Monday, February 08, 2016

Hutson on Stewart

James H. Hutson on Matthew Stewart's book at Claremont Review of Books here. A taste:
How does Stewart go about proving this remarkable thesis? To show that Locke was an atheist, coached in the dark side by Spinoza, Stewart relies on an unpublished manuscript, “Apple and Worm,” sent to Stewart by an admirer in the Netherlands. There is a leaven of Gnosticism here as Stewart relies on secret wisdom conveyed by a secret text—a kind of Gospel of Thomas or a Second Treatise to the Great Seth. For scholars, such a secret document cannot, of course, have any credibility; they must rely on such evidence as Stewart publicly offers to prove a connection between Locke and Spinoza. Some of it is of the following variety: Locke lived in Amsterdam a few years after Spinoza’s death; or sentiments from Spinoza’s writings appear to agree with sentiments found at various places in Locke’s works, e.g., that the ancient Hebrews ascribed ordinary events to the intervention of God, that rebellion against tyrants was a natural right, and that the rule of law was necessary for the public good. Stewart then assumes that this limited commonality of ideas proves that Locke subscribed to all of Spinoza’s sentiments, including his religious ones.


There is a rich literature offering a variety of interpretations of Locke and different assessments of his relation to the American Founding. Stewart’s book has not benefited from it. He appears to believe that every mainstream scholar is a fraud. His favorite expression is “the common view gets the actual history of ideas almost exactly backwards” or “the common view” about the Enlightenment “amounts to a falsification of the history of ideas.” Page after page contains explanations of the folly of the “common view” or the “common conception.” Here, again, we encounter a whiff of Gnosticism which, according to Tobias Churton, holds that the received view conceals the truth and that a text has an “outer sense” for “ordinary” people and an “inner sense whose dimensions of meaning may be endless.” This attitude seems to have contributed to Stewart’s creation of a parallel universe in which atheists hijacked the American Revolution and “the contradictory impulses” of American religion today “belatedly converged along the path that begins with Spinoza and Jefferson.”

Fea: "Still Misleading America About Thomas Jefferson"

John Fea takes down David Barton here. A taste:
But no one drew the ire of the founders of the ABS more than Thomas Jefferson. When the primary author of the Declaration of Independence defeated John Adams in the presidential election of 1800 his followers described the victory as a natural extension of the American Revolution. The tyranny of the Federalist Party (of whom Boudinot, Jay, and most of the ABS founders were members) was over. The Federalist attempt at using Christianity as a means of keeping moral order in the country would now give way to a new age of liberty and religious skepticism.
Jefferson embodied everything that the ABS opposed. He rejected traditional Christian beliefs such as the deity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. He did not believe that the Bible was inspired by God. He despised Calvinists of both the Congregational and Presbyterian variety. He supported the French Revolution, an uprising associated in the Federalist mind with atheism and the destruction of organized religion. He opposed established Christianity and called for the separation of church and state. And he believed that Christians were on the wrong side of history. As Jefferson famously wrote to his friend Dr. Thomas Cooper in 1822, “Unitarianism…will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.”

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Why Does Satan Have the Best Music?

I just noticed Peter Lillback wrote a song about George Washington & Christianity embedded below:

Compare that to Michael Newdow's tune on GW & SHMG. Sorry but Newdow's is better. Much better.

Paul Boller, RIP

He died in 2014. Blog brother Ray Soller tipped me off to this. I wrote Boller a note about Peter Lillback and Boller replied. If I can find the letter I might post the image.

Boller wrote a book which became the standard bearer on George Washington and religion that argued GW was *some* kind of Deist. The book doesn't argue GW was a Deist of the absentee landlord type. But perhaps Boller's book does deserve some blame for later scholars who mistakenly conclude GW was.

Lillback's book, self published (nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it was badly in need of an editor) attacks Boller in a mean spirited tone. Lillback's book is not without its virtues. It really does make a great reference for George Washington's quotations. And it does "step up" the game in terms of meticulously examining the scholarly record.

