Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reformation Day & The Founders

"On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Palace church, marking the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany," as this website notes.

Evangelicals and Roman Catholics still split on a number of issues, like justification. This document that attempted to bring Lutherans and Roman Catholics together claims that it "does not resolve the classic question whether such grace is God’s undeserved favor (Lutheran) or whether it is a spiritual power poured or ‘infused’ into the soul that enables one to love God and merit salvation (Roman Catholic).”

What I find ironic is, whatever their differences the Christian theology shared by Roman Catholics and evangelicals is far closer to one another than either are to the religion of the so called "key Founders."

For instance, here is Ben Franklin on justification, which is so different than the view of evangelicals and Roman Catholics that it makes their views look like differences without distinction:

Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one….Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means.

– “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians,” April 10, 1735.

Though George Washington was less specific when he discussed his views on the afterlife, there is not a SHRED OF EVIDENCE that George Washington held to a salvation scheme that was any more "Christian" than Franklin’s. Indeed, if anything Washington's view on the afterlife was LESS Christian.

As GW put it on the death of a loved one, suggesting she merited salvation through her good works, “She is now no more! But she must be happy, because her virtue has a claim to it.”

No orthodox Christian would state that someone’s “virtue” or works gives them a “claim” to eternal happiness.


Brad Hart said...

Great post, Jon! And I think you are right when you say that the religion of the key founders really doesn't fit with the theology of Roman Catholics or Evangelicals. They certainly to smell more unitarian than anything...but a very Christ-centered form of unitarianism

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do not think that the end of virtue is produced by "Any means". That would give license to all sorts of injustice in the name of creating "good" or "virtue" in another. Where would be the "moral example" of leadership, then?

Representation is important to virtue itself. But, virtue can be understood in many different ways. And which virtues are going to be chosen for another, except what would further the "cause" of a specific self-chosen end. Aren't people to be "the end" and not virtue? Are selfishly chosen ends, the means to obtain virtue in those who are oppressed or discriminated against then?

Individuals, themselves, must choose what virtue they most admire and then seek to pursue it, unless one assumes that some individuals would be too ignorant, foolish or selfish to pursue virtue own their own.

I don't think that any human given the right representative leadership will choose to walk away from that example, because it inspires. And inspiration itself is the great motivator. Surely, one does not believe in this day and age, that another should demand obedience and subservience to obtain virtue...?

Tom Van Dyke said...

No orthodox Christian would state that

Heh. The "no good Scotsman" argument.

Jon, you keep quoting Franklin in support of works when his letter to Whitefield specifically denounces it.

"You will see in this my notion of good works, that I am far from expecting to merit heaven by them."---Franklin to George Whitefield, 1740

As for Washington, he could be referring to her having led a virtuous life and therefore not knocked out of the heaven game by sin. His use of "claim" certainly seems to knock him out of "Faith alone saves," but that's Lutheranism, not Epicopalianism [Anglicanism]. Gotta keep the sects straight.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom looking at BF's seemingly contradictory remarks in different places is like interpreting parts of the Bible that seem to contradict one another. We take the two thoughts together and try to smooth out the seeming contradiction.

BF most certainly did say in his Dialog that men merit salvation thru works.

Add to that his thoughts in his letter to Whitefield and Franklin expects not to see Heaven right away after death but probably experience some temporary punishment for his self-understood imperfections.

I might say the same thing about meself.

Jonathan Rowe said...

His use of "claim" certainly seems to knock him out of "Faith alone saves," but that's Lutheranism, not Epicopalianism [Anglicanism]. Gotta keep the sects straight


As for Washington, he could be referring to her having led a virtuous life and therefore not knocked out of the heaven game by sin.

This part of your statement reinforces what I like in your second part. According to reformed Protestants, EVERYONE is knocked out of Heaven by sin, no matter HOW good a person they relatively appeared to be.

King of Ireland said...

I think you are falling into the trap the Ed calls the creationist's out on when they try and label all evolutionists evil atheists in ignorance of the nuances of all the different postitions of that camp.

Ed and PZ Myers go at it almost as much as Ed does with the creationists. There positions differ that much even though they are in the same camp. "Orthodox" Christian is not a good label it means too many things to too many people that have real differences.
On the other hand thesitic rationalist is also too broad in my opinion.

This is still not taking down the road of where the ideas that were behind the founding came from? Tom's post is the sign post that is attempting to lead us down the road of solving American Creation but few want to head that direction.

This argument has been wrongly framed from the start.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think we can come up with a miniminalistic definition of "orthodox Christian" and that's those who endorse Nicene Creed Christianity. That means you believe in the Virgin Birth, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Ressurection. Everything else -- original sin, eternal damnation, infallibility of the Bible it outside of that miniminalistic purview.

Gregg's 18 Cen. America definition is tighter because the big Christian Churches (including Anglicans and Roman Catholics) added original sin, eternal damnation and infallibility of the Bible to the mix.

Many of Barton's "Christian America" types, who are fundamentalists, make an even tighter definition that excludes Roman Catholics and most orthodox Anglicans. And then they have to imagine how all of these "born again" Christians were members of the Anglican Church who didn't preach that doctrine.

This is why that OFT fellow first came to these pages arguing the FFs weren't just Christians but "born again" Christians.

