Monday, January 09, 2017

My Biggest Criticism of Dr. Gregg Frazer's Thesis

Gregg Frazer's book is current again if for no other reason than his bete noire Bill Fortenberry has once again taken to writing about it. (On Frazer on John Adams parts I, II, and III).

One note of criticism that I don't see as apt is that Dr. Frazer is reading his personal definition of Christianity into what it means to be a "Christian." But that's not what his thesis argues. Frazer is an evangelical fundamentalist of the Calvinist stripe (though I think he believes in 4 of the 5 points).

His thesis on the other hand is a late 18th Century American ecumenical Trinitarianism -- lowest-common-denominator -- from the major churches including lots of non-Calvinists and those whose theology differs from his. Roman Catholics, High Church (liturgical), non-Calvinistic orthodox Anglicans get to be "Christians." So do orthodox evangelical Baptists of the free will Arminian stripe.

When I presented at Gordon College in front of him and a group of notable scholars, I endorsed the book with qualification. One of the biggest criticisms -- and I'll say right now it's the biggest -- is the lack of attention paid to Richard Price (and a few others, but the lack paid to Price is the most notable). Frazer argues the Socinian Joseph Priestley as a sort of "guru" for the political theology of the American Founding. But the Arian Price should have gotten just as much ink. Priestley and Price as leaders of a cohort that actually has a name: Club of Honest Whigs. They are also sometimes referred to as "dissenters" on theological issues.

The lowest-common-denominator consensus I referred to above was a consensus among the prevailing theological authorities. That is, such consensus excludes dissenters. The tradition was started by St. Athanasius and continues to this day. I'm no expert on C.S. Lewis, so I'm open to correction. But I understand even he posited that one must believe in certain orthodox Trinitarian minimums in order to qualify as a "mere Christian."

But this understanding did indeed exist, as an historical matter, in late 18th Century America. And unless I missed this in reading his book, none other than Richard Price offers a smoking gun quotation on its existence, that if used would have strengthened Frazer's case.

From an address that George Washington strongly endorsed, Price stated:

"Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity."

Frazer argues on behalf of those "commonly received ideas of Christianity" at the time and against which Price dissents. 

On a personal note, I'm with Price. But I write this to observe the reality of the historical dynamic.

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