Saturday, September 19, 2015

AFA's Rusty Benson on "What Is a Christian?"

See here. His answer:
  1. I Peter 1:23 – “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,”
A Christian is a person who has been “born again,” that is, radically and supernaturally changed by God. In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:26) this change is described like this: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 – “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
A Christian is one who is so gripped by Christ’s love that he dies more and more to any other person, thing, or idea that would compete for his allegiance. 

  1. Luke 15:21– “And the [prodigal] son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
Romans 7:24 – “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” 

When he first repents, a Christian sees himself in the words of the prodigal son. Though he progresses in the Christian life, he never outgrows his need for Christ and the gospel. In fact, a Christian’s sense of his unworthiness grows as Christ becomes greater in his eyes. 

  1. Matthew 21:10 – “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

Though none can fully understand this mystery, a Christian believes that Jesus is God in the flesh and his only Savior. Like Thomas the apostle, a Christian proclaims that Jesus is “my Lord and my God!”
 (John 20:28)
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

By faith, a Christian trusts that Jesus fully paid the penalty of sin due each of us and perfectly satisfied God’s justice. It’s a transaction in which Jesus willingly takes the punishment for a Christian’s sin; the Christian gets Jesus’ perfection.

  1. 1 John 3:1a – “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!

    A Christian never gets over the wonder of God’s love for him and mercy given to him through Christ. He is forever overwhelmed at the miracle of his own salvation.
This is an interesting standard that the author notes is influenced by some notable orthodox Protestant theologians. As it relates to the American Founding, the problem for the AFA (who seem very sympathetic to a "Christian America" view of the Founding) is that none of the key Founders (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) was, according to this standard, a "Christian."

And Alexander Hamilton (arguably a key Founder) wasn't a Christian until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel (and after Hamilton did his "work" as a Founder).

According to the above test, only "born again" Christians who believe in the "Incarnation" are "true Christians." Likewise the list intimates other doctrines like Sola Fide and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement as part of the definitional mix.

Unitarians, by their nature deny the Incarnation, and by necessity the "satisfaction theory of the atonement." (This is why we can say some unitarians have an "unorthodox" understanding of the "atonement," while others just reject the atonement).

Militant unitarians J. Adams and Jefferson, for instance, rejected both the Incarnation and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement (Jefferson rejected the atonement and Adams may have held to an unorthodox understanding of the doctrine).

Franklin didn't seem to accept the Incarnation when, at the very end of his life answering Ezra Stiles' question on who Franklin thought Jesus was. Tellingly, after informing Stiles he had "Doubts as to [Jesus'] Divinity," Franklin doesn't identify Jesus as Savior/Messiah/or Son of God (all things compatible with and believed by various forms of then existing unitarian Christianity), but rather as someone whose "System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see;..."

So Franklin was no "born again" or "evangelical" Christian. In fact, when, in 1752 discussing the particulars of religion with a "born again" evangelical leader, that figure, George Whitefield, recognized Franklin at that time was not "born again" and tried to convert him:
... As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all your pains. One at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that without it, “we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”...
Likewise, George Washington and James Madison were no evangelical, "born again" Christians. Both, though they often expressed their devout belief in Providence, did not talk about Jesus or evince belief necessary to pass Rusty Benson's biblical standards. Both may have been like Jefferson and J. Adams, unitarians. But they left little on the public record relating to belief in doctrine beyond endorsement of more general concepts like warm Providentialism.

If George Washington was orthodox (I don't think he was, but don't necessarily rule it out), it was in the Anglican tradition, which does not teach the necessity of being "born again." Indeed, the latitudinarian tradition of the Anglican Church offered much latitude on matters of "doctrine," even transcending orthodox Trinitarian belief.

This is a point Dr. Joseph Waligore makes on "Christian-Deism." Waligore's "Christian-Deists" like Dr. Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalists" (and those terms are arguably six and one half dozen of the other) seemed quite comfortable in the latitudinarian wing of the Anglican (and then Episcopalian) Church.

