[New lecture, May
the Diet of Worms, Luther based his stand on two important criteria of
scripture and evident reason. Popes and
councils can and do err, he maintained: and, in fact, Catholic
practice had drifted so far away from the original gospel that much
to be stripped away before true religion could emerge again.
relying on scripture and reason to reform the church proved a more
affair than Luther supposed, and, unsurprisingly, Protestant
aiming of course to create a “New Testament” church, ended up at quite
different places with Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Calvinists all
very different conclusions on doctrine and practice.
Likewise, it’s unlikely that Luther anticipated the ugly and bloody
conflicts among “Christians” that rose up in the 16th and 17th
centuries, conflicts that tended to discredit the gospel itself: how
could those who called themselves Christians do such horrible things
one to another?
Luther certainly did not anticipate the way in which the mind-set he
would create an intellectual undercurrent that, while it could in fact
a Christianity closer to what Christ and the Apostles intended, might
not only Christian faith, but faith in reason itself.
broad way: Locke and the latitudinarianism
a time, England avoided the bloody religious conflicts of the
Reformation. The Anglican Church created
by Henry the VIII
was potentially unstable. Since the king
was the head of the church, this meant that every time the ruler
church changed as well. Under Henry’s
son Edward, England swung in a Protestant direction and Catholics were
persecuted. When Henry’s daughter Mary
took over after her brother’s short reign, Protestants were persecuted. But when Mary was replaced by her sister
Elizabeth, religious tensions died down for a bit.
Elizabeth adopted a policy of what eventually
came to be called latitudinarianism: accepting within the Church of
wide range of acceptable beliefs, and then refusing to tolerate the
on either the Catholic or Protestant side.
latitudinarian policy of Elizabeth worked well for a time, but it began
break down during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor (James I) and
completely under James son Charles I. In
1642, a religious civil war broke out in England. Charles
lost his throne and his life, and,
for a time, a group called the Puritans took control, a Calvinist sect
as its goal stripping away everything associated with Catholic
tradition—including things like Christmas!
After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchs (1660), religious tension
remained high in England, but, eventually, the latitudinarian model won
out, and, partly as a result, England managed to avoid some of the
bloody struggles of continental Europe. The term latitudinarianism
itself was initially a derogatory term, used to dismiss a group of 17th
century scholars called the “Cambridge Platonists." Here’s a good
Encyclopedia Britannica summary:
denied that ritual, church government, or detailed dogmas
essentials of Christianity. To be a Christian is to participate in
wisdom and to be free to choose whatever forms of religious
helpful. The width of their tolerance won them the nickname “latitude
they were often condemned as Unitarians or atheists because they
morality so far above dogma.
the description here would apply to John Locke who was certainly
the Cambridge Platonists. However, Locke
was not a Platonist but an empiricist.
What difference that makes, I’ll get to later.
For now, it’s sufficient to understand that
the religious policy Locke advocated, a latitudinarian policy of
tolerance, won out both in England, and, even more in America when, a
later, our nation was created.
Toward a an entirely reasonable relgion: the rise of
Unitarianism and Deism
idea that latitudinarianism could easily undercut Christian orthodoxy
founded, and it’s amazing how quickly Locke’s advocacy of a “mere”
led to a religion of “mere” reason.
Locke had argued that Christianity contained some truths that
accord with reason, some that were above reason, but nothing at all
contrary to reason. But what about the
“above reason” ideas? Why don’t we
reject those too, accepting from Christian tradition only what is in
1692, John Toland, building on the ideas of Locke, published a book
Not Mysterious: not an explicit rejection of Christian teaching,
of a challenge that the book was actually burned in public by a
a problem for those who were trying to find a “reasonable” Christianity
doctrine of trinity: and the critics of latitudinarianism turned out to
right to an extent. The champions of
reasonable religion ended up, once again, challenging the Nicene
the nature of the godhead. Ironically,
the initial Unitarians tended to combine their search for a reasonable
with extreme Biblicism, rejecting Trinitarian thinking, not solely
was unreasonable, but because it was extra-Biblical. But the Unitarian
movement’s rejection of extra-Biblical dogma led to a rejection of all
and the typical Unitarian today believes—well, just about anything they
for the most part, the 18th century quest for a reasonable
seldom went to so far as to deny all of Christian tradition. More common: the adoption of a religious
philosophy that we call Deism.
kept certain elements of traditional Christianity that seemed
Belief in God seemed reasonable: supported by things like the "first
cause" argument and the "argument from design." Christian
morality seemed reasonable as well: do unto others as you would have
unto you makes logical sense.
