Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Problem with Terms

Whoever gets to define them wins the argument
by Tom Van Dyke

Jonathan Rowe cross-posts the below at his other groupblog, Positive Liberty, and gets a worthy reply from one Chris Smith:

As a practicing historian of Christianity, I must say that the “broad” definition of Christianity is the most widely accepted one in the field. A major reason for this is that from the very beginning, the followers of Jesus were an extraordinarily diverse group, and many of them were not at all what we would call “orthodox”. I think that in today’s post-modern academy, where historic orthodoxy’s “will to power” is viewed as somewhat less than legitimate, recognizing heretics as “Christians” is a political statement.

A very weighty proposition, but I'd offer that "today’s post-modern academy" prefers to exploit the doctrinal differences between Christians in an attempt to eject the word [and concept] of "Christian" from the discussion entirely.

Not all such folks are from the "post-modern academy," of course: some are evangelicals [Gregg Frazer] or even Catholics [Robert Kraynak]. So when Mr. Rowe asks,

"...why did Oxford University Press publish [evangelical] Dr. Gary Scott Smith’s book “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush” which explicitly relies on Dr. Frazer’s thesis and concludes the key American Founders were neither “Deists” nor “Christians” but “theistic rationalists,”

if the academy is hostile to any role for Christianity in the Founding [I believe it is, and I'm not alone on this], it would stand to reason that the academy would push such views to the forefront, put the torch to the "theologians who eat up David Barton's work," and completely exclude the middle.

Still, Mr. Smith does illustrate the problem of hammering people into boxes, definitions and terms, because in doing so, we create new problems:

If you’re not going to classify Arians as “Christian” then you either have to come up with some classification that makes more sense or avoid classifying them altogether. Given that Jesus was no less central to their faith than to that of the orthodox, “Christian” seems a perfectly natural designation for them...You’d frankly have to be immersed in the special definitions and special pleading of evangelical culture to define them any other way.

The use of language---terms, definitions, etc.---is ideally a way to clarify our thinking, but it is only a shorthand for the actual concepts. Often, terms and definitions become the enemy of clarity, and conceal more than they reveal. Sophists exploit them; the philosophically-minded, the seekers of truth, seek to overcome their limitations.

Although there are legitimate differences as to what it means, the concept of "Christian" has a unique and irreplaceable role in the Founding, and to quibble it away to annihilation and euphemism does a murderous disservice to the search for truth.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Very nice and I agree that Mr. Smith's comment is outstanding. However his last small paragraph I think well puts into perspective my critique of "Christian Nationalism."

Your point about Barton’s audience, however, is a good one. The people to whom he’s writing *are* immersed in the special definitions and special pleading of evangelical culture, so obviously he should define his terms accordingly.

There is a reason why Peter Lillback bent over backwards and engaged in intellectual somersaults to try to make Washington "fit" as an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, whereas when he proved Washington was not a Deist he just let GW "speak for himself." And that's because orthodox Trintarians of the evangelical, reformed, Roman Catholic and capital O Orthodox tradition are a sizable bunch and many if not most of them equate "orthodoxy" with "Christianity." You don't prove GW is "orthodox" you don't prove he's a "real Christian" even if you show he wasn't a "Deist." That's what this debate is all about and this dynamic is NOT going away.

Tom Van Dyke said...

There you go off on the Christian Nationists again. That's your jihad, not mine, and I often support you in it.

My jihad is against those who wish to scrub the Founding clean of any trace of Christianity. By the time "theistic rationalist" becomes the standard term, a term you evangelize, that dirty work is done.

Brad Hart said...


Does Theistic Rationalism really “clean away any trace of Christianity” as you claim? I would argue that it does not. Instead, I think the term fits very nicely with what you are trying to argue here. If you are attempting to avoid the exploitation "of doctrinal differences between Christian sects," I would guess that this would be a good way to achieve such a goal.

In my opinion, the term Theistic Rationalism is inclusive of the multiple forms of Christianity that were in play in 18th century America. Even the orthodox Christians of this time could be seen as invoking rationalism that was based on their theology (i.e. Theistic Rationalism).

Maybe Dr. Frazer never realized how this phrase could be used against him. Instead of separating the key founders from their orthodox Christian neighbors, Theistic Rationalism can, to a certain degree, be an all-inclusive term.

But then again, maybe we are simply arguing semantics here and need to blow them off. As you put it, Tom, maybe they really are an enemy to clarity.

Our Founding Truth said...

My jihad is against those who wish to scrub the Founding clean of any trace of Christianity.>

Tom, I'm of the opinion persons on this blog are trying to determine we were formed either an orthodox or heterodox Christian nation. If religion is left to the states, concentrate on the states. Rationalism is out the window because Congress prayed in Jesus' name, not to mention the Christian State Constitutions. Was the majority orthodox or heterodox?

This "key founders" ideology is bogus, and you know it. The DOI, and Constitution is Law, and Law is a public act(quoting Bork), not the subjective will of four guys. Republicanism is not the rule of four guys, but of the majority, and majority rules!(emphasis mine)

Theistic Rationalism can only seem plausible by neglecting the majority.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Who says the DOI is law? [Robert Bork certainly doesn't think it is!] And if it is where does the DOI ever claim to be a Christian document? The fact that the DOI speaks in generic philosophical language supports the theistic rationalist NOT Christian America idea.

Christopher Smith said...

