Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Can of Worms that Most Evangelicals Seem to Want to Keep Closed

In the comments section of a recent post by Jon Rowe the following was stated by Gregg Frazer:

"First, there is a huge difference between using one's reason to try to figure out what the Bible says/means and using one's reason to determine that a portion of the Bible is not revelation at all because one doesn't like what it says. That's the difference between Christians and the theistic rationalists."


Here is my response:

"'Because one doesn't like what it says' is pure and unsupported conjecture Gregg. If this is the main difference and that is all you have for evidence I am not seeing it. They may not like what you think it says it does not mean they reject the Bible."

When we look at church councils and how things like the biblical canon and the trinity became "doctrine" this discussion becomes more complex than some let on. In other words, what gives a bunch of priests anymore right to determine what to put into the bible more than Jefferson or anyone else in theory? Yes, I know Jefferson discounted miracles as a pre-supposition and thus cut the bible apart based on that. I have no problem calling him a "theistic rationalist" or whatever. But with many of the others I do not see them going to this extreme.

I guess I am not seeing the difference between reasoned interpretation and using reason to discern what is genuine revelation or not in the sense of how the Bible was put together and what parts are genuine revelation.  It seems as if he is saying that one has to take the whole bible on faith or he is using reason to trump revelation. But it seems to me that all one really has faith in is that the men who put the canon together were not as corrupt as the ones who voted the trinity as church doctrine. It also seems to ignore that some parts like Paul's Epistles are possibly just his opinion and not revelation. Yes, I do know this opens up a huge can of worms that most Evangelicals seem to want to keep closed.

But I do not think we are going to get to the bottom of this "reason trumps revelation" debate unless we pry it open.

39 comments:

T. Greer said...

May I suggest a third option? It is the one I prefer, at least - the use of revelation to discern which parts of the Bible are inspired and which are not?

King of Ireland said...

T. Greer,

I am not so sure there is a real difference between reason and revelation. When you put it as you did. I go back to the nomad in Tibet(I have met them when the came into the cities) that has never seen a Bible. His only chance is natural law. Is it reason or revelation that shows him the God of Exodus 34:5-7? Does the fact that he could have no eartly idea what a trinity is doom him?


These are hard questions. But as to the founding I am just not sure what they meant by reason and revelation and if it is the same way Frazer and others use it or not.

King of Ireland said...

T. Greer,

I would also add that your point is a good third option that needs to be explored as to whether this is what Wilson and others were talking about.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Reason trumps revelation" can apply to [St.] Augustine's writing on the questionability of the literal truth of the Genesis creation story. It's another artificial phrase that serves as a straitjacket, with no real meaning.

The unitarian Christians used the Bible itself, not simple human reason or prejudice, to question the doctrine of the Trinity. They were quite serious about the Bible, unlike Jefferson, whose razor was human reason.

Mr. Greer points out a problem with Protestantism---once the authority of a "living" Church [inspired by the Holy Spirit] to discern scripture is discarded, even what is authentic scripture can come into question. However, aside from stuff like the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deuterocanonical_books
I don't see the unitarian Christians giving the Bible the Jefferson treatment, unless based on Biblical scholarship.

The early Reformer Philip Melanchthon predicted that stuff like non-Trinitarianism would hit the fan. As King notes, the Biblical justification for the doctrine had always been in question throughout the Church's history. It had nothing to do with "reason trumps revelation," which is only properly applied to men like Jefferson [and mid 1800s unitarians like Emerson, who abandoned the authority of the Bible for human reason, or "free inquiry" as they called it].

"Reason trumps dogma." Now that's true, and add that most of the controversies were in the claim that the Bible itself trumps erroneous dogmas.

King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I would like to hear Frazer's response to what you said. Unless, I am missing something I agree 100 percent. I think the Genesis thing is a good test.

King of Ireland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
King of Ireland said...

"They were quite serious about the Bible, unlike Jefferson, whose razor was human reason."