I was surprised by the polemical tone of Lillback's book because when I have seen him speak via video clips he comes across as a kind and gentle man with a very civil tone.

And I suppose, fighting fire with fire, I adopted the same harsh tone in my criticisms of Lillback.

I didn't want and do not want people to think Lillback's over 1000 page book gets the last word or demolishes Boller. He claims to have demolished the thesis that Washington was a "Deist." And if we define Deism as absentee landlord deity-ism, a creed that is bitterly dismissive of all revealed religions, then Lillback did indeed do this.

However, Lillback and those of his worldview have high standards for what it means to be a "Christian." This is why Lillback was desperate to prove GW an "orthodox Trinitarian Christian."

That's where he shoots too far. We might term GW a "theistic rationalist," a "Christian-Deist." Or perhaps a "Christian" in the very ecumenical, latitudinarian wing of the Anglican Church which downplays doctrine and really doesn't care too much about notions like the Trinity.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Jesus' Role in Christian-Deism

As Dr. Joseph Waligore has pointed out, there were three notable figures from England who called themselves "Christian Deists": 1. Thomas Morgan; 2. Thomas Amory; and 3. Matthew Tindal.

They disregarded orthodox doctrines like the Trinity and the Atonement but still saw a special place for Jesus as Messiah.

We argue over which terms are proper. Sometimes it makes sense to attach a term to a movement that the thinkers did not use. For instance, the early "Thomists" or "Calvinistis" probably didn't use those terms to describe themselves (though such terms are entirely apt). However, the above three thinkers did accepted the label of "Christian-Deist."

Others, however with parallel views might not have self consciously understood themselves as "Christian-Deists"; but it still might make sense to attach such label to them. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, considered himself a "Christian" and a "Unitarian." He, like Franklin, tended to qualify his preferred version of "Christianity" with the adjective "rational" ("rational Christianity").

Jefferson did not, I don't think, consider himself a "Deist" and the only time of which I am aware he used that term, what he meant by it was the belief in one God. Hence Jefferson called the Old Testament Jews "Deists" because they believed in one God.

But in terms of openness to the supernatural doctrines of traditional Christianity (i.e., miracles) Jefferson was arguably less of a "Christian" than Morgan, Amory or Tindal were. Still, the label "Christian-Deist" may "fit" with Jefferson. (Or maybe Jefferson wasn't "Christian" enough, even though he understood himself to be one.)

The question then for whether it's appropriate to label the "key Founders" to be "Christian-Deists" is whether their beliefs mesh with the "Christian-Deism" as articulated by the above three: Morgan, Amory and Tindal.

With Ben Franklin, if we take what he detailed in the Samuel Hemphill affair as reflecting his personal creed, I think the answer is yes.

How this relates to Jesus. The "Christian-Deists" saw Jesus as Messiah, but in an unorthodox way. They were probably influenced by John Locke in this regard. As I understand it they didn't worry about the Trinity or other orthodox doctrines. Rather, they understood there is a natural law determinable by reason. And some brilliant philosophers (Aristotle?) can get the results without Jesus, but with much intricate intellectual work.

In fact Franklin explicitly notes in A Defense of Mr. Hemphill's Observations that before the coming of Jesus, "many would be able to save themselves by a good Use of their Reason and the Light of Nature."

I guess this depends on what it means by "many." That is, because man's reason is flawed such that your average Joe Sixpack can't properly understand Aristotle and hence, many also won't be able to save themselves by trying to live according to such principles.

Jesus perfectly lived out and captured these principles in such a way that ordinary people could understand and follow. This is what the Christian-Deist concept of Christianity republishing the law of nature refers to. In fact, John Locke has a line about Jesus' teachings being so clear that "ignorant fisherman" could follow them. So Jesus saves by perfecting and modeling virtue and teaching it in such a way that everyone could follow and hence yields a net increase in moral practice.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Berean Research on David Barton

See the proper hardcore Protestant evangelical fundamentalist view of David Barton's research and the American Founding here. A taste:
Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) announced that David Barton has been given his own TV show which first aired January 8. ...

