Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thomas Paine's Deism

At American Creation we've spent a great deal of time exploring and arguing over the religion of the "key Founders" who weren't quite bold deists or orthodox Trinitarian Christians.  We should better explore the theology of other Founders.  Like the uber-orthodox, very important Founder Roger Sherman.  Yet, though we've mentioned Thomas Paine, we have not put his theology under the microscope as we have with others.

Thomas Paine boldly self identified as a Deist and described his faith.
Every person, of whatever religious denomination he may be, is a DEIST in the first article of his Creed. Deism, from the Latin word Deus, God, is the belief of a God, and this belief is the first article of every man's creed. 
It is on this article, universally consented to by all mankind, that the Deist builds his church, and here he rests. ...
Paine goes on.  You can read the whole thing.  But "and here he rests" draws a clear stopping line.  His creed really was that simple.  But what Paine noted in the above passage that EVERY PERSON of WHATEVER RELIGION believes in the "deistic minimum" is what the purveyors of natural theology believed.

Deists believed in "natural religion" only.  Some orthodox Christians believe in natural religion (in the tradition of Aquinas et al.); some don't.  But orthodox Christians (obviously) believe in biblical revelation too. Dr. Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalists" too believed both in natural and revealed religion; but Frazer argues, they made revealed religion the handmaiden to natural religion.

One thing the "theistic rationalists" did often was speak in generic philosophical language of God (they were theological uniters, not dividers).  One of their favorite ways to describe God was as a Being of infinite Wisdom, Goodness, and Power. (I'm surprised such language didn't find its way into the Declaration of Independence).  Now, some orthodox Christians may also describe God using these three descriptors.  In fact, they may have done it first.  But the Deists too comfortably used that language.  At least Thomas Paine did:
Its creed is pure, and sublimely simple. It believes in God, and there it rests.  
It honors reason as the choicest gift of God to man, and the faculty by which he is enabled to contemplate the power, wisdom and goodness of the Creator displayed in the creation; ... [Bold mine.]
As alluded to above, the purveyors of natural religion believed most all, if not all "religious" people worshipped the One True God of Wisdom, Goodness, and Power.  Thomas Paine claimed to worship this God.  The key Founders' language is replete with this exact reference to such God.  John Adams claimed the Hindu Shastra teaches the existence and worship of such God, the very same God he claimed to worship.

Do all world religions really believe in the same One God of Wisdom, Goodness and Power?  Who is this God?

Those are rhetorical questions, above my "pay grade" at the present moment.

22 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's occurred to me lately that perhaps certain figures like Anne Hutchinson [Puritan dissenter], Roger Williams [founder of a postage stamp-sized colony] and Tom Paine [author of 2 influential pamphlets but contributor of little else] have received greater attention than they deserve because they're ideologically attractive to the secular-minded types who dominate the academy.

To Jon's post,

One of their favorite ways to describe God was as a Being of infinite Wisdom, Goodness, and Power. (I'm surprised such language didn't find its way into the Declaration of Independence).

I would submit that we in the 21st century, between the no-religionists and the "liberal" Christians who see Jesus as sort of an incarnated Barney the Dinosaur, have lost sight of how the Founding era saw the Judeo-Christian God---as Mighty Jehovah.

Franklin and Jefferson, our Top 2 infidels, suggesting the US' Great Seal have the Pillar of Fire over Moses and the Israelites!

No, really.

http://greatseal.com/committees/firstcomm/index.html

These days, Judeo-Christianity has become about goodness and love, but back in the day, it's more important that God is just. And so, Congress adds to Jefferson's draft


"appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions"

and only then

"a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence".

There's your wisdom, goodness and power as seen back in that day, more Jehovah than Barney. God will help them not because He loves them, but because their cause is just.


wsforten said...

One of their favorite ways to describe God was as a Being of infinite Wisdom, Goodness, and Power.

Isn't that a rather subjective comment for a history blog? How do you know that this was their favorite means of referencing God? Perhaps, you meant to say that this was their most frequent way of referring to their Creator. In which case, I would very much like to know who "they" are, how frequently they used these terms as compared to others and how their terminology differed from various control groups of the same era.

I'm also curious about your definition of "natural religion." You seem to be making the same mistake that Frazer made in his book when he confused the definition of "naturalism" for that of "natural religion." Every Christian sect that I've ever studied believes in natural religion, but they almost universally reject naturalism. You don't seem to be distinguishing between the two. Perhaps a study of their differences would help you resolve your questions.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re the first question, I'm letting it go. If it's subjective, so be it.

Re the 2nd, you are the one who is mistaken. Natural religion means what we know about God through reason unaided by revelation. And no, not every Christian sect believes in it. A great deal of them (those who don't care for Aquinas) reject such concept.

raySoller said...

TVD, in contrast to your molehill assessment of Tom Paine, I offer this essay, Common Sense as a Source of the Presidential Oath in the United States of America.