I'm not so sure the term "theistic rationalism" brings clarity to a discussion about America's Christian origins. It could include everything from Hegel and Plotinus on the one hand to Priestley and Servetus on the other; the last two clearly understood themselves as Christians, whereas the former two did not. Perhaps a better approach would be to use the terms "deist", "Unitarian", and so on and to carefully contextualize the deism and Unitarianism of the period so as to specify the extent to which they were and were not Christian. My understanding is that both movements started as self-professedly Christian, but by this period many of them were already beginning to understand themselves as something altogether different; we're therefore dealing with shades of gray here, and there will be no hard and fast answers to questions about whether the Founders were "Christians".

Brad Hart said...

OFT writes:

"Rationalism is out the window because Congress prayed in Jesus' name, not to mention the Christian State Constitutions."

So are you saying that it is irrational to pray?

Jon's right on the DOI. It is NOT a governing document.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice to see you, Mr. Smith, and well done on your comment at PL, as well as others you've made there.

Now, OFT makes some solid arguments, at least some worthy of due consideration. If he's wrong about the D of I [and in my view, Kristo's post about the Christian origin of the Founders' understanding of natural law comes to bear here---it's certainly not Hobbes' view of "nature"], to pick his most vulnerable and ignore the rest would be sophistic.

And Brad, our friend Mr. Abbott, a "rational" fellow if I ever met one, finds the idea of prayer pretty laughable. You see the problem with confining ourselves to "terms" as opposed to seeking understanding.

bpabbott said...

Brad: "In my opinion, the term Theistic Rationalism is inclusive of the multiple forms of Christianity that were in play in 18th century America."

I'm not sure if "inclusive" is a proper description. When theistic rationalism is consistent with religious doctrine, it is because that doctrine is rational.

As there is quite a bit of Christian doctrine several prominent founders call into question, I don't think it proper to say Theistic Rationalism inclusive of Christianity. While certain theistic rational view would be, the entirety of such would not.

Perhaps there is a better description for what you intend, but I can't think of one.

bpabbott said...

TVD: "our friend Mr. Abbott, a "rational" fellow if I ever met one, finds the idea of prayer pretty laughable."

Personally, I wouldn't laugh at it. Generally, when I find myself present during a prayer, my mind wanders and ponders solutions to problems I'm working on.

However, regarding prayer as rational ... I appear to pray so as not the draw negative attention to myself. That is one rational explanation for prayer.

Another rational explanation is that the individual believes that a mystical/supernatural/divine/(pick the description that suits you) being will listen and grant favors.

"Irrational" would be an atheist praying to a God, or a theist who embraces the existence of a personal God *not* praying.

Thus, me praying is irrational, and Brad not praying is irrational. As it is, my understanding is that we are each rational.

p.s. Tom, thanks for the compliment ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, I thought I recalled you writing recently about praying to a God that doesn't exist as illogical. Not that I minded, as that would be quite rational from your point of view, and I considered it just good clean snarky fun.

If I read you correctly, you seem to say that the term "theistic rationalism" would tend to exclude Christianity, a point worth exploring. In my view there's no doubt that it elides Christianity.

bpabbott said...

TVD: "I thought I recalled you writing recently about praying to a God that doesn't exist as illogical"

Well being logical and being rational are very different things.

However, in either event what the individual believes / accepts /assumes to be true before acting determines whether an action is logical or rational.

So if I were to pray for the purpose of accomplishing something, that would be irrational and illogical.

If Brad were to do the same it would not.

However if one were to claim that prayer has a specific material impact when the evidence says otherwise, then that would be illogical ... but not necessarily irrational, as you may gain more favor with like minded individuals than you lose from those thinking differently.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's a matter of indifference to me. The Founders prayed, often and everywhere, including in the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court. And as a little-known fact, even the "Jefferson Bible" includes the Lord's Prayer!

Christopher Smith said...

Thanks, Tom, for the welcome and for taking note of my comments. I've been by here a few times before, but don't think I've commented. There are some interesting threads here at the moment, so I've subscribed. I trust you'll think up some great post ideas to keep me interested. ;)

Charles T. Wolverton said...

Thanks to Mr. Abbott for his comments re "rational" and "logical". Although I have appreciated the operational distinction he makes in his examples, I had not previously considered the utility of those words in clarifying that distinction.

The labels might be useful in clarifying various apparent but not necessarily real disputes that recur in this forum. One example is whether to acknowledge an objective basis for our positive laws. One can be unconvinced that logically there can be such a basis but nevertheless admit that it may be rational for some with popular influence to voice the acknowledgment on pragmatic grounds. (However, in "private" - eg, in fora such as this that are unlikely to have widespread influence - it might be helpful if this distinction were made explicit.)

Also, one might logically conclude (in fact, I can't see how one could logically conclude otherwise) that the founders were significantly influenced by their western Christian heritage but also that it is quite irrational to argue that US law should consequently be based on a particular variant of "Christian" dogma.

- Charles

Tom Van Dyke said...

What, do you think people oppose abortion just because the pope says so? That's irrational.

bpabbott said...


Nicely said.


If people oppose abortion because the Pope instructs them to it is only irrational if (on the whole) they are harmed as a result of it. It is illogical if they do so while rejecting the Pope as a moral authority.

I think it fairly obvious that a great many oppose abortion because they are instructed to do so by their religious leaders.

That is not meant as a critique. In fact, I think instructing followers in matters of morality and instilling a dedication/devotion to that morality is the greatest purpose that religious leaders can aspire to.

Brian Tubbs said...

Good post, Tom. Time is short, or I'd say more, but I wanted to give kudos where they are due.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Brian. Credit to Chris Smith for staking out the parameters.