Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ben Franklin and Revelation

(I was going to write this as a comment, but given I make an important point, I am making it a main post.)

One of the difficulties of biblical interpretation is that the Bible often speaks in metaphor and parables. And it is utterly contentious as to when a particular passage should be understood as such. These differences in understandings divide entire religious movements.

For instance, I once witnessed a discussion between a Protestant and a Catholic where the Protestant said "you eat a metaphor during communion." And the Catholic replied "no YOU eat a metaphor; I eat the living God."

Ben Franklin's writings on revelation suggest he was heavy on the metaphorical and parabolic understanding such that it's debatable whether he believed any of the Bible was inspired in a "literal"  sense, as opposed to a book that contained much wisdom and "truth" in a different sense.

The clearest statement Franklin EVER gave on his understanding of revelation (during the time in his life after he moved from deism to theism) was in his letter to John Calder  where he said "that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole."

As it relates to Franklin, religion & Bible, we know this  much:

1. The Bible teaches a future state of rewards and punishments;
2. Other world religions teach a future state of rewards and punishments;
3. Ben Franklin believed in a future state of rewards and punishments.

Ben Franklin did NOT (at least provably not) believe in a future state of rewards and punishments because the Bible said so. Rather, Franklin's reason and common sense told him this teaching was true and Franklin valued the Bible and other religions to the extent that they reinforced this teaching.

On the concept of the nature of those rewards and punishments, Franklin was no hellfire preacher. And when Franklin recites scripture that relates to the teaching of a future state, we err if we conclude he held to a literal meaning.

For this post I will examine one of those examples, that of Lazarus and the rich man. First, among Bible believers it's debatable whether such should be read in a literal sense. This page by Bible believing Christians, for instance, makes a good case that such a tale is NOT meant to be read literally, but parabolically.

Franklin too, as I read him, endorse a parabolic reading of the text. He, in his "Appeal for the Hospital" said:
[A]lso, the rich Man, is represented as being excluded from the Happiness of Heaven, because he fared sumptuously every Day, and had Plenty of all Things, and yet neglected to comfort and assist his poor Neighbour, who was helpless and full of Sores, and might perhaps have been revived and restored with small care, by the Crumbs that fell from his Table, or, as we say, with his loose Corns.—I was Sick, and ye Visited me, is one of the Terms of Admission into Bliss, and the Contrary, a Cause of Exclusion:...
[Bold face mine.]

Notice that Franklin terms the rich man as merely being "excluded from the Happiness of Heaven." If you read the story literally, it's much more than that; the rich man appears to be tortured. It's obvious that Franklin rejects this understanding.

Indeed, as I have shown before, Franklin espoused a biblical method that permits him to "understand" scripture in a sense agreeable to his reason, common sense and notion of benevolence of the deity. He admitted the hard orthodox could cite scripture in a straightforward way to reach results that seemed extremely unfair and made God look cruel. And he then he noted, he had "the right to look out for another Sense of the Passage in Question, which will not contradict the clear Decisions of Reason." He did this so "the Almighty," is not represented "as stern, arbitrary, inexorable, ..."

It's obvious to me that's what Franklin did with the story of Lazarus and the rich man. If taken to represent the larger truth of a future state of rewards and punishments, that we must watch how we treat people in this life because cosmic justice awaits in the next life, such a story can be lauded.

If however, the story is taken to mean there really was this rich man and this is exactly how God will treat him for eternity, Franklin didn't buy it (at least he shows no evidence his understanding of the story held to that "Sense of the Passage in Question.")


Bill Fortenberry said...

I'm curious, Jon. How many of Franklin's comments on Scripture did you include in your analysis, and what criteria did you use to determine which one was the clearest?

Jonathan Rowe said...

You think there's a clearer statement of Franklin's opinion on revelation contained in the Bible?

Bill Fortenberry said...

There might be, so I would like to see your method for choosing the one that you did.

Jonathan Rowe said...

My method is I've read everything I can get my hands on relating to Ben Franklin's thoughts on scripture. And from what I am familiar with, what I quoted above is the clearest statement of his that I could find. Perhaps you are familiar with a clearer statement?

Bill Fortenberry said...

That doesn't sound like you conducted a very thorough study. I wonder, for example, if you considered statements such as:

"the Old Testament is allowed by all to be an accurate and concise history."

Or his reference to "the principal historical Facts on which our Religion is founded, such as the Fall of our first Parents by eating an Apple; the Coming of Christ, to repair the Mischief; his Miracles & Suffering, &c."

Or his recounting of several events from "the most faithful of all Histories, the Holy Bible" which he also referred to as "inestimable History."

Or his admission to having faith in "the Miracles of the New Testament."

Or his claim that "I have read that the whale swallowed Jonah; and as that is in Holy Writ, to be sure I ought to believe it."

Or his concession that the Bible "is understood to be written for our instruction."

Or his speech in the Constitutional Convention in which he said that: "We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in rulers."

Did your study include all of these statements. If so, I'd like to know why you chose the particular one that you did instead of any of these.

JMS said...

Jon – you might want to post this recent article from Thomas Kidd on Ben Franklin’s Calvinist Father

“Ben Franklin would famously grow skeptical about his fathers’ faith, but in many ways that faith – and its emphasis on the need for public morality and charity – would continue to mark Franklin’s own endeavors as an adult.”

Jonathan Rowe said...

Bill: None of the statements you reproduced above is as clear a statement as the one quoted in my original piece.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Well, let's take a look at his letter to John Calder. In that letter, we can see that Franklin believed that there were some things in the Old Testament that were not inspired by God, but he did not view the entire Old Testament in that manner.

This is not much different from the view of many Christians today. There are hundreds of Christian scholars who believe that Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 were not inspired by God. John MacArthur (historian Gregg Frazer's pastor), for example writes of Mark 16 that:

"here we are at the end of Mark and we’ve got this long textual variance on the end of Mark that we know did not appear in the original autograph written by Mark."

And in an attempt to explain some of the passages in the Old Testament that Franklin may have objected to, Christian apologists Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan have turned to the somewhat popular though still minority view of appropriation. In this view of the Bible, God didn't actually inspire any of the text. He simply appropriated what men had already written and used it for His purposes. Copan and Flannagan go beyond even Franklin's claim in that they deny the inspiration of the entire Bible and not just certain troubling passages. In their book Did God Really Command Genocide?, they write:

“In the Bible (God’s Word), God appropriates the writing of a human being with the writer’s own personality, character, and writing style.”

Thus, the view of Scripture presented in Franklin's letter to John Calder fits very well within the range of views held by leading Christians today.

But what of his other statements on Scripture? The letter to John Calder only tells us that Franklin denied the inspiration of certain specific portions of Scripture, but what did he think of the rest? That's where the other statements that I listed come into play. From those statements, (and even from the last part of the statement to Calder) we can see that Franklin viewed the rest of the Bible to be God's inspired instructions to man.