Friday, July 29, 2016

Jefferson Bible? Was it the "Miraculous" that's the issue?

Once again Warren Throckmorton is pounding David Barton's understanding of the Jefferson Bible. There were two different efforts of Jefferson. One in 1804, the other around 1820. The 1804 book is not available to read in its entirety. The 1820 version is. That's "the Jefferson Bible" we have.

The dates are important for Barton's thesis, which is this: Apparently Thomas Jefferson was some kind of orthodox Trinitarian Christian until around 1813 when he fell away.

There is a kernel of truth to this flawed thesis: Jefferson starts to offer far more smoking gun quotations on his heterodoxy around 1813. But as Throckmorton and others have demonstrated, there is evidence Jefferson was heterodox before that time period. In fact, I suspect that Jefferson was less orthodox and more deistic until around the early 19th Century when he began familiarizing himself with Joseph Priestley's Socinian "Christianity."

Priestley may have made Jefferson more comfortable with a "Christian" identity. Before that, I think Jefferson may have been closer the deist Bolingbroke, though even he, if you read what he wrote about Jesus, isn't quite the "strict deist"; but he's arguably less Christian than Priestley. Allen Jayne makes an impressive circumstantial case for Bolingbroke's influence on Jefferson. But Priestley and Conyers Middleton (who also cut up a Bible) were explicitly NAMED in Jefferson's post 1813 period (Priestley far more than Middleton).

Jefferson may have never shaken off the influence of Bolingbroke. In fact, arguably, one might conclude the final "unitarian" position Jefferson endorsed was some kind of hybrid between the creeds of Bolingbroke and Priestley.

There were two things Bolingbroke posited that Jefferson late in life believed in that arguably make them less "Christian" than Joseph Priestley. I'm no Priestley expert. I do know Priestley a Socinian, believing Jesus 100% man, not at all divine in His nature, but on a divine mission, taught 1. Original Sin; 2. the Trinity; 3. the Incarnation; 4. Atonement; and 5. the Plenary Inspiration of Scripture were "corruptions" of Christianity.

But Priestley did believe in "special revelation" in a God speaking to man sense. Bolingbroke may have too believed in special revelation of a more limited variety. But I don't think Priestley messed with the canon like Bolingbroke and later Jefferson did.

Firstly, Bolingbroke and later Jefferson (probably under his influence) disbelieved in the divine inspiration of the Book of Revelation, criticizing it in harsh terms. Priestley not only believed in the divine inspiration of that book, but wrote many words trying to interpret its prophesies.

Secondly, Bolingbroke and then again, later Jefferson wrote off everything St. Paul stated as fake and not divinely inspired. I'm going to have to plead ignorance on Priestley's position on St. Paul. But I don't believe Priestley's disbelief in the plenary inspiration of the Bible led him to razor blade everything Paul said as bullshit like Bolingbroke and Jefferson did.

(I documented Bolingbroke's influence here.)

Now, David Barton, in his book, concedes Jefferson post 1813 as unorthodox. AND his book, from what I remember (I didn't read the whole thing) concedes Jefferson's late in life letter dismissing the Book of Revelation as the ravings of a delusional manic. I can't remember if Barton dealt with Jefferson's similar dismissing of Paul's writings.

But if the Jefferson of 1820 who compiled the version of his canon that we have available was, as Barton might concede, willing to dismiss the Book of Revelation and everything St. Paul wrote as fake (in addition to the Trinity and every other doctrine of orthodoxy), why does Barton have a hard time with the notion that Jefferson constructed a "Bible" of his own where he cut out from the canon that which he didn't believe?

Is it the notion that Jefferson cut out "all" of the miracles? I think he cut out most of them. Perhaps not all.

Likewise, believers can dicker over the exact books which belong in the canon (see the debates among Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants over the deuterocanonicals) and quibble over passages of verses and chapters, but what kind of "Christianity" dismisses not just the Trinity and every other orthodox doctrine, the Book of Revelation (a hard book, which I understand even Martin Luther doubted) but also everything St. Paul said?

