Friday, April 03, 2009

18th Century American Orthodoxy:

Below I reproduce page 12 of Dr. Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis on the political theology of the American Founding. It provides a useful chart on the Churches that existed in 18th Century America and the creeds to which they adhered. What it shows is that all official churches except the Quakers were in some way connected to an orthodox Trinitarian creed. And then it lists 10 elements of orthodox Christianity.

Note, this is, I now understand, an "American" understanding of "orthodoxy" that is synonymous with Trinitarianism or the Nicene Creed. As David Holmes put it in "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers," published by Oxford University Press, "Since the late fourth century, the doctrine of the Trinity has been synonymous with orthodox Christianity." (p. 76).

Interestingly, my co-blogger at American Creation, Kristo Miettinen, has alerted me to a "European" understanding of "orthodoxy" as articulated by the late Jaroslav Pelikan:

Volume 1 of Pelikan's "The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine" is the story of orthodoxy in slightly less than 400 pages ["The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)]". Chapter 7, the final chapter of the volume, is called "The Orthodox Consensus", and brings it all together. The four elements of orthodoxy are christology, mystagogy, anthropology, and ecclesiology, each of which is a developed system settled in the first centuries of the church, the first two in the east, the latter two in the west.

Now, this seems a very interesting understanding of "orthodoxy," one in which I certainly wish to better understand. But for the purposes of my studies, I don't find it useful. For one, it yields strange, albeit interesting results. Calvinists and other sola-scriptura "born-again" Christians, (as far as I understand) do not pass the European "orthodox" test while Anglicans, capital O Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholics do. The American "born again" Christians are thrown into the "unorthodox" box with Mormons and theological unitarians.

Dr. Gregg Frazer, on the other hand describes the "American" understanding of orthodoxy on page 12 of his PhD thesis which I've reproduced below. As noted, all officially established churches (except the Quakers) adhered to a Trinitarian creed. Frazer breaks American orthodoxy down into 10 points and shows how Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans-Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics all passed the "orthodox Christian" test. Doctrines beyond those 10-points such as the Calvinists' TULIP, being "born again," or the Roman Catholics' "transubstantiation," were all superfluous to "orthodox Christianity." In other words, "orthodox Christianity" is the "genus" of which Calvinism, "born-again Christianity," Roman Catholicism, among others, are "species."

But, the rub, as Frazer informs us, is that the key Founders (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson, Hamilton before his deathbed and many others) believed in only one or two of the 10 point test of "orthodoxy." Thus, America's key Founders were not "orthodox Christians," arguably not "Christians" at all. (Whether the label "Christian" properly applies to them is a matter of debate. If you can believe in only one or two of those tenets and still be a "Christian," then they were "Christians.")

The ten points are listed in the below chart, along with the established churches and their corresponding creeds.

The one point that all key Founders believed in was number 2, a God who is active in human affairs. Some of the key Founders believed in the Resurrection, not of an "Incarnate God," but of the Father doing for the best MAN, or something more than man but not fully God, what He might one day do for all good men, perhaps all men. On the last point, the inspiration of scripture, Frazer argues the key Founders believed the Bible fallible, partially inspired (as opposed to inerrant) and that reason determined which parts of the Bible were inspired. This is certainly what Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin believed. And Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Wilson, and Hamilton (before his deathbed) wrote or otherwise left NOTHING that contradicts this "theistic rationalist" understanding of reason and revelation. In short there is good reason to believe they were "rationalist" in that very sense that Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin unquestionably were.

For instance, I haven't found an explicit statement of James Wilson's where he states "reason trumps revelation." I don't think he could get away with stating that publicly, though I'm sure he privately believed it. And that's because I HAVE found, in his "Works," something that comes close, the most a "respectable" figure would be able to get away with speaking publicly. It is a smoking gun quotation of Wilson's (reproduced in Dr. Frazer's thesis) where he irrefutably stated revelation does not trump reason:

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense.

That Wilson regarded "reason and the senses" so highly that he thought the Bible could not "supercede" the findings of such demonstrates that his political-theology merits the label "rationalism."

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