But no I think a miniminalistic definition of "orthodox Christian" is reasonable.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Many of Barton's "Christian America" types, who are fundamentalists

Well, this is the problem, that this blog becomes diminished into an arm of Brayton's culture war against the fundies instead of its true prupose, a healthy philosophical-historical inquiry into religion and the Founding.

But no I think a miniminalistic definition of "orthodox Christian" is reasonable.

Yes it is, but even most of the fundies are aware of Jefferson and Franklin's unorthodoxies and perhaps John Adams'. Of Washington and Madison's there's little evidence for more than conjecture.

And so, once again the "key" Founders method squeezes out the other 100 Founders, and once again ignores the most "key" of all points, that the constitution left religion to the states, by design and by ratification.

Mark D. said...

I hate to be the one to say it, but I think that Jonathan is off-base here. While it is true that Franklin and Washington's views don't mesh with a confessional or evangelical Protestant approach to salvation, there isn't anything in it is that contradictory to Catholic teaching on salvation. Which is not to say that it is Catholic teaching on salvation, simply that it doesn't contradict it.

Catholicism does not believe in salvation by faith alone. Catholic has a strong belief in the necessity of works -- and particularly when addressing the topic of the salvation of those outside the Catholic faith, those individual's commitment to virtue and good works may well have salvific effect. And when one journeys into "folk Catholicism," this emphasis only grows.

Do not make the mistake of conflating Protestantism and orthodox (with a small "o") Christianity. In some ways both confessional and evangelical Protestants are quite orthodox, but in other ways they are heterodox, at least compared with the way Christianity was practiced for the first 1500 years of its existence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

..and of course Anglicanism [Episcopalianism in the US] is neither Lutheran nor Calvinist, but far closer theologically to the Roman church.

Which is why it's not terribly difficult for the Pope to be opening a new Anglican subsidiary:

Jonathan Rowe said...


Re the works/grace issue, two things.

One is I/we use late 18th Century Roman Catholicism as a baseline. Could it be that currently RC doctrine has evolved to a point where it is more virtue centered and universalistic (which is exactly what I believe Franklin and the other key Founders believed -- good people are "Christians" regardless of whether they have self consciously accepted Christ).

And two it's my understanding that while reformed Protestantism is grace/faith alone and while RCism was a combination of grace/faith and works, RCs STILL elevated and currently elevates faith/grace WAAAAAY over works.

If you read BF's comment carefully he elevates works WAAAAY over faith.

That's why I grouped RCism with EPism as closer to one another vis a vis what Frankln believed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one."---Franklin

"Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
---James 2:24, 26 [KJV]

Franklin was well-read in the Bible, and isn't being unChristian here, or even particularly controversial. Even if he were, this theological point is minor in the scheme of things.

Jonathan Rowe said...

While I can't necessarily speak for the Roman Catholic POV, which I know less of -- and keep in mind that the EP/RC split on justification is itself an ENORMOUSLY controversial bone of contention between them and in fact is probably the BIGGEST barrier to their potential unification -- Franklin's statement elevating works waaay over faith for salvation purposes is radically heretical to reformed Protestants.

They interpret James 2:24, 26 as how one tests for true, saving faith. They still believe salvation is 100% thru faith, the virtual opposite on Franklin's thought.

Yes of course, we could say Franklin was just interpreting the Bible and group his thoughts along with the Romans 13/revolt, original sin (which BF also denied) Trinity and eternal damnation/universal salvation all as things contested on Sola-Scriptura grounds. The is the Protestant world we live in where each individual gets to decide what the Bible means. But Franklin's thoughts on this matter are every bit as controversial as every single one of those above mentioned contested doctrines.

Remember the context was BF was defending a minister who was about to get defrocked from a reformed Church for "heterodoxy."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Franklin vs. reformed theology? I doubt even OFT would disagree with that. We're conducting a culture war here with no opponents.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well that's because I don't think the other side understands what BF really believed.

He was arguably a POV that Priestley, Price, J. Adams, Jefferson, believed in and that was otherwise consistent with the words of Madison and Washington, Locke, Newton, Clarke and many others.

That's what they don't understand. When they hear Washington talk about "works," they want to think of the "orthodox" explanation of James 2:24, 26. I want them to consider that GW held to Franklin's.

Jonathan Rowe said...

They want to cast BF and TJ off as "Deists" but then argue even the Deists were biblical. And everyone else (presumably GW, JA, JM) were "Christians" as the reformed evangelicals understand the term.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you're going to attack this amorphous fundie "they," I wish you'd back up charges like the above by quoting them directly. Your Pat Boone piece could have represented his actual essay more accurately, and left out some of the anti-fundie stupidity that he was responding to, leaving the impression that the confusion is all on one side.

If we're going to bring the culture war here and lower the level of discourse to that of those other blogs, at least our readers should have the relevant info in front of them.

Jonathan Rowe said...

So now you want me to name names?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, you did that with Pat Boone and it wasn't instructive and in fact was somewhat misleading. I want direct quotes. Then the reader can evaluate your counterargument without having to traipse all over the internet to see if your paraphrases and characterizations of the remarks of others are accurate.

There's no use having discussions that are not self-contained onsite.

And who knows? You might get more reinforcement and knowledgeable support for your challenges or at least hone them a little sharper.