state of nature" teachings which arguably contradict the biblical record.

One thing that you and I would agree on, in an era when heretics could be burned at the stake, lose their legal rights, and then during the American Founding era, perhaps survive without legal penalty but have their reputations ruined and otherwise have nasty things said about them, you tended not to "rock the boat" and assert: My ideas contradict YOUR orthodoxy, but rather, adopted a more subtle method. Unless one was a masochist (one wonders is Paine were).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, you're still on the Trinity thing, as if that defines Christianity. But when Wilson writes

"a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures.

...that's Christian. Even if Wilson was a non-Trinitarian, how one interprets the Bible about the Trinity is a secondary thing to first believing the Bible is of divine origin.

Jonathan Rowe said...

“a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures."

I know you are going to balk; but Gregg addresses this quote in his section on Wilson. Revelation "contained in" the Holy Scriptures is not the same as saying revelation IS the Holy Scriptures in its inerrant, infallible sense. He makes that quote consistent with his "partially inspired" Bible/some revelation was legitimate thesis.

Ultimately I would say he is right insofar as that quote is not a smoking gun for your side.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Inerrancy is above my pay grade, altho in that Founding era, errors were usually attributed to man, via mistranslation or misinterpretation. I have no problem with Wilson as a unitarian or an anti-inerrantist. Can't tell from his surviving texts either way, and besides my primary counterargument is that it didn't matter in the Founding milieu. Jesus as divine was unnecessary and immaterial---Jesus' message was of divine origin, and the Almighty provided all the requisite muscle to back it up.

When I see Wilson echo Aquinas' natural law theory with flashing neon lights, I note it. "Side?" Dr. Fraser has also submitted that Thomas Jefferson took some of the Bible as of divine origin. I don't see it atall: the neon sign isn't only not flashing, it looks to me that it's not even plugged in.

Daniel said...

James Wilson should be understood as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. That version of the Enlightenment tended to be liberal and orthodox. It's greatest lights began with nature as the primary source of knowledge and reasoned their way to orthodox conclusions. This does not prove Wilson orthodox, but his philisophical context must not be ignored when making guesses about his belief system.

Daniel said...

I think I just referred to the "greatest lights of the Scottish Enlightenment" as if I exclude Hume from that category. He was central. And his thought was a foil against which Scottish Realism tested its methods and conclusions, developing a philosophy of "self-evidence" and "common sense".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hmmm. Hume was central, or a foil. Both? You have the floor, Friend Daniel. I want to hear more.

Daniel said...

Both, I think. Hume set up challenges that had to be answered. Primarily it was an epistemological challenge: how do we know? Working from a near concensus that reason was the basis of knowledge, Hume launched a devastating critique of claims to knowledge about religion and morality. His sceptical approach to inductive method and to causation presented a challenge to the basis to scientific knowledge itself. His solution (instinct and imagination) was unsatisfying to most and I think contributed little to the philosophical dialogue until the 20th century. (Although his challenge was important to such luminaries as Kant and Neitzsche). I used the word "foil" to mean something to hone their ideas against. Not as something to play with, but to contend with.

Even the name "Realism" was a response to Hume's "skepticism." The writings of Thomas Reid and his cohort are filled with references to Hume. If the Enlightenment project was to go forward, he had to be answered.

Wikipedia' entry on Thomas Reid has an interesting quote from Roy Sorensen: "Reid's common sense looks like an impression left by Hume; concave where Hume is convex, convex where Hume is concave. One explanation is that common sense is reactive... Without a provocateur, common sense is faceless."

Daniel said...

I was looking for James Wilson's Law Lectures on the net. Unfortunately, I have no access to a decent historical library. Best I could find with a quick search was a review of a book on the Law Lectures. A quote that goes to Tom's comments:

By what means the moral law is to be known is, however, less than clear. Wilson's epistemology turns out to be a conflation of a scholasticism emphasizing the role of reason in making the natural order of the cosmos intelligible to human beings (Thomas Aquinas) and what we might call a more "modern" understanding that gives primacy to the human passions as the sovereign monitors of thought and action. At one point in the argument, Hall writes that Wilson supposedly "joined [Thomas] Reid ... in arguing that reason plays an important role in knowing and interpreting one's moral sense" (72), and at another point in the argument Wilson supposedly "rejected the Scholastic contention that reason plays a large role in the gaining of moral knowledge" (77, 89). In case of doubt, Wilson also "considered the Bible an important source of moral guidance" (72), but with important qualifications (74)."
Eduardo A. Velásquez, reviewing Mark David Hall, The Political and Legal Philosophy of James Wilson, 1742-1798, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Also on the same lines, but with reference to the breadth of Wilson's study:
Apart from the general question of Scottish influence on the founders, Wilson in particular was one of the most highly educated of the Framers of the Constitution
and was especially indebted to thinkers such as Reid, whom he had first studied at St. Andrews. Although in this Article I shall not be exploring the intellectual sources of Wilson’s constitutional thought, I note in passing that his Lectures in Law reveal that he had read extraordinarily widely in the political theory of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it is difficult to find works mentioned by Madison or Jefferson that were unknown to Wilson; but not hard to find works relied upon by Wilson in his Lectures that neither Madison nor Jefferson appear to have read.


Yes, Jon, this is his public though and not his private theorizing, but it points to key sources for his reliance on reason who were orthodox. In their heart-of-hearts, Reid or Grotius may have been unitarian (although I doubt it), but their philosophy was largely orthodox. (I think I remember Grotius did get himself in some trouble referring to trivialities when defending the rights of the Arminians).

Jonathan Rowe said...


Thanks for this. I certainly keep an open mind re Wilson and all the other Founders whose exact religious views haven't been pinned down in a "smoking gun" sense.

All of Wilson's public Works are found here:

You are right that he may be orthodox and that his works reflect a HEAVY degree of "Scottish Enlightenment." In this sense, he's not all that different from Witherspoon who clearly WAS orthodox (based on the record he left). Both Witherspoon and Wilson, interestingly enough, sometimes-often sound "Thomistic" in teachings.

The line from Thomism to a more heterodox Enlightenment is hard to draw given that both presented their teachings under the auspices of "nature" and "reason."

Daniel said...

Jon, Thanks for that link. I knew it was out there, but my quick search didn't find it. I'll bookmark it now.

Thomism is heavily reflected in Enlightenment language because there is a direct link, at least to thinkers like Hooker and Reid. It is interesting to see some of the same language used to reach very different religious conclusions and similar political conclusions.

This same divergence sppeared during the high Medieval when Islamic scholars and Christian scholars studied Aristotle. They were suppressed in Islam, not because it was more repressive than Christendom, but because they did not find a reconciliation between Aristotle and orthodoxy as Aquinas did. Aquinas claimed that reason and revelation were both God's truth so did not conflict. The Islamic scholars tended to claim two spheres of truth which sometimes conflicted but were nonetheless both true. (This is very close to what we call cognitive dissonance, but it is not uncommon among modern Christians, including myself). Many Enlightenment thinkers chose the remaining available approach, which is to allow one sphere to trump the other. (Hume went another direction entirely, but that is another very complex story that is on my long list of things I want to study sometime).