Sunday, February 01, 2015

Getting Ben Franklin Into Heaven

So I promised Bill Fortenberry I would give him thoughts on the book he wrote on Ben Franklin's faith (which you can purchase here).

He sent me a free copy which I leafed through. The arguments were not unfamiliar to me in that I think he tested many of them on me in our discussions. And the research, meticulous as it is, was largely known to me independent of my dealings with Mr. Fortenberry.

There's plenty in the record to demonstrate that although one time, early in his life, Franklin believed in something which he termed "thorough Deis[m]," he later abandoned such for a warmer theism.

Franklin also, as far as I can tell, considered himself some kind of "Christian" and saw a special place for Jesus, but had problems with doctrines of the Christianity that prevailed in America and England. (That is, if he had affinity for any of the "sects" of Christianity, he affiliated himself with the "dissenters.")

We can then pose questions: Did Mr. Franklin 1. "dissent" his way out of the "Christian" label, properly understood?; and, 2. for those who believe in such a place, into an eternal Hell?

The former question seems more an apt exercise in earthly categorizations and understandings. The latter question isn't something I am qualified or care to answer other than noting I don't think anyone deserves an eternal Hell as that doctrine is understood by some.

But answering such is what drives Mr. Fortenberry's research.

And he answers: According to Mr. Fortenberry's peculiar theology, Franklin was a "Christian" and therefore, gets into Heaven. To Mr. Fortenberry, as far as I can tell, to be a "Christian" means to be saved and get into Heaven, those who aren't "Christians" are damned.

Now, this is dogma. And it's not clear, by the way, that Ben Franklin believed this dogma about what it means to be a "Christian" and who gets saved. He once said that “a virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.” Franklin's sentiment, of course, causes Mr. Fortenberry cognitive dissonance and to resolve such he claims "Franklin quickly resolved this error."

The problem for Mr. Fortenberry is that Franklin never claimed to be "resolv[ing] ... error." It is just as possible and logical to read the sentiments of Franklin's "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," and "A Defense of Mr. Hemphill’s Observations" as not contradicting one another. (That is the apparent, necessary contradiction between the two is one of Mr. Fortenberry's wishful imaginings.)

Franklin does at one point claim the gospel teaches "Christ by his Death and Sufferings has purchas’d for us those easy Terms and Conditions of our Acceptance with God, propos’d in the Gospel, to wit, Faith and Repentance." This is something Mr. Fortenberry latches onto as key to his argument.

However, immediately after Mr. Fortenberry's cherry picked money quote, Franklin adds "[t]hat the ultimate End and Design of Christ’s Death, of our Redemption by his Blood, & was to lead us to the Practice of all Holiness, Piety and Virtue, and by these Means to deliver us from future Pain an Punishment, and lead us to the Happiness of Heaven,..." [My emphasis.] In other words, it's the PRACTICE of virtue that chiefly determines man's place in the future state. And faith, doctrine and Christ's death itself, etc. are just useful means to THAT "ULTIMATE" END.

Indeed, the statements in "A Defense of Mr. Hemphill's Observations" do not contradict but reinforce Franklin's assertion in "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," that "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."

But, Mr. Fortenberry desires Franklin believe in a traditional Protestant doctrine termed "sola fide" (that men are saved through faith alone). Accordingly, folks must believe in this doctrine to be a "Christian" and therefore "saved." Mr. Fortenberry's understanding of soteriology is ironically at once both eccumenically wide and idiosyncratically narrow, according to need.

After John Locke, Mr. Fortenberry claims one need not believe in the Trinity, but rather that "Jesus is Messiah" (this ropes in Locke and many other Protestant Unitarians, folks he would want to claim because of their important role in shaping America's political-theological landscape) to be saved (this is where he is eccumencially wide). But, as alluded to above, he holds one must believe in Sola Fide (that men are saved through faith alone) (this is where he is eccentrically narrow as this understanding arguably excludes among others Mormons, Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox).

Mr. Fortenberry, of course, claims his views are simply what the Bible teaches, even though it's not clear that the Bible properly understood teaches such! But also he claims all true Christian believers introduce reason and rationalism to fully inform their understanding of the Bible. Mr. Fortenberry, it should be noted, is a devout Baptist, who because of their radically decentralized ecclesiastical nature permit much ecclesiological freethinking.

That's fine. But the formula of the Bible plus a believer's subjective rationalistic understanding of such can conveniently produce desired idiosyncratic results while also disturbingly permit eccentric understandings, categorizations and conclusions such as those of other Baptists who hold to beliefs far more strange and disturbing than Mr. Fortenberry's. 

A milder eccentrism is illustrated by Mr. Fortenberry's understanding of early church history. He notes the Council of Niceal (325AD) "found the first departure from the historical definition of Christianity and, consequently, the first official denial of the title of 'Christian' on grounds other than the gospel." And that "[t]he decisions of the Council of Nicea abandoned the example of Scripture."

This Council is also responsible for the clearest historical enunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity -- long deemed a central doctrine to historic Christianity -- in which Mr. Fortenberry claims to believe.

Likewise the Bible itself -- the notion of "Scripture" as a complete canon -- wasn't finalized until after Nicea and it was this same Early Church that he derides as being corrupted by the clutches of worldy Roman Catholicism and St. Athanasius himself (who according to Mr. Fortenberry was a Roman Catholic) who settled the issue of which books properly belong in the canon.

For these and other reasons, the vast majority of non-Roman Catholic, "orthodox Christians" (Eastern Orthodox, Anglican-Episcopalians, most reformed and evangelical Protestants) believe themselves to be in communion with the early church who wrote the Nicean Creed.

It's rather the Roman Catholics themselves and non-Trinitarian Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and theological unitarians who want to either credit or blame the Roman Catholic Church with Nicea and the institutional church that came after. Among those who profess to believe in the Trinity it's only the Quakers and the Baptists who notably wish to distance themselves from Nicea and downplay the centrality of the doctrine to the Christian faith.

So in a footnote at the end of the book, Mr. Fortenberry makes clear his motivation and how his personal eccentric theology connects with his hope for Franklin's soul.
After reading all that Franklin wrote about Jesus ... I am of the opinion that Franklin did believe in the deity of Christ, and that he merely began having doubts about that belief after many years of association with unitarians. But even if he did come to deny the Trinity by the end of his life, that would still leave us with the question of whether such a denial would condemn him to an eternity in hell. I have provided an answer to that question in the appendix, and I trust that you will take the time to give it your full consideration.

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