Thursday, September 16, 2010

Acts 17 & General Principles

I knew someone would mention Acts 17 when I noted Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison repeatedly spoke of God as "The Great Spirit" suggesting unconverted Natives worshipped the same God Jews and Christians do.

Biblical interpretation has similarities to constitutional interpretation. Neither text says "read this provision broadly, read that one narrowly." If there is a doctrine which you are "worried" about, you try to limit its effects, not make a general principle out of it. On the other hand, if there is a doctrine that sounds nice you make it as generally applicable as possible. "Love your neighbor" and "do unto others" are the nice things which we want to apply as broadly and generally as possible.

Likewise, the Bible says nothing about unalienable rights (and yes, to be fair it doesn't mention "The Trinity" or original sin either, which are also doctrines constructed from interpretations of the Bible's text) but you may be able to get there by taking a leap from the general principle of Imago Dei.

On the other hand, all non-psychopaths (hopefully) want to limit the parts of the Bible where God commands genocide against certain tribes. They were, after all, human beings, created in the image of God, but that didn't stop God from commanding Moses et al. to wipe them out. So we say they applied to specific times and circumstances only (how convenient).

We could, as with other parts of the Bible, apply the genocidal texts as general "principles" to grant believers the general power to wipe out all "enemies of God." Scary stuff, yes.

What about the principle of folks who worship the "true God" -- the God of the Bible -- without knowing more about Him?

One thing that always struck me about that provision was how it anticipated the merging of the noble pagan Greco-Roman with the Judeo-Christian. It was Rome, after all, which globalized Christianity. And then, of course, we had Thomas Aquinas' fuller incorporation of Aristotle and Greco-Roman philosophy into Christianity. The Acts 17 example resonates.

The example of the "Great Spirit" on the other hand, seems different in its non-Westerness. Though certain Mormons or any folks who believed Natives are lost tribes of Israeli would be spoken to by the narrative that holds Act 17/TGS as the same God Jews and Christians worship.

But how far does this reasoning extend? Who else worships the true God of the universe dressed up in pagan garb? Who are the false gods which the First Commandment says not to worship?

As far I can tell the only gods the first four Presidents and many other Founders considered false were those who supported the Tories and those who were illiberal in not respecting the freedom of folks to worship Him according to the dictates of their conscience. As long as those two requirements were meant God could call Himself Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu or The Great Spirit and still be the One True God of the Universe.

Is this what Acts 17 teaches?


King of Ireland said...


The Jews had endless names for God why does it surprise us that Paul talks about the "Unknown God"?

You have to read the book "Eternity in their Hearts" by Don Richardson that I bring up everytime this comes up. It backs up a lot of what Tom is saying here.

Also, I appreciate the acknowledgement that imago dei is on par with the Trinity as far as concepts that can possibly be found in the Bible but not by name.

I still think you need to throw out Frazer's frame though and hit this from the proper frame. Tom's post on Locke and Sotieriology did serious damage to his thesis. Serious damage.

Brad Hart said...

Very well said, Jon. I know that this is one reason that Jefferson refused to include much in his "bible" other than what is found in the gospels. It's very true that one can glean almost anything they want from the "Good Book."

King of Ireland said...

"It's very true that one can glean almost anything they want from the "Good Book."

Yea, but lets not act like these ideas are some strange fringe in Christian thought. Aquinas and Augustine are pretty main stream.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I would think Theodore Beza, Jean Calvin's right-hand man [?] and immediate successor [?] is worth a look.

My skim indicates that the American revolution passes "magistrate" muster and Romans 13, but I'm ready to stand corrected.

Brad Hart said...

Who said anything about fringe, Joe? It's just a simple fact that people glean a ton of stuff from the Bible. Just look at all of us contributors with different ideas, each claiming to have biblical support. For this reason, Jon's argument is sound.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, I agree. The point is, you just can't get around theology, no matter how much you want to 'return" to the Bible, sola scriptura, "the Bible only."

As socio-historians, we can only look at the normative and prevailing---and dissenting, yes---theologies at the time of the Founding.

Luther is still pretty Roman Catholic: he just wanted to "reform" the Church. Lutherans [and Anglicans] can barely find anything to disagree about anymore.

John Calvin, less so, but I'd lay cash money he'd rather be a papist than a member of today's Emerging Church!

[I've been researching this stuff via John Fea lately, although I haven't written about it.]

The Beza is interesting, and I hope you'll give it a look. We're talkin' 1550s Protestantism, right at the start. Even Beza uses a scholastic [Aquinas] form, with the objection then the reply, and cites not just the Bible but other examples from history about the politics of tyranny and what to do about it.

Even at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, there was still a place for reason, history, common sense, and theology, which is reason applied to revelation.

I think it's quite remarkable, Brad, and yet another surprise to me in our study of religion and the Founding that we do here together.

I figured the Catholics would be the Divine Right of Kings guys, but they were the first theological opponents.

I figured the sola scriptura Calvinists would be the Romans 13 sheep, but they were the pioneers, with boots on the ground and guns in their hands, of liberty as we know it.

Go figure.

[The Beza is really interesting. I thought I'd start at the beginning. Actually the near-beginning, since everybody does Calvin and tends to leave off there, as if that's all there is to Calvinism. After Beza, they get even more into it.

There is a "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," as Mark Noll calls it, [there isn't much of a mind except thumping on Bible, sez Noll], but if you go back to the beginning of the Reformation, and through the Founding era, they were very thoughtful people.

And I say this as an [amateur, admittedly] socio-historian, not as a Protestant, because I ain't one.

This religion and the Founding thing has led where I never expected.

King of Ireland said...


If you read Jon closely he has been trying to classify many of the main stream ideas we talk about here as fringe for a while now. I do see that he has pulled way back and brought a lot of much needed balance to his claims but the record did and still does need to be set straight.

Fringe was a bad word choice. I should have said "Modern World Enlightenment". Or whatever. The simple fact is that rights talk, liberty, resistance and the like were part of the Western world of political thought long before anyone knew who Jefferson or Locke were.

King of Ireland said...


To be fair a lot of what was written by Protestants and Catholics alike was to undermine King or Popes that they did not like.

With that said, I think one of the best points that Ed Brayton makes about this topic, though obviously I have some serious disagreements with him, is that the groups tended to want freedom when in the persecuted group and then went on to persecute when they gained the upper hand.

This is where you post a while back about how they grew weary of this caused all the calls for tolerance. I think they finally realized that they could go from King to dead pretty quick if things changed. Look at the French Revolution. Things were changing at a pace that had never happened due to the Printing Press.

Most of this was inevitable. The day the press was invented the world changed forever. Just like the Internet today!!!