But the Deists didn't like aspects of Christianity they considered
superstitious. They didn't believe in Satan or demons. They
didn't believe in miracles (which, by definition, are above
reason). They didn't like priests or religious rituals.
Thomas Jefferson is an excellent example of the Deist philosophy.
Jefferson came up with his own version of the New Testament in which he
kept the things that he liked and eliminated the things he
didn't. Things like the parables and the Sermon on the Mount were
things Jefferson loved. But the virgin birth, the miracles of
healing, the resurrection--all those things had to go.
But is belief in these things really so contrary to reason? And
are there not things that John Locke (not to mention Thomas Aquinas)
considered “above reason” that reason itself might suggest we should
believe? One who argued along these lines was the English bishop
Joseph Butler (1692-1752).
The unreasonableness of Deism: Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion
The selections from Butler’s The Analogy of Religion in the Bush
anthology (Classic Readings in Christian Apologetics) suggest some
solid reasons for not taking the Deist approach and automatically
rejecting “above reason” evidence, especially the evidence of miracles.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament contain accounts of
miraculous events. Should we simply assume that no such events
could take place? On the contrary, says Butler, the burden of
proof is on the other side. If reliable witnesses report
miracles, we should accept their accounts unless there is good reason
to the contrary.
The fact that the apostles and other early were ready to sacrifice
their lives is evidence that they truly believed the miraculous nature
of the events surrounding Christ and in their own lives. True,
fanatical individuals will sacrifice their lives for all sorts of crazy
ideas. But is that the kind of men we are dealing with here?
Reading the New Testament epistles shows men of a very different sort:
sober, thoughtful, logical men—not irrational zealots. One might
have reason for doubting the testimony of (say) an alcoholic hobo if
they claimed they saw a miracle. But if a respected school
principal made the same claim, one would have to take it a bit more
seriously. And if the equivalent of an entire college faculty
made similar claims, one would almost have to be convinced.
On the subject of fulfilled prophecy, too, Butler makes an
exceptionally important argument against Deist disbelief. The
Deists had objected that the alleged fulfillment of prophecy was a
trick similar to that used by the old Greek/Roman oracles. The
oracles never gave straight answers, using obscure symbolism that could
be interpreted many ways. Croesus asks the Delphic oracle if he
should attack Cyrus. He is told that, if he does, he will destroy
a great nation. Delighted with the answer, he attacks—and soon
finds himself a captive of the Persians. What had gone
wrong? Well, the oracle explains it hadn’t lied. He had
destroyed a great nation by attacking—his own!
Butler admits the obscurity of some of the Old Testament
prophecies. He also admits that some of the alleged prophecies of
the coming of Messiah had had earlier fulfillments, and were originally
talking about something quite different. Isaiah’s comments about
a virgin conceiving may well originally have been meant to apply to
But, says Butler, the very nature of the prophetic voice is that it is
*not* directed only toward immediate circumstances. Prophecy may
have partial fulfillment at one time, and a greater fulfillment at a
later time. Just because the “abomination of desolation” spoken
of by Daniel can be applied to Antiochus Epiphanes’ desolation of the
temple does not mean it can’t also be fairly applied to the later Roman
destruction of the temple.
Further, the accumulation of Old Testament prophecies over the
centuries created certain expectations beyond the original intent of
any one prophet, and the fulfillment of the whole package of
expectations is actually greater evidence that a specific
forecast/prediction of any single event might be.
