Sunday, January 26, 2020

Frazer's Defense Continued

Dr. Gregg Frazer emailed me his next installment defending his thesis contra Mark David Hall's.
In Chapter 2, Mark rightfully says that “it is necessary to consider the ideas that influenced the civic leaders who drafted and ratified the document [the Constitution].”  He is also rightfully critical of Matthew Stewart’s silly book claiming that Spinoza was a dominating influence.  
In order to try to support his claim that “the founders drew heavily from Christian ideas when they crafted America’s constitutional order,” he must try to prove that the claim that “the Constitution’s framers were influenced by rationalist, Enlightenment ideas” is “overstated and misleading.”  In order to do that, he must try to discount and diminish John Locke’s influence.  
Re Locke’s influence: his first argument is that Locke’s works were not readily available in America and, particularly, “The Second Treatise was not published in America until 1773 ….” In my review, that’s what I report that he says – so I don’t see how that’s inaccurate.  I add that he argues that despite the fact that the Bible was not printed in English in America until 1782 (that’s a fact; you can look it up), it was all-important.  I note that Elisha Williams based a sermon on the teachings of “the celebrated Mr. Lock” in 1744 – so he was already considered to be “celebrated” by then and that references to Locke are ubiquitous throughout the period.  Those are also facts.  
His second anti-Lockean influence argument is that, despite Locke being cited “with some regularity” in the 1760s and 1770s, Donald Lutz’s study shows that the Bible was “referenced far more often than [Locke’s] works.”  More on Lutz’s report on the Bible’s relative influence on the Constitution later.  In my review, I point out that Mark does not mention that, according to Lutz’s study, there were more Locke citations than to all Reformed thinkers combined and that Locke is mentioned in 19 of the 28 pages of Lutz’s chapter on important influences. Those are facts; I don’t see the inaccuracy.  Whether or not such enumerations are valuable evidence is debatable, but the key points here are: a) Mark presents such counts as valid evidence and b) Mark claims that Reformed thought was dominant.  By Mark’s standards of evidence, Lutz’s work actually shows that Locke is very influential and more influential than all the Reformers.  
Regarding Lutz’s study and the Bible’s relative influence: Mark reports that the study shows that 34% of all citations between 1760 and 1805 are to the Bible, while only 2.9% are to Locke.  There are some significant issues involved in Mark’s convenient reporting.  In this section of the book, which is about influences on the drafting, crafting, and ratification of the Constitution, Mark cites the numbers for the whole 45-years period, but does not mention this clarification by Lutz regarding “the pattern of citations surrounding the debate on the U.S. Constitution.”  Concerning the Constitution, Lutz says: “The Bible’s prominence disappears” and “the Federalists’ inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.”  And: “The debate surrounding the adoption of the Constitution was fought out mainly in the context of Montesquieu, Blackstone, the English Whigs, and major writers of the Enlightenment.”  Unfortunately, I didn’t have room to present this evidence in the review.  
In the review, I suggest that these types of citation counts are problematic for a number of reasons.  First, merely counting the number of references is not a valid determiner of “influence,” “especially when the bulk of Bible references are simply illustrations, aphorisms, or statements taken out of context to support a concept that the Bible does not teach.”  As I note in the review, Satan quotes the Bible for his own purposes, but that hardly indicates its influence on him.  Second, Lutz explains that “positive and negative citations” are counted without distinction.  So, without evaluating all of them, one cannot simply “lump” them together and call them “influence.”   
I conclude this section of the review by pointing out that “the key for a Christian is not how many times the Bible is referenced, but how it is referenced.”  Rabid and reflexive critics of whatever I say would accuse me of claiming to know what the mysterious and incomprehensible Bible says, but I point out in the review that Mark himself admits that they took passages out of context – including the specific example I give.  I didn’t have word room in the review to include examples from Patriot preachers in which they admitted that they took passages out of context to make their own point that they admitted the Bible was not making.  [You can read those in my book God Against the Revolution]

Friday, January 24, 2020

Clarifying My Position on Categorizing America's Founders' Religious Beliefs

I have ordered Mark David Hall's new book and look forward to reading it. Let me say word about the dispute between Drs. Hall and Gregg Frazer on the categorization of terms to describe America's founders' religious creed and creeds.