Yea, but when you allow for Jonah's whale, the sun standing still, and a Genesis myth even Jefferson's statements look more Christian than Deist. If we use our 10 point scale I would give him a 4 or maybe a 5.

In fact Tom I think you should do a scale based on some of the criteria that you have talked about. I think it would illuminates matters a great deal.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't quite follow your point re Jefferson. I've never run across him saying that the Bible comes from God in any fashion. For him, the Bible would be fairy tales and Jesus just a great moral philosopher.

As near as I can figure, Jefferson is not a Deist solely based on his belief in divine providence. I'd give an extra point for belief in miracles [Locke, John Adams], and at least 4 for believing the Bible is the Word of God. Jesus as Messiah has to be worth at least 2 or 3.

The rest, Jesus as divine, died for our sins, stuff like that, is normative Christianity, certainly. A point for each, I dunno. A belief in providence is worth a point. But believing the Bible is the Word of God divides the line: philosophically or sociologically speaking, a world where God talks directly to man is radically different from a world where He does not.

That's always the first question I always ask about religion. The rest is details.

King of Ireland said...

"I don't quite follow your point re Jefferson. I've never run across him saying that the Bible comes from God in any fashion. For him, the Bible would be fairy tales and Jesus just a great moral philosopher."

I guess I am going by what did survive his razor. I think a true Deist would throw it all out.

Anyway, I am serious about the 1 to 10 scale. You should do it. Maybe an essay on it. It would certainly give us an alternative to "Theistic Rationalism".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I proposed how a scale might work above.

For me, a belief in the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus as Messiah gets you in the Christian door. The rest is normative Christianity, and for that, Dr. Frazer's 12-point chart is as good as any.

King of Ireland said...

Where can on look at his chart? Does one have to get a 12 out of 12 to make it?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I dunno. It's the usual stuff Jon's always on about to prove the "key" Founders weren't Christian. Divinity, The Atonement, whatever.

King of Ireland said...

Where in the chart?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Frankly, I'm sick of this "theistic rationalist" term being shoved down our throats here.

One can discuss religion and the Founding quite well---and better, to my mind---without it.

Terms are little boxes. Jefferson was indeed a "theistic rationalist"---the term fits. Voltaire, too. But once you unpack "theistic rationalist," it applies to most Jews, too.

Then we try to hammer other Founders into the same box. The term is useless.

I'm not a polemicist, interested in hunting down Dr. Frazer's errors. They get plastered all over this blog, while we're trying to do something worthwhile like study Calvinism, the Vindiciae, contra Tyrannos and the Founding.

I wrote, in trying to be fair to the term "theistic rationalist," which Gregg came up with, and will defend to the grave as his claim of fame, that his term, according to him, mind you, carries a connotation of Protestantism. His reply minimized that.
So, here, when he tries to turn Goveurneur Morris into a "theistic rationalist,"

http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/8/1/1/2/pages281125/p281125-9.php

Theistic Rationalism vs. Deism and Christianity

Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements.


So, whatever. Now Jefferson's some sort of Protestant. Or not. Christian, or not. I guess this leaves out Jews. Or not. This is like thumb-wrestling in Jell-o.

Discussing religion and the Founding is better off, cleaner and clearer, without this incoherent term mucking it up. Mercy.

Sol said...

I don't know whether it will affect your argument, but I would like to point out that you appear to have mischaracterized the development of the biblical canon and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Neither originated in the councils of the Church. The development of the New Testament canon was a very complex process. Though there are documents which list all of the books as accepted today (the first and best known being Athanasius' Paschal Letter in 367) and non-ecumenical councils which recognized them, it was not determined by "a bunch of priests", but by eventual consensus.

Likewise, even at the First Ecumenical Council, there was no question that there was a Trinity, but rather what was the nature of the persons and their relationship to each other. Even this was only necessary because of the rise of Arianism which challenged what had been taught up to that time. The Council just put a fine point on it.

Protestantism says all of these matters are up to individuals to decide or discern or whatever we want to call it. At the time these things were determined, it was the Church - not the hierarchs or a bunch of priests, but the whole Church - that settled them.