The author's essay concludes with this comment:

According to Pauley's apt observation, the American President's oath is "the true crown of American constitutionalism."38] As is shown above, the Constitutional oath of President of the United States embodies the fundamental concept of Paine's "new system of government" as it is presented in Common Sense: the written Constitution of a democratic republic, as the Supreme Law, worked out by the Constitutional Convention, is to be the true King of this country. In my opinion, the contents of the Presidential oath, its history, and the very manner of its taking -- all testify to the fact that Common Sense, more than any other source, is its true ideological foundation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps. But the same author concedes

… The works of Bernard Bailyn are among the classic contributions to the study of the ideology and history of the American Revolution. Bailyn asserts that even at the height of Common Sense's success, its influence upon Congress from May to July 1776, at the time when the Declaration of Independence had been worked out, and solemnly announced, is not evident. According to this scholar: "Thomas Paine's Common Sense is the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language .... For it is a work of genius." But "the closer we look at the details of what happened in Congress in early 1776 the less important Common Sense appears to have been.".

BTW, Paine's greatest achievement, Common Sense is far more Biblical than many or most of his admirers are aware.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/04/thomas-paines-common-sense-as-heard-by.html

wsforten said...

That's very interesting, Jon. Can you point me to a Christian sect which denies that Romans 1:19-20, Romans 2:14-15 and Romans 10:17-18 speak of God revealing Himself to man through creation?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes it is very interesting, WS Forten.

I don't deny that one could interpret the Bible to find a POINT where "natural religion" (which defines as what man can know about God from his reason unassisted by special revelation) "fits" via verses and chapter of scripture.

But plenty of Christians reject such a concept by opting for a different interpretation of those verses and chapters than you do. Among them Gregg Frazer, and if I'm not mistaken, the official doctrine of Grace Community Church, Karl Barth and Francis Schaeffer.

Here is a source on Barth's rejection:

http://www.wordmp3.com/files/gs/barth.htm

And here is a video clip of Schaeffer rejecting the concept:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLDgrBGwMX8

Ray Soller said...

Tom, the author is not conceding anything. She remarks, in contast to a contemporary like David Ramsey, It is strange that Paine is not [currently] given -- not only in world history, but even in American history --the place he seems to deserve. Let us turn to the opinions of some well-known modern scholars [such as Bernard Bailyn, and Pauline Maiers].

wsforten said...

Okay, Jon, you seem to be saying that Gregg Frazer, Grace Community Church, Francis Schaeffer and Karl Barth all reject the concept of natural religion which you have defined as the ability to "know about God through reason unaided by revelation." If I've understood you correctly, then you are holding to a position which is easily disproven.

First, as I explained in The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism, Frazer did not define natural religion in the same way that you did. His definition is more consistent with naturalism than natural religion, and he directs his denial against his own, erroneous definition.

As for Grace Community Church, their own materials contain several references to the concept of natural religion. Consider, for example, this statement from Matt Waymeyer who is identified in the material as a Pastoral Resident of Grace Community Church:

God has made Himself known through two channels -- special revelation (the propositional truth recorded in Scripture) and general revelation (the non-propositional truth deposited by God in the created order of things)

Francis Schaeffer also accepts the idea that man can "know about God through reason unaided by revelation." In the video clip which you cited, Schaeffer was speaking about the superiority of the absolute truth of the Bible over relativism. He did not address any of the passages from Romans which I listed. However, his position on those passages is well known, and his books contain many statements along the lines of this one from his book True Spirituality:

Paul reminds us in Romans 1 that man is condemned against the backdrop of the Creation, which, in spite of the Fall, still speaks of God. The external created world is a revelation of God. In theology this is spoken of as the general revelation of God, which surrounds man in the external world, exhibiting God's deity both in the internal nature of man himself, which speaks of God as personal, and in the evidence of the thought of God expressed in the external, created universe.

wsforten said...

Karl Barth's commentary on Romans contains a similar though much more verbose conclusion:

The truth concerning the limiting and dissolving of men by the unknown God, which breaks forth in the resurrection, is a known truth...

We know that God is He whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge. We know that God is the Personality which we are not, and that this lack of Personality is precisely what dissolves and establishes our personality. The recognition of the absolute heteronomy under which we stand is itself an autonomous recognition; and this is precisely that which may be known of God. When we rebel, we are in rebellion not against what is foreign to us but against that which is most intimately ours, not against what is removed from us but against that which lies at our hands. Our memory of God accompanies us always as problem and as warning...

Plato in his wisdom recognized long ago that behind the visible there lies the invisible universe which is the Origin of all concrete things. And moreover, the solid good sense of the men of the world had long ago perceived that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom...

By calm veritable, unprejudiced religious contemplation the divine 'No' can be established and apprehended. If we do not ourselves hinder it, nothing can prevent our being translated into a most wholesome krisis by that which may be known of God. And indeed, we stand already in this krisis if we would but see clearly. And what is clearly seen to be indisputable reality is the invisibility of God, which is precisely and in strict agreement with the gospel of the resurrection -- His everlasting power and divinity...