We have "smoking gun" evidence that J. Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were not "orthodox Trinitarian Christians" and flunk the Athanasian test for what it means to be a mere "Christian."

There is also smoking gun evidence that a great deal of founders who tend to be more "2nd tier" were orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

My position is that the standard of scrutiny we apply in order to categorize a founder in a particular religious box is so strict that no one is entitled to a "default" position -- like "they were all Christians" (meaning to some/many "orthodox") except for a handful like Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin and a few lesser founders who were even more "deistic" than those three (Paine, Allen, etc.).

So take someone like John Marshall, an important and notable founding founder. But not a first tier "key" Founder like the first five Presidents, Franklin and Hamilton, etc. If you knew only a surface amount about him, you'd see that like a statistical majority of the Founders, he was an Anglican-Episcopalian. So if you wanted to fill in the details about what he "really" believed, you might look to the creeds, confessions and official positions of said church and make your categorizations accordingly.

But that would be wrong. That's a lazy error that those who are sympathetic to a traditional conservative Christian founding are likely to follow. It's just as wrong as the "they were all deists" or even concluding they were all the hybrid religion (whatever we call it).

The truth is we really don't know what a particular founder believed until we do the detective work. And when we do so for Marshall, this is what we discover.

From his daughter:
The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church.
And another quotation from U.S. Senator and former Maryland Governor William Pinkney Whyte:
He was a constant and liberal contributor to the support of the Episcopal Church. 
He never doubted the fact of the Christian revelation, but he was not convinced of the fact of the divinity of Christ till late in life. 
Then, after refusing privately to commune, he expressed a desire to do so publicly, and was ready and willing to do so when opportunity should be had. The circumstances of his death only forbade it ... 
He was never professedly Unitarian, and he had no place in his heart for either an ancient or a modern agnosticism.
And as we know, fellow Anglican/Episcopalian George Washington systematically avoided communion as well. Was it because he had a religious creed similar to Marshall's? I suspect so, but would admit, it's not a "smoking gun." It's certainly on the table of plausibility.

Finally, we can note that this creed isn't "strict deism." It believes in the Christian revelation and a special place for Jesus, even if it does not affirm Jesus' full divinity. In terms of what to call it and whether such qualifies as "Christianity" I will let others judge and decide.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Frazer Defends His Review

Gregg Frazer email me a defense of his review of Mark David Hall's new book. The defense is against charges of inaccuracy.

