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.