Saturday, February 28, 2015

Throckmorton Quotes Benjamin Rush

in the context of criticizing WorldNetDaily here. There's some good quotations from Benjamin Rush, a Trinitarian Universalist and liberal Christian for his day. From the original piece quoting Rush:
... Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World: “Cease from your political labors-your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor , or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.” From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever shall exist in the World.
The emphasis is Throckmorton's. The WorldNetDaily piece doesn't reference Rush but does favorably quote David Barton.

On a personal note, I like Tullian Tchividjian much more than D. James Kennedy. 

Update: I just left a comment at Throckmorton's. I responded to someone who argued Benjamin Rush seemed to be misrepresenting St. Paul's sentiments. I wrote to a fellow commenter:
I think you've hinted on a problem with the difficulty in interpreting the Bible. As I read Rush, I see him as mirroring exactly St. Paul's sentiments on Romans 13. The ruler to whom he instructed believers to submit to was the pagan psychopath Nero. And there was no call for revolution in St. Paul's writings.

The irony is the Founders did revolt and clergy with a "different" understanding of Romans 13 helped them so do. Now, after the revolution is over, that the clergy continued to give the too freethinking Jefferson and Rush trouble, Rush uses St. Paul to tell them to settle down because, after all St. Paul told believers to live under the legal peace of a pagan tyrant's rule.

Timothy Gordon: "Plagiarizing Catholicism: Algernon Sidney and the Whigs"

This is another interesting piece by Timothy Gordon here. A taste:
But the next in line, Samuel Pufendorf “corrected” that. Because Pufendorf was primarily a Grotius and Hobbes scholar—not much of an innovator—the fact that he “found” a right of revolution in nature (“missed” by Grotius) must more or less be chalked up to…more Scholastic plagiarism. Or at least to a willingness to embrace the justifiable regicide posed by Thomism which his forerunner Grotius repudiated. Even the English proto-Whigs before Pufendorf’s time like Buchanan and Rutherford struggled over Biblical passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter, which admonished the Christian to pay his taxes, however high, and forebear earthly tyranny. Wouldn’t you know it: Pufendorf, a Protestant, somehow eased right past this Biblical admonition and announced a right of revolution. So much for sola scriptura, right?

At last we come to Algernon Sidney, last in time except with respect to Locke. Dr. Birzer admits that “Sidney relies upon the arguments of the greatest of neo-Thomist Jesuits—especially…Roberto Bellermino.” Yet Dr. Birzer is summarily surprised that folks draw inferences from the fact that Sidney used and then lost Catholic thinkers?! That Prot-Enlight tradition of plagiarism had begun nearly a century earlier with Grotius! And it has big implications.
There is much to both agree and disagree with in Gordon's piece. I'll say this: As a Roman Catholic, he seems to dislike the "Prot-Enlight tradition." That is, the tradition of Protestantism and Enlightenment, the tradition of the American Founding.

Yes America's Founders did, as far as I can tell, use their own "reason" to pick and choose from a variety of traditions what they found useful while ignoring the rest. They did it with religion too. As Thomas Jefferson noted:

"Were I to be a founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract honey of every sect."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

So they made a "synthesis." And indeed, as Bernard Bailyn once noted, the different sources from which they drew were not always consistent with one another.

Final note: The term "plagiarism" is loaded. The Founders didn't have the same standards for what today is considered a really bad thing.

TAC: "Country Before Faith"

Read this wonderful piece on Walter Berns here. A taste:
... What I did know was that Berns was everything a teacher should be: engaging, opinionated but respectful of others, and a master of the material, which he obviously loved. Indeed, sometimes I think the best possible legacy of the Straussians a century hence will be that image of what a teacher should be.

His explication of the principles of the American Founding left a lasting impression on me, and his teaching provided a perfect counterpoint to my reading of Russell Kirk—in some ways, though not all, a thinker very different from Berns. I recall even now his lectures on why the Confederacy, rather than the Union, better embodied the dark side of progressive “science”—the South being explicitly founded on so-called racial science while the North stuck to Lockean natural rights and the British political tradition—and how Tocquevillian principles explained why there would always be more female models than male ones. As a sophomore I found him terrifying, and not much less so after three courses than when I took the first one.

