Thursday, August 26, 2010

Conyers Middleton, Progenitor of Theistic Rationalism

Another repost to The One Best Way here.


jimmiraybob said...

The biggest drawback I see to the term "theistic rationalism" is that it misses a key element of both the Enlightenment(s) and the American founding.

A fairly standard definition of rationalism:

• (n) (philosophy) the doctrine that knowledge is acquired by reason without resort to experience)
• (n) (the theological doctrine that human reason rather than divine revelation establishes religious truth)
• (n) freethinking (the doctrine that reason is the right basis for regulating conduct)

This passage in Jefferson’s letter to his nephew [Peter Carr (Aug 12, 1787)]easily illustrates an added dimension to what is commonly refereed to as reason trumping revelation leading up to and during the founding.

“But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?”

It is not just reason/rationalism alone that trumped revelation it was reason informed by reliance on environmental observation (empiricism), methodological/philosophical naturalism (exclusion of supernatural causes or agency), laws of nature (accumulation of empirical, tested data), and the law of probabilities (mathematics) – (i.e., science).

As it is, I see a spectrum from "theistic rationalism" to "naturalistic rationalism" present at and since the founding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, you're referring to "empiricism," which includes a priori reasoning, as opposed to rationalism, which rejects it. Locke was the former: logic could formulate truths that are not just simply the result of observation [a posteriori].

Rationalism rejects miracles, since it has never seen any; Locke and John Adams explicitly allowed for them.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Rationalism rejects miracles, since it has never seen any."

Should that be; "Epiricism rejects miracles, since it has never seen any."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oooops. Thx, Ben. Pre-coffee mental typo.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Either interpret revelation to accord with the findings of man’s reason, or discard any revelation that doesn’t accord with reason as false or corrupted.

I'm not sure that's how they understood themselves. The unitarian argument was that the Trinity was a misreading of the Bible, an errant doctrine without true Biblical foundation.

This premise of a fallible, partially inspired Bible that must submit to the test of reason “paved the way for a theistic rationalist [Thomas Jefferson] with a pair of scissors to determine for himself what portions of the Bible were legitimately from God….”

I've seen no evidence Jefferson even thought it was "partially" inspired. I'm not sure the rest of these reputed "theistic rationalists" had the audacity to use his method, of taking it upon themselves to recreate the Biblical canon.

This looks interesting, but I haven't gone through it:

Basically , the great proliferation of Protestant made it impractical for any one of them to define "orthodoxy." The link cites Middleton, and Jefferson in support, that even the Trinity was not always Christian orthodoxy.

And so, "tolerance" becomes a practical matter:

"From the dissensions among sects themselves arises necessarily a right of chusing and necessity of deliberating to which we will conform, but if we chuse for ourselves, we must allow others to chuse also . . . This establishes religious liberty."---Jefferson