Saturday, September 17, 2011

Warren Throckmorton on David Barton and Unitarianism

WT has been doing some great work analyzing and commenting on Barton's theories. See his latest.

He quotes Barton:

We have the same thing when you look at Quakers. You see Quakers were founded by William Penn in Pennsylvania. I’ll lay you odds there’s no chance that William Penn would be a Quaker today, even in the denomination he founded, he would not be a part of. We look at it the way it is today and say it must have been the way they were back then.

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

As Throckmorton notes, Penn didn't found Quakerism, George Fox did.

This is a comment I left there:

The idea that Unitarians (of the Founding era) can’t be Christians is not modernism; it’s orthodoxy.

Founding era Unitarianism (I term it “unitarianism” and leave the “u” uncapitalized because the unitarianism of the Founding era — mid to late 18th Century — usually wasn’t an official denomination, but a theology) defined itself by disbelieving in the Trinity. They identified and understood themselves to be “Christians.” It was the orthodox of that era and of today who claim, no, you must believe in the Trinity to be a “mere Christian” (as CS Lewis would term it).

I think the kernel of Truth in Barton’s claim might be the unitarians of the Founding era weren’t quite like today’s UUs. They were quite theistic, devout and very often biblical.

In this sense, they may be more like today’s Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Non-Trinitarians, but nonetheless very devout and theistic. Though the Founding era unitarians were also very rationalistic, “enlightened” and “liberal” for their day.

Though I am starting to see some consistency in Barton’s understanding of Christian minimums. If non-Trinitarians like Mormons can qualify as “Christians,” so too can many if not most of the Founding era unitarian Christians.


jimmiraybob said...

I am starting to see some consistency in Barton’s understanding of Christian minimums.

As has been said so many times, Barton is a political activist. His interest is in building as large a political coalition-constituency as possible. A too narrow definition of "Christian" minimizes his efforts to maximize his mailing list.

It is good to see more Christians taking the faith back.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Great point.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It is good to see more Christians taking the faith back.

---Great point.

This is a little weird coming from 2 people neither of whom I take to be subscribers to Christianity, orthodox or otherwise.

As in, gee, it's really good to see the Sunnis theologically fighting back against the Sufis, which isn't real Islam atall.

Usually, those without a dog in the fight favor a mild ecumenicalism, as in, stop the theological niggling, can't we all get along?

That some sects are splitting over homosexuality, which is explicitly condemned in the Bible, would hardly elicit the response, it's good to see more Christians taking the faith back.

If one chooses to deconstruct David Barton the person and public figure, it's not unfair to say that as a conservative-GOP activist, his interest is definitely in an ecumenical smoothing-over of differences.

This of course denies him any possibility that he's saying what he actually believes, or that his theologico-political thesis is true.

I personally share it; the unitarian Christians of the founding era believed in the Bible as Divine writ; by contrast, 2011's successor church, Unitarian Universalism, does not. [Theism is even optional, let alone the Bible.] And I'm not ready to brand the non-creedal Stone-Campbell movement, specifically the Disciples of Christ who hold Trinitarianism as optional, to be "non-Christian." [Just as I wouldn't brand denominations that have theologically worked their way toward a toleration of homosexuality or ordaining female bishops as "non-Christian."]

Certainly Mormonism and many of the "American" sects with latter-day prophets [Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy] present a stretching of the envelope. Jon notes well here the Jehovah's Witnesses as well, another theologically problematic group. But Christian Scientists* have Christian in their name, and that's close enough for theologico-political rock'n'roll.

I have no more opinion on them than I do on Sufism. Looks Muslim enough to me. If they want to squabble about it, that's their business.


* Wiki: "Christian Science differs from conventional Abrahamic theology as it regards God as both Father and Mother. This does not refer to any anthropomorphic characteristics, but to a concept of God that has qualities traditionally considered feminine (gentleness, compassion, nurturing and so on) and qualities traditionally considered masculine (strength, support, protection etc.). According to Christian Science, every person in their true spiritual selfhood as created in God's image or as God's reflection, embodies these qualities as well.
While some Christian Science teachings are unorthodox from the point of view of conventional Christian theology (as in the rejection of substitutionary atonement and of Hell as a place of eternal punishment), others are orthodox (acceptance of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus). Christian Science is presented as a resurgence of primitive Christianity as a demonstrable scientific system."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well as far as I'm concerned with Barton...I'm driven by irony and consistency. So I like what I see. I like what he is doing in intimating that Glenn Beck and theological unitarians are "Christians" and will not attack him for it (though I will hold his feet to the fire and to make sure he represents things accurately which in terming them "evangelicals" I'm not sure he is); but I also like the reaction among the evangelicals who are now trying to distance themselves from him.

If Barton converted to Mormonism....Now that would make my day.

Phil Johnson said...

After most of it is said and done, Barton is a political activist He was head of the Republican Party in Texas--that's almost as radical as the far right can get.
As such, it is in his interest to bring as many people in under the Big Tent of Politics as he can squeeze in. He is a zealot. He's more than apt to include almost anyone who will vote Republican given the chance.