Monday, April 08, 2013

Bolingbroke and the Influence of the "English Deists"

In his seminal paper on James Madison's faith, Dr. James H. Hutson wrote:
[A] statement in 1833 in which the aged ex-president lauded Christianity as the "best & purest religion" ... sounds very much like the deistical maxim, frequently indulged by Jefferson, that the "pure" religion of Jesus had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers.
Some might find it strange that "deists" who aren't supposed to regard ANY special revelation from God to man as valid would have such a thing to say about Christianity. But Dr. Hutson, apparently, is familiar with that special breed of "deist" who did say such things.

These deists fall prey to the "No True Scotsman" accusation. So I guess they weren't "deists" then? Were they Christians? Well as "Christians" they fall prey to the "No True Scotsman" accusation too. Hence Dr. Gregg Frazer's opting for a new term: "theistic rationalists." Or we could settle for Dr. David L. Holmes' term "Christian Deists."

After reading Dr. Frazer's innovative thesis and subsequent excellent book I understood a lot of unitarians and divines who weren't quite orthodox Trinitarian Christians influenced the political theology of the American Founding. What Frazer's book understates is just how common this hybrid religion was among historical figures whom most scholars label "deists."

Dr. Joseph Waligore asserts arguably most of the names associated with deism -- at least most of the English ones -- believed in this hybrid religion that wasn't quite strict deism or orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

And while Dr. Frazer's book does deal with Lord Shaftesbury -- the "English Deist" who wasn't quite a strict deist, disciple of John Locke and influencer of Ben Franklin -- it makes only small reference to Viscount Bolingbroke.

Frazer does mention that Allen Jayne makes an impressive circumstantial case for Bolingbroke's influence on Jefferson.  But Frazer, understandably, chooses to focus more on Joseph Priestley and Conyers Middleton as Jefferson's influences because Jefferson explicitly NAMED those two.

One reason, however, why minimizing Bolingbroke illuminates not is that Priestley's influence on Jefferson didn't really take hold until after 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was written.  (I'm not sure about the periods where Middleton's influence on Jefferson's was greatest).  So it's likeliest that the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration was Bolingbroke imbibed, rather than Priestley imbibed.

Indeed Bolingbroke used the term "Nature's God."  I have paid little attention to Bolingbroke because I concluded (wrongly) he was an ordinary deist and I wanted to focus more on those with the more middle ground position that accurately tracked the religious beliefs of the "key Founders."  Even if Bolingbroke, whatever his religious views, is responsible for the "laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in the Declaration, that phrase seems very amenable to strict deism.

But Bill Fortenberry turned my attention to Bolingbroke.  It turns out he was a "Christian-Deist" or "theistic rationalist," that he had a fascinatingly nuanced theological position AND it is now clear to me that Bolingbroke's influenced on Jefferson never waned.

Bolingbroke believed in the truth of both reason and revelation in a God speaking to man sense; but he thought Christianity corrupted by ecclesiastical influences, from the very start.  He was the quintessential "deist" about whom Dr. Hutson said lauded "the 'pure' religion of Jesus [that] had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers."

Jesus' words, according to Bolingbroke, were "revelation." Insofar as the Gospel writers didn't deviate from the message and interpolations were not added, so too were the writings of other men. But out of all of them, St. Paul intermixed his own "artificial" pharisaical theology into the Bible.

As he wrote of St. Paul:
St. Paul was a loose paraphraser, a cabalistical commentator, as much at least as any ancient or modern rabbin; and though his gospel was, in the fundamental principles of it, the same as theirs, yet he mingled it up with so much of his own theology, that he might not improperly, and in our sense, call it his own, and that we may call him the father of artificial theology.  
The original gospel, such as the other apostles preached it, was a plain system of belief and practice, fitted for all times, and proportioned to all understandings. St. Paul's gospel, if it may be said to be fitted as much as the others for all times, of which I doubt, cannot be said to be proportioned to all understandings. It is evidently not so to the understandings of the deepest divines, and the most subtile metaphysicians; since they have been wrangling about it from that time to this, and have established the most opposite doctrines on the same texts, to the breach of all charity, and the disturbance of the Christian world. 
It may be said that some passages in the four gospels, and even some expressions of Christ recorded in them, have been liable to various interpretations, and have produced such disputes and contents as these which I ascribe to the writings of St Paul. But although this be undoubtedly true, the difference between the original gospel, and that of St. Paul is very real, and very manifest. One is a plain and clear system of religion, with here and there a doubtful phrase that casts no obscurity on the rest. The other is an intricate and dark system, with here and there an intelligible phrase that casts no light on the rest, but is rather lost in the gloom of the whole.  
It's clear where Jefferson derived his disdain for St. Paul.

I've always been surprised that while Jefferson rejected the entire Book of Revelation as not valid, Joseph Priestley, who termed the plenary inspiration of the Bible as "corruption of Christianity," believed in that book as valid revelation.  But Bolingbroke did not.

This is what Bolingbroke says of the Book of Revelation (p. 422):
St. John had been long confined in the Island of Patmos, to which Domitian had banished him, and where it is pretended that he wrote the Apocalypse, that strange rhapsody of unintelligible revelations, as they are called most absurdly. It is much more probable, and more for the honor of the evangelist, as well as of Christianity, to believe that they were composed by Cerinthus, by a visionary of the same name as that of the apostle, or by some other enthusiast.
It's clear where Jefferson derived his disdain for the Book of Revelation.

So how, according to Bolingbroke, did Revelation end up in the Bible?
They were not admitted into the canon at Laodicea, nor would have been ever admitted to disgrace it, if Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian, in whom the love of mystery was a kind of delirium, and after their example several of the other fathers, had not crowded them into the canon by receiving them as canonical.
Bolingbroke had disdain for the early church fathers who selected the books that made it into the biblical canon.  The Bible did not, as some seem to pretend, just drop out of the sky from Heaven.  It is a series of books selected as canonical by the early church.

As the argument goes, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible made sure the early Church selected the correct books.  Bolingbroke's problem was he thought this church was corrupt and uninspired.

These "Christian Deists" oft-speak of a primitive, uncorrupted "Christianity."  Folks sympathetic to the Christian Nation thesis oft-argue it was just Roman Catholicism with which these kinds of thinkers had problems.  No.  Certainly, the Roman Catholics were the worst from this perspective.  But it was the whole artifice of creedal, confessional Christianity.

But these corrupt "ecclesiastical councils" of the early church didn't just formulate the early orthodox creeds, they also selected the books that comprise the biblical canon.

So this method of the "Christian Deists" doesn't just deconstruct the orthodox creeds, but notion of the Bible itself.  They believed in "some revelation" (in a God revealing directly to man sense), but not the Bible.

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