And, speaking of the centuries, Butler advances also another argument
for Christianity, an argument from moral history. The Bible, says
Butler, gives us a moral history of mankind, a history that begins with
unfallen man, describes the fall and its effects, and includes a long
series of ups and downs in a kind of redemption history. Is it
really possible to deny the fallen state of mankind? Is it really
possible to deny that the promise to Abraham that in his seed “all the
world should be blessed,” is largely fulfilled through Christ and the
church, e.g., that the spread of Christianity marked a long-predicted
Further, says Butler, it is here that the real issue lies. Those
who argue against Christianity are not doing so mainly for legitimate
intellectual reasons. The real battle is a moral one, an
unwillingness to live by Christian standards:
If this [Butler’s previous arguments] be a just account of things, and
yet men can go on to vilify or disregard Christianity, which is to talk
and act as if they had a demonstration of its falsehood; there is no
reason to think they would alter their behavior to any purpose though
there were a demonstration of its truth.
Men love darkness, says the Apostle John, because their deeds are
evil. But is there really so much “light” available that those
who disbelieve have no excuse? The Apostle Paul said that there
was, appealing to natural theology, the idea that certain truths about
God should be evident from creation itself. William Paley
(1743-1805) builds on this argument in both of your Burns anthology
selections, Natural Theology and A View of the Evidences.
No sleeping on his watch: William Paley
The Burns anthology introduces Paley with an amusing anecdote about his
college days. Paley shows up late for classes when he bothers to
show up at all, sleeps until noon, and, by and large is nothing but a
slacker. One day, a friend woke him at 5:00 a.m., and called him
a fool to be so wasting his opportunities, saying he didn’t want to
associate anymore with such a lazybones. Paley, stung by the
rebuke, does a complete turnaround, apparently becoming an outstanding
student, professor, and textbook writer.
Paley is most famous for his elaboration of the argument from design,
an argument says that the order we see in the world around us is
sufficient evidence of a divine creator whether we have any other
evidence or not. Paley’s defense of the argument from design is
his famous “watchmaker” argument—an argument that is probably familiar
to you. Stumble across a watch with all its intricate workings and
you’ve got clear evidence for an intelligent watchmaker, even if you
never meet the watchmaker yourself.
Now before I read the selection in your Burns anthology, I had seen the
watchmaker argument many times referred to, but never read it for
myself. And, as it turns out, the argument involves a lot more
than just an analogy in support of the argument from design. For
thing, Paley uses his analogy to show that imperfections in the running
of the watch wouldn’t weaken at all the watch’s evidential value in
pointing to the existence of a watchmaker. Also important, Paley
is defending the ability of the common man to understand things his
“betters” tell him are beyond his grasp.
Neither, lastly, would our observer be
driven out of his conclusion, or
from his confidence in its truth, by being told that he knew nothing at
all about the matter. He knows enough for his argument: he knows the
utility of the end: he knows the subserviency and adaptation of the
means to the end. These points being known, his ignorance of other
points, his doubts concerning other points, affect not the certainty of
his reasoning. The consciousness of knowing little, need not beget a
distrust of that which he does know.
Generally missing also in the cartoon version accounts of Paley’s
argument is the way he connects the argument from design to the first
cause argument. Suppose one somehow was persuaded that the watch
one found was not directly produced by a watchmaker, but came from
other watches. Ultimately, there has to be a beginning of the
chain: a watchmaker to get the whole series moving in the first place.
Also missing from the cartoon version accounts is Paley’s example of
the eye as an example of the “found watch.” He comments at length
about the way the eye uses principles similar to that of a telescope,
but in a much more complex way.
Now could all this be the product of chance as the atheists of Paley’s
time insisted? Paley argues at length that it could not be.
What’s interesting is how many times Paley advances precisely the
arguments that, fifty years later, Darwin will use to undercut the
argument from design—and then rejects them utterly! It seems to
me likely that Darwin, in a way, owes a great debt to Paley.
Paley advances possible arguments for the natural world as a product of
chance, and then concludes that they aren’t valid. Darwin makes those
same arguments—and tries to show that they are!