The prosecutor is apparently unwilling to present his case – other than repeatedly to declare my guilt.  But I wish to be acquitted of the charge of “inaccuracy,” so I will present some of my defense – defense of what I said in the review and of some of what I couldn’t include in the review because of word limits by the publisher.  
We’ve already discussed my claim that Mark doesn’t recognize alternatives regarding the founders besides deism and Christianity (of some sort).  As far as I can see, the only place in the text in which another option is mentioned is pages XXVI and XXVII – but neither of these refers to founders.  Non-Christians are mentioned, but distinguished from the founders. Mark’s text says: “There were few non-Christians in late eighteenth-century America, but there were some, and most of America’s founders were convinced that the right of these non-Christians to believe and act according to the dictates of their consciences must be protected.” [my italics]  Then Washington’s famous letter to the Jews of Newport is quoted to show that Washington believed in religious freedom for non-Christian Jews.  The possibility of founders themselves being non-Christians is never suggested; they are depicted only as acting for others who are non-Christians.  
By the way, Mark claims that Washington’s use of his favorite “fig tree” reference shows that “Washington’s faith influenced his political beliefs and actions ….” [my italics]  But there is no “influence” of faith here – Washington employs a reference to relate to his audience – to illustrate or ellicit support. This is the way a number of founders used the Bible – simply for illustration or as aphorisms.  How does the fig tree reference influence Washington – to do what?  Furthermore: Part of GW’s letter says that “the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction” – but the law of God given to the Israelites did give sanction to bigotry in the 18th-century sense of the word (i.e. specific belief). God commanded them to punish heretics; so in this statement, the U.S. system is actually distinguished from the biblical system that God established.  Furthermore, in Washington’s statement, he expresses an expectation that God will make “us all … everlastingly happy.”  Does the Bible teach that God will make Christians and Jews (as such) alike happy in the after-life – or only those who confess Christ?  
On page 7, in arguing that they weren’t deists, Mark says regarding Washington, Madison, and Hamilton: “Yet, to my knowledge, no writer has ever produced a public or private journal entry, letter, or essay showing that these men rejected Christianity ….”  That’s a fair challenge to those who say they were deists.  Here’s my question: has anyone produced a public or private journal entry showing that these men affirmed the fundamentals of Christianity (deity of Christ; atoning work of Christ as satisfaction for our sins; justification by faith alone; resurrection; inspiration and authority of the Scriptures) – at least until Hamilton’s deathbed profession?  If it’s a fair challenge to those claiming a deist founding, isn’t that a fair challenge to Mark, who claims a Christian founding?  
On page 9, Mark cites John Marshall’s testimony that Washington was “a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man”; and on pg. 31, he quotes Marshall’s statement that in America “Christianity and religion are identified.”  But Mark only reports half of Marshall’s sentence; the first half is: “The American population is entirely Christian” [pg. 611 in Mark’s Sacred Rights].  Clearly Marshall had a very generous notion or definition of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian. It may fit Mark’s definition – we don’t know because he doesn’t give us one – but it is so broad and inclusive as to have no meaning at all. On this basis, what is the significance of Mark’s overall claim that America had a Christian founding?  Is it simply a claim that it was founded by Americans? Of course, Marshall’s statement also flies in the face of the reality of the Jewish congregation that Washington addressed.  Marshall is a problematic witness providing problematic evidence. 
In the section on the use of “God-words” by founders (11-15), Mark reminds us that orthodox Christians also used such words – even in the Westminster Standards.  That is true, but not the central point made by people like me who, like Mark, do not believe the founders were deists.  The distinguishing thing about the use of “God-words” by certain of the founders (those I call theistic rationalists) is that those were the only terms they used for God – that they used those terms IN PLACE OF biblical terms.  The Westminster Standards have dozens if not hundreds of references to biblical terms for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Theistic rationalists used “God-words” in place of such biblical terms.  The exception, of course, is that they used “creator” – but virtually everyone, including deists, believed in a creator prior to Darwin.  The question then becomes: Who is this creator God?  What is His nature?  How do we know?   
Another “God-word” issue is what they meant by the terms they used.  “Providence” is a particularly problematic term, as it was used by Christians, deists, and theistic rationalists alike, with each meaning something different. For some, “providence” was an impersonal force; for some, it was the religious equivalent of fate.  In fact, theistic rationalists (inc. Washington) sometimes used the impersonal pronoun “it” to refer to providence.  Gouverneur Morris, for example, used impersonal pronouns for providence and once said that “fortune” was “but another name for Providence.”  
The question isn’t whether Christians ever used “God-words,” but whether theistic rationalists ever used biblical terms for God – especially Jesus (the central/distinguishing person in Christianity).  
The fact that the Declaration’s references to “God-words” (in place of biblical terms) would have been “quite acceptable to Reformed Americans in 1776” merely demonstrates how artfully Jefferson wrote the document.  He used generic language that would bring maximum support.  Christians could read Christian content into it (as people still do today); deists could read deist content into it; theistic rationalists could read their preferred content into it – even Jews could read Jewish content into it.  It does not point distinctly or specifically to Christianity in any way.  
