Tuesday, March 14, 2006

More on Novak on Washington's God:

Novak reacts to some early reviews. He stresses the same points which I reacted to in an earlier post on the matter:

The reviewer in the Sun gave several reasons why Washington was probably not a Christian, but so did we -- in fact, we gave the very same ones the reviewer offered as his own, and several more to boot. We never supposed we could prove that Washington was a Christian -- not from what he wrote, at least. But we did conclude that, taken altogether, the evidence from his life favored the claim that he was. So we laid out all the evidence we could find, pro and con, and argued for our conclusion.

What we did prove, and quite conclusively, is that Washington cannot be called a Deist -- at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian.

It's the same Christian v. Deist box. As I've noted before, in all likelihood, Washington believed in the same natural theology in which Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Adams believed. Simply pointing out repeatedly that Washington invoked a warm intervening Providence does not come close to establishing Washington's orthodoxy given that each of the above mentioned Founders, including Franklin who never referred to himself as anything other than a Deist, likewise invoked an interventionist God.

As to whether, given the tenets of the natural theology, its adherents (our key Founders) may be properly deemed "Christian," all depends on how we define that term. Certainly, Jefferson and Adams referred to themselves as Christian, while advancing this heterodox Enlightenment-influenced creed.

What are the tenets of such a creed?

1) Belief in an all powerful, warm intervening Providence;

2) Disbelief in the Trinity, belief that Jesus was not God, but a great moral teacher;

3) Disbelief in Eternal Damnation, belief that upon death, the good experience eternal happiness, and the bad are temporarily punished, but the eventual redemption of all men;

4) Disbelief in the inerrancy of Revelation; and

5) Belief in Man's Reason, as opposed to Biblical Revelation, as the ultimate discerner of Truth.

Note, this system doesn't categorically reject the Truth in all Revelation, but rather Man's Reason is the filter for determining what Revelation is legitimate, and what should be regarded as corrupted.

Now, whether this theology qualifies as "Christian" -- and indeed many its adherents were members of professing Christian churches, and Adams and Jefferson, whose writings confirm each and every one of the above tenets, called themselves "Christian" -- is a matter of debate. But it looks to me that this creed is much closer to modern so-called "cafeteria Christianity" than the type of traditional orthodox Christianity posited by those who wish to claim the Founders as "Christians."

Finally, if any publication wants to send me an advance copy of Novak's book (I'll buy it when it comes out) for review, let me know.


DSH said...

"Disbelief in the inerrancy of Revelation" -- huh? I not sure with negative is last.

What is normative Christianity? To answer this, one must acknowledge two currents in the river: (1) Apostolicity, (2) Evangelicalism.

Prior to 15th C., only Apostolic tradition existed in the form of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The synergistic hallmarks of this river, in decending order of importance, are (i) episcopal collegiality, (ii) consensus of the faithful, (iii) venerable tradtion, and (iv) scripture. The synergy of these interrelated facets is normative, and credalism (works informed by faith) is primary.

The Reformation broke from apostolic tradition and invoked "sola scriptura" (Scripture alone) as normative. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures alone are "sufficient for salvation." Anything not "provable by Scripture" is to disregarded. Also known as the "people of the book."

Because on the different ontologies, there exists substantial disagreement.

For example: You cite the dogma of the Trinity (the divinity of three Divine Persons in One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as normative Christianity. That's definitely true of the Apostolic tradition, but not universal in the "sola scriptura" tradition. Yes, many old "mainline Protestants" subscribe to the dogma, but a great many fundamentalist evangelicals do not. Even the Divinity of Jesus is not universally affirmed.

Perhaps more explanation is in order. I think everyone can grasp the concept that a book is sufficient for salvation. Question: Answer is in the bood. It's that simplicity, in fact, that often makes the "sola scriptura" tradition highly appealing. The sublime mystery of God is revealed in writings by men inspired by God.

