Sunday, August 09, 2009

More on Reason Trumping Revelation During the American Founding:

An evangelical-fundamentalist commenter reacted to Rev. Charles Chauncy's post on universal salvation as follows:

Chauncy acted like Jefferson, cutting out entire portions of text. What is worse for him, is the words he cut out were words Jesus used.

The only way Chauncy, Rush, or any other universalist can be right, which they aren't, is to go to the Greek, and look up the correct translation of the word "everlasting" in Mat 25:41 and 46:...

He then goes on to explain why the Bible actually teaches eternal damnation for the unsaved.

Chauncy like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin (and others) was both theologically unitarian and universalist. However, unlike Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, Chauncy was never, as far yet uncovered, so frank in his admission that the Bible is errant and fallible and that man's reason must sometimes trump what the Bible teaches. Chauncy claimed that the Bible itself, properly understood, vindicates universal salvation.

Something similar could be said of the many unitarian and trinitarian preachers who argued the pro-revolt position of Romans 13. They all held reason/natural law in high regard. They also professed high regard for the scriptures. They also cited pagans from classical antiquity (like Aristotle and Cicero) and sometimes modern non-Christian Enlightenment figures like Voltaire as authority.

Though while they championed a "reasoned" interpretation of the Bible, I have never seen the patriotic preachers so frankly declare the Bible is fallible and man's reason must trump its text when necessary, as Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin did. Yet, scholars have neither uncovered nor examined their private letters as meticulously as we have Jefferson's, J. Adams' and Franklin's. There might be some smoking guns yet to be discovered.

As I've noted before, Romans 13 was never too much of a problem for Jefferson as that was part of the Bible that didn't survive his razor. Everything St. Paul said, Jefferson wrote off as "corruption," not divinely inspired.

But again, we must ask, regardless of what the patriotic preachers said they did (i.e., Chauncy claiming that the Bible itself vindicates universal salvation), in point of fact were Chauncy et al. ACTING like Jefferson with his razor when they denied the Trinity, denied eternal damnation and declared a right to revolt against tyrants in the face of Romans 13? Dr. Gregg Frazer seems to think so. And I've witnessed many evangelicals who would LIKE to think America was founded as a "Christian Nation" likewise react this way (i.e., anyone who argues against the trinity or eternal damnation is substituting reason for the Bible's text).

Dr. Frazer categorizes any claim that argues for 1) unitarianism, 2) universal salvation, and 3) a right to revolt against tyrants as "reasoning trumping revelation." So while the many unitarians and universalists of the Founding era as a whole have not left evidence of frank admissions like those we see coming from Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin, in their private letters -- that man's reason trumps a fallible Bible -- if we add up all of the figures who asserted 1), 2), and 3) we get lots and lots of "reason trumping revelation" from the Founding era. This is why Gregg terms "theistic rationalism" as the PREVAILING political theology of the American Founding. It doesn't matter WHAT a majority believed in. It matters what prevailed.

His thesis shows lots of Trinitarians like John Witherspoon (and I might add Benjamin Rush; Frazer's thesis deals with Witherspoon, not Rush) as pushing forth this "theistic rationalist" project that was not authentically "Christian." When Witherspoon, for instance, argued salvation, he was an orthodox Calvinist. But when he taught politics to his students at Princeton and argued for a right to revolt, Witherspoon argued Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, and what man discovers from "reason," not the Bible.

Likewise Rush, an orthodox Trinitarian, like the unitarian Chauncy claimed the Bible vindicated universal salvation. However I've investigated Rush's hermeneutic in detail. It's not proof texting an infallible Bible; rather it's a much more "liberal" or "cafeteria" hermeneutic that abstracts general principles from the "spirit" of the Bible and uses them to supplant prooftexts! In other words, while Rush might CLAIM to argue the Bible, to many who hold to the "orthodox" position on eternal damnation, he's actually uses discoveries of man's reason to supplant what the Bible teaches. Or at least, "orthodox Christians" of today, especially of the evangelical or fundamentalist bent, can in good faith claim this is what Rush, Chauncy, Witherspoon, the key Founders, the patriotic preachers did.

Hopefully this will clarify Dr. Gregg Frazer's assertion that "theistic rationalism" which posits "reason trumps revelation" when the two appear to conflict was the prevailing political theology of the American Founding.