Among the most vexing problems Berns addressed over his long career was that of religion in the American polity. An Episcopalian of the old school, Berns thought religion important but something that, in James Madison-like fashion, must be kept under control for fear of causing “faction.” In 1963, writing in National Review on “School Prayer and Religious Warfare,” Berns chided the Supreme Court for delving into religious controversy when it did not have to do so. The court had the year before invalidated a nonsectarian prayer in New York City public schools. Berns suggested that the court need not have decided the case, as sometimes it is more judicially appropriate not to act than it is to act, especially where questions that may cause social unrest are concerned. Here, he argued, the court could have taken refuge in the legal doctrine of “standing” to deny those bringing the case the ability to press their claim.

Berns thought that New York prayer decision was wrong as a matter not of jurisprudence but of simple prudence. The Constitution, he wrote, does not provide a definitive answer to whether such prayer should be permitted. Nor does history: here Berns referred to the Fourteenth Amendment, which imposed the strictures of the First Amendment on the states—which had in turn, from the time of the Revolution, a variety of different arrangements between church and government that provided more or less public support to religious belief. Those who would try to deny “incorporation” of the First Amendment’s rights as against the states “would need to ponder the desirability in this day of the alternative: states would still be free to disenfranchise men and women” because of their religious beliefs—a result, Berns implies, that should not be countenanced.
I would have loved to have had him as a teacher. I learned a great deal from him even as I disagree with him on various policy matters. And as much as I agree with certain of his insights on the American Founding, I think he was wrong on others.

The Complicated Story of the Natural Law of the American Founding

That's what I get out of this post by Timothy Gordon. A taste:
America’s Declaration and, to a slightly lesser extent, its Constitution were structured almost exclusively upon the ideas of “Whig theory” from England in the prior century. Whig theory’s mature form, John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise, was in turn fertilized by the coalescence of two 16th Century movements: the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation. Sometimes de dicto and other times de facto, the Reformation (from within Christendom) and the Enlightenment (from without) repudiated all the heftiest parts of Natural Law theory: nature as a forum for freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology. Locke well knew that his own empiricist epistemology (and in an opposite/equal way, the Reformation epistemology) laid low these four important attributes formerly ascribed to nature.  Simply, if nature is unintelligible, it can have no discernible law.

And this acknowledgement forced Locke to bifurcate bizarrely. He wanted Natural Law’s conclusion—objective and discernable rights—but none of its premises. So he distinguished. On the one hand, what Michael P. Zuckert has called Locke’s “transcendent natural law,” was not really Natural Law at all, because like all of “Prot-Enlight” Whig theory it denied nature’s freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology. It cast the convincing, yet misleading, impression of a nature as simultaneously inscrutable yet still a source of rights. Accordingly, Locke affirmed it. On the other hand, “immanent natural law,” was basically the Aristotelian idea writ large (i.e. true Natural Law theory), which Locke more or less had to reject as a committed Reformer and empiricist. By way of an egregious misnomer, a “shell game” of sorts, Locke became known as history’s ultimate Natural Law theorist. That is to say, he became Natural Law’s godfather only by a heinous convolution of ideas: cherrypicking a conclusion with none of its premises.

In that way, and that way only, could he simultaneously a) plagiarize from the Scholastics of the Catholic Church in order to b) describe, in 1689, the prior year’s Glorious Revolution against Catholicism in England! Whig Theory is intellectual history’s greatest irony: imagine getting into a fight with someone because you insist this person should not carry a knife. In the ensuing struggle, you wrest the knife from him and use it on him…all to force him to acknowledge that he should not use the knife. Of course you prevail, because the knife is indeed effective. This was more or less the Whig stance on Natural Law (i.e. the “knife”) in England in 1689. And the American Founders and Framers imported all this ambivalence into their “American Whiggism” a century later. Thus, 18th Century American Natural Law was no less tortured than 17th Century English Natural Law. Both were fueled exclusively by the Prot-Enlight amalgam of Whiggism, which rebuked but secretly incorporated Scholastic political theory.