Mark phrases his conclusion of this section cleverly.  He says that “Jefferson may have believed in a vague, distant Deity” but that his fellow delegates “understood that ‘Nature’s God,’ ‘Creator,’ and ‘Providence’ referred to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” [my emphasis]   The word “understood” following identification of an author implies that they understood and agreed with what the author meant.  But Mark here is actually saying that they replaced Jefferson’s understanding of who God is with their own.  Their “understanding” was not that God was vague and distant, but a God (as Mark concludes) “who is active in the affairs of men and nations.”  It’s a clever construction on Mark’s part because he makes it appear that Jefferson’s view and the view of others was identical – but it was not (in the case of those who believed in the Old Testament God).  That’s another issue: to identify God as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is a clever way for Mark to refer to the God of Christianity without any specific or distinctive Christian element.  Why not “the Triune God of Christianity” – since his claim is that they were creating a Christian nation? 
Mark’s need to “lump” in everyone who believes in a God who is active in the affairs of men and nations as some sort of Christian leads directly into his complete mischaracterization of my concept of theistic rationalism as “a definition of deism” (15).  He knows better. I’ve contributed chapters to two books he has edited in which I explain exactly – in detail – what theistic rationalism was and I explain – at length, with evidence – the differences between it and deism and Christianity.  He knows the term was chosen to emphasize its distinction from deism (the definitive multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary notes that “theism” was a term used in the 18th century specifically to contrast with deism).  
In Mark’s brief description of deism, he says the “critical” point is that “deists did not think God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.”  That and criticism of Christianity are the two elements of deism that he refers to over and over again.  Two of several ways in which theistic rationalists differed from deists is that they: a) believed in an active, present God who intervenes in the affairs of men and nations and b) they were more favorable to Christianity than deists – even sharing some Christian beliefs.  But Mark must “lump” theistic rationalism in with deism because he wants to say or suggest that certain founders were some sort of Christian without providing any evidence (which doesn’t exist) that they actually believed in Christian doctrines.  The way to do that is to posit a bipolar religious world of deists and Christians and show that they were not deists.  If there’s a third, middle option, he would be forced to provide positive evidence for their Christianity.  So he must discredit that third middle option, theistic rationalism, by relegating it to a branch of deism.  As I mentioned, I experienced this on the other side when a conservative figure urged me for political reasons to say that theistic rationalism was a branch of Christianity.  That should tell people not familiar with my evidence that theistic rationalism is not any kind of deism.  I expected better from Mark.  
On pages 16 and 17, Mark argues again for an outsized Reformed influence on the founding.  After dismissing Washington’s, Jefferson’s, and Madison’s Anglicanism in one sentence, he admits that Adams was the only member of a “Reformed church” in this group.  This leads to an example of the problem with relying too heavily on denominational identification.  He also concedes that Adams “moved rapidly toward Unitaritianism” – but he does not mention that Adams’s church officially turned Unitarian in 1750 (when Adams was just 15 years old)!  Adams’s church was not Reformed in its theology – only in its denominational name.  So it wasn’t really Reformed.  Was it the only such church?  
Mark then lays out estimates of how many Calvinist churches and colonists there were – but these superficial identifications do not tell us anything about the spiritual condition of those churches or their parishioners. He says – without evidence – that the Americans in these churches “are unrepresented” by the founders usually discussed and that those founders “constitute an unrepresentative sample.”  First, how does he know that?  Evidence?  Does he know how many of these externally identified “Reformed” churches still held to Reformed views?  Adams shared nearly exactly the same religious views as Jefferson (he said so), but he was a member of one of these “Reformed” churches.  How can one make the kind of generalization that Mark makes?  
More importantly, the discussion is about America’s founding.  The vast majority of Americans had nothing to do with that.  Even if they were paying attention, clever men such as Jefferson and Adams could keep them content with generically-phrased declarations or pious-languaged declarations of thanksgiving that helped to smoke out Loyalists, but had no lasting impact on the form of government.  Mark says these eight were unrepresentative and, on the next page, says that “there were not many elite Anglicans in America.”  But 36 OF THE 55 framers were NOT from “REFORMED” churches and 29 OF THE 55 framers were … ANGLICANS!  Whatever the religious identification of the populace, a majority of the guys who actually “founded” the country were Anglicans.  Of course, we don’t know what most of them actually believed – as Mark rightly points out.  He warns that we “should be careful not to read too much into this lack of evidence.”  He needs to take his own advice and not assume EITHER that these founders embraced deism OR that they embraced Christianity!  
Mark concludes that “it is obviously bad social science and bad history to generalize the views of the founders as a whole from the views of a few unrepresentative elites.” I agree. That works two ways; one should not make broad claims the other way, either.  That’s why in my book, I argue only that the eight guys I studied in depth were theistic rationalists; I don’t try to claim that “America had a theistic rationalist founding.”  I would add, however, that these “few unrepresentative elites” were the actual people who did the founding, so one might be on more solid ground to claim that influence.  A majority of them were NOT Reformed.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Trump Invokes Jefferson