Attempts to make James Madison into an orthodox or evangelical Christian invariably relate to out of context statements made while very young to William Bradford. For more on the context, see this classic article by James H. Hutson. As noted, Madison, like Washington, could be sphinx like in refusal to put his specific doctrinal beliefs (as opposed to endorsement of generic warm Providence) on the table.

But attempting to latch onto the young Madison's letters to William Bradford as smoking gun proof is thin gruel. And there is much in Dr. Hutson's article that provides helpful understanding of context (testimony by, among others, Bishop William Meade, James Ticknor, and Rev. Alexander Balmaine who said Madison's political association with those of "infidel principles" either changed or made him suspicious of the "creed" of orthodox Christianity which Madison was coming out of).

Finally, Alexander Hamilton. He clearly had some kind of "born again" experience or return to the faith after his son died in a duel. When dying, after he himself was shot in a duel, he sought communion in two orthodox Churches (the Episcopalian and Presbyterian ones) and was initially denied both because of:

1. his lack of established track record as a "Christian" (he had not engaged in Christian communion* with EITHER of the churches, but when dying, these were the ones with whom he sought communion; if Hamilton were an established Christian communicant, with "imperfections," but still one who worked it out with the church with whom he was in communion, the strange clumsy situation of asking for but being denied communion by two ministers only to have one mercifully relent and administer the holy sacrament would not have occurred); and

2. his un-Christian like conduct engaging in a duel which was condemned by the faith.

By the way, I have never given serious thought on the relation of the practice of "dueling" (which seems to exist in a much less civilized way today with things like gang shootouts and even fist fights) to "Christianity," but note BOTH of the orthodox ministers in the churches with whom Hamilton sought communion (again, the 1. Episcopalian and 2. Presbyterian) condemned the action as sinful, made a personal issue out of it, and thus knowing Hamilton would soon meet his maker and concerned with his soul demanded he repent of this conduct which led to his death.

*On the matter of communion, we all know how central that doctrine is to Roman Catholics. The Founders, however, with rare exception, were affiliated with the Protestant Churches. And Protestantism being Protestantism, they can appear all over the place. The two churches with whom Hamilton sought communion seemed to have viewed it with fundamental import: a. as the Episcopalian Benjamin Moore who ultimately administered Hamilton communion put it, such was "one of the most solemn offices of our religion"; and b. said the Presbyterian John Mason, it was "a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s supper privately to any person under any circumstances.”

But to tie Hamilton's faith to the original article, Rusty Benson intimates that Donald Trump isn't a "real Christian," but Trump attempts to give a fig leaf of cover to being one. Hamilton's "Christianity," before his son died, likewise appears such. Hamilton, very talented statesman he, had all of the prideful, arrogant, obnoxious, egotistical, narcissistic bluster, and sexual improprieties associated with Trump.


Tom Van Dyke said...

It was a "Judeo-Christian" nation, then, making all that Christology stuff moot. Jehovah was the God of the Founding.

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.
---GWash, Letter to the Jews of Savannah

Further, "America" was far more than a handful of "key" Founders, which is another story.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes "Jehovah" also known as "the Great Spirit" to unconverted Native Americans.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If The Great Spirit led the Israelites out of Egypt and revealed Himself in the Bible, sure. Who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, sure. [Even Jefferson left Judgment Day, Matthew 25:31, in his "Jefferson Bible.]

Otherwise, the Great Spirit is a bit too generic to be very helpful, a bland monotheism that falls far short of the God of the Bible.

Jonathan Rowe said...

According to GW, the unconverted Natives did indeed worship such God as "The Great Spirit" while -- or perhaps I should say somewhat shortly after -- "Jehovah" did His thing with the Israelites. In fact, according to the more orthodox Elias Boudinat, and then the less orthodox Mormons (who apparently cribbed the idea from EB) those Natives were of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's just too facile. The Great Spirit can tell us nothing about the Bible and Judeo-Christian ethics. Theology is not fungible.

