Thursday, February 4, 2016

Jesus' Role in Christian-Deism

As Dr. Joseph Waligore has pointed out, there were three notable figures from England who called themselves "Christian Deists": 1. Thomas Morgan; 2. Thomas Amory; and 3. Matthew Tindal.

They disregarded orthodox doctrines like the Trinity and the Atonement but still saw a special place for Jesus as Messiah.

We argue over which terms are proper. Sometimes it makes sense to attach a term to a movement that the thinkers did not use. For instance, the early "Thomists" or "Calvinistis" probably didn't use those terms to describe themselves (though such terms are entirely apt). However, the above three thinkers did accepted the label of "Christian-Deist."

Others, however with parallel views might not have self consciously understood themselves as "Christian-Deists"; but it still might make sense to attach such label to them. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, considered himself a "Christian" and a "Unitarian." He, like Franklin, tended to qualify his preferred version of "Christianity" with the adjective "rational" ("rational Christianity").

Jefferson did not, I don't think, consider himself a "Deist" and the only time of which I am aware he used that term, what he meant by it was the belief in one God. Hence Jefferson called the Old Testament Jews "Deists" because they believed in one God.

But in terms of openness to the supernatural doctrines of traditional Christianity (i.e., miracles) Jefferson was arguably less of a "Christian" than Morgan, Amory or Tindal were. Still, the label "Christian-Deist" may "fit" with Jefferson. (Or maybe Jefferson wasn't "Christian" enough, even though he understood himself to be one.)

The question then for whether it's appropriate to label the "key Founders" to be "Christian-Deists" is whether their beliefs mesh with the "Christian-Deism" as articulated by the above three: Morgan, Amory and Tindal.

With Ben Franklin, if we take what he detailed in the Samuel Hemphill affair as reflecting his personal creed, I think the answer is yes.

How this relates to Jesus. The "Christian-Deists" saw Jesus as Messiah, but in an unorthodox way. They were probably influenced by John Locke in this regard. As I understand it they didn't worry about the Trinity or other orthodox doctrines. Rather, they understood there is a natural law determinable by reason. And some brilliant philosophers (Aristotle?) can get the results without Jesus, but with much intricate intellectual work.

In fact Franklin explicitly notes in A Defense of Mr. Hemphill's Observations that before the coming of Jesus, "many would be able to save themselves by a good Use of their Reason and the Light of Nature."

I guess this depends on what it means by "many." That is, because man's reason is flawed such that your average Joe Sixpack can't properly understand Aristotle and hence, many also won't be able to save themselves by trying to live according to such principles.

Jesus perfectly lived out and captured these principles in such a way that ordinary people could understand and follow. This is what the Christian-Deist concept of Christianity republishing the law of nature refers to. In fact, John Locke has a line about Jesus' teachings being so clear that "ignorant fisherman" could follow them. So Jesus saves by perfecting and modeling virtue and teaching it in such a way that everyone could follow and hence yields a net increase in moral practice.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The question then for whether it's appropriate to label the "key Founders" to be "Christian-Deists" is whether their beliefs mesh with the "Christian-Deism" as articulated by the above three: Morgan, Amory and Tindal.

Which is sort of the dead end to the whole thing. The Americans rather went their own way on this "deism" business. This is the problem of conjuring a term and trying to shoehorn individuals into it. [Sort of like "Protestant," even, which is at best descriptive, not definitive.]

In fact Franklin explicitly notes in A Defense of Mr. Hemphill's Observations that before the coming of Jesus, "many would be able to save themselves by a good Use of their Reason and the Light of Nature."

Yet elsewhere, Franklin says

"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"

IOW, that one cannot "earn" salvation. So we might say Franklin lets many such details up to the divine.

As for the greater number of men outside Franklin and the "sect to myself" Jefferson, "unitarian" seems a better definition for what's described in this post, not too different from the Jews for Jesus

who hold the Bible as divine writ but do not hold Jesus as divine.

"We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

Bill Fortenberry said...

Well that was a hearty and much needed laugh. James Wilson once wrote that "the writings of Mr. Locke ... have been perverted to purposes which he would have deprecated and prevented, had he discovered or foreseen them," and I don't know if I've ever seen a more clear example of this than your final two sentences. Did you even read the sentence in which Locke mentions those "ignorant fishermen"?

And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the New Testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.

Locke was not claiming that Jesus taught His precepts in such a way that they could be understood by ignorant fishermen. He was claiming that these ignorant fishermen were teachers themselves who had an authority apart from and greater than mere human reason - i.e. they were inspired by God to proclaim His revelation to man.

Locke explained this in great detail in the paragraph which followed:

Though yet, if any one should think, that out of the sayings of the wise heathens before our Saviour’s time, there might be a collection made of all those rules of morality, which are to be found in the christian religion; yet this would not at all hinder, but that the world, nevertheless, stood as much in need of our Saviour, and the morality delivered by him. Let it be granted (though not true) that all the moral precepts of the gospel were known by somebody or other, amongst mankind before ... What will all this do, to give the world a complete morality, that may be to mankind the unquestionable rule of life and manners?

... What would this amount to, towards being a steady rule; a certain transcript of a law that we are under? ... Mankind might hearken to it, or reject it, as they pleased; or as it suited their interest, passions, principles or humours. They were under no obligation; the opinion of this or that philosopher was of no authority. And if it were, you must take all he said under the same character. All his dictates must go for law, certain and true; or none of them ... But these incoherent apophthegms of philosophers, and wise men, however excellent in themselves, and well intended by them; could never make a morality, whereof the world could be convinced; could never rise to the force of a law, that mankind could with certainty depend on.

Whatsoever should thus be universally useful, as a standard to which men should conform their manners, must have its authority, either from reason or revelation ... He, that any one will pretend to set up in this kind, and have his rules pass for authentic directions, must show, that either he builds his doctrine upon principles of reason, self-evident in themselves; and that he deduces all the parts of it from thence, by clear and evident demonstration: or must show his commission from heaven, that he comes with authority from God, to deliver his will and commands to the world.

... Such a law of morality Jesus Christ hath given us in the New Testament; but by the latter of these ways, by revelation. We have from him a full and sufficient rule for our direction, and conformable to that of reason. But the truth and obligation of its precepts have their force, and are put past doubt to us, by the evidence of his mission. He was sent by God: his miracles show it; and the authority of God in his precepts cannot be questioned. Here morality has a sure standard, that revelation vouches, and reason cannot gainsay, nor question; but both together witness to come from God the great law-maker.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Locke was not saying that "brilliant philosophers can get the results without Jesus." He was saying that the philosophers could never equal the teachings of Christ and His disciples because the words of Christ and His disciple were the authoritative words of God Himself. None of the philosophers could rightfully make such a claim.

Tom Van Dyke said...

He was sent by God: his miracles show it; and the authority of God in his precepts cannot be questioned.

Hoped, y'd chime in here, Bill. But FTR, this makes Jesus no more than a prophet. Moses performed miracles and spoke with divine authority as well. This does however, set Locke apart from Jefferson and those few who are more accurately described as deists, who disbelieved in miracles [and indeed, I see no evidence that Jefferson believed the Bible to be divine writ either].

John Adams, unitarian, 1756:

"The great and Almighty author of nature, who at first established those rules which regulate the world, can as easily suspend those laws whenever his providence sees sufficient reason for such suspension. This can be no objection, then, to the miracles of Jesus Christ."

Jonathan Rowe said...

What I see from the excepts Bill quoted was Locke mainly concerned with the "binding" nature of the moral rules discovered by reason and the natural law.

Aristotle may have through the use of reason discovered the proper rules. But why should we listen to Aristotle a mere man. What authority does he have?

Jonathan Rowe said...

As to Wilson's quotation on Locke. Well yes this is what happens. Ideas evolve.

Samuel Rutherford et al. slowly tweaked Calvin's original writings which unequivocally condemned rebellion or revolution of the kind America did in 1776 such that by that time, the Presbyterians in America were ready to revolt.

Wilson's quotation is most apt in the sense that some of the figures he might be referring influenced the American Founding more directly than Locke did.

(I never said in my original piece that the Christian-Deists got Locke completely right; rather that they were inspired by Locke's writings.)

Thomas Jefferson, for instance. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, borrowed directly from Locke's writings, but changed them (instead of "property," Jefferson put in "Pursuit of Happiness" which may or may not have meant "property").

Jefferson loved Locke, just as he did Jesus. But again Jefferson tweaked the details.

Jefferson too stressed Jesus apostles as "unlettered & ignorant men." They may have been "inspired" in a sense; but Jefferson's use of "unlettered & ignorant men" was meant to convey he didn't think they got the story completely right.

joseph waligore said...

Jonathan, it might interest you that I have found another English thinker who labelled himself a Christian deist, and a total of about 25 english thinkers I would consider Christian deists. Some of these figures are known to scholars (like Thomas Chubb) but most are not. Of the American figures, I would much agree with you that Jefferson was one. The only well known other Founding Father I would include as one was John Adams. I think it is inaccurate to include Madison as any type of deist based on the evidence we have of his religious beliefs. It might also interest you to know that I am currently writing a book on Christian deism in England and America in the eighteenth century.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for this. I look forward to the book.

Jonathan Rowe said...

With both Madison and Washington, I think they could be put in the "Christian-Deist" box; but they were so reticent to give specific details of their creed (as opposed to more general Providential notions that are consistent with a wide variety of creeds) that we need to qualify our language to admit the uncertainty.

James Hutson's paper on Madison is one of the best I've seen:

Hutson hints at "Christian-Deism" by noting many 18th Century Deists would agree Christianity was the "best & purest religion."

joseph waligore said...

Jonathan, I am very aware that scholars pushing a concept can too easily get over-excited and, as Tom says, shoehorn people into that concept. (I think Matthew Stewart is a perfect example of this in his recent book fitting so many founders into the Spinozist box.) So I am only including some one as a Christian-deist if there is evidence from their own writing that they shared the same basic ideas as the other Christian deists that Christianity is natural religion/deism. I also want to maintain strict boundaries between Christian deism and anti-Calvinist theologies such as Unitarianism and Latitudinarianism of John Tillotson. I have seen no evidence that Madison was any more than Latitudinarian who was not a Trinitarian. (Samuel Clarke is a good example of that.) I just checked out the Hutson paper very quickly and think it is very good. Thanks for the reference.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Waligore: I think Matthew Stewart is a perfect example of this in his recent book fitting so many founders into the Spinozist box.



See also Hutson:

Faced with these facts, how can Stewart assert that religion in the United States today is a form of atheism and that we are now mostly atheists? He does this by manipulating words, by pinning the term atheist on members of any church in the United States which appears to subscribe to ecumenical and social gospel-like principles. Put another way, Stewart contends that anyone in the United States today who is not a fundamentalist Christian, dreaming of imposing on the country a Biblical commonwealth, or a fundamentalist Muslim, fantasizing about a nation governed by sharia law, is an atheist. To depict the state of religion in the United States today in this way is a flight from reality.

How should Stewart’s book be classified? Should a cataloger assign it to the atheist section of the stacks? Or to the Gnostic section? Or, a remote possibility, to the philosophy section? The book, in my judgment, would be most appropriately placed in the fantasy section.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm going to put that Hutson review to the top after I read it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heh heh. Deliciously vicious--especially for a guy who works for the government!

jimmiraybob said...

First impressions on Hutson’s review:

Hutson - ”Online sites identify him as an ‘American philosopher,’ apparently on the strength of his having majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and graduate student.”

It’s hard to see this as a serious review and not a polemic when it starts out in such a prejudicial manner by demeaning Stewart’s academic resume. It’s like saying that Hutson went to school somewhere and now deals with books and stuff on the east coast. From Stewart’s author page, he graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a concentration in political philosophy and was awarded the Sachs Scholarship from Princeton for study at Oxford University, where he earned a D.Phil. in philosophy in 1988.

I could not find reference to Stewart having written a book on Descartes but he did write one entitled, Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World.

Otherwise, Hutson’s review seems both defensive and antagonistic as if Stewart has kicked sand in Hutson’s face one too many times and now he’s going to give Stewart a good what for… from a comfortable distance.

I get the feeling that Hutson hasn’t engaged the literature by or about Spinoza in the least. I would challenge him, or anyone reading this, to study the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and then come back to the subject. He might also benefit from looking at Spinoza’s reception among the English deists, the Church and the religiously Orthodox Cambridge Platonists - conveniently discussed in,

Rosalie L. Colie*, 1959. Spinoza and the Early English Deists. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1. (January), pp. 23-46.

Rosalie L. Colie*, 1963. Spinoza in England, 1665-1730. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 107, no.3. (June), pp. 183-219.

There is a clear line of influence if judged only by the reactions of his enemies.

Continued below.

jimmiraybob said...

Instead of seriously engaging the substance of Spinoza’s ideas and how they may have directly or indirectly contributed to the 18th-century European intellectual maelstrom, Hutson, like some of the Cambridge Platonists and other 17th and 18th Century Spinoza detractors, seems content to be the reactionary unmasker of the heathen outsider and is not above treating Stewart’s thesis by relying on the weight of his own academic authority and ridicule rather than a deeper, on-point engagement.

It’s hard to imagine that Locke wasn’t influenced by early Dutch Republic toleration and the Cartesian and Spinozist ideas being circulated among the intellectual elite during his exile in the Netherlands from 1683 to 1680, whether embracing some and opposing others. And, incidentally, Jefferson did not have to receive Spinoza through Locke or the deists as he owned copies of Spinoza’s Ethics, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Opera Posthuma.

While Stewart may overstate his thesis, in many ways he presents a wealth of information that is irrefutable even if the interpretations are contentious. Reading the book with a critical (academically speaking) eye will yield a better understanding of the wider intellectual foundations of the period that was occupied by the founding and framing generations and will open pathways generally left unexplored in American history.

Instead of giving any credit at all to Stewart’s work, something even Gregg Frazer managed to do in a similar review, Hutson curtly dismisses it all with, “The book, in my judgment, would be most appropriately placed in the fantasy section.” Not so much the mark of the intellectually curious or honest or serious reviewer interested in ideas but more a statement of someone guarding turf…..with malice. As someone observes, “deliciously vicious.” Yes indeed.

A little aside. I was at a historical conference on Early American history a couple of summers ago and was sitting in the front row of a presentation. Afterwards Jack Rakove, sitting a few seats away, commented on the parallels between the subject of the talk and Spinoza’s (or the Dutch Remonstrant’s/Dissenter’s who formed a significant part of his posse) ideas. Interesting.

*Department of History, Wesleyan University – Available online @

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or not.

"Spinoza’s metaphysics is notoriously idiosyncratic and has had few defenders, which is why I did not devote space to him in the book. His critique of final causality is closely tied to that metaphysics, and inherits its weaknesses. Still, Spinoza is one of the chief architects of modernity: the militantly secularist liberalism which has now displaced the milder and theologically-based Lockean brand of liberalism in the thinking of the contemporary Western intelligentsia has its roots in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. And his critique of final causality evinces some of the same fallacies and errors to be found in other early modern writers. So it’s worthwhile giving his critique a brief look..."

jimmiraybob said...

That's a wowser of a comeback, a conservative Catholic Thomist philosopher mildly criticizing and then leaving Spinoza out of a book. Pretty weak tea and oh so predictable. If you want some good criticism's read Colie's Spinoza in England cited above. Now those boys knew how to bring the fire and brimstone.

