Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Unitarian Zeitgeist:

An orthodox Christian apologist for the "Christian Nation" idea responded to my thoughts on presumptions, burdens of proofs and smoking guns. He's taking the position that unless there is smoking gun evidence for a Founder's unitarianism, we should interpret nominal references to Christianity and scripture made during America's Founding era to mean the person was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, regenerate, believed the Bible infallible, etc. By the way, I don't argue that all Founders should be presumed "non-Trinitarians" unless there is smoking gun evidence for Trinitarianism. Rather, that if all we have are a few nominal references to Christianity and the Bible and some contemporaries saying, "yes he's a good Christian," we shouldn't presume Trinitarianism but rather need to put pieces of the puzzle together before we form a definite conclusion. Our conclusion might be an "I don't know," or subject to qualifiers like "probably," and "in all likelihood." That's why I conclude Washington probably was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, but rather believed in the same system in which Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin believed.

In any event, the critic writes:

First of all, on "how orthodox Christian interpret the Bible." Christians do not have to "interpret" the Bible in a certain way in order to be "orthodox." The Bible is not unclear on issues like the deity of Christ, His atonement, the existence of one God in three Persons, etc. "Orthodoxy" is what the Bible teaches. "Unorthodoxy" disagree [sic] with what the Bible teaches. Different denominations interpret the Bible differently.

In light of those facts, the ONLY ASSUMPTION I AM MAKING IN OUR EXAMINATION OF THE FOUNDERS is that "Christian" means "Christian" (which is synonymous with "orthodox") in each case of the Founders unless their [sic] is smoking gun evidence that proves otherwise. (Also, there is no difference between a regenerate Christian and a born-again Christian.)

I think there is an astounding arrogance bordering on delusion that holds orthodox Christians don't "interpret" the Bible, but just "read" it and that those who disbelieve in the Trinity "disagree" with the Bible. I've witnessed similar fanaticism on the Volokh threads where this commenter noted, "the Bible does not require interpretation. It is literal truth."

Theological unitarianism profoundly influenced the American Founding. It was according to the creeds of all established churches in the 18th century, a theological heresy. And such was a something one had to keep "secret" in the 18th Century, else his good reputation be damaged. However, it is undeniable that the elite Whigs who Founded America disproportionately tended to believe in the unitarian heresy or otherwise were not identifiably Trinitarian. And, importantly, they saw a connection between their unitarianism and the principles they posited in founding America.

I personally believe this aptly describes the first four American Presidents. Washington's and Madison's non-Trinitarianism is disputed. Even if we conceded them as Trinitarians, J. Adams' and Jefferson's unitarianism is indisputable. That's at least 50% of the first 4 Presidents believing in the unitarian heresy, which fact alone illustrates unitarianism's vast disproportionate influence on the minds of the Founding Fathers. Even if we extended to the first 6 or so Presidents that still doesn't bode well for Trinitarianism. David L. Holmes has concluded that James Monroe believed in the same "moderate Deism" (what Dr. Gregg Frazer would term "theistic rationalism") as the other key Founders. And John Quincy Adams vacillated between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism his entire adult life.

And different strains of "unitarianism" influenced the Founding. There were biblical unitarians (those folks who denied the Trinity based on the authority of scripture) and rationalists unitarians (those who denied the Trinity because the doctrine was "unreasonable," regardless of what the Bible says). On the one hand, the rationalists unitarians like Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin, somewhat played into the hands of the Trinitarians who argue "we follow the Bible, the unitarians follow reason." They did indeed disagree with much of what is written in the Bible and said that man's reason trumps revelation and could "edit" the error from the Bible. Yet, the existence of many notable, intelligent, biblical unitarians destroys the notion that the Bible teaches the Trinity and unitarians just disagree with what's written in the Bible, with no "interpretation" necessary.

These biblical unitarians, in good conscience, relying on the Bible as final authority, genuinely believed the Bible teaches Christ's subordinate nature to God the Father. Prominent Founding and post-Founding era figures such as John Marshall, Joseph Story and Jared Sparks would qualify as "biblical unitarians" as would Isaac Newton and John Milton.

In any event, theological unitarianism was such a powerful temptation among America's elite Whig Founders that it even caused notable orthodox Christian figures to flirt with unitarianism or otherwise doubt or downplay the Trinity. This point Garry Wills makes in his recent book "Head and Heart" (who knows whether he's been reading my work!).

I haven't included John Jay as one of the "theistic rationalists" or "unitarians," but the following quotation from him doubting that the Bible really teaches the Trinity destroys the claim that we should simply "impute" orthodox Trinitarianism into nominal references the Founding Fathers make to "scripture" and the "Christian Religion" because any idiot can see the Trinity is right there, indisputably, in the Bible's text:

It appeared to me that the Trinity was a Fact fully revealed and substantiated, but that the quo modo was incomprehensible by human Ingenuity. According to sundry Creeds, the divine Being whom we denominate the second Person in the Trinity had before all worlds been so generated or begotten by the first Person in the Trinity, as to be his coeval, coequal and coeternal Son. For proof of this I searched the Scriptures diligently -- but without Success. I therefore consider the Position of being at least of questionable Orthodoxy.

-- John Jay to Samuel Miller, February 18, 1822. Jay Papers, Columbia University Library.

What was John Jay stupid? Could he not read if the Trinity is right there, indisputably, in the Bible's pages? He certainly acts as though he didn't have such an easy time finding it.

I copied this directly from James H. Hutson's book of quotations p. 217, Princeton University Press (the paperback features my name on the back in a blurb). Right above on the same page is a quotation from John Dickinson, again, someone who I am willing to put in the "orthodox Christian" box, discussing his difficulty with the Trinity.

So no, nominal references to Christianity from the Founding era are not necessarily references to orthodox Trinitarianism and it was certainly not the case that virtually all of these men who understood themselves to be "Christians" confidently believed that the Bible teaches the Trinity and other orthodox doctrines.

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