If you read the quotes here

The Great Spirit is not a person, not even a being. He does not reveal himself to the prophets, or in scriptures. It is not Jehovah. It is not Judeo-Christianity.

Although many differences can be seen between the creation myths of different tribes, two similarities stand out in sharp contrast to those of us who grew up with Judeo-Christian creation mythology: 1) there is no concept of original sin, no initial wrong-doing by humans which has resulted in our being cast out of the place we truly belong in which a God-Man sacrifices himself in order to expunge all humanity of those sins, and 2) the Earth home, there is no 'Kingdom of Heaven' awaiting us which is our 'true' spiritual home, with time on Earth to be used as a 'testing ground'. Nor is there a place of eternal punishment for those who fail to obey God’s commands.

In his book, The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson expands on this point:

Jonathan Rowe said...

But what then are we to make these two statements made by George Washington:

First, where he actually prays to the Great Spirit:

"I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great spirit to preserve them."

And second:

"I now sincerely wish you a good Journey and hope you may find your [families and] Brothers well on your Return, and that [the Great Spirit above] may long preserve your Nations in peace with each other and with the United States."


Note, one of Washington's aides wrote this speech and Washington HIMSELF crossed out the word "God" and wrote in "the Great Spirit above."

Washington tells the Jews he believes in "Jehovah," just as he tells the Natives he believes in "The Great Spirit."

The difference is Washington only mentions "Jehovah" once, but "The Great Spirit" twice.

Jonathan Rowe said...

BTW: If we wish to view GW's second quotation regarding "The Great Spirit" in more context, alas, the Fitzpatrick Edition to his writings are not (from what I can tell) as easily accessible anymore online.

The best I could find was this:

But such still didn't have the entire letter.

Anything with more info on accessing the primary sources would be welcomed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No different than than when Paul of Tarsus hijacked the 'unknown god' of the men of Athens for Christianity.

22 So Paul stood in the midst of the [a]Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

But although 'Jehovah' can tell us much about 'the unknown god' or 'the Great Spirit,' the converse is not true.

Bill Fortenberry said...

We've discussed Washington's references to the Great Spirit, and I pointed out then that such a term would be naturally adopted by a Christian who understood who the Indians of that region meant when they spoke of the Great Spirit. One of the leading 18th century authorities on the Indians of the North East was Louis Armand de Lahontan. In his book, New Voyages to North America, he explained who the Indians of that region were referring to when they spoke of the Great Spirit:

All the Savages are convinc'd that there must be a God, because they see nothing among Material Beings that subsists necessarily and by its own Nature. They prove the Existence of a Deity by the Frame of the Universe, which naturally leads us to a higher and Omnipotent Being, from whence it follows, say they, that Man was not made by chance, and that he's the Work of a Being superior in Wisdom and Knowledge, which they call the Great Spirit, or the Master of Life, and which they Adore in the most abstracted and spiritual manner. They deliver their Thoughts of him thus, without any satisfactory Definition. The Existence of God being inseparable from his Essence, it contains every thing, it appears in every thing, acts in every thing, and gives motion to every thing. In fine, all that you see, all that you can conceive, is this Divinity which subsists without Bounds or Limits, and without Body; and ought not to be represented under the Figure of an old Man, nor of any other thing, let it be never so fine or extensive. For this Reason they Adore him in every thing they see. Whe they see any thing that's fine or curious, especially when they look upon the Sun or Stars, they cry out, O Great Spirit, we discern thee in every thing. And in like manner when they reflect upon the meanest Trifles they acknowledge a Creator under the Name of the Great Spirit or Master of Life.


In regards to the Whitefield quote in the opening post, it should be remembered that Whitefield had a particular view of conversion and the new birth which is rejected by many Christians. I address this in a couple of different place in my book Franklin on Faith. Here are a few extracts:

Many scholars mention the fact that Whitefield and Franklin shared different religious views, but most attribute that difference to the erroneous conclusion that Franklin remained a Deist throughout his life...

