Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Anti-Creedalism of the American Founding:

How America's Founders viewed creeds/confessions is important for a few reasons. First, some Christian Americanists have used the content of the creeds as a shortcut to determine the Founders' religious belief. I most recently blogged about Bryan Fischer doing this.

Now, I know Fischer is a dimwit who makes for easy pickins. But he relies on the work of M.E. Bradford, no lightweight he.* As I mentioned before, Dr. Bradford, at least in my second revised edition of "Founding Fathers" doesn't make the total leap of saying the FFs were "members" in the sense of swearing oaths to doctrinally orthodox creeds, but he does use the term "members" of orthodox churches. (p. xvi.) Regardless, he doesn't demonstrate, because the record doesn't show 50+ of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention swearing oaths to their churches' orthodox doctrines/creeds. Rather the record shows some kind of bare affiliation with churches that professed orthodoxy; and it shows it for all 55 delegates including the supposed "Deists." Some/many did take oaths; we just don't know the exact number. Though Fischer didn't fabricate the "swear oaths to orthodox doctrines" meme; other, more notable figures did before him.

Peter Lillback for instance, in George Washington's Sacred Fire accurately notes George Washington took oaths to the Anglican Church when he became a vestrymen and a godfather. Thomas Jefferson likewise did when he became a vestryman for the Anglican Church.

As I've noted many times before, Lillback's "smoking gun" to prove GW's "orthodoxy" are those oaths to official Anglican doctrine; and that's because Washington's own words don't prove this. The logic of Lillback, Fischer and others on this matter has been something along the lines of: 1. they were members of orthodox churches in the "they took oaths to creeds" sense; 2. therefore they either were orthodox Trinitarian Christians OR they were dishonorable hypocrites. In fact, I debated a Christian Americanist PhD, author, scholar whom I won't name because I don't think he wants me to (you can ask Ray Soller or Jim Allison about him to confirm this) who repeated like a mantra: Because they took those oaths, Washington AND the other Founders were either orthodox or political whores.

Note: I don't make this argument; they do. That's their judgment not mine. I understand life is complicated. But one senses Lillback's "George Washington's Sacred Fire" writes off Jefferson as a dishonorable man because he took oaths to orthodox Anglican doctrines to become a vestryman while personally rejecting every single doctrine of orthodoxy.

Enter John Jay. He is, in my opinion, rightly conceded as an orthodox Christian. And as I wrote here, he was a church warden in the Anglican-Episcopalian Church, which presumably demonstrates "official oath swearing member" status as opposed to mere nominal affiliation. Yet, as I noted in that link, he didn't seem to care one whit about those creeds, but rather, viewed sectarian oaths as man made creeds.

And doing so led him to flirt with either theological unitarianism, or as this commenter noted, perhaps the Incarnation Sonship heresy, where Jesus is viewed as eternally the second Person in the Trinity, but not the "eternally begotten" Son; rather, the Father-Son relationship didn't occur until Jesus was Incarnated. That's not what his church taught; that's NOT what the Athanasian Creed teaches.

Enter William Livingston, who, as I noted here and here, rejected creeds and ecclesiastical authority. He is also one of Bradford's Presbyterians. I don't know whether he took Presbyterian oaths (see this chart for late 18th Cen. American Churches and their oaths). But my links show he 1. believed in the Bible; but 2. rejected creeds as man made, and 3. mocked the Athanasian Creed.

Enter Benjamin Rush. Though an orthodox Trinitarian, he embraced the Universalist heresy. He was nominally Presbyterian (see this useful chart for formal/nominal affiliation of the Founders). I do not know whether Rush took Presbyterian oaths; but his Arminianism and Universalism contradicted Presbyterianism's creed.

And Rush knew it. He expressed his rejection of creeds to John Adams, April 5, 1808, and noted his religion a compound of "orthodoxy" and "heterodoxy." He also told Adams he kept his exact religious beliefs secret.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I DISLIKE the claim -- "they were orthodox because they were all members of Churches with orthodox creeds" -- so much is, from what I have seen it is precisely the opposite of the truth. Some Founders connected to those churches were biblical unitarians; some were orthodox in spite of what those creeds taught, but rather because they found Trinitarianism in the Bible; and some were more rationalistic unitarian and deistic "Christians." But I haven't seen ANY evidence that the Founders were "orthodox" because they respected the creeds to which their churches adhered. James H. Hutson's The Founders on Religion, on pages 79-81, reproduces quotations from Abigail and John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Jay and Rush on the subject of creeds and EACH is anti-creedal in sentiment.

The "orthodox because of their churches' creeds" meme misses the radically anti-creedal, anti-ecclesiastical dynamic of the American Founding.

*Bradford was almost the appointed to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities by President Reagan until his paleoconservative belief that the South was right poisoned his well.

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