The Apostolic tradition, on the other hand, discovers God's revelation through the agency of the organism/organization of the Church, which is ontological (i.e., "community of believers"). The believers are collected around their bishops, who have been conferred their apostolicity by historical succession all the way back to the original apostles. The believing community confirms the faith of the apostles and spreads it, in a two-fold action: Affirmation of the bishops' (plural) teaching, evangelism of the word. From this organism have come creeds, sacred and not-so-sacred writings, saintly lives, ecumenical councils, theologians, and the rest of the pot, which makes up the Church. The Church both produces and receives in a constant reciprocal action. It produces faith and works in believers, which in turn affirm the doctrine and creeds. Thus, the Church is both primitive and ontological, and is also known as "the people of God" (cf., the "book.").

Two very different ontologies. Often two very different faiths. Both point to Jesus Christ as the aetiology, but take widely divergent paths.

So, if I were to define "Christianity," I'd prefer the constellation be more precisely defined as either Church membership or Bible Believers. From my readings of Washington, Jefferson (esp.), et alia, Washington was definitely a member of the Church of England (Anglican/Episcopalian); if the others were Church members, it was at best nominally. Whether they were Bible Believers is clearly not the case for Jefferson, Paine, etc. Not that our Founders didn't read or cite the Bible, but that their faith wasn't formed entirely from the Bible. Sola Scriptura requires that minimally.

IMHO, most of the Founders were not Christian, and those who were did not conceive or devise a country on explicitly Christian principles. Similarly, many Founders were aware of Locke's natural law and view of tolerance, Rousseau's noble savage, Smith's invisible hand, and Hobbes' savage beast. As I read the Declaration and Constitution, I see much more of these men's influence than I do of Christianity's. In fact, I can't identify anything in either document that is even implicitly Christian.

Jonathan said...

-- "Disbelief in the inerrancy of Revelation" -- huh? I not sure with negative is last. --

Perhaps I should have put "belief the Bible was errant." But if I say it that way, it makes it seem as though they thought the entire book was one big error; they didn't. They revered some of the Bible, but thought parts of it had been corrupted. Hence Jefferson statement about using Man's Reason to find the "diamonds" of Truth among the "dunghill" of dogma and error contained in Scripture. (And his subsequent taking a razor to the pages and cutting out entire parts.)

-- From my readings of Washington, Jefferson (esp.), et alia, Washington was definitely a member of the Church of England (Anglican/Episcopalian); if the others were Church members, it was at best nominally. Whether they were Bible Believers is clearly not the case for Jefferson, Paine, etc. --

Jefferson, like Washington was not only an Anglican/Episcopalian, but also, like Washington was a vestryman in the Church.

Paine's religious beliefs are the one's I've probably studied in least detail. I know he called himself a "Deist," belonged to no Church and at times publicly savaged the Christian religion.

Jefferson and Adams, on the other hand, publicly didn't really attack the Christian religion, although Jefferson alluded to his heterodoxy in his book "Notes on the State of Virginia."

It was from his book and some other public writings, that were much tamer than his later private thoughts, that some orthodox Christian ministers savaged Jefferson.

Both Jefferson and Adams, at times, could be almost as harsh on orthodox Christianity as Paine. However, most of this comes from their private correspondence. Indeed, had those letters been made public, it probably would have publicly ruined both men, as Paine's rep. was ruined.

But anyway, Paine may be the outlier in the sense of "fitting" the today's definition of a "Deist," that is one who categorically rejects Revelation and believes in a non-Interventionist God.

Neither Jefferson, nor Franklin (who never referred to himself as anything other than a "Deist") fit the defintion of a strict Deist in that sense.

One surprising thing my research has found is that on the basics (see those five points in my post) Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Washington, and Madison, appear to be entirely agreed.

DSH said...

Jonathan. Thanks for the clarification. I thought that is what you meant.

Of your "five" points of agreement, the only one that surprises me is the dogma of the Trinity. I've been of the impression that Jefferson in particular disowned the dogma. Certainly Franklin and Paine did. But the trinitarian formula does appear in the Constitution as the three branches of government. Tangental, obviously, but maybe an influence.