But the whole hodgepodge, I acknowledge, also represents history’s best political experiment to date, which, irrespective of its etiological cover-up, got things 90% right or better at the beginning. At the beginning. On account of the idea’s low fidelity, however, it devolved rather quickly, in under two centuries.
Anyone want to quarrel with his understanding?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fea: "Boston 1775 Debunks the 'Black Robed Regiment'"

Check out John Fea's report here. A taste:
A group of Christian nationalist evangelical ministers known as "The Black Robed Regiment" has been in the news recently. Dan Fisher, the Oklahoma state representative who wants to ban the AP U.S. History course in the state, is a self-identified member of this "regiment."  The clergy in the "Black Robed Regiment" claim that they are modeling their movement on the eighteenth-century ministers who used their pulpits to promote the American Revolution.

Bell traces the phrase "Black Robed Regiment" to a conversation between Glenn Beck and David Barton on a 2010 episode of Beck's show.  His recent post shows that many of the stories of patriotic eighteenth-century ministers used by today's "Black Robed Regiment" are based on very weak evidence.  He has also found what appears to be a comment from a Barton researcher that was inadvertently left in a footnote on Barton's page devoted to the regiment.
 And check out this post here. A taste:
Oliver proceeded to name some ministers who he thought had been particularly useful to Otis and his allies: “Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, Dr. Charles Chauncy & Dr. Samuel Cooper.”
All three of them were, by the way, theological unitarians. And Chauncy was explicitly universalist (the other two might have been as well). Chauncy was a biblical Christian-unitarian-universalist (which differs from the UUs of today, though they trace their heritage to him and his).

Friday, February 20, 2015

Islam & the Founding

The topic is current once again because of the President's recent remarks. You can check out this article from the Heritage Foundation that attempts to be critical of Islam's presence in Founding era America. However, this article by James Hutson supports the President's notion.  You can also see Warren Throckmorton discuss David Barton and Glenn Beck on this topic.

The Throckmorton-Barton piece focuses on Thomas Jefferson. My understanding of Jefferson on Islam is that although the Barbary Pirates gave him a great deal of trouble during his Presidency, as of 1809, in his letter to James Fishback, he doesn't write Islam off but makes some kind of equivalency between it and Christianity:
... [E]very religion consists of moral precepts, & of dogmas. in the first they all agree. all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness Etc. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, & happiness in society. in their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. these respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, & metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, & unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, & now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers Etc. among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; & what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world! ...

Aha! Harry V. Jaffa was really an esoteric East Coast Straussian

This is what Paul Gottfried writes about Jaffa.
... This thinker or myth-maker (he was both) has made good on a claim he once divulged to his boyhood friend from the Bronx, the late Francis Canavan, S.J. Jaffa told the then already eminent theologian and Edmund Burke-scholar in a moment of candor: “Frank, I’m inventing a myth and I’ll make people believe it.” I learned of this story while Father Canavan and I were attending an Edmund Burke conference about twenty years ago. The Jesuit scholar mentioned it not to disparage Jaffa, but to express admiration for someone who achieved what he said he would do when they were both much younger.
The "East Coast Straussians" (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, Irving Kristol and some others) are notable for somewhat secretly (it's not much of a secret anymore) rejecting the metaphysical truths of revelation and the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence, while believing it's proper for the public to believe in the truths of both. Though, they caution on how much the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence ought be promoted. The liberalism of the late 18th Century, as it were, too easily slips into the liberalism of today. So, therefore, the Constitution should be understood as unmoored from the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence.

The West Coast Straussians (Jaffa and his followers) believe the Declaration of Independence should be connected to the Constitution and that its natural rights doctrine doesn't slip into modern liberalism.

But here's the key: The East Coast Straussians can be somewhat upfront about their conviction that the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration is a metaphysical fiction. Jaffa defended such as though it were true. Gottfried's testimony suggests he was artfully lying. That he too understood the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration as a metaphysical fiction, but thought it needed to be defended as though it were true to keep morality from falling apart.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Throckmorton: "David Barton on Real Life with Jack Hibbs: Did the University of Virginia Have Chaplains?"

