Monday, January 9, 2017

My Biggest Criticism of Dr. Gregg Frazer's Thesis

Gregg Frazer's book is current again if for no other reason than his bete noire Bill Fortenberry has once again taken to writing about it. (On Frazer on John Adams parts I, II, and III).

One note of criticism that I don't see as apt is that Dr. Frazer is reading his personal definition of Christianity into what it means to be a "Christian." But that's not what his thesis argues. Frazer is an evangelical fundamentalist of the Calvinist stripe (though I think he believes in 4 of the 5 points).

His thesis on the other hand is a late 18th Century American ecumenical Trinitarianism -- lowest-common-denominator -- from the major churches including lots of non-Calvinists and those whose theology differs from his. Roman Catholics, High Church (liturgical), non-Calvinistic orthodox Anglicans get to be "Christians." So do orthodox evangelical Baptists of the free will Arminian stripe.

When I presented at Gordon College in front of him and a group of notable scholars, I endorsed the book with qualification. One of the biggest criticisms -- and I'll say right now it's the biggest -- is the lack of attention paid to Richard Price (and a few others, but the lack paid to Price is the most notable). Frazer argues the Socinian Joseph Priestley as a sort of "guru" for the political theology of the American Founding. But the Arian Price should have gotten just as much ink. Priestley and Price as leaders of a cohort that actually has a name: Club of Honest Whigs. They are also sometimes referred to as "dissenters" on theological issues.

The lowest-common-denominator consensus I referred to above was a consensus among the prevailing theological authorities. That is, such consensus excludes dissenters. The tradition was started by St. Athanasius and continues to this day. I'm no expert on C.S. Lewis, so I'm open to correction. But I understand even he posited that one must believe in certain orthodox Trinitarian minimums in order to qualify as a "mere Christian."

But this understanding did indeed exist, as an historical matter, in late 18th Century America. And unless I missed this in reading his book, none other than Richard Price offers a smoking gun quotation on its existence, that if used would have strengthened Frazer's case.

From an address that George Washington strongly endorsed, Price stated:

"Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity."

Frazer argues on behalf of those "commonly received ideas of Christianity" at the time and against which Price dissents. 

On a personal note, I'm with Price. But I write this to observe the reality of the historical dynamic.


Tom Van Dyke said...

FYI, my 2 cents is that I run across Rev. Richard Price all the time as a genuine [theo-]political theorist; Priestley not at all.

But keep in mind Benjamin Rush urged Price to keep his nontrinitarianism on the hush-hush, as it would hurt his credibility on nontheological issues [in that particular case, education]. The unitarian conroversy is sui generis and has distorted the "Who/What is Christian?" question of who fits into Protestantism's "big tent." Afterall, in Protestantism, everybody's a heretic of some sort.

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

It all depends on who gets to decide. As Locke notes, we can even make the case that Catholics and Anglicans do not share the same religion, making Fraser's entire thesis academic and arbitrary.

"The Papists and Lutherans, though both of them profess faith in Christ and are therefore called Christians, yet are not both of the same religion, because

these acknowledge nothing but the Holy Scriptures to be the rule and foundation of their religion,

those take in also traditions and the decrees of Popes and of these together make the rule of their religion;

and thus the Christians of St. John (as they are called) and the Christians of Geneva are of different religions, because

these also take only the Scriptures, and

those I know not what traditions, for the rule of their religion.

This being settled, it follows,

first, that heresy is a separation made in ecclesiastical communion between men of the same religion

for some opinions no way contained in the rule itself; and,

secondly, that amongst those who acknowledge nothing but the Holy Scriptures to be their rule of faith,

heresy is a separation made in their Christian communion for opinions not contained in the express words of Scripture."

Bill Fortenberry said...

I've updated Part 2 to include two separate statements in which Adams denied the eternality of matter. The first is found in a diary entry that he wrote as a young man, and the second is found in his letters to Jefferson later in life. Intriguingly, Adams' later statement rejecting the eternality of matter comes from a letter that Frazer quoted more than once in his book.