Ah yes, deism and natural religion. At the turn of the 18th-century a small group of thinkers, including the Earl of Shaftsbury, began writing about how natural philosophy (science) could be used to investigate the nature and workings of God. This was coined natural religion. Their approach was to replace Christianity with natural religion. It pretty much petered out around the middle of the 18th-century. It’s demise was helped out in no small measure by the writings of Joseph Butler and David Hume. Hume attacked the idea of using rational or empirical methods (science) to investigate religion.
Theistic rationalism is a term for which there is no conceptual correspondence in the time period Dr Fraser is writing. Along with the demise of deistic rationalism was rationalism itself. The empiricist (Locke, Berkely, Hume) had shown that truth cannot be discovered on the basis of reason alone. Information must first be established based on experiment and observation prior to the use of reason. The concept of theistic rationalism, which is supposed to have risen out of the ashes of deistic rationalism, has simply no foundation. Rationalism had lost out to empiricism.
This use of the term ‘reason’ is a bit sloppy. Let’s bring some rigor to the subject. I obtained my definition of reason from “A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names” Reason: The intellectual ability to apprehend [understand] the truth cognitively, either immediately in intuition, or by means of a process of inference. Inference: The relationship that holds between the premises and the conclusion of a logical argument, or the process of drawing a conclusion from premises that support it deductively or inductively.
Thus reason is a process by which truth is revealed. Revelation is an event by which truth is revealed. You can oppose an event to another event. Or, you can oppose a process by another process. But you cannot oppose a processes to an event. They are not the same type of thing. Not can a process determine what is legitimate. Reasoning requires a first principle which can only be accepted as true. It cannot be rationally determined. Since reasoning is a dialectical process, one begins with a first principle and a comparison happens between it and opposing ideas with a view to resolving the opposition. What is critical here is first principles. With any process the quality of what goes in determines the quality of what comes out (garbage in – garbage out). Dr Fraser, on the other hand, seems to want to use the term as a magic wand by which whatever you touch truth is revealed.
1 Deism and natural religion died out around the middle of 18th century. Natural religion was a spent force.
3. “Theistic rationalism”, as a concept, doesn’t seem to exist in the second half of the 18th century. Also, it is not likely that “theistic rationalism” rose from the ashes of “deistic rationalism.”
4. Reason is not a magic wand that whatever it touches turns to the truth.
Knapton's major factual premises are, as an historical matter, wrong. Hume, an atheist, may well have "attacked the idea of using rational or empirical methods (science) to investigate religion." But the fact is Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and many other notable founders as well as many divines and philosophers of the age believed that man's reason discovers substantive truth including, and importantly religious truths. [Hume, in fact, attacked other ideas which America's founders held central, for instance Locke's notion of the state of nature, which was one of the most central tenets of America's founding thought].
Reason may well be a "process" and indeed, our modern minds may believe, after Hume, that reason needs first facts from which to proceed and can discover no substantive moral, religious or philosophical truths of its own. But America's key founders believed Nature (with a capital "N"), not the Bible, was the substance from which man's reason discovers moral, philosophical, and religious truth. Indeed, by looking to Nature, man's reason could discover substantive truth wholly UNAIDED by scripture. The Deists argued none of the Bible was inspired and man, using reason, could look to nature ONLY. Orthodox Christians believed that God primarily revealed Himself through scripture, and that whatever truths reason discovers on its own, revelation trumps reason. The theistic rationalists like Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and others believed God primarily revealed Himself through Nature, only partially inspired the Bible and as such reason was the ultimate arbiter for discovering substantive truth, including what is legitimate revelation from God.
There may well be epistemological "problems" with this theology. And indeed, I know that Dr. Frazer, as an orthodox evangelical Christian, doesn't personally agree with it. Let's not forget that first and foremost we are trying to determine what Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams believed, not whether they were right. Indeed, if one proceeds with a religious belief that, for instance, because America's founding was divinely inspired, the key founders had to have been real Christians and right on theological matters, one's understanding of the matter is likely to be clouded, especially if the facts don't neatly line up with one's preexisting beliefs.
Anyway, here is some of the evidence that at the very least Adams, Jefferson and Franklin believed God revealed Himself primarily through Nature, only partially inspired the Bible and thus man's reason supersedes revelation as the ultimate determiner of Truth.
To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.