King of Ireland said...

Sol,

The "bunch of priests" is overly broad I agree but to hash it all out would have stolen from my larger point. From what I read about the Trinity issue, not much, Constantine twisted arms to get votes and many bishops later recanted because they felt bad. I am not expert though for sure.

King of Ireland said...

"I'm not a polemicist, interested in hunting down Dr. Frazer's errors. They get plastered all over this blog, while we're trying to do something worthwhile like study Calvinism, the Vindiciae, contra Tyrannos and the Founding."

If this is in reference to me I agree and do not agree at the same time. I agree in that I debated about injecting this when Dr. Hall's stuff was being hashed through. His views are obviously more in line with my preferred frame for discussion of ideas and their impact rather than personal beliefs.

I do not agree because, right or wrong, Jon does bring this up a lot and the reason trumps revelation part is the hardest to understand. At least for me. So when I finally saw some Frazer quotes that seemed to clear things up buried 8 posts down I thought it was important to bring it up to the main page so we can clarify exactly what he is saying.

King of Ireland said...

I went and read the essay on Morris and he brings the 10 points up in the beginning and then goes on to talk about other things, including his immorality. What in the hell does that have to do with anything? The rest was muddled together soup too in my opinion. One of his chief points against Morris was that he used different God words. What does that have to do with his 10 points.


I do not know about his dissertation but this essay seems to set up the 10 points and then go off on everything else by conjecture and end with, "He was immoral."

I would also add that to say that Catholics believe in justification by faith is, at best, a half truth. The biggest problem that Luther had with them was that it was not FAITH ALONE.

Anyway, he is on vacation and these set of posts will be old news by the time he has time to answer. I suspect he will email Jon at the appropriate time. I would also add that I am trying to understand him not tear him apart. I gave him an honest read and am still confused by the many holes I see in his arguments.

But on to Dr. Hall and Vindicae. Maybe I should have not brought this up. I am more confused about "Theistic Rationalist" than ever. I do not see one shred of evidence that Morris cut out parts of the Bible. I think Frazer has a problem with natural law more than anything else.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, the Biblical canon had taken form pretty early:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon

A four gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was asserted by Irenaeus, c. 180, who refers to it directly.[4][5]

By the early 200s, Origen may have been using the same 27 books as in the Catholic NT canon, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation[6], known as the Antilegomena. Likewise the Muratorian fragment is evidence that perhaps as early as 200 there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to the 27-book NT canon, which included four gospels and argued against objections to them.[7] Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings are claimed to have been accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the third century.[8]

Another Wiki spot adds that Irenaeus quoted from 21 of the 27 NT books.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irenaeus

Yes, King, I too scratched my head a bit on the GMorris paper. Aside from Jefferson, "theistic rationalist" seems to me to be a term in search of an argument.

One can discuss religion and the Founding more fully and clearly in its absence.

King of Ireland said...

"Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon,'

I did quite a lot of reading on this many years ago but have forgotten most of it. My point is that you see a lot more diversity and debate when the larger scope of Church history is applied. I am sure you get that though.

Anyway, on to Dr. Hall's essays.

Sol said...

I don't want to get too tangental to your main point, but just for historical clarification, while at the time of the council Constantine supported the orthodox view on the nature of the Trinity, this was already the view of the majority of bishops and by most of the Church as a whole. Constantine would latter seing in favour of the Arians and after his death the controversy continued throughout the middle of the 4th century. Despite support by Emperors Constantius and Valens, Arianism lost out to the near universal recognition of the orthodox view, so that there was little opposition at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. This was because the Church (clergy and laity) recognised that was consistant with what the Church had always believed.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Sol. King has a lead to follow now. The Trinity wasn't imposed as much as it won out. Had Arianism been stronger, it's logical that would have been the winner, especially with a politician like Constantine doing the deciding.

secular square said...

"First, there is a huge difference between using one's reason to try to figure out what the Bible says/means and using one's reason to determine that a portion of the Bible is not revelation at all because one doesn't like what it says. That's the difference between Christians and the theistic rationalists."

