Thursday, February 9, 2017

Adams Letter to His Son on the Biblical Canon

Here we go. This is the letter John Adams wrote to John Quincy Adams on the 24th of December 1813 on the biblical canon.
I perceive my son that you are a great Student in the Bible: I know you have been a long time; perhaps all your Life. But have you studied the Canon of Scriptures? its History? its Evidence? its Authority? In what sense do you understand the Inspiration, the Infallibility, and the Sanctity of the Books of the old and New Testament? How far do you believe them inspired? and how far not? Have you considered what is to be understood in a litteral Sense, and what in a figurative? What is History? and what is Allegory? Have you read Lardner and Jones? Have you considered the Darkness of the 3 first Centuries and the false Light of all that followed? Do you believe Solomons Song, the Apocalypse and St. Jude to be cannonical inspired and infallible.

I wish you procure the Books I have mentioned for your future Use.

I have a million more things to say. But Our liberal Christians and biblical Criticks are Setting up Alexander Hamilton Fisher Ames and Theophylus Parsons, as great Authorities in Support of Christianity. I dare say that not one of three knew more of the Argument than they did of Shastaism, Lamaism, or Koranism.
In his response, John Quincy Adams, at this time supposedly more orthodox than his self described "liberal unitarian Christian" father couldn't commit to belief in the infallibility of scripture or the divine inspiration of the books of Song of Solomon, Apocalypse and St. Jude.

I assume from the overall context that Adams the Sr. didn't believe those three books inspired. "[T]he Darkness of the 3 first Centuries and the false Light of all that followed ...." That's when the canon, including those three mentioned books disputed among some in the early Church and by the Christian-Deists and "liberal Christians" of John Adams' era was starting to be compiled. In fact, the canon, to the extent it was ever "settled" at all, wasn't done so until the early 4th Century and included the deuterocanonicals/apocrypha as part of sacred scripture. 

Also notice how Adams trashes Alexander Hamilton's and Fisher Ames' (who were both dead by that time) understanding of the Christian faith. They were both orthodox authorities. I don't know as much about Ames' beliefs during the trajectory of his life. I know Hamilton became orthodox by the end of his life.

The overall context is Adams the elder trying to push his son's faith into a heterodox direction. And part of that heterodoxy is rejecting the orthodox -- Protestant, Catholic or whatever -- view of the biblical canon, including which books are inspired. 


sbh said...

I assume that Adams is referring to Nathaniel Lardner and Jeremiah Jones, both of whom wrote in defence of the traditional canon during the eighteenth century. Jones was responding to William Whiston's attempt to enlarge the canon by the inclusion of such books as the Apostolic Constitutions; there were of course many attempts on the other side to limit the canon by excluding such books as the epistle of James, the Song of Songs, and the Apocalypse of John. (Jude is particularly suspect in that it quoted explicitly from the noncanonical book of Enoch, rediscovered by Europeans in the eighteenth century and first published in the nineteenth.)

Bill Fortenberry said...

"The Darkness of the 3 first Centuries..." refers to a the absence of historical knowledge of those centuries, not to any evil intent in the establishment of the canon of Scripture. Compare Adams' letter to his son with a similar statement that he made in a letter to Van der Kemp, and note his conclusion in the latter:

To the Surprise of the Publick, a Mr English, a young Preacher has renounced his Profession and commenced an Attack upon the Christian Religion. I could get the Book but for an hour and have not read a third part of it. I have read Mr Carey’s and Mr Channings Notices of it. But neither Mr English nor Mr Carey nor Mr Channing will throw any new Light upon this great Subject which has employed all the Learning Genius and Talents of the World for So many Centuries. I wish they would endeavour to enlighten the darkness of the three first Centuries especially the first. Or at least lay together in a Short Compass all that can now be known. I have read Lardner and Jones. They give Us their very learned Opinions but I want their Witnesses, their Authorities and their Proofs. Abdias and Hegesippus are not inspired Oracles.

The Bible is the best Book in the World and for that reason among a thousand others, I want to know more about it.

Also, can you explain what portions of the context of Adams' letter to his son led you to the opinion that he did not believe Song of Solomon, Jude and Revelation to be inspired?

Jonathan Rowe said...

John Adams was very suspicious of corruption in the early Church and thought by the time of Nicea it was already tainted. Regardless of how you want to categorize it, The Darkness of the 3 first Centuries..." means Adams thought there was a defect in the period in which the canon was established. Which hardly constitutes endorsement of its perfection.

Also what you quoted from the letter to Van Der Kemp on Lardner and Jones suggests Adams didn't find them sufficiently convincing.

I think I explained in the original post why I thought the context suggests Adams didn't believe those three books inspired. I wonder why Adams would even bring it up if he didn't at least think there was teeth to the claim of critics of those books.

JQA who was supposedly more orthodox than his father by this time couldn't even commit himself to their inspiration (though he was open to the possibility that they were inspired).

Bill Fortenberry said...

You're begging the question here, Jon. You're just making assertions without argumentation and then relying on those assertions as evidence for your claim. For example, you asserted that "The overall context is Adams the elder trying to push his son's faith into a heterodox direction." But you have not provided any argumentation to support this assertion. You then used this bare assertion in support of your equally unproven claim that Adams rejected the orthodox canon. You have no evidence that Adams rejected any canon of Scripture orthodox or otherwise. You're just making unjustified claims based on your own unproven assertions.

Let me give you an example closely related to your claim but which does not rely on bare assertions. In a letter to Van der Kemp dated Jan. 4, 1814, Adams discussed the canonicity of the Book of Enoch and touched on the question of the canonicity of two other books in the process. Unlike the letter which you referenced, this letter does not require us to make any assumptions about Adams' view of the Book of Enoch. We can prove beyond doubt that Adams rejected the Book of Enoch as part of the canon of Scripture. Here is what Adams concluded in that letter:

That this Prophecy of Enoch was as gross a Forgery as the Gospell of the Infancy, which Some ascribed to St. Mathew and Some to St Thomas; or as the Acts of Paul and Thecle, I have no doubt. To call Such impious and execrable forgeries by the pious Epithet Apocryphal, is abominable.

Do you see how clearly my claim differs from yours? My claim does not rest upon an unproven assertion regarding some unspoken agenda that Adams was following. Rather, my claim is based on clear and undeniable facts. We know that Adams rejected the canonicity of the Book of Enoch because he said that he did.

Adams was not a very subtle man. (If you doubt that claim, just do a word search on all of his references to Hamilton.) When he wanted to express his disagreement with a particular view, he did so in clear and unambiguous language. Where is his clear and unambiguous declaration against the traditional canon of Scripture?

You can't just point to a list of questions and say, "See, if we assume that Adams wanted to convince his son to reject the traditional canon, then this list of questions proves that Adams himself rejected the traditional canon." That's just begging the question and not really proving anything at all.

By the way, your statements regarding the history of the canon of Scripture is factually in error. Let me recommend a lecture on the history of the canon by Dr. Carl Beckwith of Beeson Divinity School. Dr. Beckwith does a good job of presenting the typical protestant view of the canon as opposed to the error filled Catholic view that you seem to hold. You can watch the lecture online at:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually I did make an argument and give reasons. The reasons were just unconvincing to you.

I agree I didn't provide a smoking gun. Maybe there is one that's there with John Adams on this particular issue. You certainly didn't provide any kind of similar threshold meeting evidence that Adams was a defender of the orthodox Protestant understanding of "canon."

Given what else we know about Adams' other beliefs -- the other orthodox doctrines he rejected -- I'd be surprised to find him interested in defending this particular orthodox notion.

Likewise, your claims on the history of the canon and which view I defend and which tradition has made errors is all unargued assertion. If you want to try to kick the can to Dr. Carl Beckwith on the matter I'll kick it over to the preeminent authority on the matter: Jaroslav Pelikan.

His study on the matter led him to believe the Eastern Orthodox Church has the most accurate historical understanding and his subsequent conversion there.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Forgive me if I've come across as offensive. That was not my intent at all. I'm just pointing out that your argument is not logically sound. I could understand a fideist like Frazer coming to your conclusion since, for him, the very fact that Adams would ask such questions is a condemnation regardless of what answer Adams may have had. But I expect a more reasonable explanation from you. That's why I asked you to explain your claim about the context.

As for my own threshold of evidence, I have not claimed that "Adams was a defender of the orthodox Protestant understanding of 'canon.'" What I have claimed instead is that those who say that Adams rejected the orthodox canon have no actual evidence to support that claim. It rests entirely on arguments of either (1) guilt by association, (2)subjective assumptions about how Adams might have answered some of the questions that he asked other men about the canon, or (3) an eisegetical reading of Adams' various hypothetical statements. These are simply not valid arguments.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm glad you aren't defending the notion that Adams defends an orthodox understanding of the canon.

Adams doesn't criticize the biblical texts that generally speak of Enoch as a character. But he does reject that Enoch wrote a book of sacred scripture. But if you want to word parse, Adams rejects not just the Book of Enoch but "this Prophecy of Enoch."

One reason that made the Book of Jude, which is in the canon, controversial is that it cites not just Enoch, but "this Prophecy of Enoch" that Adams rejects.

And here we have Adams speaking to his friend and biblical critic, Thomas Jefferson on the matter.

What do you make of this?

"Do you know any thing of the prophecy of Enoch ? Can you give me a comment on the 6th, the 9th, the 14th verses of the epistle of Jude?"