Still, I don't see any substantive Christian principles in either the Declaration or the Constitution. That could be because Christian theology (vs. Christian philosophy) in many later traditions is reduced to either Ceasar or God. One verse in the New Testament by Jesus states: Give to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar, and to God what belongs to God. Another quote states: My kingdom is not of this world. And it recurs often that Jesus distinguishes between "heavenly" and "earthly," a theme reinforced by Saint Paul.

Some early Christians and much later Protestants have insisted that "this" world isn't of much importance. Indeed, it's one of the wonders of the religion's elasticity that today's Religious Right has found a political agenda in Scripture. It's not ironic that most of them appeal to the Hebrew Scripture for their secular interpretation, since the Christian Scripture is so spartan. What little "political" text exists in the New Testament is primarily centered on the poor (a dominant theme also in Hebrew Scripture). Another ironic twist is that the Religious Right basically ignores these texts.

Maybe it's an anachronism, but I was under the impression that Emerson (c. 1830) was fairly representative of the period, and his "religion" is either panthesism or deism, I'm not exactly sure which (the former seems more liely). Unlike Christians, he constructs Nature qua nature as Revelation (one of your cardinal points). Not just as one of them, but as the only one. If "God" has any meaning, it's only in the sense that God is the Author of Nature. And like the Stoics, it is Nature that has something to teach us (my reading is more of a revelation about the "nature of things" rather than about a Divine Being). In many ways, Emerson's is a resurrection of the Stoic's and Suarez's natural law theories.

I haven't studied the religious thought of the Founders. Still, I'm not sure that an Anglican affiliation reveals anything about them, in as much as Anglicanism went through a "pantheist" period about the same time in England (see, Bishop Butler). Also, if any of the Founders had been of a "fundamentalist" disposition, it's highly unlikely that their documents could have been so religiously neutral. Separation of Church and State (Jefferson) was certainly paradigmatic.

Certainly, the Founders were not naive about Calvin's Geneva, simply because the Puritans would have informed them. Even though Calvin's Geneva was a total failure, many Pilgrims (e.g., Cotton Mather) did not hesitate to call America "the Promised Land." America's identity as the "New Jerusalem" was also widespread, but the Puritans did not confuse the metaphor for a presumed reality. Whatever the new frontier represented to the early settlers and Pilgrims, they never confused a future hope for a present reality (cf., today's fundamentalists). By the next century (19th), rugged individualism and material success where identified with one's expected salvation (Calvinism), but I know of no one who mistook America for the Christian eschaton. Compare their view with some present-day fundamentalists, who perceive Israel's restoration as a sign of the End or that America is God's country. And no matter how "Christian" the Founders may have been, I daresay the idea that America should adopt 318 biblical laws (primarily from the Old Testament) would have been repugnant. That any Christian would have taken such ideas seriously prior to the Religious Right phenomenon circa. 1970s is not tenable. Pat Robertson, for example, would be as alien to them as he is to most of us.

Jonathan said...

-- But the trinitarian formula does appear in the Constitution as the three branches of government. Tangental, obviously, but maybe an influence. --

I doubt the three branches of government had anything to do with the Trinity.

I once wrote on this blog a few years ago, something I was told in law school that our Founders were influenced by Scottish verbiage and they often wrote in threes. For instance, "life, liberty, property," or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Locke's original phrase was "Life, Liberty, and Property." There was a question as to why Jefferson didn't simply write "life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness." I was told that things just sounded better in threes. Sandefur later disagreed with this.

DSH said...

"I doubt the three branches of government had anything to do with the Trinity."

Obviously, I was being silly. Interesting notion about the serializations, but the "threesome" goes much farther back than the Enlightenment and Locke.

But the interesting question is, Why isn't "property" enumerated? It can't be that it's "obvious," because it's not. And, the serialization thing isn't serious either (I hope). But why would the Founders omit such an important category, IF it really was important?

One doesn't have to have a ideological cast to see "property" is nowhere entailed, save for Fourth Amendment. Perhaps that is enough. After all, it has worked, hasn't it (Kelo, excepted)?