Well this is interesting.  Glenn Beck will be a guest on the show?  Beck’s a member in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Um…Mormons reject the Trinity, as in the T in TBN. Do Jan & Sons not know that Mormons contend they’re the true remnant of the Christian church — the one true church?

Since Mormonism denies central doctrines of the faith it’s not Christian by any stretch.  In fact, Mormonism is considered a theological cult or a sect.  Don’t be fooled by the rumor that has been circulating for several years, fueled by David Barton, that Glenn Beck is a Christian and that he’s saved.  If this is true, then why would Beck keep the news from his friends and fans?  Moreover, a truly regenerate Christian would understand that he must cut all ties with the LDS Church and join a church where the true gospel of Christ is preached.

But Glenn Beck hasn’t cut ties with his church.  Instead he promotes Mormonism.
Yes that which believes Mormonism is "not Christian by any stretch" should also see the political theology of the American Founding as "not Christian by any stretch."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

James Pitt on the Christian Deist view of Justification

Dr. Joseph Waligore's article convinced me that the English Christian-Deist James Pitt is the likely source of theological inspiration for Ben Franklin in his dealings with the Samuel Hemphill affair.

In those writings Franklin rejects among others, the orthodox Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide, that men are justified through faith alone. As Franklin wrote:
Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one.
Other writings of Franklin indicate he didn't like perhaps Thomas Jefferson did, believe in a "works alone" scheme of justification. But rather, simply Franklin rejected "faith alone." The conclusion is Franklin believed in some mysterious combination of faith and works, or perhaps, faith, grace and works, for salvation.

James Pitt wrote something strikingly similar. From Dr. Waligore's paper:
Pitt agreed that many biblical passages emphasized faith, but he disagreed with the traditional Protestant doctrine that people were justified by faith alone. Instead, Pitt reinterpreted these passages to say that faith was always related to virtue. To Pitt, faith meant “Faith of a moral nature; not a Sett [sic] of speculative Opinions; not Faith absolutely considered in itself; but Faith as it relates to Virtue.” He explained that true faith was a belief that God had ordered the universe so that morally good people would be rewarded in the next life. Pitt thought Christ came to teach this belief, and so he wrote, “This Faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, or Sent of God, is a supernatural Means of believing in God, or acknowledging the Truth of this practical Proposition, That God will finally make Good Men happy.”64
Everything about what Franklin wrote relating to the Hemphill affair saw not just "faith" but "faith in Jesus Christ" as a means as opposed to an end.  Though faith in Jesus was the best means out of all of them.

James Pitt, Christian Deist

One of the English Deists featured in Dr. Joseph Waligore's article is James Pitt. He is noted as a possible influence on Ben Franklin's Christian Deism. Franklin was familiar with and published some of Pitt's work.

Quoting Pitt on the Trinity:
All those Controversies which have been so hotly agitated at the Expence of the Peace, and Blood of the Christian World, about the Person of Jesus Christ, concerning the Trinity, and a Thousand other Things, make us neither wiser nor better. We may embrace one Scheme, or t’other, or neither, as Evidence appears to us, and be equally good Christians, and faithful Subjects of the Kingdom of God.54
This mirrors Franklin's utter indifference towards that doctrine in his end of life letter to Ezra Stiles.

Later in the 19th Century, when such "heresy" could be preached openly in America with less controversy, we see the capital U Unitarians echoing such sentiments (while giving the spiritual credit to Unitarianism).

As James Freeman Clarke put it in 1838:
We are almost born Calvinists, Catholics, Swedenborgians, Universalists; for, as a man's nature is, so are his views of God and man, and thence, of religion; his nature develops, is modified, is changed, born again, and his elements of faith change likewise. If you would fix his faith, then, affect his spirit. And if you believe Unitarianism to be the truth, rest assured that the Catholic, and the Baptist, and the Presbyterian, and the Deist, while they are preaching in a Christian spirit, and aiding to spread that spirit, — are preaching Unitarianism. ...

