Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Theistic Rationalism From the Pulpit

That's the title to one of the chapters in Dr. Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis. It refers to the not too well understood fact that many of the most notable pro-Revolutionary preachers didn't preach "Christian" principles from the pulpit in support of the Revolution, but rather theistic rationalist principles. Indeed, with the exception of John Witherspoon, the most notable and influential pro-Revolutionary preachers arguably weren't even Christians but Unitarians (or, they were what John Adams described himself -- "liberal Unitarian Christians"). They were, moreover, explicit theological adversaries of John Edwards and his "Great Awakening."

Of late, I've been reading a number of Thomas West's pieces on Locke, theology, and the Founding (see here, here and here). In order to show that Locke and the principles of the American Revolution were, at the very least consistent with and complementary towards Christianity, at best, authentic "Christian principles" themselves, he cites some of the key pro-Revolutionary preachers, and his favorite seems to be Samuel West. Thomas West writes:

In colonial America, we see the success of Locke's teaching, in religion no less than in politics. The transformation of public opinion in the years leading up to 1776 was not the result of a secular political theory divorced from Christian theology. Above all, the clergy of America, especially in New England, adopted Locke's theology and taught it relentlessly. My personal favorite is the Reverend Samuel West, whose fiery 1776 sermon on liberty is a classic of the Massachusetts pulpit of the American Revolution.[21] Men like Jefferson who considered themselves Enlightenment rationalists probably had far less influence on the general public than the multitude of now-forgotten preachers who taught that the Bible teaches the same truth--that all men are created equal, that they have duties as well as rights--that reason discovers on its own.

The most influential of that multitude from New England included not only Samuel West, but also Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, Ebenezer Gay, and Simeon Howard. They were all theological unitarians and universalists who had already broken from Puritanism and, as mentioned, were theological enemies of John Edwards and his Great Awakening. What they preached was, for the most part, consistent with Jefferson's "enlightenment rationalism"; and as theological unitarians, it was not consistent with orthodox Christianity.

These preachers were not "strict deists." Their unitarian rationalism incorporated enough of the Bible that they looked to scripture to support their beliefs more so than a deist would. Though their terming themselves "Christian" and use of scripture, should not, I would argue, lead one to conclude that they were Christians or, as Thomas West asserts, that they spoke for "most Christians of the founding generation." He writes:

The idea of an autonomous conscience, unbound by reason, was rejected by the American Founders. It was rejected also by most Christians of the founding generation, who believed that "A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture" (Samuel West, A Sermon, 1776). For founding-era Christians, not only revelation but "reason . . . is the voice of God" (Samuel West). That was their foundation for natural law, natural rights, and therefore for constitutional and statute law.

Let's explore just how "Christian" these sermons were. According to viable religious thought during the Founding era, there were four ways to view the relationship between reason and revelation. The first two are consistent with orthodox Christianity, the second two are not:

1) The first is traditional orthodox Christian/Protestant view ala Luther and Calvin: Scripture is infallible, man's reason, while perhaps useful in support of revelation, is clearly subservient to it; indeed Luther once called man's reason, "the Devil's whore."

2) The second is Aquinas': Scripture is still infallible; yet, man, by the use of his reason can discover truths that are equal to scripture; this is the natural law. Such discoveries, however, will never contradict revelation because reason and revelation always perfectly agree.

3) The third is the theistic rationalists': Scripture is not infallible; yet some scripture was legitimately revealed by God. As Dr. Frazer puts it, "revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God." This is the view of our key Founders including Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and I would argue Washington as well.

4) The fourth is the strict deists': Revelation is useless. Truth is only to be found from man's reason/nature.

In analyzing the sermons of those patriotic preachers, they seem to fall between two and three. And this is important because while two is consistent with orthodox Christianity, three isn't. Yet, all those I mentioned were unitarians, which puts them outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity anyway. And indeed, some of those who fell in category number two (Charles Chauncy, for instance) fervently argued that the Bible as the infallible source of authority vets theological unitarianism and universalism.

Thomas West linked to his favorite sermon by Samuel West, found here. The relationship that Samuel West views reason and revelation is either two or three. In the following West makes it clear that discoveries of reason are at least as viable as scripture:

Now, whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is as much the will and law of God as though it were enjoined us by an immediate revelation from heaven, or commanded in the sacred Scriptures.

And here, his sentiments tread dangerously on denying the infallibility of the Bible and elevating reason over revelation:

A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself,--a thing in the strictest sense impossible, for that which implies contradiction is not an object of the divine power.

What does he mean by this? What "revelation[s], pretending to be from God?" Things written in the Bible? Or perhaps a-biblical theories, doctrines, or interpretations added by priests and rulers.