Such claims, however, completely overlook the substance of Franklin and Whitefield’s religious disagreement. What really separated these two men was Whitefield’s insistence that an emotional experience of spiritual pangs and convulsions was a necessary component of salvation. It was this type of conversion that Whitefield would urge Franklin to have and of which Franklin later tells us that Whitefield “never had the Satisfaction of believing that his Prayers were heard.

Bill Fortenberry said...

And in a later note:

Many historians have taken this statement from Franklin to mean that he refused to become a Christian, but the conversion that Whitefield preached is not necessarily the same as becoming a Christian. Whitefield taught that the only true Christians are those who have experienced a great, all encompassing change as a result of the gospel. In a sermon entitled “Repentance and Conversion,” he once said:

“They that are truly converted to Jesus, and are justified by faith in the Son of God, will take care to evidence their conversion, not only by the having grace implanted in their hearts, but by that grace diffusing itself through every faculty of the soul, and making a universal change in the whole man ... Any thing short of this is but the shadow instead of the substance ... There will be new principles, new ways, new company, new works; there will be a thorough change in the heart and life; this is conversion.” (Whitefield, 435)

And in a 1755 letter to Franklin, Whitefield advised him to “get a feeling possession of Christ.” (Epitaph, 1728) This type of experiential conversion was often referred to as “spiritual pangs,” and Whitefield was not alone in thinking that it was necessary for salvation. Thomas Watson once wrote:

“There are pangs before the birth; so before Christ be born in the heart, there are spiritual pangs ... all have not the same pangs of sorrow and humiliation, yet all have pangs. If Christ be born in thy heart, thou hast been deeply afflicted for sin. Christ is never born in the heart without pangs. Many thank God they never had any trouble of spirit, they were always quiet: a sign Christ is not yet formed in them.” (Watson, 184)

That Franklin rejected this view of conversion can be seen in his “Observations of the Proceedings against Mr. Hemphill” where he wrote:

“I may add, that whoever preaches up the absolute necessity of spiritual Pangs and Convulsions in those whose Education has been in the Ways of Piety and Vertue, and who therefore are not to pass from a State of Sin to a State of Holiness, but to go on and improve in the State wherein they already are, represent Christianity to be unworthy of its divine Author.”

As can be seen in his Hemphill pamphlets, Franklin believed that there were two different paths to faith in Christ. The first was a glorious redemption from a life of sin, and the second was the slow and steady acceptance of truths of the gospel by those who were raised in Christian homes. The conversion of the former would evidence the kind of spectacular change that Whitefield wrote of while the conversion of the latter would seem to be just the next step in the progression of their lives. Franklin’s conversion to Christianity, though taking place in his adult years rather than in his childhood, would likely have been similar to this second type, and thus, would not have been accepted by Whitefield as a true conversion.

Bill Fortenberry said...

By the way, I have a friend who has the full context of the second Washington quote, but he won't be able to upload it until the 30th. I'll share a link once he does.

Jonathan Rowe said...


It's extremely difficult (far more than you admit) to extract Franklin's personal religious creed out of the Hemphill Affair as those documents were not meant to put Franklin's specific religious cards on the table.

There were as far as I can tell two things we CAN get from that document:

1. To correct the record of what Franklin saw as distortions made by the clergy against Hemphill; and

2. (somewhat more tellingly to our joint inquiry) Franklin spends more time there telling us what he DOESN'T believe, rather than what he DOES. So for instance, it's pretty clear reading the document Franklin like Hemphill rejects Calvinist Christianity.

But yes, of course there are PLENTY of "Christians" (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, high church orthodox Anglicans) who don't see the need for a "born again" experience and don't consider themselves "born again."

That seems to apply squarely to Franklin.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I think that you missed my point. What I am saying is that Whitefield only accepted a person's conversion if that conversion was accompanied by a certain type of emotional feeling. This is what he was referring to when he encouraged Franklin to get a "feeling possession" of Christ. Whitefield would not have accepted Franklin's conversion without these feelings even if Franklin had written scores of volumes endorsing orthodox Christianity. To Whitefield the emotional experience was the evidence of true conversion.