Waligore: "The Christian Deist Writings of Benjamin Franklin"

For those of you who can access the JSTOR article, the link is here. Dr. Joseph Waligore has done Yeoman's work updating the scholarly record regarding the multiple possible understandings of the term "Deism."

The form of Deism that arguably prevailed in England, as opposed to the continent, was Christian-Deism. Many of the ideas that drove the American Founding derived from Great Britain. America rebelled against her mother country using ideas that first appeared there. So it shouldn't surprise that the "Deism" of the American Founding, like that of England, would turn out to be more "Christian" than one might have thought.

Many things are great about this article. But my favorite is the American Creation blog gets a footnote. It's footnote 28. From page 7:
All of the Christian deists claimed to be Christian and the vast majority of them claimed they were the only ones advocating the Christianity Jesus taught. A better name for them might be “Jesus-centered deists” because they identified Christianity with Jesus’ moral teachings.28 Calling them “Jesus-centered deists” rather than “Christian deists” has the advantage of sidelining the contentious question about whether they actually were Christians. None of the Christian deists, however, described themselves as “Jesus-centered.” Instead, they all described themselves as “Christian.” Moreover, using the name “Jesus-centered deist” could be taken to imply that they should not be considered “Christian.” It is more historically accurate to refer to them as they referred to themselves, so I will stick with calling them “Christian deists.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Brookhiser: "Forrest McDonald, R.I.P."

This is another good one. A taste:
Forrest could be quite perky on smaller matters, too. He was one of the first serious historians to believe that Jefferson probably fathered children by Sally Hemings — although as soon as this became the orthodox view, Forrest became skeptical. As he once said to me, Jefferson was a sexagenarian with migraines when he was supposed to have sired his slave children, and what sense did that make? (Another historian said to me, of Forrest, that he wanted to be as un-PC as possible.) Another Forrest-ism: “The trouble with Franklin is he lies all the time.” That is harsh, but as one studies Franklin, one sees what Forrest meant.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Arnhart: "A Prehistoric Massacre in Africa Suggests that the State of Nature was a State of War"

Check it out here. A taste:
One of the fundamental debates in the history of political philosophy is over whether the state of nature was a state of peace or a state of war.  Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all agree that the first human beings lived as foraging hunter-gatherers, but they disagree about whether this original human condition was generally violent or generally peaceful.  Hobbes claimed that without any government to enforce peace, life among these first human beings must have been an utterly lawless war of all against all.  Locke inferred from reports about hunter-gatherer bands in America that life in a state of nature could be a state of peace, but it could easily become a state of war.  Rousseau thought that the evidence refuted both Hobbes and Locke in suggesting that the first human ancestors were peaceful, and that war did not arise until the invention of agriculture led to a less nomadic and more settled social life.


Now that we have more archaeological and anthropological evidence than was available to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, we are reaching the point where we might settle this debate.  I have argued that the evidence suggests that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  Locke was right in seeing that foraging human bands can enforce customary laws of cooperation that secure a peaceful life, but that in the absence of formal governmental rule, feuding often leads to war.

Tillman on McDonald

Forrest McDonald passed. There are many great appreciations on the Internet of him. I will focus on Seth Barrett Tillman's. A taste:
Dear Mr. Tillman:
            I have read your article on Art. I, s. 7, cl. 3 with care and interest. I find it historically absolutely convincing, and if you wish to quote me to that effect when you submit it to a traditional hard bound law review, you have my permission. I don’t think it likely to change the law on the subject, but it should certainly change historical scholarship.
            I note minor typos on pages 59 and 78, and fiercely object to the use of “she” when talking about the president—that is politically correct faddism, having no place in an article this serious—but I observed only two factual errors. . . .
            My congratulations on a well-done bit of scholarship.
Very truly yours,
Forrest McDonald