Of course, Feser's opinion of Spinoza has no bearing on how 17th and 18th century followers and readers were influenced by Spinoza's democratic and philosophical writings - on the individual's right of conscience (no caveats), the individual's right of expression, and the necessity of civil governance unfettered by ecclesiastical interference. Or, even as most modern scholars that study him view Spinoza.

So, maybe so.

”Bento (in Hebrew, Baruch; in Latin, Benedictus) Spinoza is one of the most important philosophers—and certainly the most radical—of the early modern period. His thought combines a commitment to a number of Cartesian metaphysical and epistemological principles with elements from ancient Stoicism and medieval Jewish rationalism into a nonetheless highly original system. His extremely naturalistic views on God, the world, the human being and knowledge serve to ground a moral philosophy centered on the control of the passions leading to virtue and happiness. They also lay the foundations for a strongly democratic political thought and a deep critique of the pretensions of Scripture and sectarian religion. Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth-century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza.”

Steven Nadler
Professor of Philosophy (Early Modern Philosophy)
University of Wisconsin - Madison WI

”Benedict de Spinoza was among the most important of the post-Cartesian philosophers who flourished in the second half of the 17th century. He made significant contributions in virtually every area of philosophy, and his writings reveal the influence of such divergent sources as Stoicism, Jewish Rationalism, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and a variety of heterodox religious thinkers of his day. For this reason he is difficult to categorize, though he is usually counted, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three major Rationalists. Given Spinoza’s devaluation of sense perception as a means of acquiring knowledge, his description of a purely intellectual form of cognition, and his idealization of geometry as a model for philosophy, this categorization is fair. But it should not blind us to the eclecticism of his pursuits, nor to the striking originality of his thought.”

Blake Dutton
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Loyola University - Chicago IL

jimmiraybob said...

And, speaking of big fans of Spinoza, Einstein, the Spinozist (determinist) who did not believe in a personal anthropomorphic God and was deeply mistrustful of organized religion, wrote this little ditti:

How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he'll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.

And also said,

"I do not have the professional knowledge to write a scholarly article about Spinoza. But what I think about this man I can express in a few words. Spinoza was the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action. In my opinion, his point of view has not gained general acceptance by all those striving for clarity and logical rigor only because it requires not only consistency of thought, but also unusual integrity, magnamity, and — modesty."

I guess that by some metrics this would mean that general and special relativity flows from Spinoza through Einstein. (A good Epicurean would probably put in a plug for Lucretius' De rerum natura at this point.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

The connection between Spinoza and the Founding era is what's missing. For the actual purpose of this blog [and Feser is a Locke intellectual biographer], this is the key graf:

Still, Spinoza is one of the chief architects of modernity: the militantly secularist liberalism which has now displaced the milder and theologically-based Lockean brand of liberalism in the thinking of the contemporary Western intelligentsia has its roots in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise.

Which is why Spinoza is the hero of the secular moderns trying to shoehorn him into American history, to which he is tangential at best.

jimmiraybob said...

I guess that if Hutson had gotten this far, or was willing to provide a more full accounting, he’d have to acknowledge that scholars regularly communicate with one another outside of journals and that sharing unpublished research is less than diabolical. I was talking to a Spinoza scholar and philosophy professor about Klever’s “Disguised Spinozism” argument and he was both aware of the paper and a bit skeptical that the textural evidence was convincing in and of itself. But, it is not so easily completely dismissed either.

I am not defending the book in total but I bristle when a scholar disses another scholar for not being scholarly by being unscholarly.

Gregg Frazer published a list of “problems” as he saw them and that would be a good place to start for a real discussion of the points raised….IMHO. I printed this out and began going through Stewart’s book again before getting sidetracked with more mundane matters. And if John Locke specialists are to be engaged then so too should Spinoza scholars.

You had mentioned that you were putting Nature’s God on your reading list and I’m wondering if you’ve had the chance. Also, I look forward to your take on Hutson’s review.