Monday, October 8, 2012

Thomas Kidd on Gregg Frazer's Book

A very fair review. Here.


Joseph Schmitt said...

I didn't find it to be very fair at all. If anything, it was overly anachronistic. It looks more like Kidd actually just skimmed this book. Arguing over what the Founders considered themselves to be misses the point. What matters in this current debate (which is the one that Frazer is addressing) is what they *were* in reality. When we use the word Deist today, it carries the meaning of the belief that the Deity does not interact with its creation. Any founder that believed in the providential action of a creator is simply not a Deist, regardless of whether they themselves believed they were. Again, when Frazer states that Washington rejected Christianity, he means that he rejected what we mean by Christianity today, not what Washington thought it meant. Anyone can claim to be anything, but that doesn't make them so. I mean, of course no one in the 18th century would have considered themselves to be a "theistic rationalist." They were, however, consciously trying to improve Christianity to avoid the pitfalls of Christendom.

I have found Frazer's book to simply be the best treatment of this topic to date. You guys should start a website for people who have actually read Frazer's book and agree with his consensus. I would love to contribute, and I hate to be so blunt, but I think that his approach is about the only one that can facilitate the kind of dialogue we need in this country.

bpabbott said...


Regarding Deism, the term does not preclude divine interaction. See the wiki section on Early Deism.

* There is one Supreme God.
* He ought to be worshipped.
* Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
* We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them
* Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.

Deists of the enlightenment (usually raised as Christians) believed in one God, but found they could not believe in supernatural events such as miracles, the inerrancy of scriptures, or the Trinity. The principle differentiator between Deists and Christians is a lack of belief in special revelation.

bpabbott said...

I should note that I'm not sure how Frazer defines Deism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Schmitt, Dr. Gregg Frazer has been a frequent subject---and commenter!---over the years here at American Creation. Use the blogsearch function on the right margin over there>>> for "Frazer" and be pleasantly delighted. I wouldn't be surprised if our blog isn't his second internet home if not his first!

Welcome, you've come to the right place. I meself have not been a particular embracer of Dr. Frazer's thesis, as I agree with Kidd that because

From a Christian perspective (Frazer teaches at the Master's College, where the influential Bible teacher John MacArthur is president), he concludes that the leading Founders were neither Deists nor Christians but rather "theistic rationalists."

one must embrace Dr. Frazer's brand of Christian theology to accept his definitions and conclusions. Since I do not, I have trouble swallowing his terms, premises and conclusions.

I do agree with you completely on your objection to Kidd's use of "deist" for Franklin, and for my own reason as well:

In my excellent essay

I note that

"...I soon became a thorough Deist."

is well-known from his autobiography, but not the full passage:

"...I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of these having wronged me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."

As my essay shows, Franklin's relationship with providence is warm and with the Bible itself as God's Word are more of the agnostic/questioning variety than Jefferson's certainty that it's no more than Jesus the Philosopher as corrupted by 1000s of years of biographers.

Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy poking through our archives vis-a-vis Dr. Frazer's thesis--the comments sections are easily as imporrtant and lively as the posts themselves. Again, welcome.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me add an additional note to Tom's point on Franklin re Deism. Though it's not "smoking gun" certain, arguably (that is one could make the argument) Franklin thought of himself as a "Christian" like Jefferson and J. Adams did. What Dr. Frazer has termed theistic rationalism was presented and understood as "rational Christianity." Such a creed was theologically unitarian and rejected or did not affirm other tenets of orthodoxy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Franklin's religion has little in common with Jefferson's. This is a major flaw in the Frazer thesis, lumping disparate men under a term of convenience. Although agnostic on the subject, Franklin is open to the possibility that the Bible is the word of God; Jefferson is closed.

Further, Jefferson believes in self-salvation via good works; Franklin sees salvation as a gift from God than man could never do enough good works to earn.

Michael Heath said...

While I reject Dr. Frazer using his term 'theistic rationalist' to define a group discrete from other deists and Christians, I remain grateful for his invention, optimistic, and hopeful the term will gain in popularity. 2 reasons:

1) It intuitively describes many of the founders' approach and conclusions, far better than deism does given people's defectively narrow understanding of the term. Where I think Frazer's dependence on the modern populist understanding is therefore also wrong-headed and as confusing as some arguing deists at the founding rejected a providential god because they were deists.

2) I don't think he'll be able to control how people will use the term. I think people will accept the fact that someone like Thomas Jefferson was both a deist and a Christian where theistic rationalism best describes both Jefferson's approach and conclusions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think "theistic rationalist" fits Jefferson to a T but weakens as it casts its net wider. That's my objection.

I've become more comfortable with the "theist" part, although monotheism is more explicit. However, once you get to miracles, which Locke and John Adams explicitly accepted and Jefferson explicitly rejected, you're getting into the realm where the metaphysical meets the physical, where the barrier between them is broken. You're into religious territory.

This is where the "rationalism" breaks down for me. Whether or not one was a unitarian who denied Jesus' divinity or dying for our sins and that stuff, the Unitarian Christians of that age cannot be lumped in with "theistic rationalism" as Frazer's thesis does.

This explanation by the unitrian "pope," William Ellery Channing shows where the unitarianism of men like John Adams [and it's conjectured, Madison] is NOT a mere "theistic rationalism."

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."*

Although an evangelical like Gregg Frazer rejects this as too pale to qualify as Christianity, the socio-historian with no dog in the sectarian fight would have to put the unique role assigned to Jesus above all humanity under the umbrella marked "Christian" rather than the more vague "theistic rationalism" of Jefferson.

[A role similar to but far more exalted than that of the prophet Mohammad, who properly gets his own religion too.]


*More here