Tuesday, November 17, 2015

WND/Charles: "Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?"

I'm critical enough of World Net Daily when they get their facts wrong as they often do. Joshua Charles seems to get it right here. A taste:
Franklin believed that Jesus had more regard “for the heretical but charitable Samaritan” than for “the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite” (see Luke 10:25–37), and “thought much less of these outward appearances and professions than many of his modern disciples. He preferred the doers of the Word to the mere hearers” (see James 1:22). In response to some of his family members who were concerned about the state of his soul, Franklin responded not by appealing to secular arguments, but like many of the other Founders, to the Bible, which he called “that excellent book.” “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue; and the Scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined for what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said Lord! Lord! but that we did good to our fellow creatures. See Matthew 25.”
That's right, Franklin didn't believe in the Protestant doctrine of "Sola Fide" that men are saved through faith or grace alone. But rather that good works/virtue were at the least a component for salvation.

Franklin also didn't affirm orthodox doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation. Mr. Charles references Franklin's end of life letter to Ezra Stiles noting this.


Tom Van Dyke said...

That's right, Franklin didn't believe in the Protestant doctrine of "Sola Fide" that men are saved through faith or grace alone. But rather that good works/virtue were at the least a component for salvation.

FTR, that's the Catholic position as well. The relevant passage in Matthew 25 [which, BTW, Jefferson also left in his "Bible"]:

The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Bill Fortenberry said...

We've covered this here before, but I just can't pass up such an open invitation to promote my book Franklin on Faith. Here are two excerpts from my book which present my view on this:

Regarding Franklin's reference to Matthew 25:

Here Franklin writes to his father that God judges men by their actions and not by their thoughts. This has led several historians to conclude that Franklin viewed good works as the path to salvation, but Franklin dispels this idea in a letter to his sister in 1743.

Regarding the letter to his sister:

Franklin is often accused of abandoning Christianity in favor of a deistic religion of morality. Fea wrote of him that:

“Franklin's religious beliefs were less about Christian doctrine and more about virtue - moral behavior that serves the public good.” (Fea, 221)

Isaacson claimed that Franklin opposed the evangelism of the Great Awakening and instead:

“sought to bring [America] into an Enlightenment era that exalted tolerance, individual merit, civic virtue, good deeds, and rationality.” (Isaacson, 109)

And Lubert said of Franklin that:

“Franklin invoked religious language and ritual in order to promote socially beneficial behavior, arguing that the most acceptable form of worship is to do good works and going so far as to suggest that good works, not piety, are the path to salvation.” (Lubert, 157)

However, when Franklin’s own sister accused him of holding to the position attributed to him by the historians, Franklin assured her that she was mistaken. In an attempt to explain his view of morality to his sister, Franklin directed her to read a section from Jonathan Edwards’ defense of the Great Awakening. And in that section, Edwards made the following observations:

“But another Thing I would mention, which it is of much greater Importance, that we should attend to; and that is the Duty, that is incumbent upon God's People at this Day ... such as Acts of Righteousness, Truth, Meekness, Forgiveness & Love towards our Neighbour; which are of much greater Importance in the Sight of God, than all the Externals of his Worship.” (Edwards, 367)


“Of this inward Religion, there are two Sorts of external Manifestations or Expressions. The one Sort, are outward Acts of Worship, such as meeting in religious Assemblies, attending Sacraments, & other outward Institutions, & honouring God with Gestures, such as bowing, or kneeling before him, or with Words, in speaking honourably of him, in Prayer, Praise, or religious Conference. And the other Sort, are the Expressions of our Love to God, by obeying his moral Commands, of Self-denial, Righteousness, Meekness, and Christian Love, in our Behaviour among Men. And the latter are of vastly the greatest Importance in the Christian Life. God makes little Account of the former, in Comparison of them.” (Edwards, 367-368)

Edwards proceeded to defend his claims by giving example after example from Scripture to demonstrate that God desires virtue and good deeds far more than He desires public expressions of prayer, praise and worship. And yet, Edwards, much like Franklin, maintained that, as important as good works may be, they are still incapable of guaranteeing our entrance into Heaven. Both men taught that the only way to heaven was through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Both men taught that the only way to heaven was through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ."

And this is simply wrong. Franklin didn't believe in sola fide. Franklin believed good works were in fact more important than faith. Though works alone -- at least his good works alone -- were not sufficient to merit salvation.

From my reading of Franklin he sees grace as more important than faith. God the Father in His benevolent grace wouldn't condemn him or probably anyone to Hell for eternity, regardless of their faith.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In the end, yes, grace more than faith OR works.

Franklin to Whitefield, 1740:

"you will see in this my notion of good works, that I am far from expecting to merit heaven by them. By heaven we understand a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration. I can do nothing to deserve such rewards. He that, for giving a draft of water to a thirsty person, should expect to be paid with a good plantation, would be modest in his demands, compared with those who think they deserve heaven for the little good they do on earth. Even the mixed, imperfect pleasures we enjoy in this world, are rather from God's goodness than our merit; how much more such happiness of heaven!

For my part I have not the vanity to think I deserve it, 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, 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.

The faith you mention has certainly its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works, than I have generally seen it..."

JMS said...

We should also note Franklin’s pamphlet, Promoting Useful Knowledge where he asserted that experience, rather than divine or human authority – religious or governmental – is the only sound basis for knowledge and action. For example, Franklin liked to cite the Royal Society motto – “On the Word of No One!” Knowledge can only be based on evidence from experience, i.e., experiment & observation, and to be sound, knowledge has to be tested.

We all know Franklin's reply to inquiries about his religious beliefs from Ezra Stiles (President of Yale) in 1790 (six weeks before he died).

“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.”

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.”

This is classic Franklin at his wittiest. Religion, like knowledge and science, had to be useful, which for him meant promoting virtuous behavior. Jesus was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived, but as to his divinity, who knows? As for Christianity, Franklin was clearly not interested in “revealed” religion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mostly true, JMS. Not completely.

And the Scripture assures me, that at the last Day, we shall not be examin’d what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did Good to our Fellow Creatures. See Matth. 26.

From Benjamin Franklin to Josiah and Abiah Franklin, 13 April 1738

Jonathan Rowe said...

That's one thing I love about Franklin. The OT and NT have a lot to say. And people have their own special issues in the faith that they harp and often obsess on.

Franklin's pet issue was how we treat one another. It's a good pet issue to have.

JMS said...

From William Penn's Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity by William C. Kashatus

Pennsylvanians had learned to adjust to the religious diversity of the colony. Inspired by the reforming impulse of the First Great Awakening of the 1740s, many Protestant denominations began to de-emphasize sectarianism for a more ecumenical Christianity. Prominent Philadelphians, Benjamin Franklin for one, encouraged the movement away from such rigid sectarianism by constructing a large building at Fourth and Arch Streets in 1746. The auditorium was provided to serve "any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia." "Even if the Mufti [a professional jurist who interprets Muslim law] of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us," Franklin insisted, "he would find a pulpit at his service."