Friday, June 25, 2010

Frazer Responds to Knapton:

Back in 2007, Gregg Frazer was involved in a debate with a reader named Richard Knapton, reproduced at the now defunct Positive Liberty blog. Since most viewers thru google would find their debate at a blog that no longer exists, I'm reproducing it here at American Creation (note: the debate still is viewable at, though that site was never meant to have as much traffic as my group blogs).

The debate is over whether the American Founders were "Christian" and the heart of the debate is how Christianity defines. One could predict Knapton disputes Frazer's orthodoxy Trinitarian definition of "Christianity." I think Knapton is on strong ground when he notes there was a strong "biblical unitarian" current that arguably merits the title "Christian." I think he is way off in seeming to endorse the idea that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were "Christians" (though non-Trinitarians) who endorsed the idea of the biblical canon as infallible (though perhaps incomplete) and otherwise did not exalt reason over revelation. As I understand, it's clear in their 19th Cen. correspondence that both Jefferson and Adams saw the biblical canon errant or fallible and both exalted reason over revelation as the ultimate arbiter of truth.

With that, part I of our installment:

This is the first chance I've had to respond to Mr. Knapton. I apologize for entering "the fray" so late.

First, as Jonathan has pointed out, there was not room in my Claremont article -- which was, primarily, a book review of another man's work -- to present all of the evidence that Mr. Knapton says that I do not give. It is all there (in spades) in my 440-page dissertation, however. If he is really interested in the evidence, I encourage Mr. Knapton to read the dissertation.

Second, I define "natural religion" as: "a system of thought centered on the belief that reliable information about God and about what he wills is best discovered and understood by examining the evidence of nature and the laws of nature, which he established. While they were not synonymous, the primary expression of natural religion in the 18th century was deism." Surely Mr. Knapton does not deny that deism or natural religion so defined existed in the 18th century -- in the colonies.

Third, Mr. Knapton asserts that my statement: "Revelation was designed to complement reason" is "flat out incorrect." To prove his claim, he quotes from a man who never lived in America and who died seventy years before the period about which I am speaking. Mr. Knapton does not quote any American, much less any American Founder. Believe it or not, the American Founders did not subscribe to everything that Locke said and did not share his view of what counted as legitimate revelation from God.

If Mr. Knapton wants all of the dozens of examples I've given to support my claim, he can get my dissertation -- I certainly do not have the time or inclination to retype them all here. Hopefully, a couple of examples will suffice for those with an open mind. John Adams, in criticizing the belief of "hundreds of millions of Christians" in Christ's millennial kingdom, says: "All these hopes are founded on real or pretended revelation. ... Our faith [speaking to Jefferson] may be supposed by more rational arguments than any of the former." [Sep. 24, 1821 letter to TJ] Adams also said: "Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. When this revelation is clear and certain, by intuition or necessary inductions, no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it." [Dec. 25, 1813 letter to TJ]

It couldn't get much clearer than that!

Fourth, Mr. Knapton suggests that I came up with the term "theistic rationalism" and that, therefore, it did not exist as a concept. This is a specious argument. When Calvin was alive, preaching, and writing, no one referred to his theology as "Calvinism," that is a term which was coined later to refer to his body of beliefs. "Amillennialism" was not used as a term in Augustine's day (it was coined hundreds of years later to describe the beliefs held by Augustine and others ) -- but no theologian or historian would deny that Augustine was amillennial. Examples abound because it is quite common for terms to be coined to sum up or represent movements and/or belief systems. That is what I've done and the fact that no one used the term does not change the fact that they held the beliefs. Without such terms, we would have to list all beliefs which are part of a system every time we tried to talk about the system!

Fifth, regarding the relationship between reason and revelation, Mr. Knapton is quite correct in pointing out that "from the time of Thomas Aquinas Christianity and reason had gone hand in hand." If Mr. Knapton had read my dissertation, he would have seen that I specifically discussed Aquinas and the emphasis on reason in Christianity. The difference between the Thomistic approach and that of the theistic rationalists, however, is what one does when reason and revelation point to different conclusions. For Aquinas, revelation trumps reason at such points; for the theistic rationalists, reason trumps revelation -- indeed, reason determines what counts as legitimate revelation from God.

As Daniel observed, Jefferson's emasculation of the Gospels is indeed a classic example of deciding what is not (to Jefferson's eyes) rational and physically removing it with scissors. Mr. Knapton suggests that Jefferson did not excise verses on the basis of apparent conflict with reason, but that he chose only to include the teachings of Jesus in his "version" of the Gospels. That is simply not true. "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" [title is significant, too] begins with a historical account of SOME of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus (minus those which are supernatural/miraculous) -- Jesus did no teaching before being born or as an infant. It ends with the death and burial of Jesus (minus the supernatural/miraculous elements) -- Jesus did no teaching after dying or while He was being buried.

Furthermore -- and here's the critical part -- Jefferson also excised parts of the TEACHING of Jesus; namely, those passages in which Jesus clearly claimed to be God!!! If he was simply trying to faithfully present the teachings of Jesus without the surrounding material, why did he include some of the surrounding material and NOT include all of the teaching???

Finally (on this point), we don't have to speculate about what Jefferson intended to do -- he talked about it and explained his purpose and method. I invite Mr. Knapton to investigate what he said.

Sixth, Mr. Knapton quoted one paragraph of mine and noted that 90% of the colonial population would agree with that particular belief of the theistic rationalists. I want to thank him for confirming my point in that section. I was attempting to show that theistic rationalism was distinct from deism and that Protestant Christianity was one of the three contributing elements to it.

Seventh, Mr. Knapton quotes my statement that the theistic rationalists believed that "most religious traditions are valid and lead to the same God" and then observes that "they did not see all religious moral codes as equal." I did not say that they saw them all as EQUAL, I said that they saw them as VALID. So, he once again did a fine job of defeating a straw man argument.

Eighth, Mr. Knapton accuses me of "unintended sophistry" in pointing out that the theistic rationalists did not believe that Jesus was God and he suggests that there was "a strain of Christian thought" which taught that Jesus was subordinate to God. Methinks the sophistry is one the other foot, however. Mr. Knapton refers, apparently, to the Arian or Socinian heresies, which the church had declared to be heresies -- and not Christian doctrine -- centuries before. On page 10 of my dissertation, I have a chart which outlines the basic core beliefs of the Christian denominations in 18th century America as expressed in their own creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Every Christian denomination in 18th century America affirmed the deity of Christ and the Trinity as basic core Christian beliefs. Mr. Knapton's suggestion might appeal to groups which came along later and who CLAIMED to be Christians, such as Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses; but it doesn't stand up to 18th century scrutiny. There were, of course, those who denied the deity of Christ and the Trinity (including the theistic rationalists), but they were considered "infidels" by 18th-century Christians.

If Mr. Knapton thinks that Christianity is "all about" Jesus being the savior of the world independent of His being God, then he and I have very different conceptions of what Christianity is "all about" -- but, more importantly, he has a very different view than those we are discussing: 18th century American Christians.

Ninth, Mr. Knapton again conveniently changed what I said by dropping a critical word when he pointed out that standard Christian thought believes that "God reveals himself through nature." What I said was that the theistic rationalists believed that "God PRIMARILY revealed himself through nature," which is, of course, entirely different!!! That is not "standard Christian thought," except, perhaps, in Mr. Knapton's version of Christianity. Standard Christian thought is that God PRIMARILY reveals Himself in Scripture (revelation) and secondarily through nature.

Tenth, again, I could retype numerous quotes illustrating the fact that the theistic rationalists believed that only some revelation is legitimate. For example, I refer, again, to the example of Jefferson's scissors, but also to his referring to the rest of the New Testament (other than the Gospels) as a "dunghill" (which was his favorite summation of them, repeated many times). Or his characterization of the non-Gospel authors as "pseudo-evangelists" who "pretended to inspiration." He told Miles King that "your reason alone" is competent to judge whether revelation is legitimate and that "our reason at last must ultimately decide, as it is the only oracle which God has given us to determine between what really comes from him and the phantasms of a disordered or deluded imagination." [Sep. 26, 1814 letter to King] Adams said of the biblical record of the Fall of man in Genesis that it "is either an allegory, or founded on uncertain tradition, that it is an hypothesis to account for the origin of evil, adopted by Moses, which by no means accounts for the facts." [Feb. 1814 letter to TJ]

The rest of Mr. Knapton's contribution is, apparently, criticism of Jonathan's arguments -- not mine -- so I will leave that to Jonathan to answer.