KOI-
Although I agree with most if not all the Frazer’s points posted by Jon, your point on Frazer’s “conjecture” is well taken. The “one doesn’t like” phrase is not helpful. I cannot speak for Frazer, but I would offer my own conjecture that as a Christian within the reformed tradition (?), Frazier probably believes that rejection of part or all of the scriptures is a moral problem, not an epistemological one. The claim is that people reject the claims of scriptures not because of insufficient knowledge or evidence, but because their minds are darkened by sin. That is why he writes, , “they don’t like what it says“.

But if his argument is reworded,

“there is a huge difference between using one’s reason to try to understand what God in his Bible says how he wants believers to live and what he wants believers to know vs. using reason to determine what portions of the bible are not revelation because those portions do not correspond to reality or are incompatible with other propositions about reality that appear to be true. That’s the difference . . .etc. etc..

I think his distinction still stands.

secular square said...

. . . which leads to another related observation. Maybe the “reason trumps revelation” paradigm is faulty. Perhaps it should be phrased that in the minds of the theistic rationalists, “reason trumps faith.”

Reason is a mental faculty that enables humans to generate propositions about the reality that is external to their minds. When those propositions correspond to reality, we say they are true and that we have knowledge. Reason is a MEANS to knowledge. The things to which the propositions refer are the OBJECTS of knowledge. Because the concept of “God” might be described as a theoretical construct that may or may not exist, reason is not very helpful. God cannot be observed, measured, etc. But there are good arguments that a supreme being exists. So maybe some people might reasonably infer God’s existence, say, from his effects, and may express belief in his providence and his justice. Because they are theists and justified their beliefs on reason, they might loosely be called theistic rationalists.

Reason cannot discern what a supreme being might be like, however, or what he wants (if anything) from humanity. Reason cannot especially acquire knowledge of specific Christian doctrines such as the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, etc. (We’ll leave out that troublesome trinity idea.) Propositions about these require divine revelation. So how can one come to know these propositions? Through faith! Faith is the MEANS to knowledge of divine revelation. The propositions contained in the revelation are the OBJECTS of knowledge by faith. And faith comes from God. Once a person becomes convinced by faith in Christian doctrines, they of course used reason to clarify and apply those doctrines.
Consequently,

“there is a huge difference between using one’s reason to try to understand what God in his Bible says how he wants believers to live and what he wants believers to know vs. using reason to determine what portions of the bible are not revelation because those portions do not correspond to reality or are incompatible with other propositions about reality that appear to be true. That’s the difference . . .etc. etc..

And in the eyes of the theistic rationalists, reason trumps faith as a means of knowledge about reality.

Tom Van Dyke said...

SS, nice try in rephrasing Frazer's argument, but the problem with his thesis isn't cosmetic, it's substantive.

Your starting point is the same as his, that reason is somehow an enemy of faith. Aside from a brief hostility to reason by Luther and Calvin themselves---and by modern-day fundamentalists, as in insisting on the literal truth of the Bible on creation---their successors maintained the Western tradition of seeing "right" reason as a gift from God, meant to be used.

http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/scholasp.htm

You're in the zone about how man can recognize the existence of God by observing nature, but this was acknowledged at least as far back as the Epistles of Paul [Romans 2], if not the Old Testament.

Aquinas calls that "general revelation," God revealing His existence to men using their God-given "right reason."

"Special revelation" is the Bible, and even "theistic rationalists" like John Adams and John Locke and James Wilson called Christianity a "revelation," meaning God communicating directly to man [via Jesus, and miracles as chronicled in the Bible].

Now as for Jesus [not] being divine or dying for our sins, and all that other stuff, Christians have argued for pritnear 2000 years on whether the Bible says that. The rise of Protestantism in 1517 [and before] just brought that stuff back up to the surface.

And in the eyes of the theistic rationalists, reason trumps faith as a means of knowledge about reality.

