Monday, March 14, 2016

Kidd on Deism, Franklin, Jefferson and the American Founding

I saw this on my social media newsfeed. Forgive me as I can't remember whether I featured it last year. It's a year old, but is still relevant.

It relates to broad and narrow definitions of Christianity and Deism that were invoked in our last post by Dr. Carl J. Richard.

From Dr. Kidd's piece:
Part of the problem with calling any of the Founders deists is the difficulty of defining deism. What did that term mean in the eighteenth century? Could you be a deist and somehow believe in prayer, as Franklin apparently did, at least as of the Constitutional Convention? (Franklin made a failed motion for the convention to open its sessions in prayer.) Could you be a deist and say with Jefferson, “I am a real Christian”?

Arguments about whether any or all the Founders were deists usually are hamstrung by overly precise definitions of deism. Deists believed in God as the cosmic watchmaker, critics protest, so any sign that a person believed in prayer or Providence automatically disqualifies them. But deism in eighteenth-century Europe and America could mean many different things. Its adherents could range from people who had qualms about Calvinism, to those who criticized the corruptions of the church as “priestcraft,” to more radical deists who espoused beliefs that seem close to atheism.

We should also remember that “deism” and “deists” were terms probably more often used by critics against their opponents, rather than by deists themselves.


Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted to dispense with Christian dogma and recover the true faith, which was a quality of living rather than a set of arcane propositions which (as they saw it) the guardians of orthodoxy defended in order to protect their own power. This is why Franklin gave so much attention to tests of personal virtue, and experimented constantly with charitable projects. Likewise, Jefferson was almost obsessed with the person and teachings of Jesus, but believed that in his teaching and behavior Jesus served as the preeminent example of “human excellence,” and that his followers imposed claims about his divinity and resurrection after the teacher’s death. But neither Jefferson nor Franklin imagined that we could do without this recovered rationalist Christianity – it was the best guide we had to real virtue.

The deists’ closest descendants today are not the “new atheists” who have stirred up so much media chatter in recent years. Their closest descendants are probably liberal mainline Christians who see Jesus as their model but who eschew (or even deny) the particular, exclusive doctrines that have been associated with Christian orthodoxy for millennia. ...


Tom Van Dyke said...

God either spoke directly to man through Jesus and the Old Testament prophets or He didn't.

The rest is details. First of all, it presumes there is a God! First things first.

Jonathan Rowe said...

One thing that interests me is your whole "there is nothing new about this Enlightenment stuff."

Arianism was the predominant form of unitarianism among the "rational Christians" of the Enlightenment. Well, that's an old religion.

Likewise Socinianism or the more radical "Christian Deism" of a Jefferson or a Bolingbroke. ... I know I have a lot to learn about him. But, one of the most important and earliest Church Fathers was Marcion. He was important in large part because of his efforts in compiling the NT canon.

But he was a radical heretic. Jefferson and Bolingbroke seem to have religious views that parallel his.

Jefferson thought the Jews were "deists" -- as he understood the concept, people who believed in one God, simpliciter. It's hard to say whether Jefferson and Bolingbroke, besides believing in "one God" thought the God of the OT as the prophets described him got it right. As opposed to some false demon god putting words in their mouth maligning true God's benevolent nature.

Likewise with Franklin, it's hard to pin him down on the OT. He once 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."

Jefferson, Franklin and Bolingbroke all believed (if I am getting Bolingbroke right) Jesus, regardless of His exact nature was "from God" in some kind of inspired sense.

I don't know where Marcion stood on the Trinity (I think he predated the formulation of that doctrine). Or, on the question of Jesus' full divinity. But he wrote off the God of the OT as some malevolent fake, but thought Jesus was truly inspired by the real benevolent God.

I am not aware of Jefferson, Franklin citing Marcion. Likewise with the English Deists, I'm not aware, but there is much I don't know there.

But, as I read what he stood for, Marcion was the first "Christian-Deist" and anticipated these ideas much like Arius anticipated the movement that was revived during Enlightenment era. (FTR, Jefferson and company were probably more likely to align themselves with Socinius than Marcion.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

The return of heresies such as Arianism is also a product of the Reformation, where the individual becomes the final arbiter of the Bible, not the Church. I can't re-locate the quote, but I recall Philip Melanchthon, the "co-founder of Lutheranism," saying that Michael Servetus's doubts about the Trinity were inevitable, since the genie of individual interpretation was let out of the bottle. Thus I would argue that the theological "free-thinking" credited to the Enlightenment is actually just another flower of Protestantism.

As to whether Jefferson thought the Bible was literally the Word of God, I would say no; I'd say Franklin thought maybe.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm working a new post to look for within the next few hours.

Perhaps it's true that revived Arianism and Marcionism is what "Protestantism" is all about. But you can try to sell that to the orthodox Protestants who devoutly believe in their Protestant orthodoxy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Orthodox" Protestantism is an oxymoron. It's quite easy to argue as an outsider that Calvinism's alteration of the Eucharistic theology leaves Lutheranism closer to Catholicism than to the Reformed sects.

Jonathan Rowe said...

You say it's an oxymoron. But to those Protestants who devoutly believe in orthodoxy and their identities as Protestants, they don't think it's so.

Tom Van Dyke said...

They don't get a say. Litigants can't be judges.

For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical.--Locke

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes, Locke who believed in Jesus as Messiah and revelation but could not be pinned down on the doctrines of orthodoxy like, among others the Trinity and Atonement, would say such a thing.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

It's from Locke's famous Letter Concerning Toleration, which combines common sense and theological arguments:

a) the government can't save your soul
b) persecution is unChristian

Protestantism had calved into so many sects by the 1600s that enforcing orthodoxy had become impossible, if what is "orthodox" could even be defined. And as a matter of simple logic, if Country X has the true religion, Country Y does not, and thus the people of Country Y are damned by no fault of their own.

For there being but one truth, one way to heaven, what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no rule but the religion of the court and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of opinions in religion, wherein the princes of the world are as much divided as in their secular interests, the narrow way would be much straitened; one country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the world put under an obligation of following their princes in the ways that lead to destruction; and that which heightens the absurdity, and very ill suits the notion of a Deity, men would owe their eternal happiness or misery to the places of their nativity.