Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Founders on Scripture:

The key Founders, you know them -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and a few others -- had a particularly nuanced view of Scripture that differed from that of the "Deists" on the one hand and the "Christians" on the other. Their view of Scripture perfectly illustrates how their religion was a hybrid of the two systems -- in between Deism and Christianity -- with rationalism as the trumping element.

The strict Deist point of view, ala Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, categorically rejected all revelation in favor of man's reason. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, viewed Scripture as inerrant and infallible. And though some in the orthodox Christian tradition accepted natural theology -- or what man can discover from reason -- Christians elevated revelation over reason. See Luther calling man's reason "the devil's whore," or Aquinas, who argued the findings of man's reason must perfectly coincide with all of Scripture, or else man, as fallible, must have erred.

The key Founders believed in the truth of both man's reason and biblical revelation. Yet, they thought only parts of the Bible were legitimately revealed by God. They elevated man's reason over revelation as the final arbiter of what revelation was legitimately given by God. Only those legitimate parts of the Bible provided support for man's reason which was supreme.

Without understanding this nuanced hybrid position, both sides -- the secular left and religious right -- can easily claim these Founders as their own, misunderstanding them while quoting them out of context. For instance, a strict Deist believes in no Scripture. Jefferson and Franklin, two Founders often accused of being "Deists," often made Biblical allusions and otherwise suggested that they believed in parts of the Bible. Why would someone who believed Scripture was false seem to hold parts of it in high regard? Reacting to these quotations, some secularists assert Jefferson and Franklin manipulated the masses or the moment, pretending to believe in something that they didn't.

The religious right, on the other hand, jump on such opportunities to assert these Founders as "men of the Bible," just like they are. They should realize that just because a particular Founder seemed to accept parts of Scripture doesn't mean he accepted the whole thing. Only if a Founder clearly and unequivocally stated that he accepted the Bible as inerrant and infallible should he be claimed as believing in such.

I assert, controversially, that Franklin and Jefferson actually thought some Scripture was legitimately revealed by God. This post by no means will exhaust quotations from them which could be offered to support this notion. Rather, I'll submit just a few. First in his letter to John Calder Aug. 21, 1784, Franklin wrote:

To which I may now add, 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.

Note how Franklin does not "renounce" the entire Old Testament or Bible, just "that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration." This suggests that parts of the Bible possibly have been given by Divine Inspiration. Also, the context of the letter is that it is to a like minded Unitarian who likewise disagreed with the religious test in PA's Constitution of 1776 which required "the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of [the Bible] was given by divine Inspiration." In other words, Franklin didn't need to "beat around the bush" or write in code because he was speaking to another "infidel."

Peter Lillback constantly shows in his 1200 page tome on Washington's religion how GW made Biblical allusions, tracing Washington's words back to scriptural passages. While this may show that Washington held revelation in higher regard than the strict Deists did, Jefferson and Franklin likewise alluded to the Bible in their writings every bit as much. And both of them clearly rejected parts of the Bible as illegitimate.

This letter of GW's to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah is stressed by Lillback, the Novaks and any scholar who would like to believe Washington's God was "Biblical":

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Yet, Thomas Jefferson says something remarkably similar in his Second Inaugural Address: "I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life...."

Or consider Franklin's call to prayer during the Constitutional Convention:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel:

Though here Franklin alluded to and quoted from the Bible, elsewhere he claimed the Bible was errant, and he probably thought much of it (like the story of the Tower of Babel) was metaphorical. But he seemed open to the notion that some of it was legitimately revealed by God.

Franklin, I would argue, believed slightly closer to conventional Christianity than Jefferson, because he accepted certain supernatural things which Jefferson would have dismissed as "irrational." For instance, he accepted the turning of water into wine at cana. Franklin wrote:

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it.

He also apparently believed in bodily resurrection:

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.

Again, though, Franklin still wasn't a "Christian" because, among other reasons, he denied the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Eternal Damnation, and inerrancy of Scripture. He also held man's reason as the ultimate determiner of truth and thought men were saved through their works not faith.

Jefferson too seemed to believe parts of the Bible were genuinely revealed. In his letter to John Adams Jan. 24, 1814 he criticizes much of Scripture as "defective and doubtful" in its history and asserts "we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine." This suggests he thought that parts of them are genuine. (A point first made on p. 79 in Dr. Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. dissertation; this entire post though tracks parts of his thesis). Jefferson then stated, "It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills." The "diamonds" referred to what parts of Scripture are legitimately revealed, the "dunghills," the error in the Bible.

Similarly, when Jefferson took his razor to the Bible and cut out what he regarded as untruth, this suggests what remained he believed legitimate revelation. A strict Deist would just cut up the whole book.

Finally, when Jefferson argued against the Deity of Jesus, he seemingly claimed to believe John 1:1-3 was legitimate revelation, but his interpretation of that passage rejected a central tenet of Christianity: That Jesus was both man and God. This comes from his same letter to John Adams where he bitterly attacked Calvinism as "Daemonism" and stated "the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." While denying the Trinity, Jefferson wrote of John 1:1-3:

[A]nd his doctrine of the Cosmogony of the world is very clearly laid down in the 3 first verses of the 1st. chapter of John, in these words, `{en arche en o logos, kai o logos en pros ton Theon kai Theos en o logos. `otos en en arche pros ton Theon. Panta de ayto egeneto, kai choris ayto egeneto ode en, o gegonen}. Which truly translated means `in the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made'. Yet this text, so plainly declaring the doctrine of Jesus that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being, has been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word {logos}. One of it's legitimate meanings indeed is `a word.' But, in that sense, it makes an unmeaning jargon: while the other meaning `reason', equally legitimate, explains rationally the eternal preexistence of God, and his creation of the world. Knowing how incomprehensible it was that `a word,' the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe.

Yet, by understanding "logos" as "reason" or God's mind as opposed to a second person in the Trinity, Jefferson's interpretation of the Bible is not Christian, but rationalist.

Finally, I will offer a bit on Washington. As Peter Lillback shows, Washington often suggested that he believed in some revelation. But nowhere did he clearly assert that the Bible is inerrant or infallible. Moreover, Washington also clearly trumpeted Enlightenment rationality and liberality. So Washington's beliefs on revelation do indeed, as Lillback argues, show that he was not a strict Deist (they didn't believe in any revelation). But everything that Washington said on revelation is consistent with Jefferson's and Franklin's hybrid religion, as described above. The following from Washington's 1788 letter to MARQUIS DE CHASTELLUX is typical of a passage Dr. Lillback quotes to prove Washington wasn't a Deist: "For certainly it is more consonant to all the principles of reason and religion (natural and revealed) to replenish the earth with inhabitants, rather than to depopulate it by killing those already in existence."

Again statements like this are just as consonant with Jefferson's and Franklin's rational theism as with orthodox Christianity.

(And, to end on a lighter note, check out Washington's words to DE CHASTELLUX just before the quoted passage: They are semi-pornographic.)

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