For Religious Freedom Day. This was on January 15, 2020. A taste:
Religious freedom in America, often referred to as our “first freedom,” was a driving force behind some of the earliest defining moments of our American identity.  The desire for religious freedom impelled the Pilgrims to leave their homes in Europe and journey to a distant land, and it is the reason so many others seeking to live out their faith or change their faith have made America their home. 
More than 230 years ago, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was authored and championed by Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson famously expounded that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”  This statute served as the catalyst for the First Amendment, which enshrined in law our conviction to prevent government interference in religion.  More than 200 years later, thanks to the power of that Amendment, America is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world.
Very nice. Now, I wonder who wrote this for the President. (Not that this is uncommon, from George Washington onwards, Presidents have had speech and other writers.)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Dialog Continues

There is an interesting dialog going on between, among others, two accomplished scholars -- Drs. Gregg Frazer and Mark David Hall -- in the American Creation comments section. Just how "Christian" was the American founding? And as usual the question of whether it's ever acceptable to "revolt" in the face of Romans 13 (which text prohibits revolt!) remains in the background.

Let me clarify my position on this: From a fideist, and especially "fundamentalist" perspective, the Tory loyalists were correct. But even if one believes in the natural law, that still doesn't necessarily get you around Romans 13's prohibition on revolution.

Many of the Tory loyalist for whom Dr. Frazer argues in his recent book, weren't fideists. They were Anglicans and as such, their theology incorporated Richard Hooker's natural law teachings. One could easily argue that a traditional understanding of the natural law doesn't get you around Romans 13 either.

But I do think you can get a *Christian* case for the American revolution and founding, ONLY if there is a natural right component to it. Or, at least, I have a hard time seeing how you can make an exegetical or sound theological case for such without natural law/natural rights.

What we discover is that you are either reliant on the more modern John Locke's or the scholastics' -- whether Catholic or Protestant -- doctrines of natural right. As Dave Kopel has noted:
A Huguenot using the pen-name Marcus Junius Brutus (the Roman Senator who assassinated Julius Caesar) went further with the 1579 book "Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos" ("Vindication Against Tyrants"). "Vindiciae" was organized like a Catholic Scholastic treatise. Like the other Geneva writers, Brutus owed a great debt to Catholic thought on the subject of Just Revolution.
And for the record, there is much more John Locke in the founding era sermons.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Frazer Reviews Hall

A taste:
Evidential Errors Abound  
Hall argues that Calvinism’s teaching concerning total depravity and sin caused the founders to embrace separation of powers, checks and balances, limited government, and federalism. But the founders actually saw man as an alloy of virtue and vice. Madison said the good and virtuous qualities in man are present “in a higher degree” than man’s bad qualities and that self-government can’t work unless that is true (Federalist #55).  
Hall regularly uses the words “sin” and “sinful” in relation to the founders’ views in this area, but they didn’t use the Christian or Calvinist word “sin,” preferring less judgmental words such as “weakness” and “venality.” The founders didn’t cite the Bible or Calvin when making these arguments and establishing institutions based on them. When not crediting Montesquieu, they cited “history” and “the least fallible guide”: experience.  
In 1744, Elisha Williams based a sermon on the teachings of John Locke, calling him (already by that time) “the celebrated Mr. Lock.” References to Locke are ubiquitous throughout the period. Hall argues Locke wasn’t influential, largely because his work wasn’t printed in America until 1773. But Hall argues the Bible was all-important—despite not being printed in English in America until 1782! It’s not clear why a reference to Locke must come from an edition published in America in order to indicate influence. Hall doesn’t mention that, according to Lutz’s authoritative study, there were more Locke citations than to all Reformed thinkers combined, and that Locke is mentioned in 19 of the 28 pages in Lutz’s chapter on influences.