-- John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson's, "The Founders on Religion," p. 132.
Writing in 1735, Ben Franklin made clear that "natural religion" -- what man discovers through reason -- was in fact the first revelation of God to man. And that revealed religion -- what's written in the Bible -- is secondary and functions to support the findings of reason.
Now that natural Religion, or that the Laws of our Nature oblige us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of, and to do every thing we know he requires; and that the same Laws oblige us to the Love of Mankind, and in consequence of this Love, as well as of our Love to God, (because he requires these things of us) to do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures...What Hemphill means by the first Revelation which God made to us by the Light of Nature, is the Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality, which are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering it's natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them.
Notice how Franklin positions scripture as secondary revelation, with "reason" or "the light of nature" as the primary revelation God gave man:
Now, that to promote the Practice of the great Laws of Morality and Virtue both with Respect to God and Man, is the main End and Design of the christian Revelation has been already prov'd from the Revelation itself. And indeed as just now hinted at, it is obvious to the Reason of every thinking Person, that, if God almighty gives a Revelation at all, it must be for this End; nor is the Truth of the christian Revelation, or of any other that ever was made, to be defended upon any other Footing. But quitting these things; if the above Observations be true, then where lies the Absurdity of Hemphill's asserting,
That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.
Also note how Franklin terms his beliefs, "Christianity." As Dr. Frazer has noted, what he terms "theistic rationalism" often presented itself under the auspices of "Christianity." But key tenets of such belief system -- that Jesus wasn't God, that God primarily revealed Himself through Nature (discovered by man's reason) and secondarily through a partially inspired Bible, and that other non-Christian religions are valid -- arguably disqualifies it from the label "Christian."
As to the Bible being only partially inspired, Franklin made clear this is what he believed when he said,
that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole.
Many notable divines preached these principles from the pulpit during the founding era including Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel West, and Ebenezer Gay. I blogged about one of West's sermons, preached in 1776. West notes, by looking solely at Nature, reason discovers substantive God given rules and elevates those discoveries to the same level as the Bible.
Now, whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is as much the will and law of God as though it were enjoined us by an immediate revelation from heaven, or commanded in the sacred Scriptures.
He then treads dangerously on denying the infallibility of the Bible and elevating reason over revelation:
A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself,--a thing in the strictest sense impossible, for that which implies contradiction is not an object of the divine power.
Here we actually see West setting up one substantive system of rules -- those discovered from reason -- against another -- those contained in Bible. And he states, in the event of a conflict, reason trumps. This is important because West "discovers" a substantive right to revolt, not from the Bible (because one isn't contained therein) but, following Locke, from "reason" or the natural law.
West actually has to deal with those parts of scripture which seem to forbid a right to revolt, and he does so like a true cafeteria Christian, explaining away parts of the Bible he finds "inconvenient." On Romans 13, West ends up concluding "that the apostle Paul, instead of being a friend to tyranny and arbitrary government, turns out to be a strong advocate for the just rights of mankind...." Or in other words, Paul really meant we do have a right to revolt against the magistrate, the opposite of what he said. Do keep in mind that the ruler to whom Paul told believers to obey was not some "godly" ruler, but the pagan psychopath Nero. West addresses that point:
I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero's reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,-- I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.
The first point -- the epistle was written during the beginning of Nero's reign when he was "nicer," not towards the end when he was a tyrant -- strikes me as invoking hair splitting context to reach a desired result, not unlike the way some gay Christians and Jews, who claim the Bible really isn't against homosexuality, conclude things like the Bible permits gay men to have oral sex because that is not "lying with a man," or that even if they did "lie with mankind," and commit an "abomination," that term means "ritual impurity," and is more like eating shellfish or the mixing of fabrics.
The second point -- if Paul said this when Nero was indeed acting tyrannical, he must not have meant it! -- shows West's willingness to disregard scripture that disagrees with reason.
Finally, as noted, West, like America's founders and many other pro-revolutionary preachers followed Locke. And Mr. Knapton misunderstands Locke's teachings. Locke did indeed conclude that "reason" discovers substantive truth, including substantive religious truth. Indeed Locke based his entire substantive theory of "the state of nature" (which theory was both wholly extra-biblical, and key to American founding philosophy) on "the law of nature" which Locke equated with reason. In his Two Treatises, Locke informs “The State of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason...is that law....”