Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ben Franklin: Heretics are Honest & Virtuous (and therefore saved)

Ben Franklin's exact religious creed is difficult to put your finger on. After a short flirtation with strict deism while younger, he apparently abandoned it for something else. I see what he converted to as the "hybrid religion" of the key Founders, somewhere in between strict deism and orthodox Christianity (whatever you want to term it, theistic rationalism, Christian-Deism, small u unitarianism, etc.).

From Franklin's writings, we do know a few certain things about his creed. He was a theist, that is he believed in an active personal, as opposed to a cold and distant God. After a long debate in this comment thread, I am convinced that Franklin rejected the orthodox Protestant doctrine of sola fide (or that men are justified through "faith alone").

Yet, Franklin was also skeptical that men could save themselves through their good works alone. His letter to George Whitefield demonstrates he didn't think HE HIMSELF could do it. Though, he may have remained open to the notion that some could.

That said, Franklin's writings demonstrate he thought good works and virtue central to the salvation scheme. Good works were a necessary component for salvation, but also, in the end, insufficient to merit eternal bliss. Some Supreme Act of Providential Benevolence would come in and save the day for most, if not all folks.

If Franklin believed in Christ's Atonement, it was in this (unorthodox) sense. It was more than just choosing between a "Universal" versus a "Limited" Atonement. But rather a Universal Atonement that borders on, if not results in the eventual salvation of all men's souls.

I see it as a "plus factor" Atonement. That benevolent, divine push that expedited salvation for all good men. Good men, because of their virtue, and regardless of their exact faith, were first in line for Heaven. If there is a scholarly term for this atonement theory, I'm not aware of it.

Belief in Jesus was important for salvation not because men had to put their faith in Jesus' finished work on the cross, but rather because Jesus perfected morality. If morality was central to salvation as Franklin believed, and if Jesus was the perfect moral teacher, then it stands to reason that Jesus' followers, whether Trinitarian, Arian, Socinian or a believer in some other Jesus centered system, would be closer to the front of the salvation line, IF THEY SINCERELY FOLLOWED HIS MORAL TEACHINGS.

As it were, I don't think Franklin had too much concern for the souls of the Arian Richard Price and the Socinian Joseph Priestley. As he noted to B. Vaughan, Oct. 24, 1788:
Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I lave known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however, mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, 'tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic. I am ever, my dear friend, yours sincerely, B. Franklin.
Drs. Priestley and Price were honest, virtuous men and that's what mattered most, in the grand scheme of things.


JMS said...

Jon – thanks for another excellent post. As I’m sure you know, when Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey established the first English Unitarian congregation in London during 1774, their first chapel (actually an auction room converted into a place of worship) was outfitted by subscriptions from Drs. Price and Priestley, and perhaps Dr. Franklin, who attended the opening dedication.

J.D. Bowers states in a footnote (p. 15) that, “If Franklin ever donated any money to the cause, it has not been recorded. But if he gave so much to Whitefield, how much might he have given to a group with whom he had greater fellowship?”

I recommend to all AC bloggers and readers Bowers’ book, “Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America.” He provides a very different history than some regular AC commenters allege. Lindsay and Priestley created a “distinct denominational identity … ensconced in the Christian faith … and articulated a clear theology, beginning with the idea of God’s singularity, but also including a staunch belief in the authority of Scripture, honoring Jesus for his divinely appointed role (while denying his eternal existence and asserting his humanity), and a continued acceptance of God’s promises of salvation and a day of judgment.” (p. 16-17) Franklin could have easily embraced all of these tenets.

Jonathan Rowe said...

JMS: Agreed & thanks for this. I will check out the book!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben Franklin: Heretics are Honest & Virtuous (and therefore saved)

Unfortunately, there doesn't exist a single Ben Franklin quote that plainly says this.

Jonathan Rowe said...

”A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian” -- Benjamin Franklin

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Jonathan Rowe said...
”A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian” -- Benjamin Franklin

But that doesn't mean the virtuous heretic will be saved, it just means that the wicked Christian is bogus. He's definitely rejecting "faith alone saves" here, though.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Franklin said the virtuous heretic will be saved BEFORE the wicked Christian. This could fit within Franklin's universalistic theology. Both might have to spend some time in purgatory (the wicked Christian certainly would); but the virtuous heretic would be in front of the wicked Christian in the line for eternal bliss.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Could, yes, could. But your cited quote is a passing remark in a discussion of the [un]importance of doctrine, not about salvation per se.

How far does "heretic" extend?Unitarianism? Islam? Atheism?

Too much fog here to flatly say he thought that virtuous heretics will be saved. Franklin does not speak with certainty on such matters. It would be presumptuous and, well, doctrinaire.

"For my part I have not the vanity to think I deserve [heaven], the folly to expect it, nor the ambition to desire it; but content myself in submitting to the will and disposal of that God who made me..."--Letter to Whitefield

Franklin might describe himself as a "virtuous heretic," but as we see, he does not presume to be saved. He is too modest to claim certainty about these things.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't think he presumes to be saved; though he does presume that God won't make him miserable forever. The rest of the quote:

"... who has hitherto preserved and blessed me, and in whose fatherly goodness I may well confide, that he will never make me miserable, and that even the afflictions I may at any time suffer shall tend to my benefit."

Tom Van Dyke said...

That is trust ["confide"] in God, actually a statement of faith, not theology.

I think there is a strong hope in universal salvation, at least for good men. Aquinas tries to wrap his mind around how men such as Aristotle can be damned for the misfortune of never having heard the Gospel. By the exercise of "right reason" alone, Aristotle detected/derived the existence of God. Surely those who use right reason and find God cannot be damned!

We're just overshooting the evidence a bit here, that Franklin believed Heretics are Honest & Virtuous (and therefore saved).

Did he think Tom Paine was saved?