Friday, December 4, 2009

Jonathan Mayhew's Seven Sermons

You can read an original copy from googlebooks here or a nice reproduction here. Mayhew was one of the most influential of the pro-revolutionary preachers of the Founding era (that's why he's important to study). Interestingly, he turned out to be a "unitarian" of the Arian bent, something orthodox Christians believe "heresy" that disqualifies someone from status as a "Christian."

Mayhew probably felt comfortable with the label "rational Christian." That is, he promoted the excessive use of free inquiry, reason and natural law in matters of religion. Such method led Mayhew to conclude that orthodox Trinitarian doctrine was a product of erroneous man-made ecclesiastical authorities.

The standard that elevates reason and free inquiry over ecclesiastical authorities can deconstruct not just orthodox doctrine like original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, but the biblical canon itself. Arguably ecclesiastical authorities selected the biblical canon. So how do we know we have all of the right books? Likewise, how do we know the books in the Bible are God's infallible Word? Perhaps ecclesiastical authorities inserted erroneous "interpolations" in the Bible?

It's important to keep this paradigm in mind for the following reason: Anti-Roman Catholic bigotry was something that certainly united "Protestants" of the liberal unitarian and conservative evangelical bent during the Founding era. Today the "Christian America" crowd -- comprised largely of Sola-Scriptura evangelicals and fundamentalists -- tend to dismiss the anti-ecclesiastical rhetoric of the American Founding as mere anti-Romanism, while positing the Bible (that is the canon) -- the inerrant, infallible Word of God (complete with orthodox doctrines like original sin, trinity, atonement, eternal damnation) -- as the source of American political theology. Not so. The anti-ecclesiastical, free inquiry method of "rational Christians" like Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and John Adams led them to reject not just original sin, trinity, atonement, eternal damnation, but arguably the infallibility of the biblical canon itself.

All the while they still believed themselves "Christians," that Jesus was Messiah (or King) and that God revealed Himself to man in His Word.

Over at American Creation, an interesting dialog on this very issue is taking place among Gregg Frazer, Tom Van Dyke and King of Ireland. TVD and others disagree with Gregg's assertion that the political theology of Mayhew, Chauncy, Priestley, J. Adams and others represented reason trumping revelation. That is, these Founding era figures believed while God did speak to man in biblical revelation, ultimately the Bible was partially inspired, errant, and that man's reason (i.e., THEIR reason) trumped what was written in the Bible's text.

Now, that's quite a contentious assertion, with some loaded premises. But in fairness to Gregg, many folks, for good reason, believe in those loaded premises and here they are: The biblical canon -- by itself and nothing more -- is God's complete, inerrant, infallible Word. This canon, moreover, clearly teaches doctrines like Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Eternal Damnation. And, one of Gregg's pet favorites, that Romans 13 and every other verse and chapter of the Bible teach unlimited submission (though not necessarily obedience) to governmental authorities.

So along come Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, Joseph Priestley, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and company -- men who called themselves "Christians," -- all of whom (except Jefferson) believed in the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (not of the 2nd person in the Trinity, but of God doing for His inferior not fully divine Son what He may one day do for all good men), men who promoted the excessive use of natural reason in religion, denying original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, and that Romans 13 demands categorical submission to government.

I understand exactly why Gregg and others sympathetic to the premises of historic Christianity (not just evangelicals, but Roman Catholics, and orthodox Anglicans) would argue this is "man's reason" trumping "revelation," even if others might dispute the analysis.


Phil Johnson said...