The position held by Whitefield and several other leaders of the Great Awakening was opposed by equally notable leaders such as Jonathan Edwards who wrote a very lengthy Treatise Concerning Religious Affections in which he attempted to show that Whitefield's view was not supported by Scripture. We know that Franklin had at least some agreement with Edwards on the doctrine of soteriology because of his reference to another of Edwards' books in a letter to his sister (July 28, 1743). This letter, the soteriology presented in the Hemphill pamphlets, and Franklin's disagreement with Whitefield on the nature of conversion all point to the same conclusion. Franklin rejected the view that one's conversion must be accompanied by an intense emotional experience in order to be genuine.

Jonathan Rowe said...

From reading the plain text of Whitfield's commentary, he simply didn't see Franklin as a "born again" Christian.

Edwards was reformed/TULIP right? The very theology Franklin was writing against.

I'm no expert on differences between "evangelicals" and "reformed" but I think some "reformed Calvinist" types don't much of the "born again" experience.

The context of Franklin's letter to his sister, I remember, is that his family including his sister were of the reformed-Calvinist tradition which he rejected, leading them to think he wasn't a "Christian."

Franklin was trying to build some kind of bridge to his sister by stating even Mr. Edwards has written words that suggest "real religion" produces virtue, which was a mantra Franklin stressed his entire adult life.

That's where the similarity between Edwards' understanding of the faith and Franklin's begins and ends.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - "It was a "Judeo-Christian" nation, then, making all that Christology stuff moot. Jehovah was the God of the Founding."

A very interesting apparent heresy ya got going there; eliminating Christology from the discussion of "Judeo-Christian" in order to get straight to the OT man/God-of-war(1) as the "God of the Founding." Is this an unorthodox or even some kind of orthodox Reformed or Catholic notion held at the time of the founding/framing? Or, for that matter, orthodox or ultra-orthodox Jewish?

1) Exodus 15:3 (KJV) "The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name." (Darby Bible) "Jehovah is a man of war; Jehovah, his name."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not really. Even those who didn't accept Jesus as God accepted him as the Messiah, with only few exceptions like Jefferson. Think "Jews for Jesus," actually. Quite a long way from the immanent but not transcendent "Great Spirit."

Tom Van Dyke said...

1) Exodus 15:3 (KJV) "The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name." (Darby Bible) "Jehovah is a man of war; Jehovah, his name."

Famously deist Ethan Allen wrote he demanded the surrender of Ft. Ticonderoga

"In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"

jimmirabob said...

There is eyewitness testimony that Allen's actual words at Ft. Ticonderoga, presumably aimed at the commander of the garrison, were "Come out of there, you goddam old rat!"

But, amending that to an appeal to Jehovah was probably a wise choice for a book he'd hoped to sell. lest the ladies blush.

jimmiraybob said...

I should add, also too, that "In the name of ... the Continental Congress!" was not exactly the truth of the matter either. Still, not a bad add on for the book in terms of marketing.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - "It was a "Judeo-Christian" nation, then, making all that Christology stuff moot. Jehovah was the God of the Founding."

TVD - "Not really. Even those who didn't accept Jesus as God accepted him as the Messiah, with only few exceptions like Jefferson. Think "Jews for Jesus," ...."

Why not work this up into a front page post?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous jimmiraybob said...
I should add, also too, that "In the name of ... the Continental Congress!" was not exactly the truth of the matter either. Still, not a bad add on for the book in terms of marketing.

Yes, I tried to make clear I wasn't passing off the quote as authentic. Yes, LOL, you no doubt have the right one.

It does tell us about the socio-religious milieu, though, that he thought he could sell it.

As for Jehovah as the God of the Founding, it's rather an argument I've been making for years as the Highest Common denominator, far higher a denominator than the featureless monotheism of a Great Spirit.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Here's a link to the letter for the second George Washington quote given above:

And here's a link to the letter from the Indian Chief Blue Jacket which preceded Washington's letter: