Monday, December 17, 2018

Waligore on Unitarians

Dr. Joseph Waligore is working on a new book that will tackle, among other things, some of the unitarians who influenced the American founding and who otherwise were influential in Great Britain during the times that interest the American Creation blog.

In the comments section he gave us a little taste:
The best known of the liberal Dissenters were the Unitarians, Christians who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and often thought Jesus was merely human. Many scholars of American religious history, such as Gregg L. Frazer and Paul Conklin, assert that the religious beliefs of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson mean they were Unitarians. Furthermore these scholars assert these presidents’ mentor was Joseph Priestley, the most important Unitarian theologian. Chapter seven explains in detail how Jefferson and Adams shared the English deists’ emphasis on God’s goodness and total fairness. The scholars who think Priestley was Jefferson and Adams’ mentor also think Priestley shared their emphasis on God’s total goodness. Frazer declares that Priestley stressed God “was, fundamentally, benevolent, . . . [he] rejected biblical accounts of God’s wrath and vengeance.” What Frazer and other scholars do not understand is how much Priestley was situated in the tradition of the liberal Dissenters, and shared their beliefs about the Bible, particularly their belief in the accuracy of the Old Testament. The scholars of American religious history share religion scholar Bruce K. Waltke’s mistaken idea of Priestley’s view of biblical authority. Waltke, in his book on Old Testament theology, claimed Priestley, like French skeptics such as Diderot and Voltaire, had a liberal outlook on the authority of the Bible. According to Waltke, liberals put reason above revelation and so detract from the authority of the Bible by making reason the foundation of theological reflection. For Waltke, this means liberals approach the Bible with the same skepticism they apply to other ancient Near Eastern myths. Waltke asserts liberals consider the Bible stories as the product of human mythopoetic imagination, and so he thought liberals gave no more credence to the Bible’s account of God’s intervention in human affairs than they do to other Near Eastern myths. 
 
Waltke is claiming that anyone who believes in reason must treat the Bible as a myth. But Priestley shared with other liberal Dissenters a belief that reason supported the authority of the Old Testament. Priestley’s views will be discussed in detail in chapter seven when his views are compared to those of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s. Priestley’s beliefs on biblical authority were very similar to those of John Taylor, another prominent liberal Dissenter. Taylor was a minister and scholar who eventually taught at Warrington Academy, the most eminent Dissenter college. In fact, when Taylor died in 1761, Priestley replaced him as professor at the academy.

Taylor believed the Bible was not the fully inspired Word of God. However, he thought the historical parts of the Bible were written by men fully acquainted with the facts; meaning that he accepted the Old Testament accounts as true historical facts of what actually happened before Jesus was born. Taylor believed in the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Flood, and the destruction of the Tower of Babel. To explain how Moses could have a reliable account of far earlier events without being inspired by God, Taylor pointed to the biblical claim that Hebrew patriarchs lived for many hundreds of years. So while there were 1,656 years from the creation to Noah’s Flood, Taylor believed Methuselah lived with Adam for 243 years and received from him an accurate account of creation and the Fall. Methuselah then passed that knowledge on to Noah who also lived many hundreds of years. Eventually other long-lived patriarchs passed the knowledge to each other until it was given to Moses. Taylor reasoned that three people, Methuselah, Shem, and Jacob “were sufficient to hand down the Knowledge and Worship of the true God, from Adam to the time when the Children of Israel went down into Egypt, that is, through the Space of 2238 Years.” Taylor reasoned God let these patriarchs live so long precisely because there was no other way to accurately pass down this knowledge before the invention of writing. 
 
With this belief about the reliability of the Old Testament, Taylor believed a race of impious giants once lived on Earth, as well as the whole world was once covered by Noah’s Flood. More pertinently, he also believed God ordered the total extermination of Israel’s neighbors, the Canaanites, cursed whole peoples, and chastised whole nations with plagues, fires, and locusts. The other liberal Dissenters, including the Unitarians, also believed the Old Testament God performed these actions.

4 comments:

joseph waligore said...

Jonathan, in researching the differences between Unitarians and deists, I have discovered that the Unitarians in Massachusetts were the main defenders of keeping state-supported religion in that state and they did not support what we would now think of as religious liberty and freedom. This article available from Jstor explains this point.
"Is Not This a Paradox?" Public Morality and the Unitarian Defense of State-Supported
Religion in Massachusetts, 1806-1833
Author(s): NATHAN S. RIVES
Source: The New England Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 232-265

Jon Rowe said...

It's interesting though that Jefferson called himself a "unitarian," but may have been closer to the deist Bolingbroke. The unitarian George Ticknor said Madison was a unitarian as well.

And J. Adams in Massachusetts was a unitarian. VA and MA represent two poles on how the American founders thought of religious establishments at the state levels. And both seem to be lead by public figures who happened to be theological unitarians.

Tom Van Dyke said...

joseph waligore said...
Jonathan, in researching the differences between Unitarians and deists, I have discovered that the Unitarians in Massachusetts were the main defenders of keeping state-supported religion in that state and they did not support what we would now think of as religious liberty and freedom.



JW, I'm sure you're aware that it was the Unitarian Controversy that split the official church of Massachusetts, Congregationalism. The theological unitarians seized political control of the various parishes, churches and congregations of the last state-established church, and the Trinitarians let them have them, rather than fight.

But it was this schism [schism is the rule in Protestantism, not the exception as it is in Catholicism, my larger point in all this] that in the end set the traditionalists as the proponents of disestablishment!

Our Founding Truth said...

But it was this schism [schism is the rule in Protestantism, not the exception as it is in Catholicism, my larger point in all this] that in the end set the traditionalists as the proponents of disestablishment!


The reformers were adamant that unitarianism was not part of the reformation. They were on their own,outside the movement.