Monday, March 30, 2009

Half-Way House Infidels

That might be the title to my eventual book on the American Founding. Another title I have in mind is "Noble Pagans: America's Founding Heretics." The term "infidel" as was used during the Founding era by the "orthodox" referred to strict Deists or atheists. Theological unitarianism, in which America's key Founders disproportionately believed, was viewed as a "half-way house" towards "infidelity." That term comes from Timothy Dwight quoting Wilberforce (see below).

Theological unitarianism was believed in by very bright influential thinkers in the early and mid 18th Century, but was largely closeted then. Unitarianism began to come out of the closet in the late 18th Century. By the early 19th Century Harvard University officially became Unitarian and open Unitarians held respectable positions in American society. But the "orthodox" didn't take that lying down.

Jedidiah Morse was one of the first notable "orthodox" figures to take on unitarianism. Indeed, the closeted nature of unitarianism in the mid 18th Century is evidenced by the dialogue between Morse and John Adams. Morse, apparently, wasn't aware of the existence of American unitarians in the mid 18th Century and tried to "low ball" the length of time in which unitarians had existed in America. As John Adams acerbically wrote to Morse:

“I thank you thank you for your favour of the 10th, and the pamphlet enclosed, entitled, ‘American Unitarianism.’ I have turned over its leaves, and found nothing that was not familiarly known to me. In the preface, Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New-England. I can testify as a witness to its old age. Sixty-five years ago, my own minister, the Rev. Lemuel Bryant; Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, of the West Church in Boston; the Rev. Mr. Shute, of Hingham; the Rev. John Brown, of Cohasset; and perhaps equal to all, if not above all, the Rev. Mr. Gay, of Hingham, were Unitarians. Among the laity how many could I name, lawyers, physicians, tradesmen, farmers!...More than fifty years ago, I read Dr. Clarke, Emlyn, and Dr. Waterland: do you expect, my dear doctor, to teach me any thing new in favour of Athanasianism? — There is, my dear Doctor, at present existing in the world a Church Philosophick. as subtle, as learned, as hypocritical, as the Holy Roman Catholick, Apostolick, and Ecumenical Church. The Philosophical Church was originally English. Voltaire learned it from Lord Herbert, Hobbes, Morgan, Collins, Shaftsbury, Bolingbroke, &c. &c. &c. You may depend upon it, your exertions will promote the Church Philosophick, more than the Church Athanasian or Presbyterian. This and the coming age will not be ruled by inquisitions or Jesuits. The restoration of Napoleon has been caused by the resuscitation of inquisitors and Jesuits.
I am and wish to be
Your friend,
Quincy, May 15th, 1815.

But it was Timothy Dwight, President of Yale during the Founding and post-Founding era (1795-1817), who seemed the most prolific, notable critic of newly "outed" unitarianism. You can read Dwight's criticisms of unitarianism here. Dwight spends a great deal of time attacking the work of Joseph Priestley and Richard Price. This is notable because, in a sense, Dwight attacks "thought" that was a secret "motivator" to America's "key" Founding Fathers. Men like Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin idolized unitarians like Locke, Newton, Clarke, Price and Priestley. Dwight writes a great deal about them which I am slowly trying to digest. However, the following quotation of his stands out as exemplifying how the orthodox thought of unitarianism:

The observation of Mr. Wilberforce, therefore, seems to be but too well founded, when he says; "In the course, which we lately traced from nominal orthodoxy to absolute Infidelity, Unitarianism is, indeed, a sort of half-way house, if the expression may be pardoned; a stage on the journey, where sometimes a person, indeed, finally stops; but where, not unfrequently, he only pauses for a while; and then pursues his progress."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

More On Non-Trinitarians & Christianity

One fascinating dynamic I've discovered researching the history of the American Founding & religion is many of the supposed "Deist" Founding Fathers actually thought of themselves as "Christians," but since they rejected Trinitarianism, the "orthodox" did not think of them as Christians, but something else.

The question is whether these "heretics" like America's key Founders and the philosophers they followed deserve the label "Christian" at all. If you listen to American orthodox theologians, they will commonly assert things such as "Christians believe in a Triune God," ergo, non-Trinitarians are not Christians. For instance listen to this very amusing debate between the "orthodox" late Bible answer man Walter Martin and the Arian-gnostic Roy Masters, whom some accuse of being a cult leader. In a nutshell: Martin: "You are not a Christian." Masters: "Yes I am."

I am going to reproduce some primary sources and scholarly material that illustrates this dynamic. First, I just discovered this excellent First Things obituary of religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan. (Thanks to co-blogger Kristo M. for alerting me to the existence of Pelikan.)

The first volume of his history of Christian thought, The Christian Tradition, begins: “What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God: This is Christian doctrine.” His life was devoted to the exposition and teaching of that Christian doctrine....By doctrine Pelikan did not mean just any teaching. He meant the central truths of Christianity: that God is triune, that Christ is fully God and fully man—those teachings that were solemnly declared in the ancient councils and are confessed in the ecumenical creeds. His historical study had convinced him that the most faithful bearer of the apostolic faith was the great tradition of thought and practice as expounded by the orthodox Church Fathers.

In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or the Arians but also to become their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history are the dissidents, the heretics, whose insights and thinking were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great Church.

Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine....

It's understandable why folks might view various heretics, particularly of the Arian bent, as heroes, because so many leading lights believed in these heresies. Indeed if we have to sacrifice Arians (those who believe Christ was divine but created by and subordinate to the Father) as "not Christian," we have to sacrifice, among others, John Milton. As the article notes:

He said he had been reading again Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? Milton’s Paradise Lost (even though Milton was an Arian and probably a Pelagian, quipped Pelikan),...

Samuel Clarke is another Arian who comes to mind as typifying the kind of "Christianity" that so captured the minds of key Founders. For instance, as I noted in a recent post when asked to put his theological cards on the table, James Madison appealed to Samuel Clarke as authority, NOT John Witherspoon. Clarke was a "divine" in the Anglican Church. Here is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes about him:

In 1712, apparently against the advice of some of Queen Anne's ministers, Clarke published The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, which was accused of Arianism, the view that Christ is divine but created. The ensuing controversy culminated two years later in his humiliating promise to the Upper House of Convocation not to preach or write on the topic any longer. However, this act of submission did not silence the correct rumors that he, like Newton himself, was still an Arian. How much these suspicions of heterodoxy damaged his ecclesiastical career is unclear. However, Voltaire reports that Bishop Gibson effectively prevented Clarke's elevation to the see of Canterbury by pointing out that Clarke was indeed the most learned and honest man in the kingdom, but had one defect: he was not a Christian.

Isaac Newton, mentioned in the quotation, is another Arian whom the Founders greatly admired. John Locke was either an Arian or perhaps a Socinian. The Arian Rev. Richard Price, a friend of America's Founders and one of the first "out" Unitarians in England noted in an address:

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

Again, this is important evidence that supports Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis that "commonly received ideas of Christianity" in late 18th Century America did NOT consider non-Trinitarianism to be "Christianity." Every established church save the Quakers was in some way connected to a Trinitarian creed. Yet, unitarians abounded in those churches, indeed, abounded among the ranks of ministers in those churches. They faced a dillema. Those in higher positions of authority in the orthodox Trinitarian churches expected Trinitarian creeds to be recited, but the unitarians didn't want to recite those confessions. As Rev. Price put it:

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.

Finally here is Unitarian minister and President of Harvard in the early 19th Century, Jared Sparks, replying to a Trinitarian Christian critic who argued Unitarians are not Christians:

Your sweeping denunciation embraces all Unitarians of every age and country. If your charges are well-founded, Newton, Locke, and Chillingworth, were “no christians in any correct sense of the word, nor any more in the way of salvation, than Mohammedans or Jews?”

Oh and, just for fun, here is Sparks' argument that Locke's "Reasonableness of Christianity" was a secret unitarian tome (i.e., Locke didn't deny the Trinity but totally ignored the Trinity and related doctrines when declaring the "essentials" of Christianity, something that no Trinitarian would do, indeed something ONLY secret unitarians did in that place and time; and Locke was called out for it):

And Locke must still be considered a Unitarian, till he can be proved a Trinitarian ; a task, which it is not likely you will soon undertake. At all events, he had no faith in the assemblage of articles, which you denominate the essence of christianity, and without believing which, you say, no one can be called a Christian. His whole treatise on the Reasonableness of Christianity bears witness to this truth. For the leading object of that work is to show, that “the Gospel was written to induce men into a belief of this proposition, ‘that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah,’ which if they believed, they should have life.”* He says nothing about total depravity, the atonement, the “sanctifying spirit of an Almighty Surety,” nor any of your peculiar doctrines. Yet who has done more to elucidate the sacred Scriptures, or to prove the consistency and reasonableness of the religion of Jesus? Your rule, however, will take from him the Christian name.