Check it out here. A taste:
While it is true that the University of Virginia eventually created a chaplain position, this was not the case from the beginning of the school. Originally, UVA did not employ chaplains. Barton doesn’t tell you that scholars are concerned with the founding of the school and no academic historian I am aware of disputes that the school eventually added chaplains.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wood: "History in Context, The American vision of Bernard Bailyn"

Gordon Wood writing for the Weekly Standard here. A taste:
In his books and articles he has transformed every aspect of the subjects he touched—from the social basis of colonial politics to early American educational history to the origins of the American Revolution to early American immigration. Few, if any, American historians in the modern era of professional history-writing have dominated their particular subject of specialization to the degree that Bernard Bailyn has dominated early American history in the past half-century.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Throckmorton: "Simon & Schuster Has No Plans to Publish David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies"

Check it out here. A taste:
... The rumor that Simon and Schuster was about to publish Barton’s book has been going around since The Jefferson Lies was pulled. Today, I can announce that Simon and Schuster has no plans to publish the book....

Kidd: "Ben Franklin’s Calvinist Father"

Thomas Kidd tells us about it here. A taste:
Ben Franklin would famously grow skeptical about his fathers’ faith, but in many ways that faith – and its emphasis on the need for public morality and charity – would continue to mark Franklin’s own endeavors as an adult.

Congrats to John Fea: Washington Post Picks up his Article

Check the details here. His article is entitled, "The echoes of Abraham Lincoln in President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast speech." Below is a taste:
This is a speech rooted in Christian teaching about love, humility and compassion. I would expect nothing less from a follower of Jesus. Obama appeals to the mystery of God and, without specifically saying it, asks us to remove the speck from our own eye before we set out to remove the log from our neighbor’s eye.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Fea: "Was the United States Born as a Result of a Religious Revival?"

Check it out here. A taste:
[Jerry] Newcombe and Mark Beliles of the Providence Foundation have a new book out.  It is called Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson.  I have not read this book, but if the Amazon description is any indication it sounds like something similar to David Barton's discredited The Jefferson Lies.  Perhaps Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter should look into this.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Ben Franklin and Revelation

(I was going to write this as a comment, but given I make an important point, I am making it a main post.)

One of the difficulties of biblical interpretation is that the Bible often speaks in metaphor and parables. And it is utterly contentious as to when a particular passage should be understood as such. These differences in understandings divide entire religious movements.

For instance, I once witnessed a discussion between a Protestant and a Catholic where the Protestant said "you eat a metaphor during communion." And the Catholic replied "no YOU eat a metaphor; I eat the living God."

Ben Franklin's writings on revelation suggest he was heavy on the metaphorical and parabolic understanding such that it's debatable whether he believed any of the Bible was inspired in a "literal"  sense, as opposed to a book that contained much wisdom and "truth" in a different sense.

The clearest statement Franklin EVER gave on his understanding of revelation (during the time in his life after he moved from deism to theism) was in his letter to John Calder  where he said "that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole."

As it relates to Franklin, religion & Bible, we know this  much:

1. The Bible teaches a future state of rewards and punishments;
2. Other world religions teach a future state of rewards and punishments;
3. Ben Franklin believed in a future state of rewards and punishments.

Ben Franklin did NOT (at least provably not) believe in a future state of rewards and punishments because the Bible said so. Rather, Franklin's reason and common sense told him this teaching was true and Franklin valued the Bible and other religions to the extent that they reinforced this teaching.

On the concept of the nature of those rewards and punishments, Franklin was no hellfire preacher. And when Franklin recites scripture that relates to the teaching of a future state, we err if we conclude he held to a literal meaning.

For this post I will examine one of those examples, that of Lazarus and the rich man. First, among Bible believers it's debatable whether such should be read in a literal sense. This page by Bible believing Christians, for instance, makes a good case that such a tale is NOT meant to be read literally, but parabolically.

Franklin too, as I read him, endorse a parabolic reading of the text. He, in his "Appeal for the Hospital" said:
[A]lso, the rich Man, is represented as being excluded from the Happiness of Heaven, because he fared sumptuously every Day, and had Plenty of all Things, and yet neglected to comfort and assist his poor Neighbour, who was helpless and full of Sores, and might perhaps have been revived and restored with small care, by the Crumbs that fell from his Table, or, as we say, with his loose Corns.—I was Sick, and ye Visited me, is one of the Terms of Admission into Bliss, and the Contrary, a Cause of Exclusion:...
[Bold face mine.]