This is the Jefferson of the 1820s who compiled his own Bible around that time period.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Barton has the germ of a viable argument in that Jefferson was less vociferously unorthodox before 1820, and the 1820 Jefferson is of little concern as Jimmy Carter is now.

But you won't hear any of that from Throckmorton, whose only interest is scorching Barton's earth.

In his early life, Jefferson expresses doubt but not outright disbelief in the Trinity--the text of the Dirieux letter simply doesn't support the assertion that Jefferson "rejected" the Trinity as early as 1788. Neither does his Syllabus of 1803, which simply skirts the question of Jesus' divinity.

My own studies of Jefferson have never led me to believe that he saw Jesus/the New Testament as spoken with divine authority, the literal will and Word of God. You and I have no fundamental disagreement. But I do think Barton may have stumbled on a truth, that Jefferson does not go over from an agnosticism---heavy doubt, even---in the Trinity to his vociferous anti-Trinitarianism until deeper into his post-presidential days.

And there remains the possibility that Jefferson left Matthew 25 and the Second Coming in his "Jefferson Bible" because he lacked the theological certainty to cut it out.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In fact, I see I caught Throckmorton himself in Bartonesque sloppiness:

"...[Jefferson] first expressed anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813."

In this case, Barton has a bit of a point about 1813 [although not a very probative one, IMO] that Jefferson's anti-Trinitarianism is seldom seen before that date.

Dr. Throckmorton writes:

He told his friend, Derieux, that he held that belief [rejecting the Trinity] from early in his life.

This isn't strictly accurate. The July 25 1788 letter to Derieux does not have Jefferson "rejecting" the Trinity, only having "difficulty" with it.

“The person who becomes sponsor for a child, according to the church in which I was educated makes a solemn profession, before god & the world, of faith in articles, which I had never sense enough to comprehend and it has always appeared to me that comprehension must precede assent. The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity & Trinity have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship, often proposed to me by friends…”--- Thomas Jefferson to J.P.P. Derieux (July 25, 1788)/transcript by JRB of the American Creation blog

"Anti-trinitarian" or "rejecting" trinitarianism is an overreach based on this text.

I notice the word "rejected" all over the internet about this letter, but it appears this is one author re-quoting another and so on and so on. This is the same second-hand sourcing that continually gets David Barton in trouble in the first place.


Related: Ben Franklin on the Trinity, 1790---

"... I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble."

Franklin dies several months later, and indeed finds out whether Jesus is God with "less trouble."

Again, to call Ben Franklin an anti-Trinitarian would be an overreach. He can only be faithfully described as agnostic on the issue, which is only as far as Jefferson's 1788 letter to Derieux can get us.

Best regards, Dr. T. As for Jefferson's 1803 "Syllabus" in his letter to Benjamin Rush, I must read

"The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines."

as Jefferson tabling the question of Jesus' Godhead, as "foreign" to the purpose of Jefferson's inquiry into the "intrinsic merit of his doctrines." Not a rejection, not an anti-Trinitarianism. There are several other expressions of non-Trinitarianism in the pre-1813 Jefferson canon, but Barton cannot be hanged based on the evidence you present here.

Art Deco said...

I don't think Jefferson attended any Congress which assembled after 1776. He was in France during the period running from 1784 to 1790 and attended neither the Constitutional Convention or any ratifying conventions and was Secretary of State while legislatures were considering the Bill of Rights.

If you're not fascinated with Jefferson per se (or with David Barton's publications), just what is the significance of this? You cannot make much of a sociological point in examining Jefferson's letters. You cannot make much of a legal or historical point either unless his letters indicate something about common usage (and if they did, so would those of any period politician).

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence AND the 3rd President of the United States. He also served in, among other places, Washington's cabinet. He did many other important things that make him a "key Founder." Not "the" key Founder, but "a" key Founder.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The argument would be that his religious views had zero effect on the republic. He was not a Framer.

However, he does close his first inaugural address with

And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.