David Barton's Other Distortions

As American Creation we have a follow up written by Brad Hart on left-wing scholars who hold respectable positions in the academy who likewise engage in similar shenanigans. Hart's poster boy for a radical left wing version of Barton is Howard Zinn.

I am not going to term either Zinn or Barton "liars." That's a strong term. However I would agree that both are distortionists and propagandists. It may be impossible for historians not to read their biases into the record. But, it seems to me, using history for blatant propagandistic purposes is a lame thing to do.

Linked below is an example David Barton's "other" historical interests which just as badly distort the record as much as anything he's done with the American Founding. Barton is a partisan Republican and has held positions in the Texas Republican Party. Barton is now, also, an historian of the Civil War and "black history."

The Republican Party is not doing an effective job reaching out to blacks. I have no problem with Republicans trying to attract more minorities; I think it's a good idea. However, the video below well illustrates using history as propaganda to achieve political ends.

Barton's narrative connects modern day Democrats (the party who elected Barack Obama) with the racist Democrats who lost the Civil War and formed the KKK. What Barton doesn't mention is that it was the Southern White Male Conservative Christians (i.e., what Barton himself is) who actually are the heirs to the Confederates and the KKK. They were called "Dixiecrats." And they tended to be to the right of Republicans. Jerry Falwell, admittedly, was once such a racist Dixiecrat. The Dixiecrats are almost all Republicans now. I think most SWMCCRs have sincerely repudiated their racist past. Falwell, to his credit, repudiated his racist past. Not Trent Lott, but he was punished by the Republicans for his lack of repudiation. I don't think David Barton is a racist. And I don't think most SWMCCRs are racist. But blatantly distorting the record for political ends is not the proper way to do outreach.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Search For that Right Term

Prof. Jared Farley, whose work I discussed here, left a comment on that thread.


Hi. This is Jared Farley from the exchange above. I've been reading through some of the stuff here and on Positive Liberty (very interesting) and I was wondering about how you define and differentiate between several terms you use: proto-Unitarian, Unitarian, Christian Deist & Theistic-Rationalist. (I know all of this stuff is confusing, as I have been trying to figure it all out myself, but I would like to learn more about your use of these terms.) Thanks.

This is a very good question. In my answer I am going to note many things that Prof. Farley already knows (I can tell by reading his work that he knows quite a bit about the historical record on the Founding & Religion). I am going to include these facts and arguments for the sake of a more general reading audience.

Those terms about which Prof. Farley asks are all different ways of describing pretty much the same thing -- the religious creed in which many key Founding Fathers (the first four Presidents, Ben Franklin and others) believed (or probably believed) that was neither strict Deism nor orthodox Christianity, but something in between.

All of those terms have their relative strengths and weaknesses and each views this hybrid creed through a different descriptive perspective. AND, importantly, the terms are not mutually exclusive. For instance one can be both a "Roman Catholic" and a "Thomist" without contradiction. Or one can be an "orthodox Christian" and a "Calvinist" without contradiction and so on and so forth. So when we say someone is a "theistic rationalist" and a "unitarian" we do not contradict ourselves.

The only time I used "proto-Unitarian" was after I saw Gordon Wood speak at Princeton where he used it. I think of those above mentioned Founders as small u "unitarians." I feel comfortable labeling Jefferson and J. Adams "unitarians" because they called themselves unitarians and otherwise rejected the Trinity (which in its strictest sense is all "unitarian" means).

However the capital U in Unitarianism connotes being a member of a Unitarian Church which Jefferson never was (he was a lifelong Anglican-Episcopalian). And with J. Adams, even though he claims to have been a theological unitarian since 1750 -- indeed he claims his own ministers in the Congregational Church were unitarians as of 1750 -- his Congregational Church didn't become "Unitarian" until sometime in the early 19th Century.

George Washington is not on record as calling himself either a deist or a unitarian, and rarely called himself a "Christian" either. Peter Lillback's 1200 page book can cite only one letter where Washington identifies as a Christian. The letter was to ROBERT STEWART April 27, 1763, where Washington uses the phrase "upon my honr and the faith of a Christian." There are also a few examples in the record of GW speaking to Christians in a "we" sense, and others where he speaks about "Christians" as though he were not a member of that group. But in any event, all of the other "key Founders" (J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin) thought of themselves as "Christians" in *some* sense.

Washington never affirmed the Trinity or orthodox doctrines in his public and private writings. They reveal him to be a man of "religion," "prayer," and "Providence," not an orthodox Christian. I think the term "theistic rationalist" or "Christian-Deist" aptly describes his faith. I think "unitarian" might also as well. Dr. Farley's writings discuss Washington's systematic avoidance of communion and how that points strongly to Washington disbelieving in what the act symbolically represents: Christ's atonement. (That was the explanation John Marshall's family gave for why he refused communion in the same Episcopal-Anglican system to which GW, TJ, JM and many other "key Founders" belonged.) Though the strongest criticism against terming Washington a "unitarian" is that 1) he didn't call himself one, 2) I haven't found any smoking guns of GW affirming or denying the Trinity with his words, and 3) GW was not a member of the Unitarian Church.

Likewise James Madison rarely referred to himself as a "Christian" and is not on record calling himself a deist or a unitarian. Though, George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library (himself a Unitarian) testified that

[Madison] talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.

Like Washington, Madison was extremely vague in putting his specific religious cards on the table, but instead preferred to speak of "Providence" in naturalistic and rationalistic terms. That's why Dr. Gregg Frazer terms them "theistic rationalists." They were "theists" who believed in an active personal God, not "deists" who believed in an distant watchmaker.

Dr. Frazer also claims that they believed man's reason superseded a partially inspired Bible and in fact determined what parts of the Bible constituted valid revelation. This is his specific definition of the type of "rationalism" in which they believed. And certainly with Jefferson, J. Adams and a few others, one can make such a case. However, a few readers and co-bloggers are skeptical and demand more evidence -- more "smoking guns" -- to show that figures like Washington and Madison believed man's reason superseded a partially inspired, fallible Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth or determined what was valid revelation.

There is however, a more general way in which they were "rationalists," and that is that they thought very highly of man's reason and believed reason could discover divine truths and consequently oft-spoke of God in naturalistic-rationalistic terms. Indeed, these key Founders invariably spoke of God using naturalistic or philosophical terms rather than using biblical terms. In his letter to TO FREDERICK BEASLEY on Nov. 20, 1825, Madison, when asked to put his theological cards on the table, speaks entirely in naturalistic-rationalistic terms and ingores Christ and the Bible. Also notable is that Madison appeals not to John Witherspoon for theological authority, but to Samuel Clarke another "Christian rationalist" who was a unitarian of the Arian bent and a minister in the Anglican Church. As Madison wrote:

I have duly recd the copy of your little tract on the proofs of the Being & Attributes of God. To do full justice to it, would require not only a more critical attention than I have been able to bestow on it, but a resort to the celebrated work of Dr. Clarke,...

The reasoning that could satisfy such a mind as that of Clarke, ought certainly not to be slighted in the discussion. And the belief in a God All Powerful wise & good, is so essential to the moral order of the World & to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters & capacities to be impressed with it.

But whatever effect may be produced on some minds by the more abstract train of ideas which you so strongly support, it will probably always be found that the course of reasoning from the effect to the cause, “from Nature to Nature’s God,” Will be the more universal & more persuasive application.

The finiteness of the human understanding betrays itself on all subjects, but more especially when it contemplates such as involve infinity. What may safely be said seems to be, that the infinity of time & space forces itself on our conception, a limitation of either being inconceivable; that the mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect, which augments, instead of avoiding the difficulty; and that it finds more facility in assenting to the self-existence of an invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom & goodness, than to the self-existence of the universe, visibly destitute of those attributes, and which may be the effect of them. In this comparative facility of conception & belief, all philosophical Reasoning on the subject must perhaps terminate. But that I may not get farther beyond my depth, and without the resources which bear you up in fathoming efforts, I hasten to thank you for the favour which has made me your debtor, and to assure you of my esteem.