Man's God-given reason is the way to "the first revelation," that of "general" revelation, where God reveals His existence to man through the order and beauty of creation. Even Jefferson was going to have the philosophical "proofs of God" taught at his University of Virginia in "ethics" class.

So the "means" of knowledge about reality---that God is a reality---starts with reason, and the whole of the Western tradition, the Western philosophical tradition, the Western Christian theologico-philosophical tradition cannot see reason as an enemy of faith.

You're using a lot of the right ontological vocabulary, SS. I'm just filling you in on 2000 years of details. One must accept Dr. Frazer's theology to see reason as inimical to faith. As the 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.

I hope you recognize that I'm not arguing theology or God here, only history and what the Founding era believed. Take Jefferson out, and the Founding era is pretty much unanimously in James Wilson's zone.

As for faith in Jesus dying for your sins getting you into heaven, that's soteriology, the business of salvation. The Founders wisely decided to leave the details of the next world for the next world.

For as everyone knows, from South Park:

Hell Director: Hello newcomers, and welcome. Can everybody hear me? Hello? [taps microphone]

Can everybody... OK. Um, I am the Hell Director. Uh, it looks like we have 8,615 of you newbies today. And for those of you who were little confused: uh, you are dead; and this is Hell. So abandon all hope and yadda-yadda-yadda. Uh, we are now going to start the orientation PROcess which will last about...

Protestant: Hey, wait a minute. I shouldn't be here, I was a totally strict and devout Protestant. I thought we went to heaven.

Hell Director: Yes, well, I'm afraid you are wrong.

Soldier: I was a practicing Jehovah's Witness.

Hell Director: Uh, you picked the wrong religion as well.

Man from Crowd: Well who was right? Who gets in to Heaven?

Hell Director: I'm afraid it was the MORmons. Yes, the MORmons were the correct answer.

The Damned: Awwww...

[Hi, Brad.]

secular square said...

Thanks, TVD-

I think I acutally agree with you on "the details" I am aware of Aquinas' distinction between natural and general revelation. (Locke makes a similar distinction between natural, original, and traditional revelation.) Most of my post rests upon Aquins as I understand him. I do not know whether it makes a different to remember Frazer's original point--that reason trumps revelation (or in my version faith) WHEN THEY POINT TO DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS. Of course, most Christians (including Aquinas) claim that divine revelation does not contract the propositions established by [right]reason as true. And they use reason interpret the bible in such a way that its propositions do not conflict with propostions established by reason.For example, in the Genesis example bouced around early, one may argue either that Genesis is some sort of allegory (the tact of most rational christians)or that the earth really is only x,000 years old.

And I understand you are not arguing God. I guess this aspect of the thread is getting a little far off the beaten path of history proper. But that is why history is so interesting!

Tom Van Dyke said...

SS, I think this is a key point and very germane to the discussion. And I did want to compliment you on your clarity: even when you use different terms than the established ones, you're right on the concepts. Establishing the concepts, the philosophical vocabulary, the "ontology" of the Founding gets us most of the way there in understanding their worldview.

King of Ireland said...

"The Trinity wasn't imposed as much as it won out. Had Arianism been stronger, it's logical that would have been the winner, especially with a politician like Constantine doing the deciding"

The article I read on it, Jon told me later it was a Muslim so I should most definitely read more on it, stated that Constantine only invited Bishops that were non-arians and bullied some who were arians to change sides. Since the losing side was banised it is not surprising that it "won" out. But like I said I need to read up more for sure to see if what I read was accurate.

Either way the Arian presence was large enough to warrant attention not some fringe group or a few scared individuals that hid it. Broadening the scope of this debate gives a more accurate account of the influence that this branch(denomination?) had on Christian history.

In other words, if we open the scope Frazer's thesis falls apart.

King of Ireland said...

"Reason cannot discern what a supreme being might be like, however, or what he wants (if anything) from humanity."

I think that the debate is whether reason can bring the Tibetan nomad to know the God of Exodus 34:5-7. Romans 1 and 2 say that we can know God's character, which is described in Exodus, through what is made/nature.