The context of the sermon is quite interesting and may shed light: The question is whether subjects must obey civil magistrates (indeed, it's about whether the Christian citizens may engage in political rebellion against Great Britain). West first establishes that truth may be found from reason/nature alone and seeks to answer such question using that mechanism. He then imports wholly a-biblical Lockean "state of nature" teachings as decisive on the matter:

That we may understand the nature and design of civil government, and discover the foundation of the magistrate's authority to command, and the duty of subjects to obey, it is necessary to derive civil government from its original, in order to which we must consider what “state all men are naturally in, and that is (as Mr. Locke observes) a state of perfect freedom to order all their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any man.” It is a state wherein all are equal,--no one having a right to control another, or oppose him in what he does, unless it be in his own defence, or in the defence of those that, being injured, stand in need of his assistance.

Had men persevered in a state of moral rectitude, every one would have been disposed to follow the law of nature, and pursue the general good. In such a state, the wisest and most experienced would undoubtedly be chosen to guide and direct those of less wisdom and experience than themselves,--there being nothing else that could afford the least show or appearance of any one's having the superiority or precedency over another; for the dictates of conscience and the precepts of natural law being uniformly and regularly obeyed, men would only need to be informed what things were most fit and prudent to be done in those cases where their inexperience or want of acquaintance left their minds in doubt what was the wisest and most regular method for them to pursue. In such cases it would be necessary for them to advise with those who were wiser and more experienced than themselves. But these advisers could claim no authority to compel or to use any forcible measures to oblige any one to comply with their direction or advice. There could be no occasion for the exertion of such a power; for every man, being under the government of right reason, would immediately feel himself constrained to comply with everything that appeared reasonable or fit to be done, or that would any way tend to promote the general good. This would have been the happy state of mankind had they closely adhered to the law of nature, and persevered in their primitive state.

Thus we see that a state of nature, though it be a state of perfect freedom, yet is very far from a state of licentiousness....

After establishing the state of nature/man's reason as the decisive standard to which any truth must conform, West concludes:

The doctrine of nonresistance and unlimited passive obedience to the worst of tyrants could never have found credit among mankind had the voice of reason been hearkened to for a guide, because such a doctrine would immediately have been discerned to be contrary to natural law.

After answering the question using reason and Lockean theories, Samuel West then looks to the scriptures for support, already having his mind made up as to what the final outcome must be. The proof texts are Romans 13 and Titus iii which tell believers, in no uncertain terms, to obey the civil magistrates:

This account of the nature and design of civil government, which is so clearly suggested to us by the plain principles of common sense and reason, is abundantly confirmed by the sacred Rom. xiii., the first six verses: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation; for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For, for this cause pay you tribute also; for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” A very little attention, I apprehend, will be sufficient to show that this text is so far from favoring arbitrary government, that, on the contrary, it strongly holds forth the principles of true liberty. Subjection to the higher powers is enjoined by the apostle because there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God; consequently, to resist the power is to resist the ordinance of God: and he repeatedly declares that the ruler is the minister of God. Now, before we can say whether this text makes for or against the doctrine of unlimited passive obedience, we must find out in what sense the apostle affirms that magistracy is the ordinance of God, and what he intends when he calls the ruler the minister of God.

We see West using "context," and his a-biblical presumptions to explain away these proof texts. He ends up concluding "that the apostle Paul, instead of being a friend to tyranny and arbitrary government, turns out to be a strong advocate for the just rights of mankind...." Or in other words, Paul really meant we do have a right to revolt against the magistrate, the opposite of what he said. Do keep in mind that the ruler to whom Paul told believers to obey was not some "godly" ruler, but the pagan psychopath Nero. West addresses that point:

I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero's reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,-- I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.

The first point -- the epistle was written during the beginning of Nero's reign when he was "nicer," not towards the end when he was a tyrant -- strikes me as invoking hair splitting context to reach a desired result, not unlike the way some gay Christians and Jews, who claim the Bible really isn't against homosexuality, conclude things like the Bible permits gay men to have oral sex because that is not "lying with a man," or that even if they did "lie with mankind," and commit an "abomination," that term means "ritual impurity," and is more like eating shellfish or the mixing of fabrics.

The second point -- if Paul said this when Nero was indeed acting tyrannical, he must not have meant it! -- shows West's willingness disregard scripture which disagrees with reason.

In sum, these "Christian" sermons seem "cafeteria" in their approach in that they used "reason" to explain away scripture which conflicts with their a-biblical notions. "The natural law," contrary to supporting scripture as Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas used it for, was used to import a-biblical concepts such as Locke's "state of nature." These were not Christian principles, but theistic rationalist principles.


Phil Johnson said...

I am enjoying your third "here" article, The Witherspoon Lecture, at this site:

Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure. Glad we have much to offer!

Phil Johnson said...

After having read the Witherspoon Lecture that you referenced in your article, I am more impressed that the proper study of American History is from the perspective of the American Mind and in how we have come to think the way we do.
I need to gain a better knowledge of Locke.