I urge Mr. Knapton to do me the courtesy of reading my dissertation containing my entire argument and the evidence for it before dismissing it and/or criticizing the lack of evidence found in a few paragraphs of a book review.


King of Ireland said...

" and otherwise did not exalt reason over revelation."

I think we need a clear understanding of what this means. Some would say Locke did it. I disagree. Taking a reasoned approach to interpretation of the Bible and throwing out dogma like the Trinity that was bullied into existense as church doctrine is far different than saying that unaided reason trumps revelation from God. That is the French Revolution not the American one.

King of Ireland said...

"indeed, reason determines what counts as legitimate revelation from God."

Hooker wrote on the problems with this kind of reasoning. How else do we come to conclusions as to what God is saying and what he is not in the Bible. We apply our reason.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As always, Avery Cardinal Dulles helps sort things out:

On the question of the priorities between faith and reason, Rogers and McKim hold that whereas Augustine made faith prior to reason, Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics inverted the order, making reason primary. This contrast strikes me as overly sharp, since both Augustine and Aquinas recognized that the priorities are mutual. In his Commentary on the Psalms, for instance, Augustine wrote: "There are some things that we do not believe unless we understand them, and there are other things that we do not understand unless we believe them." How could we believe the preaching of the gospel, he then asked, unless we understood what was being proclaimed?

Robert Hagedorn said...

The Fall of man was when Adam and Eve had anal intercourse instead of being fruitful and multiplying. Who's smart enough to figure out what's wrong with this very offensive exegesis? Google "Robert Hagedorn's Blogs"

Jonathan Rowe said...


That's a good one. Since they didn't have condoms back then, maybe original sin was Adam pulling out before finishing.

King of Ireland said...

Jon and Robert,

What does this have to do with anything in the post?

secular square said...

If I understand Frazer, he argues that theistic rationalists used reason for different ends than determining what God allegedly says in the bible. Your recognition of the need for reason in interpreting the bible is true, but it is also closer to Aquinas than theistic rationalists. I understand that Aquinas accepted the bible as divine revelation on faith. According to Aquinas, theological science takes “its principles, not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation.” But then it borrows “from the philosophical sciences [reason?], not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to makes its [theological science?] teaching clearer.” Of course, most orthodox Christians would add that teaching ministry of the holy spirit (I John 2.27) and a regenerate mind (I Cor. 2.14) are also needed.

In contrast, theological rationalists used reason not so much as to interpret the scriptures, but to assess whether in fact the bible IS revelation at all. As Locke put it, “Even original revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.” He argued that “reason vouches the truth of [revelations], by the testimony and proofs it gives that they come from God.” If we take his words at face value, it appears that Locke, using reason alone, concluded that the bible is revelation. But as Frazer’s quotes demonstrate, Adams and Jefferson came to the opposite conclusion. Again, most orthodox Christians would add that reason alone is not enough even to determine if the bible is divine revelation and that the holy spirit and, at least in the eyes of Calvinists, a regenerate mind are also required. And maybe a few signs and wonders (Heb. 2.3-4.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Secular Square:

Outstanding response.

King of Ireland said...

Secular Square,

I am still not sure what the definition of revelation is in this discussion. With that said, you bring up some good points. So this all comes down to whether reason unadided by God allows us to determine what is revelation in the Bible? That is a complex subject for sure. Most Evangelicals would say it is the Holy Spirit but reason to has a part in that too. I have always wondered how Calvinists think a totally depraved person can respond to what it written in the Bible. I guess this is why they teach irresistable grace?

secular square said...


KOI-it is a very complex subject--so complex that I experience difficulty discerning in some exchanges what exactly are the points of disagreement among the AC team. And sometimes I wonder if the AC team knows.

