Saturday, August 13, 2011

Trenchard & Gordon on Religion

I suppose we'd have to get to them sooner or later. We've done John Locke on religion quite a bit. And Joseph Priestly and Richard Price. All were British Whigs who strongly influenced the American Founding, including but not limited to religion.

It's debatable whether America knew the "true" (perhaps heterodox) Locke. And Priestley and Price weren't popular among the masses, but rather influenced various elites in important positions of power (they greatly influenced J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin).

Thomas Gordon & John Trenchard's works were more popularly read in America. They posited something which most (if not every) of the above mentioned figures endorsed -- an idea of "primitive Christianity," that is Christianity before it got corrupted by clerics and creeds.

Trenchard and Gordon's "test" for what is "Christianity" seems close to John Locke's (who certainly influenced them). There are two elements, one belief in the Bible as God's divinely inspired word and two Jesus as Messiah and son of God. Nothing contained in a creed is necessary. In fact, ecclesiastical authority and official creeds tend to be hated in this kind of Christianity. Roman Catholicism is enemy number one. High church Anglicanism is enemy number two. But again, the notion of creedalism itself is rejected.

Anti-creedalism is something I've discovered quite common among America's Founders. Not just the "key Founders" like the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin, but also figures like Benjamin Rush and John Jay. We might term this kind of Christianity, "freethinking Christianity" that contrasts with the more conservative "creedal Christianity." Where Protestantism meets Enlightenment, the freethinkers wanted to read the Bible for themselves and determine what it meant. The Bible clearly refers to Jesus as Son of the God and Savior of man. But does it clearly teach the Trinity?

The freethinking Christians say no. Indeed, I realize a lot of Sola Scriptura Protestants claim they get the Trinity from the Bible alone. However, if you research church history and experience, you'll see, almost without exception these churches likewise embrace orthodox creeds like the Athanasian, Nicene, Apostles, because they realize freethinkers reading the Bible for themselves will NOT necessarily conclude that it clearly teaches the Trinity. Therefore those creeds are necessary just to make clear THIS is how we interpret the Bible.

Trenchard and Gordon are exhibit A.

As they wrote Wednesday, April 6. 1720:

But whilst [the clergy] were thus carrying on their Project for Dominion, they found it necessary to throw out a Barrel to the Whale, and keep the People’s Minds busied, and their Passions afloat, with Metaphysical Subtilties and Distinctions, of no Use to true Religion and Morality, though very conducive to their own ambitious tyrannical Designs.

I would gladly know, from these Reverend Venders of Trifles, Whether it would have been worth the Thousandth Part of the Combustion which has been made, or the Blood which has been spilt, only to have settled a few Speculations, if they could have been settled? Pray where is the essential Difference between Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, and the RealPresence? What the Consequence, whether a Child be baptized by one sort of Priests, or by another? Or of what Use to Mankind are the abstruse Questions about Predestination, Free-Will, or Free-Grace? What is the Difference, as to the Duties or Ordinances of Christianity, if they be administred under the Direction of a single Person, a Bench of Bishops, or a Lower House of Convocation, or none of them all, so they be piously administred? Or whether the chimerical Line of Succession be broken, or ever had a Being?

Since ’tis agreed amongst all our present Sects of Christians, that the Saviour of the World is the Son of God, descended from Heaven to teach Virtue and Goodness to Men, and to die for our Redemption; how are we concerned in the Scholastic Notions of the Trinity? Will the Scripture be more regarded, or the Precepts of it be better observed, if the Three Persons are believed to be Three Divine distinct Spirits and Minds, who are so many real subsisting Persons? Whether the Son and Holy-Ghost are Omnipotent of themselves, or are subordinate, and dependent on the Father? Or, if they are independent, whether their Union consist in a mutual Consciousness of one another’s Thoughts and Designs, or in any thing else? Whether they are Three Attributes of God, viz. Goodness, Wisdom and Power? Or Three internal Acts, viz. Creation, Redemption and Sanctification? Or Two internal Acts of the One subsisting Person of the Father; that is to say, the Father understanding and willing himself and his own Perfections? Or Three internal Relations, namely, the Divine Substance and Godhead confidered as Unbegotten, Begotten, and Proceeding? Or Three Names of God ascribed to him in Holy Scripture, as he is Father of all Things, as he did inhabit in an extraordinary Manner in the Man Jesus Christ, and as he effected every thing by his Spirit, or his Energy and Power? Or lastly, Whether the Three Persons are only Three Beings, but what sort of Beings we neither know, nor ought to pretend to know? which I take to be the Trinity of the Mob, as well as of some other wiser Heads.