It seems to me that one of the problems here with this question of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus is complicated by the fact that twentieth century Christianity was struggling with the same question in the first half of the 1900s. It's a tough case to argue that Protestantism in the colonial and revolutionary-era America had settled the question for all time. That question was still being debated as it evolved into the one between the Social Gospel and Fundamentalism during the first third of the twentieth century.
Fundamentalism as a proposition of what now is considered to be The Absolute Truth by almost all Evangelicals, was the movement that settled the questions for "orthodox Christianity". I remember preachers giving sermons on the questions when I was a young boy. Check out Harvey Springer, Charles B. Fuller, Charles DeHaan, and Frank Norris, four of the avant-garde in the Fundamentalist movement during the 1920s and 30s.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This theological niggling happens all the time. All you have to do is look at Judaism, where the Orthodox don't recognize non-Orthodox conversions, or observing only some of the Mosaic laws and not all, as "not Jewish."

However, to those without a dog in the fight, sociologists or historians, they're all Jewish.

Further, Jefferson's unitarianism [which did elevate reason over revelation] was nothing like the unitarianism of the Founding era Protestant preachers, who used the Bible itself to argue against the Trinity.

To mix them all together is an error.

Luther himself monkeyed with the contents of the Bible. It's a fine tradition of the Reformation.

Still, few would argue that Luther was not "Christian."

Gregg Frazer said...

No one of whom I'm aware in this discussion has said of the deity of Jesus that "colonial and revolutionary-era America had settled the question for all time."

All I, for one, have said is that all of the significant Christian denominations in 18th-century America affirmed the deity of Jesus and considered it a fundamental core doctrine. I've never said they settled it for "all time."

And it might be more accurate to say that it was AGAIN being debated in the 20th century, as opposed to "still" being debated. Such arguments come and go.

As for Orthodox and non-Orthodox all being considered Jewish by outsiders, I don't see the relevance of that observation because I don't think the example analogous to the consensus I've put forward. There was plenty of rancorous disagreement between the various Christian denominations in 18th-century America, too. Some of those churches would also question whether other denominations were Christians based on ADDITIONAL factors BEYOND the list of core doctrines that I've noted. Take, for example, the fight between protestants and Catholics (who are both included in my chart).

For the Jewish example to be analogous, you'd have to look at the core doctrinal beliefs that both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews SHARED, those that bridged the gap between them -- such as belief in Yahweh and the laws they both agree upon. Then, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox would deny that one who doesn't hold to those SHARED, non-negotiable fundamental beliefs is Jewish. That would produce the kind of consensus that I've alluded to regarding 18th-century American Christianity.

Again: my scheme is designed to isolate who is NOT a Christian by consensus -- not who IS a Christian. Calvinist churches had a very different view than Anglicans -- but they both agreed that one who did not believe those non-negotiable doctrines was not a Christian. Catholics would have added works to what the protestants would say, but they agreed with the protestants that someone who doesn't believe in the deity of Jesus was not a Christian.

Gregg Frazer said...

All Jews, for example, believe that you are not a Jew if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah -- i.e. if you convert to Christianity. So, that would be part of a similar list of doctrines designed to identify who is NOT a Jew.

Brian Tubbs said...

Mr. Frazer writes: "...all of the significant Christian denominations in 18th-century America affirmed the deity of Jesus and considered it a fundamental core doctrine."

A very true and accurate statement. And a significant one, considering that a strong majority of America's Founding Fathers associated themselves with one of these denominations.

Brian Tubbs said...

Mr. Frazer writes: "...all of the significant Christian denominations in 18th-century America affirmed the deity of Jesus and considered it a fundamental core doctrine."

A very true and accurate statement. And a significant one, considering that a strong majority of America's Founding Fathers associated themselves with one of these denominations.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Except the unitarian Christians. And the Quakers, who put it nowhere near their core beliefs.

According to an old Quaker joke, the Holy Trinity consists of the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The analogy here to orthodox Judaism is quite apt. The orthodox argue if you don't accept [and live] every tenet of the Law, you're not Jewish. Orthodox Christians argue similarly, and they're entitled to their theological opinion. That's why there's so many Christian denominations.

Are a handful of Founders outside the orthodox ring? Certainly. And anyone outside the ring is always condemned by those inside.

I simply object to the larger thesis, that indifference to theological doctrine as a belief system [Washington, Madison, GMorris] constitutes of belief system of its own.