Here is another answer which has the same
effect as the resolving of things into chance; which answer would
persuade us to believe, that the eye, the animal to which it belongs,
every other animal, every plant, indeed every organized body which we
see, are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of
being, which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence;
that the present world is the relict of that variety: millions of
other bodily forms and other species having perished, being by the
defect of their constitution incapable of preservation, or of
continuance by generation.
one might think Paley a dead-end in the Great Conversation, a man
whose ideas have been thoroughly refuted by Darwinism. I am not
so sure. It’s interesting to me that, before Darwin is even born,
Paley poses so many questions not so easy for a Darwinist to answer.
For one thing, Paley notes that chance rarely produces anything good as
far as biology is concerned. Chance may give is a wart or a mole
or cancer: never anything nice or useful. Also, Paley notes that the
orderly division into species doesn’t mesh well with chance
development. We shouldn’t see the clear breaks we do see, but all
sorts of intermediate developments.
But, moreover, the division of organized
substances into animals and vegetables, and the distribution and
sub-distribution of each into genera and species, which distribution is
not an arbitrary act of the mind, but founded in the order which
prevails in external nature, appear to me to contradict the supposition
of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of
existences; of a variety which rejects all plan. The hypothesis
teaches, that every possible variety of being hath, at one time or
other, found its way into existence (by what cause or in what manner is
not said), and that those which were badly formed, perished; but how or
why those which survived should be cast, as we see that plants and
animals are cast, into regular classes, the hypothesis does not
explain; or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this
We may modify any one species many
different ways, all consistent with
life, and with the actions necessary to preservation, although
affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the
animal. And if we carry these modifications through the different
species which are known to subsist, their number would be
incalculable. No reason can be given why, if these deperdits
[lost or destroyed beings] ever existed, they have now
disappeared. Yet, if all possible existences have been tried,
they must have formed part of the catalogue.
Modern paleontologists have spared no effort to come up with the
“catalogue” Paley calls for, but the fossil record doesn’t yet fully
answer Paley’s objection.
and faith reconciled—for the time being
By the end of the 18th century, the two sources of the “will to truth”
we have been looking at, reason and the prophetic voice, had been
reconciled once again—at least in England and the newly-born United
States. For the next century, a synthesis of scriptural truth and
reason dominated intellectual life in England and America.
Butler’s Analogy of Religion continued to be a standard theology text
and Oxford and Cambridge, and Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and
Dartmouth—all originally created to train Christian ministers—continued
to be dominated by those who accepted both the authority of scripture
and the value of a reason-based “question everything
approach.” John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the
Methodist movement emphasized what has been called the Wesleyan
quadrilateral (scripture, reason, faith, tradition)—an excellent
example of the scripture/faith balance that typified 18th and 19th
century Britain and America—and shows exactly how healthy a society
such a balance can produce.
unchained: France and the Philosophes
France certainly might have reached the same comfortable balance of
reason and faith as England and the United States. Montesquieu,
one of the greatest French writers of the 18th century argued
persuasively for ideas very much like those of Locke, calling for a
separation of powers and religious tolerance.
But among too many French intellectuals, the Deistic tendency to
emphasize “reasonable” religion wasn’t coupled with any true spirit of
tolerance. There was among them, not simply a reluctance to take
part in religious rituals themselves, but desire to see the whole of
the ecclesiastical structure of the church destroyed.
Now there were reasons for this. The French church was filled
with corruption. It was incredibly rich, in control of vast estates and
the income of those estates. That should have been good, since
much of what we today associate with government was then the
responsibility of the church. Education, medical care, and relief
for the poor were primarily church responsibilities. But the vast
wealth of the church wasn't devoted to this kind of thing.
Instead, high church officials (bishops, abbots, etc.) pocketed much of
the money and lived like the nobles--which, in fact, many of them
were. This left the actual work of the church in the hands of
poorly paid parish clergy who did their best, but seldom had the
resources they needed.