So regardless of whether Madison believed man's reason supersedes revelation as the ultimate arbiter of truth or believed the Bible inspired at all, he was clearly a "rationalist" in his theological thinking.

The term "theistic rationalist" also had advantages for folks who hold to an "orthodox Christian" point of view. Accordingly, if one rejects the Trinity, one is not a Christian. So look for another term and don't use "Christian" -- which defines specially and particularly -- in that term. This is also why the "orthodox" don't like the term "Christian-Deism" which conflates what they see as two mutually exclusive concepts -- a contradiction in terms. However, "Christian-Deism" is valuable in that it accurately describes how the religion of those key Founding Fathers was not "Christianity" or "Deism" but something in between and a hybrid of the two.

Howard Zinn: Liar

Ok, I Don't Really Believe This Title.
Just Using it for Dramatic Effect.

Here at American Creation, we've been debating ad nauseum the "scholarly" works of Christian Nation Apologist David Barton. In her most recent post, fellow blogger Lindsey Shuman used the excellent work of author Chris Rodda to debunk many of Barton's claims. In addition, Ms. Shuman capitalized on these allegations by labeling David Barton as an outright liar, and many of our contributors/readers have agreed. And while there is no doubt that Barton has clearly "twisted" the historical record to fit his own agenda, some of us (who are NOT Barton apologists by the way) have been reluctant to jump on the "Liar, liar, pants on fire" bandwagon. In addition, a number of David Barton and Christian Nation apologists have come out of the woodworks to defend the man against the onslaught of attacks that I am sure Barton has learned to live with.

In light of this recent topic here at our fair little blog, I thought it would be fun to apply these same standards to the other side of the extremist revisionist coin and see what happens.

Historian and author John Fea of Messiah College has written an excellent post on his blog that deals with Howard Zinn, one of the secular left's biggest extremist. Dr. Fea writes:

In this course we have been reading some of the writings of those who defend the notion that America was founded as a "Christian nation," including the works by David Barton and Marshall and Manuel. (We have also read Mason Locke Weems's Life of Washington--a 19th century work of Christian nationalism). I have tried to make the argument that these writers are really more political activists or theologians than they are historians. Yet, their writings often pass as history to thousands of conservative Christians and are used as history textbooks in Christian schools and among Christian homeschoolers.


A few weeks ago one of my students asked me privately if there are writers on the left who are comparable to these Christian nationalist writers. Howard Zinn immediately came to mind. I am always amazed at the popularity of Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." Several years ago I decided to lurk on an internet forum for Advanced Placement U.S. History teachers and found that Zinn is used by many of them as the primary textbook in their classes. Last month I was talking to a group of history majors at a big university and they all wanted to know "what I thought of Howard Zinn." Many of my more lefty students at Messiah College read Zinn--his books work well with the kind of social-justice Anabaptism one finds at such an institution...

Zinn writes well and is quite inspiring, but his book is bad history. In fact, I would not even call it history. A People's History of the United States is a political tract that uses the past to promote a presentist agenda. It is basically, to paraphrase the words of Bernard Bailyn, political indoctrination by historical example. Now I have no problem if Zinn wants to use the past to advance his leftist agenda. In fact, there is a lot I can agree with in Zinn's criticisms of his country. But please don't call this history and pass it off to students as a model of how to write history. Zinn's book violates virtually every rule of good historical thinking [my emphasis].

Personally, I couldn't agree more with Dr. Fea's summation of the "historical" works of Howard Zinn. In his best selling book, A People's History of the United States, Zinn attempts to portray American history (and for our purposes the founding era) as a masterful attempt by the founding fathers to dupe the former British American colonists into accepting a new kind of crowd control that was obscured by the clever camouflage of "liberty" and "independence." Zinn writes:

"They [the founders] created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command" (59).
Such a portrayal of deceit and cunning on the part of the founders is every bit as appealing to the hard-core secular leftist, who is always looking for examples of national treachery, as Barton's work is to the Christian conservative, who is in constant need of reassurance that America is indeed "Jesusland."

And make no mistake about it, Zinn most certainly is in the business of rewriting history. As he stated at a 2004 town meeting of the Organization of American Historians (which met to honor Zinn's work interestingly enough):

"The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction--so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements--that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."
If that doesn't reek of historical revisionism than what does?

I guess my point is this: political, religious, secular activists on the fringe of either side are rarely if ever credible sources. They clearly use (and manipulate) history to gain notoriety for their respective causes. And while I was happy to see the thorough debunking of David Barton in the post below, I would hate for us to adopt a de-facto policy of only exposing and debunking Barton and his fellow right-wing "shock-jock" artists. It would be hypocritical to denounce the Christian Nationalists while giving the secular revisionists a free pass. And make no mistake, they are every bit as cunning and inaccurate.

So, to all those who proclaim David Barton as a liar (I will agree that his history is complete crap but that I am unwilling to call the man a liar) I now call on you to do the same for Zinn. After all, it seems that this standard MUST be applied across the board. Any takers???

To read a very thorough debunking of Zinn's People's History click here.

Is USA heading for a "post-Christian" culture?

The following is from the USA Today, Faith and Reason: A Conversation About Religion, Spirituality & Ethics. The author writes the following:

What's happening to America's "Christian memory?" theologian and Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler asks with alarm.

His online column today puts his concern over the decline of religious denominational ties in New England in historical context.

After all, this is the region the Protestant faithful settled and were later joined by waves of Catholic immigrants. Now, their religious influence is losing sway and there's a marked increase in the number of people -- one in three or four in much of New England-- who claim no religious identity. With this change comes efforts such as the current campaign to legalize gay marriage in several New England state legislatures, Mohler says.

Mohler frets that New England will lead the nation down the path already taken in western Europe where ...

Christian moral reflexes and moral principles gave way to the loosening grip of a Christian memory. Now, even that Christian memory is absent from the lives of millions.

In recent decades, the Pacific Northwest had the distinction of being the nation's most secular region. But the Pacific Northwest was never so highly evangelized as New England. In effect, New England is rejecting what the Pacific Northwest never even knew ...

New England was the cradle of colonial America. Is it now the cradle of America's
secular future?

Do you agree? Do you think moving toward a post-Christian culture is a bad or good direction?
Hard to say. Americans have asked this question before, but sure enough, religious devotees managed to once again legitimize their claims and gain the support of the masses. Every time someone makes the assertion that the "Religious Right," "America's Christian heritage," etc. is doomed to extinction they are able to find new breath and purpose.

Personally, I don't see America entering a "post Christian" culture anytime soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Thomas Jefferson, Radical American Christian – Part 2

In an earlier post on this same topic, I laid out how Thomas Jefferson was a Christian of a particularly American ├╝ber-Protestant sort, an ill-disciplined individualist. In this post I would like to address a narrower question: what did Jefferson make of Jesus? Who was the Jesus of Jefferson?

What I would like to persuade you of is that the Jesus of Jefferson is the Jesus on trial before Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod: the Jesus of whom it is said he is the son of God, King of the Jews, and worker of miracles, and who denies none of this but asks in response: “who do you think I am?”

My principal evidence for this is not short passages selected from letters, as is usually used in cases like this, but rather Jefferson’s two Bible compilations. The first point I would like to make, because it seems so poorly understood, is that Jefferson made two compilations, not one: the Philosophy of Jesus in ~1804, and the Life and Morals of Jesus in ~1820. Conflating these two is the root of much confusion, on both sides of the Christian Nation dispute.

Of the first compilation (PoJ), all we have remaining are the few pages written in Jefferson’s own hand (title page, contents and index) and the remnant bibles from which the extracted verses had been cut (part of Joshua Cohen’s collection). The actual pages containing the Bible verses selected, in the order laid out in the table of contents, have not survived, and it is even possible that they were never completed. In a letter of Jefferson’s to Priestley, 29 Jan 1804, he acknowledges having started the project, but whereas he understands that Priestley must have done the same in preparation for his comparison of Jesus to the ancient philosophers, he rejoices that “I shall now get the thing done by better hands”. I could easily see Jefferson abandoning the final assembly, if he expected a better version of the same to be published by Priestley (it never was). But he clearly did all the scholarship; choosing passages, order of presentation, and even writing out the title page, contents, and index. The intellectual die had been cast. All this said, in Jefferson’s letter to Charles Thomson of 9 January 1816 he claims to have completed PoJ; I am willing to believe that Jefferson might misstate such things rather than explain that he accomplished 90% of the task but then abandoned it, not that it matters.