Our Founding Truth said...

But when he taught politics to his students at Princeton and argued for a right to revolt, Witherspoon argued Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, and what man discovers from "reason," not the Bible.

Off the cuff, I would say he got it from the Reformation, not the enlightenment, as he hammered Hutcheson, but if you could find the smoking gun on it, it would help your cause. He obviously knew Calvin's position, did he not adhere to it as well?

I don't agree with linking Natural Law with "reason trumps revelation" either. If Witherspoon didn't follow Calvin, he got his right to revolt from the text, as John Jay, and all the others did.

J said...

Locke certainly included religious overtones along with his natural law ideas and rights philosophy in the 2nd Treatise. His state of nature seems rather utopian compared to Hobbes' dystopia (and thus a bit naive). Reason implies respecting other's rights--though I think Locke generally means practical reason, not formal logic. Without any power of coercion though the natural law's rather moot (a point Hobbes addresses, of course)

The Framers picked up on the Locke's "Beulahland" rights talk (consider Jefferson's sort of vaguely religious language in the DOI). They wanted to demonstrate that the message of scripture was compatible with the more democratic, secular impulse.

I don't think the Federalists approved, nor were they concerned about reconciling reason and scripture. Instead Ham., Jay and Mad invoke roman and greek classics, and address the potential threat of democracy (and sound damn near Tory)--quite anti-Lockean. They also routinely praise the judiciary--something Jefferson never did.

The right to revolt against tyranny was also a central part of 2nd Treatise--Locke stays true to his puritan roots. And Locke also bashes the magistrates at times (another reason why the french revolutionaries quoted him)

Our Founding Truth said...

I don't consider language in the DOI vague. LONANG is not vague. Rutherford has some interesting views on the State of Nature and government; that the Scriptures do advocate it. More on that later.

I gather most, if not all, were concerned reason jived with revelation, knowing they are the same thing from the same source, however, any mention from roman and greek sources, in my opinion, is to learn from, not praise.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't consider language in the DOI vague. LONANG is not vague.

I'm not sure I would positively assert LONANG = vague; one thing I will assert is that it has little to do with what's written in the Bible. It certainly doesn't stand for the Bible as the ultimate trump.

Nature = reason. Nature is cited twice (laws of NATURE and NATURE'S God) which means the DOI stands for "reason" primarily. What it says about the Bible and its relationship to "reason" is if anything the vague part.

Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin were the men who wrote the DOI. And NONE of them (especially not Jefferson the AUTHOR) believed in the Bible as the ultimate trump.

J said...

Well, recall the exact language: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ..."

Not lacking a certain religious character. Jefferson doesn't really go into detail why or how they are self-evident. They're not rational ethicists (as Locke was, to some degree).

My point is merely that the "practical reason" of the Framers was not some worked out ethical system ala Kant or greek philosophy or even Locke's rights discussion, but a general appeal--even somewhat romantic-- to intuitive justice or something: ethos, not logos (though with some pathos as well). And that ethos was also an appeal to religious sensibilities, to some degree. Both Locke and Jefferson asserted that the New Testament supported their cause of Liberty (not saying they are right or wrong, but that was their claim).

The "Nature's God" material was more deistic. Nature's laws--specifically Newton, in Jefferson's case (or Locke, probably) were thought to be reasonable, and so that could all be lumped together as part of the Deistic rationalism, but again it wasn't some grand metaphysical scheme ala Kant or greeks, etc. There was a pragmatic element to Jefferson's thinking.

I wager Hamilton could barely stand to read the DOI, or most of Jefferson's writings (or his pal Paine). The Federalists were not concerned with rights or even democracy per se, but with maintaining order--and preserving their big estates as well. Hamilton of the Fed. papers often sounds like a royalist of Charles II era.

Our Founding Truth said...

By LONANG, it's clear the framers meant the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Understood the same way with: Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Hooker, Grotius, and Puffendorf. Nature's God to these men was obvious.

My opinion is not to frontload Jefferson on the DOI; he only wrote it because Dickinson wanted to wait, as well as Adams deferring the job, even telling everyone all the principles were already hackneyed out in congress earlier, which tells us TJ was junior at that time.

The DOI ratifiers were massively Orthodox, by a cursory examination of the early State Constitutions, so I don't see Hamilton having a problem with it. They knew who LONANG was.