Notice that Franklin terms the rich man as merely being "excluded from the Happiness of Heaven." If you read the story literally, it's much more than that; the rich man appears to be tortured. It's obvious that Franklin rejects this understanding.

Indeed, as I have shown before, Franklin espoused a biblical method that permits him to "understand" scripture in a sense agreeable to his reason, common sense and notion of benevolence of the deity. He admitted the hard orthodox could cite scripture in a straightforward way to reach results that seemed extremely unfair and made God look cruel. And he then he noted, he had "the right to look out for another Sense of the Passage in Question, which will not contradict the clear Decisions of Reason." He did this so "the Almighty," is not represented "as stern, arbitrary, inexorable, ..."

It's obvious to me that's what Franklin did with the story of Lazarus and the rich man. If taken to represent the larger truth of a future state of rewards and punishments, that we must watch how we treat people in this life because cosmic justice awaits in the next life, such a story can be lauded.

If however, the story is taken to mean there really was this rich man and this is exactly how God will treat him for eternity, Franklin didn't buy it (at least he shows no evidence his understanding of the story held to that "Sense of the Passage in Question.")

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Franklin and the Benevolent Deity

In responding to Bill Fortenberry, I carefully reread portions of Ben Franklin's "A Defense of Mr. Hemphill’s Observations."

Let me note, with Tom Van Dyke, I'm not even certain that Franklin's statements in this "Defense" represent his true beliefs, or whether he's merely acting as an advocate. I do believe Franklin found some expressions of the Christian faith more preferable to others. And that Arminianism and unitarianism were preferable to the hard core Calvinism that sought to railroad Samuel Hemphill.

This part is interesting (I have added paragraph breaks for clarity; what is italicized is in the original; the boldface is mine):
Hemphill is condemn’d for advancing this Piece of Heresy, viz. They who have no other Knowledge of God and their Duty, but what the Light of Nature teaches them; no Law for the Government of their Actions, but the Law of Reason and Conscience; will be accepted, if they live up to the Light which they have, and govern their Actions accordingly.

To this our stern Authors answer, Will the Heathen be accepted of God, by living up to the Light which they have, and governing their Actions accordingly? then, say they, there is no need of Christ’s Merits and Satisfaction, in order to our Acceptance with God.


... The Holy Scriptures represent his Mission as a general Benefit, a Benefit which Regards all Men, and in Fact, tell us that Christ dyed for all.

And can any imagine that our good God, as is here suppos’d, will eternally damn the Heathen World for not obeying a Law they never heard of; that is, damn them for not doing an Impossibility. Surely none can imagine such a thing; except such as form their Ideas of the great Governor of the Universe, by reflecting upon their own cruel, unjust and barbarous Tempers, as our Authors seem to do.

If God requir’d Obedience to an unknown Law, Obedience to the Gospel from those that never heard of it, or who never were in a Capacity or Circumstances of being reasonably convinc’d of it, it would be in the first Place manifest Injustice; for surely, Promulgation or Publishing of a Law must be allow’d necessary, before Disobedience to it can be accounted criminal.

It is utterly impossible to reconcile the contrary Notion with the Idea of a good and just God; and is a most dreadful and shocking Reflection upon the Almighty. In the next Place, we should find the Mission of our Saviour so far from being a general Benefit, as the Scripture teaches, that on the contrary it would be but a particular one, distributed only to the smallest Part of Mankind: But, which is more, this Mission of our Saviour wou’d be a very great Misfortune and Unhappiness to the greatest Part (three Fourths) of Mankind.

For it is probable, that without this Necessity of Obedience to an unknown Law, many would be able to save themselves by a good Use of their Reason and the Light of Nature; whereas by the Mission of our Redeemer, and the Imposition of an unknown Law, a Law which they could not observe (I mean what is peculiar to Christianity) they are reduc’d to an utter Impossibility of being sav’d.

I do not think that these Observations can be contradicted without saying Things very injurious to the Deity, and therefore erroneous. Agreable to the general Notion here advanc’d are the Sentiments of St. Paul in Rom. 4:15 where he says, For where no Law is there is no Transgression. And Rom. 5:13 Sin is not imputed when there is no Law. See also Rom. 2:14, 15.