The second compilation (LaM) has passed down to us complete and bound, a harmony of the gospels in four languages (English, French, Latin, and Greek) in parallel columns. Of this it is generally said (I paraphrase from many sources) that Jefferson cut out all the miraculous elements to reveal the underlying code of morals, and that this amounts to antipathy to hypocrisy, affirmation of the Golden Rule, pacifism (turn the other cheek), admonition not to judge nor bear grudges, exhortation to modesty, etc.

This is all true, of course, in a narrow sense: Jesus does, in fact, teach these things. But this is not really what you get out of LaM; this is not the teaching of the Jesus of Jefferson (JoJ), this is distortion of JoJ by secular cherry-picking. But before diving into the teachings of JoJ, let me defend the difference between the two compilations.

The first compilation claims, on its title page, to be for the benefit of the Indians, and I see no reason to doubt this (later Jefferson would claim, in some of his letters, that PoJ was for his own use, but that might just be the rationalization of Jefferson after he decided not to go forward with publishing PoJ). The timing would fit the Indians as the intended audience, too: Jefferson’s famous treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians (in which he committed US government funds to finance evangelism) was signed in December of 1803, within months of the likely preparation of PoJ. The second compilation has no similar statement of purpose, but the preparation in four languages is fairly conclusive: how many people did Jefferson know (apart from himself) who could make use of a quadrilingual harmony of the gospels? I think it’s fairly clear that LaM was for Jefferson’s personal use. If this is so, then PoJ gives us Jefferson’s view of the civic religion (what Indians should learn to join the American polity), while LaM tells us something of Jefferson’s own religious views.

This distinction is borne out by the editorial differences between the two compilations: PoJ is in English, LaM is quadrilingual; PoJ has narrative unity, LaM has redundant presentation of the same material from each of the synoptics; PoJ contains explicit claims by Jesus to be the Son of Man, LaM poses the question of Jesus’ nature but does not put the answer on Jesus’ lips, in PoJ Jesus directs his disciples to perform miracles for the benefit of the people, in LaM all references to miracles are ancillary, etc.

But if LaM is for Jefferson’s purposes, what are those purposes? I submit that even a cursory examination of the text reveals that it is not a system of morals, despite Jefferson’s claims in his various letters that this would be what you got if you cleansed the gospels of all extraneous elements. Jefferson never intended to publish his Bible(s), and so he was free to bend the truth as to what was actually in them. Adler’s introduction to the US government edition of LaM mentions that even Jefferson’s family did not know of the existence of the Bible(s) until after his death, upon which they learned that he studied it/them nightly. If this is true (and I have no reason to think otherwise), then Jefferson would have spent more intellectual energy wrestling with the question of Jesus than with any other intellectual project in his life, including Monticello or the Declaration of Independence.

But to what end? Examination of the text convinces me that the answer is to be found in Jefferson’s advice given to Peter Carr, his ward and de facto son (excerpted at length in my previous post): Jefferson wants to determine the authority of Jesus from internal evidence of his teaching, rather than from his claims to authority or his signs as evidence of authority. If Jesus is who he is said to be (who he said he was), then his teaching should, in its wisdom and sublimity, be convincing enough; the clergy may need miracles to drive home the point that Jesus teaches with authority, but the enlightened man of intellect can, like the audiences of Mt. 7:28-29 (LaM 3:63-64) and Mk 1:22 (LaM 1:48), detect the authoritative message on its face.

To this end, Jefferson prepared LaM, a compilation without distractions like the genealogy of Jesus (present in PoJ), and without any miracles as rhetorical devices for establishing Jesus’ authority, but admitting otherwise that Jesus performed miracles, e.g. the matter-of-fact discussion of whether Jesus violated the Sabbath by performing a healing (Jn 7:21-23, LaM 7:57-59), and Herod’s sincere hope of witnessing a miracle (Lk 23:8, LaM 16:61). Jefferson wasn’t a skeptic out to “naturalize” or “rationalize” Jesus, he was just a sincere inquirer seeking to look past the shallow arguments of the sort that “Jesus performed miracles, so what he said must be true” to find deeper evidence of Jesus’ authority. Focusing on internal evidence is the point of the quadrilingual presentation, and of the inclusion of redundant versions of stories and parables presented in multiple synoptic gospels: Jefferson was engaged in what we today would call textual criticism, and for this he needed the benefit of the original Greek and the best opinions of multiple learned translators, and he was willing to sacrifice narrative unity in the process.

When reading LaM (available here) it is good to keep in mind the following question: “where is the diamond in this passage?” For in Jefferson’s famous phrase, he is in the business of pulling diamonds from a dung-hill. Each passage selected for LaM has passed the “diamond test”; it is relevant for understanding the true teaching of Jesus as Jefferson understood it. Thus, each passage tells us not only about Jesus but also about Jefferson. So what passes the diamond test? What does JoJ teach?

First, as to the question of Jesus himself: with Jefferson editing away the resurrection, LaM ends on a cliffhanger, as it were, with the unanswered but all-important questions. Caiaphas asks Jesus whether he is the Christ, and the elders ask whether he is the Son of God; Jesus answers that he could just as well ask the question of Caiaphas, and that the elders say so (Lk 22:67-70, LaM 16:40-43). Pilate asks whether Jesus is King of the Jews, and Jesus acknowledges a kingdom, but not of this world (Jn 18:33-36, LaM 16:51-54). In the lead-in to this finale, Jesus makes a specific claim of salvation, and implies he is the Son of Man (Lk 19:9-10, LaM 11:51-52); cryptically claims to be the Son of Man who is to be glorified, and whose death will bring life to others (Jn 12:20-24, LaM 12:9-13); and gives a parable in which his role is that of the Son of God, about to be killed (Mk 12:1-9, LaM 12:26-36).

In myriad other passages, JoJ suggests that there is something special about himself, e.g. LaM 10:63-67 (Lk 10:38-42, Mary and Martha), LaM 15:3-8 (Mk 14:3-8, anointment and preparation for death, “ye have the poor with you always”), LaM 8:20-24 (Jn 10:11-14,16, the Good Shepherd), LaM 2:20 (Mt 5:17, Jesus to fulfill prophecy), LaM 4:3-5 (Mt 11:28-30, “Take my yoke upon you”), LaM 4:7-13 (Lk 7:37-43, Jesus’ forgiveness saves a sinner), LaM 6:12 (Lk 5:32, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”), LaM 6:17 (Mt 13:54, “these mighty works”), LaM 7:40-46 (Jn 7:2-8 “my time is not yet come”), LaM 12:2-3 (Mt 21:2-3, authority to take).

JoJ also suggests that there is something special about his disciples, e.g. LaM 2:11-12 (Mt 5:11-12, it is good to be persecuted for Jesus’ sake), LaM 6:28-31 and 7:33-39 (Mt 10:12-16 and Lk 10:5-8,10-12, rejection of Jesus’ disciples is worse than Sodom), and about his time (Lk 12:56, LaM 4:67).

As for morality, JoJ teaches that to reach the Kingdom of God, Jesus must be followed without compromise (LaM 6:1-6, Lk 9:57-62, also LaM 9:19, Lk 14:20, and LaM 11:21, Mt 19:21); that God has elected the saved, and the sign of election is faith (LaM 10:55-56, Lk 18:7-8); the saved are chosen (LaM 12:51, Mt 22:14); we are saved by receiving the word (LaM 5:33-38, Mt 13:18-23); we are all evil (LaM 3:46, Mt 7:11) and cannot save ourselves (LaM 11:25-26, Mt 19:25-26); God’s justice is unfair and we must abase ourselves before God (LaM 11:35-40, Mt 20:9-14, LaM 9:57-60, Lk 15:29-32, LaM 7:8-9, Mt 18:12-13, LaM 9:35, Lk 15:7); the standard of righteousness is impractically high (LaM 2:23, Mt 5:20); it is not enough to obey as commanded, we must also serve (LaM 10:34-37, Lk 17:7-10); we must put our relationship with God first, and our relations to other people subordinate (LaM 8: 25-28, Lk 10:25-28, LaM 12:71-77, Mk 12:28-33 & Mt 22:40); it is God, rather than our victims, whose forgiveness cancels our sin, if only we forgive others (LaM 8:41, Lk 11:4, LaM 3:12, Mt 6:12, LaM 7:16-28, Mt 18:23-35, LaM 10:61-62, Lk 18:13-14) – note also the suggestive connection between God’s forgiveness here and Jesus’ forgiveness mentioned above.

So where does this leave us?