As far as I can remember, these are the important Questions which have set Mankind together by the Ears, for so many Ages; and it seems are yet thought of Consequence enough to create new Feuds, and mortal Dudgeon, amongst all our Sects of Ecclesiastics. But why must we of the Laity quarrel about them too? What have Beaux and Belles, old Women, Coblers, and Milk-Maids, to do with Homo-ousios, Consubstantiality, Personality, HypostaticalUnion, Infinite Satisfaction, &c.? none of which hard Words, or any like them, are to be found in Scripture; and therefore, I think, we may even return them to Rome, that being the Place from whence they came, and be contented to be good Christians without them.

Something else we see here is the notion that orthodox Trinitarianism itself, or at minimum many of doctrines which exist in orthodox creeds and confessions, becomes associated with Roman Catholic fabrication.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is a problem that any religion has a sacred text, isn't it, Jon! Creedalism and institutonalism are social structuring/engineering of Church authorities.

Primitive Christianity is social structuring/engineering of the elite class upon those they want to conform to a certain endeavor. In this sense, intertextuality, in hopes of bringing some form of "consensus"....There will be no consensus, because humans differ in their needs and understandings. History proves that there is no 'Utopian dream or Hope"!!!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, then the goals of the humanitarian might make another determination of "good works" rather then inter-textuality...because getting others on board with your own agenda is important for any leader!

I am in principle against determination of another person's life. Influence is not and should not be determination. What a person chooses to do with their life is their personal decision.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's not exactly the point, Ms. VDM. The question is whether a society can, should or even must have norms for its own cohesion if not survival.

And "consensus" certainly does exist. Over in the Muslim Spring countries, the consensus will be they want a society ordered in harmony with Islam, not Amsterdam.

It's not up to you, me, or us to tell them they can't order their society that way.

As for our own society, I oppose the idea that we aren't allowed to order it however we want, be it in harmony with the Bible or Amsterdam. The Constitution does not demand we order it like Amsterdam, and it doesn't forbid it either. It's up to us.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Whenever religion is brought up, then that is an indication that there is a belief in a Deity that has a right that supercedes man's right. This fact disturbs me, because it undermines self-determination, and either makes man passive (God will intervene), submissive (the Church will intervene), or arrogant (I will intervene)!

There is nothing wrong with an individual determining what he cares about and "going for it", but when "God" is suggested to be the implementor of such an endeavor, then, there can be arrogance towards another opinion or viewpoint!

Religion destroys the fabric of "self-development" and makes man dependent on an "outside source"....

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, this is relevant.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom: Yup it is time to revisted that classic piece by Noll as there is so much great stuff in there.

Jason Pappas said...

It always strikes me that the ever-practical English want to get one with life and not be sidetracked by speculation--certainly the scholastic type most often caricatured by “how many angles on a pin?” That T&G were so widely read definitely makes this an interest passage. Thanks for reprinting it.

Anonymous said...

Among the anti-Trinitarian Englishmen of the 17th century we have not only John Locke but Isaac Newton and John Milton: the men pretty universally acknowledged as (respectively) the greatest philosopher, scientist and poet of their time. It would have made a pretty formidable Unitarian batting order to try pitching against, except that none of the trio ever 'fessed up to it in public.

Jeffrey Kramer