I know that some Passages of Scripture are adduc’d by the Maintainers of this Notion to prove the Truth of it. ... And give me leave to remark here by the by, that if after all requisite Care and Pains, Reason clearly teaches the Truth of such or such a Proposition, and that we find in the holy Scriptures some Passage that seems to contradict the clear Decisions of Reason, we ought not, for we really cannot, admit that Sense of the Passage that does so, altho’ it shou’d be receiv’d by all the Divines, that call themselves orthodox, upon Earth; So that any Man must be altogether in the right to look out for another Sense of the Passage in Question, which will not contradict the clear Decisions of Reason.

This Principle is to be extenden only to Propositions, which evidently contradict the clear and manifestly well-founded Decisions of Reason in general (as in the Case before us;) and I say that such Propositions, such Doctrines cannot be contain’d in divine Revelation; so that we must look for another Sense of the Passages, by which they wou’d pretend to establish these Propositions or Doctrines; we must, I say, look for a Sense agreeable to Reason and the known Perfections of God; and it is absolutely impossible to reconcile the Opinion here contradicted to either; and if this Notion be not to represent the Almighty, as stern, arbitrary, inexorable, & pray what is? 
As for those Passages of Scripture, which are often adduc’d to prove the absolute Necessity of all Men’s believing in Jesus Christ without Distinction, in order to Salvation; Reason, common Sense, Equity and Goodness oblige us to understand and apply them only to those to whom infinite Wisdom has thought proper to send the Gospel.
These Gentlemen can hardly take it amiss to be advis’d to take the utmost Care of saying any thing, or interpreting Scripture after a Manner injurious to the infinite Justice, Goodness and Mercy of God, and contradictory to Reason. If the christian Scheme of Religion be not a reasonable one, they wou’d make but a dull Piece of Work on’t in attempting to vindicate the Truth of it.
This passage contains a number of notable theologically liberal, heterodox for the time sentiments.

1. It's undeniable that works are at least part of the Franklin's justification scheme as he admits that some folks, even without Jesus coming would be able to save themselves "by a good Use of their Reason and the Light of Nature." Note, he's not saying just the Jews living according to the law of the Old Testament, though they might qualify under such. He's more generally applying the principle to all men (Ancient Greeks, Romans, the other noble pagans) who by their reason live lives of virtue according to the light of nature.

2. So why did Christ come? To save more people. To streamline the process of getting into Heaven. According to a theory prevalent among fellow Christian-Deists at the time, Jesus perfectly typified the law of nature, determinable from reason. Though, Jesus' example is clearer than what a typical man's reason could determine for himself. If men are saved in some way by their virtue (and such saving virtues can be determined from reason and the senses alone) and Jesus perfectly modeled such, knowing Jesus' clearer example would lead to greater levels of salvation, accordingly.

3. Franklin doesn't seem comfortable with the notion that a large percentage of humanity are destined for or will go to damnation. I do see in Franklin's overall work, an endorsement of the notion of a future state of rewards and punishments. And in one letter, purgatory where imperfect souls are prepared for Heaven. It's doubtful he believed in an eternal Hell for anyone.

Benjamin Rush once noted how his newly found Arminian principles of the universality of Christ's Atonement led to a belief in the eventual salvation of all mankind. Franklin repeats the Arminian tenet that "Christ dyed for all."

The overall tenor of the passages seem to indicate more than Jesus just dying for all, but that a great deal of humanity (perhaps all?) would benefit,  some kind of hopeful universalism.

4. Franklin also concedes there are different ways to interpret the Bible and that he endorsed injecting a sense of "Reason, common Sense, Equity and Goodness ... infinite Wisdom ... infinite Justice, Goodness and Mercy of God" into his interpretation of the texts. And he would reject implications that made God look "as stern, arbitrary, inexorable." Further he called out the understanding of the Bible of "the Divines, that call themselves orthodox,..."

In other words, Franklin rejected the understanding of Christianity that holds "this is what the Bible teaches, and if you don't like it, tough luck, take it up with God." 

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.