None of this proves that Jefferson ultimately believed any specific doctrine about Jesus, but it definitely shows that the Jesus whose teachings Jefferson so diligently studied was no Deist, and taught no naturalist or rationalist religion. This was Christianity with a fig leaf covering the most blatant claims to deity of Jesus, but with the question placed unavoidably in front of the reader. There is no way to study LaM in detail and not confront the challenge of determining who, or what, Jesus ultimately was.

This, of course, is entirely in keeping with Jefferson’s advice to Peter Carr (mentioned and linked above), where Jefferson insisted that forming an opinion about Jesus is one of the things that each of us must do. Jefferson is, in that sense, perfectly in keeping with my description of him as an extreme American protestant: tradition and the learned clergy are out the window, and each man is left alone to confront Jesus through scripture. Each of us can interpret scripture differently, but the one choice we must not make is to ignore Jesus, for the last thing we want is for him to ignore us.

To the criticism that I am reading too much into details here, I would reply that on the contrary, I have only scratched the surface of what must be read in much greater detail still. Jefferson laid out his quadrilingual parallel synoptically redundant harmony precisely in order to support pursuit of the slightest nuance in meaning of each and every word or verse. To do justice to LaM would require years of detailed study, which is precisely what Jefferson gave it, in keeping with American bibliocentric protestantism.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gardeners of the Spirit

My wife started her seedlings indoors last weekend, looking forward to planting once the soil warms up at the end of May. Gardeners have a short season in Vermont.

But planning the rows, perusing the catalogues, readying the cold frames takes months. Working the earth has a comforting ritual that gives shape to the year.

So it was for our Founders, most of whom were farmers. As a boy, John Adams was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. His dad, hoping to instill higher aspirations in the boy, took him to the marsh to spend a wet, muddy backbreaking day cutting thatch. That night the senior Adams asked the lad, “Well, John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?” “Yes sir, I like it very well!” the sprout replied. It was not to be—until late in life, when overseeing the patch of land he called Peacefield became one of Adams’ greatest pleasures.

Early on, Thomas Jefferson started a garden journal. To artist Charles Wilson Peale he wrote that “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.”

George Washington, at Mount Vernon, went in for “scientific” agriculture, planting seeds of oats, barley and other grains within a variety of clays, silts, and sandy soils in carefully controlled settings to measure the effects of differing composts on their growth. He devoured texts on horticulture, and was one of the few among our forefathers who actually managed to make a profit from his farming.

James Madison became president of his local agricultural society, where he became a forceful advocate of crop rotation, contour plowing, careful woodland management and other conservation techniques.

Did farming inspire their spirituality? As practical types, they weren’t much interested in metaphysical disputes, but more concerned with religion’s earthly effects—the fruit that faith bore in the form of charity, honesty and goodwill. They preferred ethics to dogma. Any religion was worthy that helped raise crops of good citizens.

Of course, Jefferson was convinced that America should be a nation of yeomen farmers. Agriculture and virtue were equated, in his mind. Where else is there such a direct correlation between hard work and pay-off in the end? You reap what you sow.

So maybe the “Garden Song” should be our new national anthem? Planting a garden—like our new First Lady Michelle Obama—could become the true mark of a good American. And politicians could try spreading manure in a new and very helpful sense.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Biblical Scholarship and the Founders

I'm leaving my Puritan comfort zone to actually address the Founding generation (though my readings in the field of scriptural translation spring from my study of those Bible-reading people). Trying to identify the religious beliefs of the Founders provokes nearly unending debate; what I'd like to investigate here is the religious scholarship the Founders may have read that may have formed some of their religious education.

In 1707, John Mill of Queens College, Oxford published an edition of the Greek New Testament that took the 1550 edition written by Stephanus and then listed all the variant readings of that text in a critical Apparatus. Mill found 30,000 differences between the translations, places where different manuscripts of the New Testament over the centuries provided different readings from the "received text" of the scripture.

This was, of course, controversial in England and Europe, where Protestants found the validity of their religion on its basis in scripture. If there was no final scriptural word to be had, no text that really had the exact word of God in it, but only many human variations on a theme, then the Catholic insistence that scripture could only ever be one part of religion was validated. The Catholic church had always averred that church custom and practice was more important than scripture, and this unreliability of scripture seemed to prove it.

Mill's work put in motion critical examinations of scripture that made the 18th century a century of exegesis. Notably, Johann Albrecht Bengel and Johann J. Wettstein both explored scriptural variants further, and Wettstein published a new edition of the Greek New Testament in 1751-2, showing even more Greek, Roman, Jewish, and catholic variants in meaning.

Each of these publications provoked a firestorm of critical responses. The 18th century was the age of the pamphleteer, and because the religious stakes were still high in England in the first part of the 1700s, each new publication was capable of arousing great public praise or indignation.

Laying out the differences between translations of the Bible, some of which crucially changed the message of the scriptures, clearly led many people at the time to lose faith in the Bible as the received word of God, and even their faith in God. If two of the gospels had originally made no claims that Jesus was God, if those claims were added in by later second- and third-century scribes who wanted the Bible to say Jesus was God, what was the basis for faith in Jesus? If God did want humans to know God's word, why were our versions of the Scriptures so clearly humanly rather than God-generated?

The work of uncovering more and more early translations of the New Testament would go on in the 19th century. Our Founders, who were well-read English-educated and oriented men and women, must have been aware of these debates and findings in their own time. They must have read and pondered Mill and his many critics and followers, and perhaps even read his Apparatus, or the scriptures of Wettstein. It would have fit their Enlightenment bent to question and even reject scripture as a useful religious guide. And it might have led some of them to deny the divinity of Jesus.

I would love to hear from those readers who have more in-depth knowledge of the Founders' religious reading to see if my theory is correct.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

David Barton: Liar

Thanks to Explicit Atheist for pointing this out in a comments section below.

A few months back, I recall posting a brief video done by Chris Rodda, author of the book, Liars of Jesus. In the video, Rodda attends a religious gathering featuring none other than history revisionist David Barton. At the conclusion of the meeting, Rodda approaches Barton and presents him with a copy of her book. Simple enough. I thought that would be the end of it. Oh but was I wrong.

A few months later, David Barton, on his radio program, mentioned Chris Rodda and portrayed the meeting as one in which Barton completely and utterly confounded the "clueless" Rodda by expounding upon his wealth of historical "knowledge."

Well, Ms. Rodda has not backed down (and good for her). In a series of Youtube posts, Rodda has exposed Barton for what he is: a liar. See for yourself. I know many of you hate video clips, but please give this a chance. Rodda does a very thorough rebuttal of Barton in a way that he has NO ground to stand on:

Clip 1:

Clip 2:

Clip 3:

Clip 4:

Clip 5:

Clip 6:

Clip 7:

Clip 8:

Clip 9:

What a fantastic set of videos! I chose to post all of them because Rodda does such an excellent job in each clip. Let me be the first to say, well done Ms. Rodda! You absolutely obliterated David Barton and exposed him for what he is: an utter fraud! I look forward to reading the words of Barton apologists as they try to "twist" all of this. Good luck. But PLEASE WATCH THE VIDEOS!

Guest Post: The Question of Freemasonry and America's Founding

***The following post comes to us from Phil Johnson (a.k.a. Pinky) who is one of American Creation's most regular commentators. Mr. Johnson is a self-proclaimed Mason and has done extensive study on the topic. Thank you, Phil for taking the time to prepare this post and we appreciate your willingness to share it.***

The Question of Freemasonry and America’s Founding

I believe it can be shown that Freemasonry bore a heavy influence on America’s Founding.

Perhaps the most obvious reason why it is so difficult to find any documentation of proof has to do with the nature of the Masonic order itself.

It is a fraternal organization in which the members are sworn to secrecy; but it is not a secret organization. Almost any male over the age of 21 is able to join with one single requirement that he believe in a Supreme Being—God.

I recently purchased a book by David Barton with the purpose of learning something I might not otherwise have known about the fraternity’s history. Right off the start, Barton shows his willingness to twist the truth—or his ignorance--of masonry early in chapter one with, “Within the Scottish Rite are Masons called ‘Shriners’…” Wrong!

The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine is not a division of Scottish Rite. Here is some readily available history. To apply for membership in the Shrine, a Mason must either be a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason or a York Rite Knight Templar. The Shrine is separate from both organizations.