Or is it revelation apart from the Bible? How did Abraham come to know God before the Bible? Sola Scriptura is a flawed premise. Using the Bible itself as evidence.

King of Ireland said...

I should just have read Tom's response before commenting. I agree with it all. Well put. Frazer has some questions to answer.

King of Ireland said...

I read Frazer's response to my objection to his use of "things they do not like" and will take him at his word as to what he meant by it. But I often hear this right behind accusations of "cafeteria Christianity" that takes what it likes and throws out the rest. That is not what they were doing. The Trinity made no logical sense to them so they looked in the Bible and found verses that contradicted it. It was seeing the "doctrine" as illogical that drove them to study to come up with an interpretation that was consitent with what their reason dictated.

At least that is what I get from many the Frazer labels Theistic Rationalist.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Based on the writings of Jonathan Rowe and by extension Gregg Frazer, I've done some serious study of their claims about the Founding-era "unitarians." What has struck me is how seriously they took their reason, but also how seriously they took the Bible.

In their way, they were fundamentalists, too. They didn't just throw out what they didn't like, like Jefferson did, or even what "offended" their reason. They discarded Roman Catholic dogma and Luther and Calvin's too, then read every chapter and verse in a good faith attempt at sola scriptura just like good and proper Protestants.

The unitarian Christians weren't just "cafeteria" Christians. They were really into it, into theology, much more than the "nominal" Christians who attended church now & then.

This is completely 180 degrees from what I thought unitarians were before I joined the blog. Unitarians were intense about theology and the Bible. It wasn't a casual or cafeteria thing.

bpabbott said...

Re: "In other words, if we open the scope Frazer's thesis falls apart."

Certainly. At the same time opening scope dillutes what it is to be Christian ... in the extreme it comes to mean everything and nothing.

King of Ireland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
King of Ireland said...

"At the same time opening scope dillutes what it is to be Christian ... in the extreme it comes to mean everything and nothing."

I disagree I think it gives us a more accurate picture what a historical Christian is. Original sin, Virgin Birth, and the Trinity have been argued for 2000 years and as Tom says both sides used the Bible they did not cut out what they did not like.


Broadening the scope gives us more information to come to a conclusion. Frazer is saying that America was not founded to be a Christian nation but not giving the full context of what Christian has historically meant. So maybe it wasn't by 18th Century standards if taken to the extreme but maybe is was when we look at the whole scope of history.

I do not think it was per se but lets look at all the history not just the parts that help Frazer makes his narrow case. This is not a black and white discussion. No one thing influenced the founding but to what degree each did is germane. If we have a narrow version of what Christianity is then it is hard to gauge its full impact.

Look how similar Jefferson's words on the right to resist are to Bellarmine's and Aquinas. How many people even know that fact that want to discuss this topic?

King of Ireland said...

I guess what I am saying Ben is that Frazer seems to imply, and most radical secularists certainly quote him to imply, that the founders just cut crap out of the Bible they did not like to fit their "enlightenment" ideals. In other words, the were enligtenment figures and the American Revolution was like the French.

It was not and the Bible still played a whole role in public debate. Not to mention in the writings of men like Locke. The Revolution was nothing new. By looking back to legitimate Christian debates in history and comparing them to those had at the time of the founding like unitarians/arianism we realize that these debates were nothing new and all part of Christian debate.

I like how Tom says that there are real differences between Shitte and Sunni Muslims, enought to fight wars, but no sane person from the outside looking in would not count both sects(denominations) as Muslim. Why? They are sects or strands with a long history. The same as the Unitarians. That is if we look at the full context and not narrow things to the 18th century.

King of Ireland said...

huge not "whole" role above.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, I was speaking of minority sects in Islam, the Sufis and the Ismaelites, for instance, who indeed get the kind of theological heat from the more orthodox that unitarians got.

Still, we on the outside with no dog in the fight would call them all "Muslims."

Brian Tubbs said...

There is, I believe, a profound difference between the Unitarians of the founding era and the Unitarian-Universalists of today.