Inexcusable is their godlessness, for the clearly seen works of God speak of His everlasting power...

Inexcusable also is their unrighteousness, for the clearly seen facts bear witness to the everlasting divinity of God...

The knowledge of God attainable through a simple observation of the incomprehensibility, the imperfection, the triviality of human life, was not taken advantage of...


It would seem, therefore, that my question remains unanswered. Would you care to try again?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom, the author is not conceding anything. She remarks, in contast to a contemporary like David Ramsey, It is strange that Paine is not [currently] given -- not only in world history, but even in American history --the place he seems to deserve. Let us turn to the opinions of some well-known modern scholars [such as Bernard Bailyn, and Pauline Maiers].

Well, we could both be right, you know, Ray. I say Paine is praised not for putative reason X [his role in the revolution], but because secular types like to give undue importance to less religious Paine.

You [and the author] say he should be better known for Y, his contribution to the Constitution. At first blush, I think not, but remain open to the argument, which is why I wrote "perhaps."

Tom Van Dyke said...

this statement from Matt Waymeyer who is identified in the material as a Pastoral Resident of Grace Community Church:

God has made Himself known through two channels -- special revelation (the propositional truth recorded in Scripture) and general revelation (the non-propositional truth deposited by God in the created order of things)


It's a beautiful thing when evangelicals discover Aquinas.
http://theroundtablediscourse.blogspot.com/2010/11/looking-to-aquinas-general-revelation.html

Gives one hope for this "Christianity" thing afterall.

wsforten said...

Aquinas? Why do you attribute the concept of natural religion to Aquinas? The book of Romans was written by Paul nearly 1200 years before the birth of Aquinas, and Paul's argument for the existence of natural religion is founded on the Psalms of David which were written another 1000 years before that. Christians have always held that the creation reveals the existence of the Creator, and at the very least, you should have traced the claim back to Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Schaeffer was speaking about the superiority of the absolute truth of the Bible over relativism."

No he wasn't. Schaeffer was arguing contra Aquinas. Unless you want to absurdly credit Aquinas with "relativism."

"Francis Schaeffer also accepts the idea that man can 'know about God through reason unaided by revelation.'"

Yes he does. He accepts, contra the "key Founders," we can know about God very little, almost nothing at all.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Karth Barth rejected natural theology for the reasons listed in what I linked above. I don't have time to waste on answering sophistry. I'll claim -- with good reason -- that you shot and missed and move on.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As far as Grace Community Church is concerned, I know Frazer rejects the natural law/natural theology. He told me he doesn't agree with everything Rev. MacArthur holds (because Frazer, like MacArthur claims to base his teachings on the Bible alone and surprise, surprise, when that is your standard two folks might disagree on what the Bible actually means). And folks in that church -- perhaps even the church itself -- may believe in something like what Aquinas taught. So you may have a point with that one. Which is why I qualified my statement with "and if I'm not mistaken."

Jonathan Rowe said...

I just skimmed the link from Grace Community Church. I don't have time to get into it. But it's not very "up" on natural theology. It's certainly not Thomistic.

wsforten said...

Your source defines "Natural Theology" as the "revelation of God through the cosmos, to humankind as a whole." I have provided direct quotes from Karl Barth and Francis Schaeffer stating that they recognize such a revelation. Perhaps such evidence constitutes sophistry in your vocabulary, but I would be honored if you would condescend to my perspective and discuss it as if it were actual evidence which must be dealt with in order for your position to be valid.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The evidence presented in my link about Barth refutes your understanding of Barth's position. And no, I really don't have the time this week to engage in an extended argument.

Likewise, what I asserted about Schaeffer stands unmolested.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aquinas? Why do you attribute the concept of natural religion to Aquinas?

"General revelation" is an Aquinas locution, is all.

wsforten said...

That exact terminology may, perhaps, be attributable to Aquinas, but the concept itself greatly precedes him. A few years ago, Thomas C. Oden presented an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in which he demonstrated the prevalence of the doctrine of general revelation among the Christians of the first millennium. His article is entitled, "Without Excuse: Classic Christian Exegesis of General Revelation," and it available online at this link:



https://www.galaxie.com/article/jets41-1-06

Tom Van Dyke said...

That exact terminology may, perhaps, be attributable to Aquinas, but the concept itself greatly precedes him.

Yes, I know. We all know. Thomism/Scholasticism provides the greater philosophical framework on which later Christian thinkers build.

http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/scholasp.htm

But Jon is quite right that Luther and Calvin [although not their successors] had a hostility to natural theology, as did fideistic 20th century figures such as Schaeffer and especially the far more heavyweight Karl Barth, who was more Lutheran than Luther, more Calvinist than Calvin, as Jon's links above illustrate.

Indeed, such "fideism" [faith over reason] is at the heart of "the scandal of the evangelical mind." If and when evangelicals take advantage of the powerful tools afforded by natural theology and Aquinas Aristotelian systematization of it, the better off Christianity [and the world] will be.