Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mark Noll on the Founders, Original Sin, Reason & Revelation

Here at American Creation we've been meticulously studying and debating the meaning of texts of the writings of notable Founders. I realize appeal to authority is, technically speaking, an error in logic. However, if one is to appeal to an authoritative historian of American religious history, Mark Noll, of Notre Dame, (an evangelical by the way) is as authoritative as it gets.

Pages 31-32 in his 1990 book "Religion and American Politics" contain some interesting analysis. First he notes the Constitution was the 18th century equivalent of a "secular humanist text." Next he notes the delegates were not an orthodox group of men in any doctrinal sense. Noll states perhaps only ONE, Richard Bassett of Delaware, was a "born again Christian." Though Sherman "may" have been. Further, Noll notes Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Wilson, and G. Morris gave no sign of belief in "original sin" at this phase in their life.

Noll then describes, using Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart as examples, how the Founders were actually closer to secular humanists than modern evangelicals (on a personal note, I'd say they were somewhere in between; they were "theistic humanists"). One ingredient of secular humanism is the willingness to elevate human reason over divine revelation when they appear to conflict. And Noll asserts that Jefferson and Adams clearly did this. He also notes by the 1780s Madison appeared to believe in "Nature's" Supreme Being as opposed to the God of Revelation. Finally Noll notes that James Wilson believed the Bible reinforced moral precepts, learned from reason and the moral sense, "not the other way around."

I've verified most of this independently through my own research. I've followed Gregg Frazer's lead who in turn heavy relies on and cites Noll's research in this thesis.

If the google preview shows those pages, I'd suggest reading them and as much of the preview that google books permits. This book is on my reading list.

UPDATE: Noll wasn't the author. John M. Murrin was. Noll edited. See here.


Brian Tubbs said...

I like Noll, and will have to read what you're talking about. I have read "America's God," so I think I have an idea as to where he's coming from.

The concern I have is that people "move the goal posts" in defining "Christian" (esp when you throw in adjectives like "born again" and "orthodox"). Thus, when Noll says only Bassett perhaps was "born again," my suspicions go up, for I think it has more to do with how we define "Christian" than the hearts of the men who we consider our Founders.

Brad Hart said...

I love Noll. He's one of the best!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Mark Noll is a bit of an icon, so I'd rather take his arguments one at a time.

In the section from his book Jon linked, his audience plainly appears to be modern evangelicals [whom I understands he gave both barrels to in his other books]. Noll's starting point is Calvinism and Jerry Falwell. Jimmy Swaggart fer crissakes.

By the time Noll gets to "on all of these grounds the Founders meet the definition of secular humanism," well, that is arguable, especially since he quotes only Jefferson and here we go again, turning Jefferson into "The Founders."

Noll also apparently misses that James Wilson's Thomism [Aquinas] on natural law and scripture is completely orthodox and unremarkable, except to those whose understanding of Christianity is via John Calvin.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I too was taken about by the Swaggart invocation. But the book, written around 89-90, was arond the time when Swaggard was still a big name, just having been taken down.

It ties in with Noll's book "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" which is faces like Falwell and Swaggart are the "face" of evangelicals to the public, but Roman Catholics have colleges like Notre Dame (where he now teaches) and magazines like First Things (for which he has written).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I'm not up on Noll's writings but have seen his biographical info, which is why I mentioned him giving evangelicals "both barrels." I imagine he has folks like our friend OFT in mind.

But I'm unimpressed so far with Noll, based on your excerpt: he blandly asserts that "The Founders" rejected miracles. This is provable [Mr. Miettinen's thesis notwithstanding] only of Jefferson.

Now I give OFT one barrel when the occasion arises, but it was OFT who birddogged the quote from John Adams diary [1754 I believe] where Adams certainly allows for miracles. And I'm told that Franklin allowed for Jesus' miracle at Cana. Nor have I seen any evidence that "The Founders" thought Moses didn't part the Red Sea.

When Noll speaks of the "secular humanists of 1787" I have no idea what he's talking about. When James Wilson writes that natural law and the scriptures flow from "the same adorable source," in other words, the God of Abraham, that's in no way "secular humanism," not no how. Yet he references James Wilson in his argument---ignorance at best, misleading at its worst.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think Noll is making the same point that I have made, who made it thru Frazer and who in turn made it thru Noll and that's the line -- or at least how we interpret the line -- about figuring truth out from reason and the moral sense and then looking to the Bible for support.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, I'd say Jonathan Mayhew worked the other way, making reason---support for liberty and even rebellion---conform to scripture. I think you'll find that thread and that dynamic all throughout Locke and the Founders. Scripture is the double-check, the bottom line against which you check your figures.

Like balancing your checkbook, except the bottom line comes from God, not some stupid bank.

I've just seen no evidence where the Founders disputed the bottom line that they saw as issued by God. I just posted the key John Locke quote to that effect yesterday. Please don't make me dig it out again, man. You know how lazy I am.

[Yes, yes, Jefferson and Adams. But besides them, and only in their private writings.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

And the closest you can find to "secular humanism" in the Founding era is Thomas Paine and his Age of Reason.

And they trashed Paine bigtime for it. I have no idea what Mark Noll is saying here with this "secular humanists of 1787" stuff. It makes sense only to a Falwellist or a neo-Calvinist and mebbe not even some of them either.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The kind of "secular humanism" which Noll describes is certainly NOT Thomas Paine's which is closer to the Christopher Hitchen's type of the modern era. I think Noll (rightly) understands it to be a kinder and gentler form of secular humanism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually, I'd say Jonathan Mayhew worked the other way, making reason---support for liberty and even rebellion---conform to scripture. I think you'll find that thread and that dynamic all throughout Locke and the Founders. Scripture is the double-check, the bottom line against which you check your figures.

I have to say Tom after all of the meticulous research I've done I don't see it this way at all. "Reason" was the double check, not scripture. I certainly see West positing this. As I do Wilson. I think that many of them believed "scripture" was "reasonable" that is the whole Bible WOULD meet the test of reason. PROVIDED however the interpretation was "reasonable," meaning that which accords with the test of reason, the final trump.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, the controversies of the time were over interpretations, so that should be kept in mind. 90% of the Bible is pretty straightforward.

When they say the Bible must meet the test of reason, we should be sure they're not talking Trinity or apostolic succession. I think this nuance is getting lost. If you read Locke with that in mind, it passes the test.

Locke says faith can only rise as high as reasonable assent, but he also wrote the Discourse on Miracles, which defends miracles. If one can reasonably defend miracles, the rest of the Bible is far less challenging.

As for Christopher Hitchens, I'd compare him most to Voltaire, for whom even John Adams expressed a distaste. And we certainly know how Hamilton and even the bon vivant Gouverneur Morris were repulsed by the French Revolution's deification of reason.

Nor do I think secular humanism is sympathetic to the concept of natural law, which the Founders were steeped in.

I don't think "the secular humanists of 1787" passes the test of reason. [Hehe.]

Anonymous said...

A closer inspection of the book reveals that John M. Murrin is actually the writer, not Noll. Noll edited this book.

Jonathan Rowe said...


A correction is forthcoming.