Most of us just don't think about it much. And a clergyman of my acquaintance once confessed privately that he struggles with the concept of the Trinity.

Such doubts and uncertainties would never bring me to call him notChristian.

Character limit exceeded. Seeya in Part 2...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Part 2:

Now then, to return to the Orthodox Jewish argument offered as evidence here

I wouldn't presume to disagree with the writer: If Judaism is the acceptance of the Mosaic Law, then those who accept only part [or none] cannot be Jewish, theologically speaking. As an outsider, I've always wondered about that argument meself. Still, sociologically speaking, I wouldn't presume to call a Reform Jew not a Jew either.

And that's my point. I have no problem [well, only a little], with Gregg's theological definition of a Christian [or as he puts it, defining what is a notChristian], and would probably join him in his views on unitarian Christianity, although it still accepted the Bible as true and from God, and largely among them, Jesus as Messiah.

But the Reformation did not "reform" the "Church," it destroyed it, at least in the Protestant sphere. Once ecclesiastical authority [read: the Roman Catholic Church's] to interpret scripture and pronounce dogma was declared null and void and the individual conscience put in its place, that Protestantism would atomize into more and more sects of atomizing theology was inevitable.

Unitarianism as non-Trinitarianism was an inevitable result, and was little different from the Arianism of Europe c. 300-500AD.

I read stuff like this

where an Episcopalian "is relieved that New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan grants her “permission to reject this text as authoritative for the Christian life.”

and think the unitarian Christians of the Founding era, even with their rejection of Jesus' divinity, have more respect for the Bible than this.

Yet, socio-historically speaking, surely we cannot call the Episcopalian Church 2009 notChristian. [Theologically, sure.]

All this derails the true inquiry, into the proposition that America was founded on Christian principles or not.

There's a small cadre [mostly Calvinist and neo-Calvinist], which denies that Christian "principles" can even exist, since they are drawn not literally from the Bible, but from the application of reason to the Bible. Such principles follow from the existence of a "natural law," God-given rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, property, etc., as well as consent of the governed and the question of by what right does one man rule another. These are surely the "core" principles of the Founding.

Christendom had been working on these questions and developing its answers that resulted in the Founding for at least 500 years. If Dr. Frazer prefers "Christendom" as a socio-historical term to "Christianity" as a theological term, we might have an understanding here.

I offer Christian "principles" only in a socio-historical sense, and although it has theological and specifically Biblical implications, I'm as willing to give Gregg as much theological leeway as I yield the aforementioned writer on "Orthodox," i.e. "true" Judaism, and what is notJudaism. As for the Episcopalians of 2009, theologically I find the unitarian Christians of the Founding era more, um, "Christian."

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"The standard that elevates reason and free inquiry over ecclesiastical authorities can deconstruct not just orthodox doctrine like original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, but the biblical canon itself. "

It is reasoned interpretation of scripture trumps traditional dogma handed down from church leaders that POSES as revelation. I think you are getting it now.

Rational Christian could simply mean:

Someone whose head is removed from his ass so he can see that Church authority is not synonomous with the "God said".

Gregg Frazer said...


Your comment illustrates the problem we're having.

IF, in identifying the religion of various founders, we go no further than looking up their denominational affiliation, then we know what "club" they belonged to, but we don't know anything about whether they were "Christians" in reality or not. To find that out, we have to look at what THEY SAID they BELIEVED -- that's what I've done.

If you want to proclaim someone a Christian on the basis of his club membership, then say: "George Washington was affiliated with the Episcopal Church." Don't say: "George Washington was a Christian" because, by the standards of the very church with which he affiliated, he was not. By the way, he didn't even claim to be -- and neither did most of them. And some who DID claim to be Christians, even Tom admits were not.

Knowing what denomination they were affiliated with tells us nothing about what they were trying to accomplish in creating this country -- which is what we're trying to understand.