Starting on page 54, Barton plays fast and loose with the facts as he recounts an incident between George Washington and the Reverend G. W. Snyder of Fredericksburg, Maryland. Snyder was concerned about an organization in Europe known as the Illuminati that, according to a book by a John Robinson, Proofs of a Conspiracy &c that dealt with plots to over throw all governments. And, Snyder’s apprehensions were that the Illuminati had infiltrated Masonic lodges on this continent. He wrote a letter to Washington voicing his concerns and here is part of the reply he received, “I have heard much of the nefarious and dangerous plan and doctrines of the Illuminati, but never saw the book until you were pleased to send it to me …[T]hanks for your kind wishes and favorable sentiments – except to correct an error you have run into, of my presiding of the English Lodges in this country. The fact is, I preside over none – nor have I been in one more than once or twice within the last thirty years.”

Barton’s next words are, “(Notice Washington’s strong assertion of his relative non-involvement in Masonry, today, an opposite view is presented – largely by Masonic propagandists who wish to wrap themselves around the patriot-hero in order to make their institution appear as mainstream as possible…”

On the face, Barton shows his willingness to twist the truth here and puts his entire argument in question. He distinctly makes the point in other passages that the English lodges and the America’s were separate from each other. He goes to great length in chapter one to point up the origins of Masonry in different national societies, England, Scotland, and France showing the distinctions.

Going into his anti-Masonic commentaries would be a waste of your time with the exception that he attempts to make it out that Masonic meetings lodge meetings are some sort of conspiratorial gatherings in which members hatch plans of one type or another. Nothing could be further from the truth. All official lodge meetings are one hundred percent ritual. I don’t know how far back the ritual goes; but none of it is written down in any form other than code. Other than that, it is 100 percent oral—everything is done by memorization—nothing is added or subtracted. The claim is made that the exact same words are spoken today in lodges as were spoken in 1776. All degrees are historical reenactments of original activities. As degree levels increase in the Scottish Rite, various aspects of history are reenacted by drama. Many historic events are expertly acted out in full and colorful costume. There is nothing in Masonry that denigrates Christianity. Instead, there is a great deal that gives great support—especially in both York and Scottish Rite degrees.

While I am sworn not to divulge any of the secrets, most if not all are readily available to any intelligent person who knows how to surf the ‘Net.

Masonry is the epitome of secular belief. It gives support to nearly every religious faith without detracting from any. And, secularism is the reason I believe Masonry had such a strong hand in the creation of America’s Founding .It was the single most obvious force calling for strong moderation of denominationalism and in the brotherhood of man. If you decide to enter Masonry, you will find a treasure trove of information on the Founding and learn how the English and American Lodges were separate from each other. You will learn of the part Masonry claims it played in the American Revolution.

The Proof Is In The Pudding

It seems safe to make this point when it comes to saying on what ideals our National Society was founded—the proof IS in the pudding. Our nation, while strongly influenced by our Judeo/Christian heritage, was not founded to be a nation of any particular faith. The pudding shows that we were founded on the values of secularism and Freemasonry was the single most positive force for that.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Reason and Revelation

From The Reasonableness of Christianity,
as Delivered in the Scriptures

by John Locke

[Paragraph breaks added for readability.---TVD]

Next to the knowledge of one God; maker of all things; “a clear knowledge of their duty was wanting to mankind.” This part of knowledge, though cultivated with some care by some of the heathen philosophers, yet got little footing among the people.

All men, indeed, under pain of displeasing the gods, were to frequent the temples: every one went to their sacrifices and services: but the priests made it not their business to teach them virtue. If they were diligent in their observations and ceremonies; punctual in their feasts and solemnities, and the tricks of religion; the holy tribe assured them the gods were pleased, and they looked no farther. Few went to the schools of the philosophers to be instructed in their duties, and to know what was good and evil in their actions. The priests sold the better pennyworths, and therefore had all the custom. Lustrations and processions were much easier than a clean conscience, and a steady course of virtue; and an expiatory sacrifice that atoned for the want of it, was much more convenient than a strict and holy life.

No wonder then, that religion was everywhere distinguished from, and preferred to virtue; and that it was dangerous heresy and profaneness to think the contrary. So much virtue as was necessary to hold societies together, and to contribute to the quiet of governments, the civil laws of commonwealths taught, and forced upon men that lived under magistrates.

But these laws being for the most part made by such, who had no other aims but their own power, reached no farther than those things that would serve to tie men together in subjection; or at most were directly to conduce to the prosperity and temporal happiness of any people.

But natural religion, in its full extent, was no-where, that I know, taken care of, by the force of natural reason*. It should seem, by the little that has hitherto been done in it, that it is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts, upon its true foundation, with a clear and convincing light. And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and law-maker, tell them their duties; and require their obedience; than leave it to the long and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them. Such trains of reasoning the greatest part of mankind have neither leisure to weigh; nor, for want of education and use, skill to judge of.

We see how unsuccessful in this the attempts of philosophers were before our Saviour’s time. How short their several systems came of the perfection of a true and complete morality, is very visible.

And if, since that, the christian philosophers have much out-done them: yet we may observe, that the first knowledge of the truths they have added, is owing to revelation: though as soon as they are heard and considered, they are found to be agreeable to reason; and such as can by no means be contradicted. Every one may observe a great many truths, which he receives at first from others, and readily assents to, as consonant to reason, which he would have found it hard, and perhaps beyond his strength, to have discovered himself. Native and original truth is not so easily wrought out of the mine, as we, who have it delivered already dug and fashioned into our hands, are apt to imagine.

And how often at fifty or threescore years old are thinking men told what they wonder how they could miss thinking of? Which yet their own contemplations did not, and possibly never would have helped them to.

Experience shows, that the knowledge of morality, by mere natural light, (how agreeable soever it be to it,) makes but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it is not hard to be found in men’s necessities, passions, vices, and mistaken interests; which turn their thoughts another way: and the designing leaders, as well as following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of their meditations this way.

Or whatever else was the cause, it is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the “law of nature.”

And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the New Testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.

Full text here.

*See also Kretzmann, N., on Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles on the limits of unassisted reason and natural theology, p. 39 in the text and p. 51 in the PDF.---TVD

Lofton Responds Again

John Lofton left another comment at Positive Liberty on the child of God, child of the Devil issue. Like Jim Babka, I realize I am not going to make any progress with Mr. Lofton on whether the Bible teaches everyone is a child of God. In fact, I would concede that Mr. Lofton's view is entirely defensible on uber-Calvinistic, fundamentalist grounds (i.e., that uber-fundamentalist Calvinists are properly reading what the Bible says, though I think there are many other sound, hermeneutic approaches).

But I am interested in showing Mr. Lofton that his personal theology is not the "American View," that of the Declaration of Independence. And that he might want to think about changing the name of his website to for instance, "the Calvinist View," or the "Christian Reconstructionist View." The following is a relevant portion of Mr. Lofton's comment:

ROWE: But more importantly, there is a rich history in Christendom of looking to more than just the Bible to discover God’s will.

LOFTON: In “history,” yes. But, not in the Bible itself. God’s Will is discernible only in God’s Word, what God Himself has said.

ROWE: The Roman Catholics, after Aquinas, who ultimately believed the Bible infallible…

LOFTON: Sorry, but if they believed the Bible infallible they would have stuck to the Bible only, as the Bible says we must do. Scripture neither says nor indicates that the Bible is insufficient and that we must go outside of Scripture for anything else.

ROWE: have their natural law tradition that supplements scripture.

LOFTON: However, Scripture says nothing about God’s Word needing anything to “supplement” it.

Now, this seems well within the mainstream of Calvinism. It was Francis Schaeffer's view. It's also Dr. Gregg Frazer's view (and I think John MacArthur's as well). Here is Dr. Frazer on why the natural law is not biblical:

II Corinthians 3:3 has NOTHING to do with natural law. It simply says that the quality of the lives of the people to whom Paul ministered were his letter of commendation -- the affirmation of his ministry.

Romans 2:14-15 refers to God's moral law, not some "law of nature." I challenge [anyone] to find "law of nature" or "Nature's God" in a concordance of the Bible -- you won't find either term because they're not biblical terms.

Gary North has also argued the natural law is not biblical. Yet, Jordan J. Ballor of the Acton Institute (a Thomistic thinktank) makes the orthodox Protestant case for the natural law.