In my comment above, I guess initially “what it all comes down to” is really a question about the use of philosophy rather than a proper historical question. But it bleeds over in history.

Aquinas used reason or philosophy to support Christianity as a preordained conclusion. Most Christian philosophers today follow in the footsteps of Aquinas. People like Frame, Plantinga, and Lane use philosophy for apologetics or evangelism. Since their subject is specifically the Christian deity, one can broadly call it theology, sacred theology, or dogmatic theology. Even so-called natural theology, which by its name suggests something free from biblical or doctrinal presuppositions, is mainly done by Christian philosophers to support their preordained conclusion: that Christianity is true. (And the more fundamentalist Christians do the same thing with the sciences.)

Many Enlightenment philosophers (and the theistic rationalists they influenced ) sought to recapture the pre-Christian philosophical approach of ancient philosophy, unadulterated by Christian dogma. They considered themselves “enlightened” compared with the “dark ages” dominated by medieval Christian philosophy. It was/is a more open ended pursuit of truth that did not have to be kept within the boundaries of Christian dogma. (Not that the inquiries of non-Christian philosophers are free from their own personal interests and presuppositions!) Consequently, Enlightenment philosophers (their modern philosophical heirs) exhibited skepticism about claims of divine revelation and miracles. Hence the views of Hume, Paine, Adams, Jefferson etc.

The complexity of which you spoke I believe comes in because the Enlightenment philosophers simply could not pretend that a thousand years of medieval history did not take place. The medieval age and its ideas shaped the age of the Enlightenment. I do not believe that Enlightenment philosophers could free themselves totally from the influence of the Christian societies in which they lived. And this, as can be seen from the exchanges between you, TVD, and Jon, makes it extremely difficult to disentangle Christian thought from non-Christian thought when assessing the role of ideas in the American founding.

Gregg Frazer 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.

As Jon said, "Secular Square" has it right.

Second, Aquinas taught that faith and reason would usually lead to the same end/conclusion because God is the source of both. However, when the two come into conflict, it is due either to an error in reasoning or an error in interpretation of Scripture. He most certainly did NOT place reason ABOVE faith.

King of Ireland 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."

"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 you think it says it does not mean they reject the Bible.

King of Ireland said...

"In contrast, theological rationalists used reason not so much as to interpret the scriptures, but to assess whether in fact the bible IS revelation at all."

Who does not do this? I had never read it at all until 26. I began to read it and what some people said about it, THOUGHT IT OVER, and began to realize it was true.

I have since come to realize that things like Paul's letters and other times when men gave opinions are not revelation but those men's opinions. Not to mentioned the heavy handed ways that things like the biblical canon and the trinity usually come about. It is usually more about politics than conviction.

So because some council called by a Pope or Emperor says that something is revelation we are supposed to take that uncritically? Come on.

secular square said...

That could only mean one thing, KOI--you are a theistic rationalist!

Well, maybe a Lockean Christian?

The nature of religious belief is a far more difficult question than any discussed at AC. Because your conversion is your own private experience, I can only accept your account of it. Aquinas, however might disagree. He might argue that your reason is only valid concerning matters that are empirically evident or in some way demonstrable. Reason might lead you to infer the existence of a supreme being, but little more. Reason cannot make conclusions about God’s will in general or specific Christian doctrines such as angels/spirits, the incarnation, the atonement, and the resurrection. They come through divine revelation. And these are not propositions that can be affirmed by reason.

So how does one come to profess belief in these specific Christian doctrines? By faith-- an act of your will in which you assent to the truth of these propositions that are not evident to reason. And where did faith come from? The grace of God, of course.

King of Ireland said...

"So how does one come to profess belief in these specific Christian doctrines? By faith-- "

The Tibetan nomad has no idea what these doctrines are. What can he find out about God from "what is made"(Romans 1)? It says God qualities or nature. That is put into words in Exodus 34:5-7. I do not know if it is by reason or revelation? I think Tom is right when he calls it first revelation. Or Aquinas general revelation. Either way it seems to be reason un-aided by scripture(special revelation)? We need to get our definitions straight to understand what these men are saying.