Monday, February 1, 2010

Timothy Dwight on the Partially Inspired Bible of Priestley and Price

Founding era figures Timothy Dwight (President of Yale), Joseph Priestley and Richard Price all thought of themselves as "Christian." Dwight was "orthodox"; Priestley was Socinian; Price was Arian. As it were, all believed Jesus was Messiah and a risen savior. Dwight believed Jesus the Second Person in the Trinity; Priestley, Jesus only man, not divine at all, but on a divine mission; and Price, Jesus, a created but subordinate divine Son, the first created being.

The "orthodox" like Dwight accused unitarians like Priestley and Price of believing, by necessity, in a partially inspired, that is fallible Bible. That's how, the orthodox argue, unitarians derive a non-Triune God from revelation.

With that, here Dr. Dwight discusses Priestley and Price denying the infallibility of the Bible [paragraphs breaks added for clarity]:

... Dr. Priestley says expressly, that he does not consider the books of Scripture as inspired, but as authentic records of the dispensations of God to mankind; with every particular of which we cannot be too well acquainted. The writers of the books of Scripture, he says, were men, and therefore fallible. But all, that we have to do with them, is in the character of historians, and witnesses, of what they heard and saw: like all other historians, they were liable to mistakes.

"Neither I," says he to Dr. Price, "nor, I presume, yourself, believe implicitly every thing, which is advanced by any writer in the Old or New Testament. I believe them," that is, the writers, "to have been men, and therefore fallible." And again; "That the books of Scripture were written by particular divine inspiration is a thing, to which the writers themselves make no pretensions. It is a notion destitute of all proof, and that has done great injury to the evidence of Christianity." The reasonings of the divine writers, he declares, we are fully at liberty to judge of, as we are those of other men. Accordingly, he asserts St. Paul in a particular instance to have reasoned fallaciously; and maintains that Christ was both fallible and peccable.

Other English Socinians unite with Dr. Priestley in these sentiments: while Socinians of other nations proceed so far, as to treat the writers themselves, and their books, with marked contempt. In these several things there is plainly an utter denial, that the Scriptures are a Revelation from God. To all these opinions Dr. Priestley was once directly opposed: for he was once a Trinitarian, and a Calvinist. The inference seems, therefore, to be necessary, that he was led to them all by his denial of the Deity of Christ. A similar transformation appears to have been undergone by many other Socinians; and something very like it by no small number of Arians.


I've long argued that the "Christianity" of Priestley and Price -- what they termed "rational Christianity" -- is closer to what the "key Founders" (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others) believed than is the "Christianity" of the "orthodox" like Dwight.

4 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I've long argued that the "Christianity" of Priestley and Price -- what they termed "rational Christianity" -- is closer to what the "key Founders" (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others) believed than is the "Christianity" of the "orthodox" like Dwight.

There is no justification to rope Washington and Madison in with Adams and Jefferson. Further, the Englishmen Price and Priestley would have been even bigger outliers in America than they were in England.

If you recall, Dr. Benjamin Rush urged Price to keep his anti-Trinitarianism quiet, as it would prejudice the great majority of Americans against Price's arguments for religious tolerance.

As for your statement


The "orthodox" like Dwight accused unitarians like Priestley and Price of believing, by necessity, in a partially inspired, that is fallible Bible.


I believe this is a misreading---Dwight accuses the Socinians like Price of drifting toward a denial of the Bible as God's revelation, not a necessary drift, but an unfortunate one, and one that leads to Wilberforce's following condemnation.

The classic American unitarian view---which I'll get to in a post soon---was that the Bible itself didn't support the concept of the Trinity, not that a fallible and humanly flawed Bible insisted on it.

The human flaws were in doctrine and interpretation, not in scripture itself.

Daniel said...

Even classifying Dwight as "orthodox" over-simplifies the theological ferment of the Enlightenment era. The teachers of the New Divinity (including Dwight) could use the theological language of TULIP, but they had tinkered with definitions, with epistemology, and even with the nature of Christian salvation. Their 21st century Evangelical descendants would see them as orthodox, but their Puritan forebearers certainly would not.

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"I've long argued that the "Christianity" of Priestley and Price -- what they termed "rational Christianity" -- is closer to what the "key Founders" (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others) believed than is the "Christianity" of the "orthodox" like Dwight."

True, but they all came under one tent as far as the political theology. We cannot lose focus of that. The political theology should most surely be called Christian.

I have been busy but I like the "simple" Christianity that was outlined in your last post. In fact, as I have evaluated my faith the last few years I have summed up where I need build up from:

Love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. I plan on starting over again, burning hundreds of pages of theological writings I did, and constructing what I believe starting with that verse of above.

Revolutionary Spirits said...

John and Abigail Adams worshiped regularly at Price's chapel in Hackney while the two were stationed in London, Abigail enthusing that she much preferred Dr. Price's preaching to any she could find in America.

And Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson were both occasional worshipers at the Unitarian church Priestley founded in Northumberland, PA. If Franklin had been alive, he doubtless would have joined them, sharing completely in Priestley's scientific interests.

Tom Van Dyke is mistaken, I believe, to say "there's no justification for roping in" Madison and Washington with Adams and Jefferson. Madison fell increasingly under Jefferson's spell as he outgrew his boyish enchantment with orthodoxy.

George Ticknor of Boston visited with Madison and found the President "curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines," resembling Jefferson in this respect.

As for Washington, he was never a formal communicant in the Episcopal Church and always refrained for sharing in the sacrament, probably because he harbored personal doubts about certain aspects of the church's teaching. No evidence that he was a follower of "rational Christianity" in the mode of Priestley or Price, but plenty to suggest that he favored a practical approach to religious living that de-emphasized dogma and made room for spiritual doubt in the name of a more tolerant society.