Now, the Declaration of Independence invokes this very natural law, written by God and discovered by reason alone, as the source of its authority. There is argument as to whether what Locke (and America's Founders repeating his ideas) meant by "the laws of nature and nature's God" is the same as what Aquinas and Aristotle meant. Further there is debate as to whether America's Founders, like the Christian natural law thinkers, believed the Bible infallible and the natural law should act as a handmaiden (i.e., a "supplement") for the Bible. OR whether reason should trump and the Bible should supplement the findings of man's reason.

As Dr. Frazer noted:

So, I fully recognize that they lived in an age of “Christendom” and that it had some influence upon them. I also discuss Aquinas – the difference between [theistic rationalism -- what Dr. Frazer argues was the "political theology of the American Founding"] and Aquinas is what they did when reason and revelation appeared to conflict. For Aquinas, reason bowed to revelation and was designed to supplement revelation. For the [theistic rationalists], it was the other way around. Reason was the ultimate standard and revelation was a supplement to it. In fact, they determined what counted as legitimate revelation based on their reason. The key to your [James] Wilson quote (which I include in my dissertation, by the way) is which of the two ways of looking at law takes priority when they appear to conflict. Wilson said: “Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance.” And “the Scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supersede the operations of reason and the moral sense.” For Wilson, Scripture will be called upon to support and assist reason – not the reverse. That is the position of [theistic rationalism]. It is the opposite of the position of Aquinas – and Christianity.

Now, we can debate whether Dr. Frazer properly interprets James Wilson an an enlightenment rationalist who believed man's reason should trump scripture when the two may have conflicted (as Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin clearly believed). Wilson's position may well have been closer to Aquinas' than Dr. Frazer admits. However, the point is America's Founders turned to this law of nature [that included newly discovered "natural rights," again another concept not found in the Bible, or, some argue, even in the teachings of Aristotle or Aquinas] for their political theology. They may have disagreed on what could trump what, but, they could agree that this natural law discovered by reason that has its antecedents in Aristotle, was brought into Christianity by Aquinas, and then lived on it the works of Protestant thinkers like the Anglican Richard Hooker, whom Jocke Locke quoted, not only existed but would form the basis of their political order. And ultimately it was John Locke's newly discovered "rights teachings" which formed the centerpiece of the Declaration of Independence.

Yet, Mr. Lofton, seems to embrace the Declaration of Independence:

ROWE: However, to the extent that there is an “America View” of political theology represented by the Declaration of Independence and the personal beliefs the most important Founding Fathers, such holds that all human beings are children of God. It’s precisely that view that makes human rights “unalienable” and consequently “universal.” If the non-elect or non-regenerate are “children of the Devil,” Mr. Lofton, I would ask, why should a “Christian” government treat them equally as the Declaration of Independence demands?

LOFTON: Actually, the D of I says nothing about WHY we all have unalienable “rights” other than that we do, they come from God and it’s the role of government to protect such God-given rights. And since a Christian government must obey God’s Word this means that such government is no respecter of persons, meaning all persons (elect/non-elect/saved/unsaved) are under God’s Law. As St. Paul says: Love of neighbor means obeying the law of God re: your neighbor (Romans 13:10) — whether your neighbor is or is not saved..

Since Mr. Lofton rejects the natural law as even a supplement to an infallible Bible, it seems to me that the Declaration should speak very little, if not at all to him and his ideal political world. Thus, he should either give up his affinity for the Declaration of Independence, or rethink his position about the validity of natural law discovered by reason, used to supplement the Bible.

Finally I'll note the most notable Calvinist Founding Father, Dr. John Witherspoon, President of Princeton University, though he did give some fiery Calvinist sermons, when he taught politics at Princeton did not teach Calvin or the Bible but rather turned to Scottish rationalism, and, you got it, the laws of nature, discovered by reason. You can read his Lectures on Moral Philosophy here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

America's Key Founders as "Judeo-Christians," "Apriarians" and "Jews"

"Were I to be a founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract honey of every sect."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

In order to settle the debate over what to call America's principle Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and others], perhaps we should term them "Apriarians." This system is neither strict Deism, nor orthodox Christianity. Dr. Gregg Frazer has suggested "theistic rationalism," a term I like. But not everyone does. My co-blogger at American Creation, Tom Van Dyke has voiced his disagreement with it (I need not reproduce that here) and instead offers, "Judeo-Christians." TVD would note, after Michael Novak that the "strict Deist" God is a non-interventionist one, but it's the "Judeo-Christian" God who is an active personal God. And all five of those above mentioned Founders believed in an active personal God.

Here are some potential problems with the term "Judeo-Christian." First it's an a-historical term. The term was not used during the Founding and the Founders didn't call themselves "Judeo-Christians." But they didn't call themselves "theistic rationalists" either. Both Van Dyke and Frazer would argue their terms are properly "descriptive" however.

The second problem is it suggests some special relationship between Judaism and Christianity, but that excludes other "non-Judeo-Christian" faiths. And that dynamic didn't quite exist during the Founding era either. You had "Protestant Christianity" as the dominant faith and the "in" group. Jews and Roman Catholics tended to be cast "outside the box" with Muslims, pagans and infidels. There were only a very small number of anti-Christian Deists or atheists who wanted nothing to do with Jesus, the Bible or the Christian label. But there were an huge number of "deistic" or "unitarian" minded folks, most of whom were formally or nominally associated with a Protestant Christian Church. Though they may not have been regular attendees or communicants and they otherwise didn't believe in their Church's orthodox doctrines. Men like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington could feel like "insiders" in a way that Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, non-Christian-Deists and atheists couldn't precisely because they maintained formal and nominal connections to Protestant Christianity.

Another potential problem with "Judeo-Christianity" is that it could mean a lowest common denominator between Judaism and Christianity; but then we'd have to throw out Jesus and the New Testament. And the Founders didn't do that.

But my biggest problems with the term "Judeo-Christianity" is that I see a number of orthodox Christians invoking that term and then seeking to use the "Judeo" part as a "handmaiden" to orthodox Christianity. From their self-serving perspective, it's not surprising they would do this because Judaism does indeed play an extremely special role as an antecedent to orthodox Christianity. But that clearly doesn't describe the "Judeo-Christianity" of America's key Founders.

Maybe this is just the result of an encounter I had with an orthodox Christian named Gordon Mullings, which was the blatantest, grossest example of this dynamic of attempting to use Christianity's Judaic roots to serve as a handmaiden for orthodox doctrine. He wrote:

As to the idea that the biblical, Judaeo-Christian worldview is ill-defined or hard to outline, that is laughable. Yes there are disputes or debates over relatively narrow points of doctrine [we are here speaking of worldviews not theologies and schools of thought within a worldview], or because of ignorance and twisting of the scriptures, but the core of that worldview is long since on public record as bith [sic] NT documents and subsequent easily accessible creedal statements, regularly publicly recited, e.g. the Nicene creed - which aptly summarises the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.

Did you get that? He just equated the "Judeo-Christian" worldview with the Nicene Creed. And Jews, like America's key Founders, reject almost every single word of the Nicene Creed, or at least after the first paragraph. The kind of "Judeo-Christianity" as represented by the "theistic rationalists" (or the "Apriarians") can reject, often bitterly and mockingly, the Nicene Creed.

I remember once explaining to a group of people, via email, "theistic rationalism," how it was neither strict deism nor orthodox Christianity and one commenter noted, "they sound like they were Jews." There may be some truth to that. When I hear Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debate Jesus I hear a lot of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. He sees Jesus as a great moral teacher and Rabbi, but rejects Him as Messiah. They may have seen Jesus as a "savior" in some sense but rejected the Trinity or Jesus' divinity. AND Boteach asserts that parts of the New Testament were likely fabricated (Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin would certainly say something similar about the Old Testament). Boteach also discusses the Jewish doctrine of how men are saved by their virtue, which is also what those Founders believed.

So, ultimately if there is a "Judeo-Christian" or even a "Christian" theology that undergirds the American Founding, it's so ecumenical that it includes lots of things (Trinity denial, universal salvation, rejection of the infallibility of the Bible; today it would have to include such things as Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnessism, cafeteria Christianity and embrace of the Gnostic Gospels) "historic" Christians don't consider "real Christianity" at all.

Glenn Beck on the Founders and God

On his radio show, Glenn Beck discusses what the Founders thought of God.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Children of God v. Children of the Devil Redux

Former Washington Times columnist John Lofton responded to my thoughts at Positive Liberty on the issue of whether Christianity teaches all are children of God or only the regenerate are children of God, the others, children of the Devil. I feel I owe Mr. Lofton a response, given his amusing debate with music legend Frank Zappa.