But hostility toward corrupt clergy led the “enlightened” thinkers of
France to an anti-rational extreme. Thinkers like Voltaire, who
owed his fine education to the church, was totally ungrateful: there
will be no peace in the world until the last nobleman is hung by the
robes of the last clergyman. Thus a man who textbooks often call
a champion of “tolerance” helped lay the foundations for a real
intolerance to organized religion.
Another of the “enlightened” thinkers attacking traditional faith was
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Voltaire, Rousseau also is a champion
of a “tolerance” that doesn’t extend very far. In his Social
Contract, he calls for a new kind of society that will replace
traditional Christianity with something different, something far more
“tolerant.” In fact, tolerance is one of the key doctrine of the
new Civil Religion:
for the negative dogmas, I would limit them to a single one: no
intolerance. Intolerance is something which belongs to those
religions we have rejected.... Now that there no longer is not, and can
no longer be, an exclusive national religion, all religions which
themselves tolerate others must be tolerated, provided only that their
dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of the citizen. But
anyone who dares to say "outside the church there is no salvation"
should be expelled from the state (Social Contract IV:8).
the limitations on religion. First, it is not allowed to
have anything in its doctrine "contrary to the duties of the citizen,"
i.e., that the government doesn't like. Second, if it claims to
be the way to salvation...out it goes: it's intolerant. So, of
course, in the name of tolerance, we don't tolerate anyone who really
takes their religion seriously.
[This is part of what some call
the paradox of tolerance, reflected well in Tom Lehrer's line, "There
are people in this world who do not love their fellow man, and I hate
people like that."]
Now perhaps one would think such speculations totally harmless.
Not so! In 1789, a revolution broke out in France, and by 1793,
the radicals had taken control. Maximilian Robespierre led a
movement that executed the king and turned France into a
republic. The dream was to create the kind of society dreamed of
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And to get that society, many of the
Revolutionaries thought it necessary to “dechristianize” France.
They began attacking everything associated with the church. They
dressed donkey's put in bishops' robes, forced priests and nuns
to go through mock marriage ceremonies, and burned hymnals, Bibles and
prayer books. They took over churches and called them "temples of
reason," establishing what's called The Cult of the Supreme
Being. This religion affirmed belief in a supreme being, but, it
many ways, its practices amounted to nature worship--or even a return
to the old paganism. In place of veneration of the saints, the
services now focused on venerating the rose, hops, sorghum, etc.
The bread and wine of communion were now said to represent the flesh
and blood of kings, so that even the "sacraments" supported republican
Not surprisingly, many didn't like these changes, particularly in the
Bordeaux and Lyon regions of France. In these regions, some were
loyal to the Bourbon monarchs. Others liked the constitution of
National Assembly. Most were loyal to the Catholic Church.
As a result, they resisted the Convention's changes, and this led to
civil war in France. This civil war, as most civil wars, was
filled with atrocities. It was particularly horrible because the
Convention forces believed they were fighting to create a Republic of
Virtue, that they had that chance that comes along once in a thousand
years to create a good government, and that they were justified in
doing anything necessary to create that government.
In some regions of France, they wiped out as much as 1/3 the
population. At least 200,000 Frenchmen were killed in these civil
wars. Treatment of non-combatants was horrible. Children
were routinely killed, women were raped and killed. The victims’
bodies were frequently mutilated in horrible ways. This was a
deliberate use of terror. The Convention forces performed
"Republican marriages," they loaded barges with people and sunk
them. Women, children, and old people were forced to kneel by
pits, shot, and shoved into the pits.
[The behavior of the Convention
forces was not as bad as I make it sound in class. No, it was
far, far worse. If you have a strong stomach, you might take a
look at this description
of Convention atrocities.]
Horrible as the events of the French Revolution were, this was only a
foretaste of what was to come. The French Revolution was only the
first attempt at the wholesale and deliberate dechristianization of a
nation. Christian apologists would soon have to help take on a
new challenge: attempts to exterminate the faith even more determined
than those of Decius, Diocletian, and Galerius 1600 years earlier.