Thursday, July 30, 2009

Samuel West, Reason & Revelation:

Probably one of the most contentious assertions of Dr. Gregg Frazer' PhD thesis on "theistic rationalism" as the prevailing political theology of the American Founding is the tenet of "theistic rationalism" that holds while some of the Bible is divinely inspired and while reason and revelation by in large agree, all apparent contradictions between the two must be resolved in favor of "reason." Hence, "reason trumps revelation." Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in their private letters say this in no uncertain terms. I think we could probably add Ben Franklin to the list. He promoted "rational Christianity," doubted the Trinity, admired the "unitarian dissenters" in England like Joseph Priestley (considered unitarians "honest" and "rational") and in one letter stated certain things in the Bible are IMPOSSIBLE to have been given by divine inspiration. Likewise the Rev. Joseph Priestley, a key influence on the American Founders, held the "plenary inspiration of the Bible" to be one of the "corruptions of Christianity."

But there was something more subtle going on as well. American unitarian patriotic preachers like Revs. Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Samuel West, while they purported to hold both reason and revelation in high regard, didn't go around explicitly claiming "reason trumps revelation" (as far as I have read). However, I think one could argue this is what they DID in their hermeneutic approach to the Bible. In their political sermons, they would first assert things like the law of nature as determined by reason is God given and consequently immutable. When posed with theological issues, in particular submission to tyrants, they would look first NOT to the Bible, but rather to nature/reason for the answer. Once nature/reason determined the TRUTH on the matter, they "found" confirmation in the Bible, even if they had to adopt an odd hermeneutic in order to make "reason and revelation" agree. Thus, they may not have said: "The Bible is partially inspired and fallible; reason trumps revelation." But I think one could argued they PROCEEDED as though this were the case.

With that, let's examine one of Rev. Samuel West's sermons on revolution. West, along with fellow unitarians Mayhew, Cooper, Chauncy and others, promoted the revolutionary cause and they were key in securing its success.

From West's Election Day Sermon. First, West makes it clear that discoveries of reason are at least as viable as scripture:

Now, whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is as much the will and law of God as though it were enjoined us by an immediate revelation from heaven, or commanded in the sacred Scriptures.

Next West asserts scripture or "right revelation" cannot contract "reason" or the "natural law."

A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself,–a thing in the strictest sense impossible, for that which implies contradiction is not an object of the divine power.

He then imports wholly a-biblical Lockean “state of nature” teachings -- discoveries "found" in "nature" -- as decisive on the matter:

That we may understand the nature and design of civil government, and discover the foundation of the magistrate’s authority to command, and the duty of subjects to obey, it is necessary to derive civil government from its original, in order to which we must consider what “state all men are naturally in, and that is (as Mr. Locke observes) a state of perfect freedom to order all their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any man.” It is a state wherein all are equal,–no one having a right to control another, or oppose him in what he does, unless it be in his own defence, or in the defence of those that, being injured, stand in need of his assistance.

Had men persevered in a state of moral rectitude, every one would have been disposed to follow the law of nature, and pursue the general good. In such a state, the wisest and most experienced would undoubtedly be chosen to guide and direct those of less wisdom and experience than themselves,–there being nothing else that could afford the least show or appearance of any one’s having the superiority or precedency over another; for the dictates of conscience and the precepts of natural law being uniformly and regularly obeyed, men would only need to be informed what things were most fit and prudent to be done in those cases where their inexperience or want of acquaintance left their minds in doubt what was the wisest and most regular method for them to pursue. In such cases it would be necessary for them to advise with those who were wiser and more experienced than themselves. But these advisers could claim no authority to compel or to use any forcible measures to oblige any one to comply with their direction or advice. There could be no occasion for the exertion of such a power; for every man, being under the government of right reason, would immediately feel himself constrained to comply with everything that appeared reasonable or fit to be done, or that would any way tend to promote the general good. This would have been the happy state of mankind had they closely adhered to the law of nature, and persevered in their primitive state.

Thus we see that a state of nature, though it be a state of perfect freedom, yet is very far from a state of licentiousness….

After establishing the state of nature/man’s reason as the decisive standard to which any truth must conform, West concludes:

The doctrine of nonresistance and unlimited passive obedience to the worst of tyrants could never have found credit among mankind had the voice of reason been hearkened to for a guide, because such a doctrine would immediately have been discerned to be contrary to natural law.

After answering the question using reason and Lockean theories, Samuel West then looks to the scriptures for support, already having his mind made up as to what the final outcome must be. The proof texts are Romans 13 and Titus iii which seem to instruct believers to submit to and obey the civil magistrate even if tyrants:

This account of the nature and design of civil government, which is so clearly suggested to us by the plain principles of common sense and reason, is abundantly confirmed by the sacred Scriptures….in Rom. xiii., the first six verses: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation; for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For, for this cause pay you tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” A very little attention, I apprehend, will be sufficient to show that this text is so far from favoring arbitrary government, that, on the contrary, it strongly holds forth the principles of true liberty. Subjection to the higher powers is enjoined by the apostle because there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God; consequently, to resist the power is to resist the ordinance of God: and he repeatedly declares that the ruler is the minister of God. Now, before we can say whether this text makes for or against the doctrine of unlimited passive obedience, we must find out in what sense the apostle affirms that magistracy is the ordinance of God, and what he intends when he calls the ruler the minister of God.

We see West using “context,” and his a-biblical presumptions to explain away these proof texts. He ends up concluding “that the apostle Paul, instead of being a friend to tyranny and arbitrary government, turns out to be a strong advocate for the just rights of mankind….” Or in other words, Paul really meant we do have a right to revolt against the magistrate, the seemingly opposite of what he said. Do keep in mind that the ruler to whom Paul told believers to obey was not some “godly” ruler, but the pagan psychopath Nero. West addresses that point:

I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero’s reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,– I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.

The first point — the epistle was written during the beginning of Nero’s reign when he was “nicer,” not towards the end when he was a tyrant — strikes me as invoking hair splitting context to reach a desired result.

The second point — if Paul said this when Nero was indeed acting tyrannical, he must not have meant it! — shows West’s willingness disregard scripture which disagrees with reason.

But in any event, the question that I ask is what is Rev. West actually DOING in his interpretation of scripture. Is he substituting his "own" judgment derived from "reason" for what's actually written in scripture. Or is his "reasoned" interpretation of scripture consistent with the idea that the whole of the Bible is inspired (I suppose with parts that the Holy Spirit meant not to be taken seriously, but as satire, where the text of the Bible could mean the opposite of what it apparently on the surface teaches).

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