Understanding the Federalists has been lost in the shuffle, but I think their views had the most plausible balance. Having a strong central govt. to establish some stability in the crazy times they were in(The Whiskey Rebellion, etc, massive debt, foreign policy, etc.), and keep us from being an agrarian society sounds good to me.

If it wasn't for Hamilton and Adams splitting the party, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe would never have won. PA, NY, and MA, were Federalist strongholds.

I've never read Story, or Marshall ever overstep their boundaries in the Judiciary. From what I've read, most all the Federalists, including Hamilton, were Republicans.

Have you read Sherman and Ellsworth in the Farmer Refuted?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well you are just wrong. It might help your case if they appealed to the God of Revelation but they didn't. I think you are confused because many believed the God of reason to be the God of revelation; but they didn't appealed to God of revealed terms, but naturalistic, rationalistic terms.

Further I can't proceed with you if you insist the DOI was "ratified" based on a misunderstanding of a letter than Sam Adams wrote.

J said...

I've never read Story, or Marshall ever overstep their boundaries in the Judiciary.

Judicial review as established by Marshall's ruling in Marbury vs Madison was an overstep (and really a permanent mark of Federalist-statism in terms of US history and politics). The SCOTUS itself was an overstep, according to the Jeffersonians.

I am no constitutional scholar, but the Con. was sort of non-negotiable, until Marshall (Hamilton's boy for years) decided it was at least subject to review by the judiciary. A rather clever move: instead of having the legislature propose/revise/modify laws, leave it to a panel of judicial barons.

At times judicial review does result in "Justice" and promotes the public good, I suppose: but more than often, it does not, and really functions as a control on the legislature--and even on executive at times.

Our Founding Truth said...

John Adams said the DOI, as well as others, was not based on Reason alone, and my understanding is LONANG is a contraction of two sentences.

Judicial Review is interesting to me. If it is overstepping their authority, why did Wilson, Ellsworth, and Story condone it before Marbury? I bet we could find most of the framers asserting Judicial Review, on the grounds the legislature could overrule.

Also, the executive has to execute the judiciary's decision.

Jonathan Rowe said...


"laws of nature" means discoverable from reason without God and of "Nature's God means discoverable by reason WITH God. The difference is even an atheist believes in the "laws of nature," that is laws of physics, mathematics, etc. but these things not, or arguably not morally binding in an OUGHT sense without God.

I'm going to do another post on natural religion that hopefully will clarify this. Nature's God COULD BE the God of Abraham, COULD BE the Triune God, COULD be Allah, COULD BE God the Father in a unitary Godhead, COULD BE the Jews unitary Jehovah that does not recognize Jesus. That's the whole point. The FFs believed all good men could recognize a monotheistic God even if they differed on the details. THAT'S who "Nature's God" is.

Jonathan Rowe said...


It may be a little too meticulous for you but Philip Hamburger's new book on the matter makes the strongest case in favor of judicial review (though he thinks that's the wrong term for it -- he terms it "judicial duty") while at the same time claiming that modern applications of the concept have it all wrong.

J said...

Scratch the surface of a successful conservative (at least the ones who attended college), and you'll usually find a judge-loving Tory.

Indeed, Scalia's the type of autocratic magistrate favored by Hamilton, and detested by the Jeffersonians--and by Locke, really (The jacobins had a rather more sanguine solution to Scalias).

Scalia's court has had no problem claiming that the USA is a christian nation, and that the Old and New Testaments are part of the legal tradition, etc. SCOTUS has now what 4 conservative catholics, 2 jews, and 2 protestants (Thomas reportedly not religious, however), and Miss Sotomayor has been labelled catholic as well--tho' not quite the conservative.

Even Hamilton and Adams might have shuttered at the thought of a papal-jewish court.....

Our Founding Truth said...

We agree to disagree on the Law of Nature, however the actual written words say this: The Laws of Nature and The Laws of God. Throwing in (Nature's) God isn't relevant to the sentence. I need to read some more of the philosophers, to see how they differentated the two aspects of the same thing.

After all, right reason, is the Divine Law and the Gospel, just more blurred by sin.

I've been doing some research on Natural Law, reading Suarez, among others, who understood Natural Law as not a divine command, but an indicative law, which isn't superior to a positive law of scripture.