Mr. Lofton originally asked me:

Cite for me, please, one Bible verse, one Scripture, that says, or indicates, that “EVERYONE” is a child of God. Thank you.

I replied:

I can’t. You have to take a more liberal interpretation of scripture to get the idea that we are all children of God.

To which he replied:

Thank you, Mr. Rowe for saying, truthfully, that you cannot not cite
one Bible verse, one Scripture, that says, or indicates, that “EVERYONE” is a child of God — that your view is based on “a more liberal interpretation of scripture to get the idea that we are all children of God.” So, what do you make of John 8:44ff? And how does your “more liberal interpretation of scripture” hermeneutic differ from, say just making stuff up about what God says because you want to believe what you want to believe? Thanks again.

First on what Scripture, properly understood, actually teaches, though I intensely study parts of the Bible that are relevant to my political-theological studies, I am not an expert in all biblical hermeneutic arguments. There are plenty of scriptures that on their surface seem contradictory, but good hermeneutics can "iron out." Just because I can't (yet) make the "sola-scriptura" case that all human beings are children of God doesn't mean that case can't be made. For instance, all five points of Calvinism are disputed on sola-scriptura grounds.

But more importantly, there is a rich history in Christendom of looking to more than just the Bible to discover God's will. The Roman Catholics, after Aquinas, who ultimately believed the Bible infallible, have their natural law tradition that supplements scripture. And there are also those Protestants like my friend Jim Babka who look to the natural law and findings of science while rejecting the Bible as infallible (but still believing most of it to be God's inspired Word). Now, they may be "believing what they want to believe." OR they may be discovering God's Will. Or maybe the atheists are right and you are all washed up.

I'm personally not much invested in a theology that says all humans are children of God. However, to the extent that there is an "America View" of political theology represented by the Declaration of Independence and the personal beliefs the most important Founding Fathers, such holds that all human beings are children of God.

It's precisely that view that makes human rights "unalienable" and consequently "universal." If the non-elect or non-regenerate are "children of the Devil," Mr. Lofton, I would ask, why should a "Christian" government treat them equally as the Declaration of Independence demands? There is plenty of textual authority in the Bible for UNEQUAL treatment of individuals and entire groups of people who were God's enemies, (children of the devil, as it were).

Christian Nation Thesis (and Jasper Adams in Particular) Debunked

In the past couple of posts here at American Creation, fellow blogger Tom Van Dyke and I have been engaged in a "heated" discussion over the validity of the Christian Nation thesis. In his piece below, Mr. Van Dyke notes that the Christian Nation thesis is poorly served by the "extremists" on the right (David Barton, D. James Kennedy, etc.) who in their quest to legitimize their claims, make America's Christian heritage "look like balderdash."

On this I couldn't agree more. The "fringe" of the Christian right has done little to promote the belief in America as a Christian Nation. In fact, I believe they have done more harm than good. Mr. Van Dyke will receive no disagreement from me on this issue.

However, my interest was peaked by Mr. Van Dyke's reference to one Jasper Adams, who in 1833 delivered a sermon entitled, "The Relation of Christianity to the Civil Government in the United States." Mr. Van Dyke states:

The definitive Christian nation thesis argument remains
the Rev. Jasper Adams sermon of 1833 [later published with footnotes and
distributed all across America], which was highly praised by not one, but two
sitting Supreme Court justices, America's first great constitutional scholar
Joseph Story, and Chief Justice John Marshall.
And while that all may be true (I have no reason to doubt TVD's integrity), not everyone was accepting of Jasper Adams' comments. James Madison, who was no small player in the establishment of the United Sates Constitution as we all know, had this to say in a letter to Mr. Adams regarding his sermon:

There appears to be in the nature of man what insures
his belief in an invisible cause of his present existence, and anticipation of
his future existence. Hence the propensities & susceptibilities in that case
of religion which with a few doubtful or individual exceptions have prevailed
throughout the world.

The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the
other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best
guarded agst by an entire abstinence of the Govt from interference in any way


In most of the Govt of the old world, the legal
establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little
toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and
there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system
has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.

In the Colonial State
of the Country, there were four examples, R. I, N. J., Penna, and Delaware,
& the greater part of N. Y. where there were no religious Establishments;
the support of Religion being left to the voluntary associations &
contributions of individuals; and certainly the religious condition of those
Colonies, will well bear a comparison with that where establishments existed.

As it may be suggested that experiments made in Colonies more or less
under the Control of a foreign Government, had not the full scope necessary to
display their tendency, it is fortunate that the appeal can now be made to their
effects under a complete exemption from any such Control.

It is true
that the New England States have not discontinued establishments of Religion
formed under very peculiar circumstances; but they have by successive
relaxations advanced towards the prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the support of Religion; and since that
event a surrender of it to a spontaneous support by the people, it may be said
that the difference amounts nearly to a contrast in the greater purity &
industry of the Pastors and in the greater devotion of their flocks, in the
latter period than in the former. In Virginia the contrast is particularly
striking, to those whose memories can make the comparison. It will not be denied
that causes other than the abolition of the legal establishment of Religion are
to be taken into view in account for the change in the Religious character of
the community. But the existing character, distinguished as it is by its
religious features, and the lapse of time now more than 50 years since the legal
support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the
support of Govt and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered
by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary
When we look at Rev. Adams' sermon it becomes clear that he, like so many others, banks his "Christian Nation" claim on two key points: (1) America was founded by settlers who clearly established Christian settlements, and whose ideas were paramount in the establishment of the United States, (2) The constitutions of the various states make it indelibly clear that America is a Christian Nation.

Point #1:
In his sermon, Adams states:

The Colonies, then, from which these United States have
sprung, were originally planted and nourished by our pious forefathers, in the
exercise of a strong and vigorous Christian faith. They were designed to be
Christian communities



The originators and early promoters of the discovery and
settlement of this continent, had the propagation of Christianity before their
eyes, as one of the principal objects of their undertaking. This is shewn by
examining the charters and other similar documents of that period, in which this
chief aim of their novel and perilous enterprize, is declared with a frequency
and fulness which are equally satisfactory.
I agree, in part, with what Rev. Adams is trying to say. Clearly America was PLANTED as a Christian least in most colonies. However, are we to automatically insinuate from this history that the United States was/is founded as a Christian Nation?

The answer to this question can be found by addressing Rev. Adams' second key point; that the various state constitutions clearly establish a Christian nation. He states:

We are, therefore, now prepared to examine with a good
prospect of success, the nature and extent of the changes in regard to Religion,
which have been introduced by the people of the United States in forming their
State Constitutions, and also in the adoption of the Constitution of the United

In perusing the twenty-four Constitutions of the United States
with this object in view, we find all of them recognising Christianity as the
well known and well established religion of the communities, whose legal, civil
and political foundations, these Constitutions are. The terms of this
recognition are more or less distinct in the Constitutions of the different
States; but they exist ill all of them.
But do STATE charters prove that the United States is a Christian Nation? Again, I will quote Madison from his above mentioned letter:

It is true that the New England States have not
discontinued establishments of Religion formed under very peculiar
circumstances; but they have by successive relaxations advanced towards the
prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion
or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there
was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the
support of Religion; and since that event a surrender of it to a spontaneous
support by the people, it may be said that the difference amounts nearly to a
contrast in the greater purity & industry of the Pastors and in the greater
devotion of their flocks, in the latter period than in the former. In Virginia
the contrast is particularly striking, to those whose memories can make the
comparison. It will not be denied that causes other than the abolition of the
legal establishment of Religion are to be taken into view in account for the
change in the Religious character of the community. But the existing character,
distinguished as it is by its religious features, and the lapse of time now more
than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently
prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be
contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its
cognizance, or its pecuniary aid.
And even Rev. Adams seems to recognize this when he states:

No nation on earth, perhaps, ever had opportunities so
favorable to introduce changes in their institutions as the American people; and
by the time of the Revolution, a conviction of the impolicy of a further union
of Church and State according to the ancient mode, had so far prevailed, that
nearly all the States in framing their new constitutions of government,
silently or by direct enactment, discontinued the ancient connexion
[my emphasis].
Yes, the Reverend Adams provides an eloquent and well-prepared argument for his side, and I personally find much to praise in his sermon. However, colonial heritage and state constitutions are not sufficient grounds for calling America a Christian Nation. The federal Constitution is clearly a secular document, a fact that Adams gives very little attention to in his sermon. In addition, as Adams himself notes, these state constitutions eventually removed all religious preference, making the states secular as well.