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The Deistical Controversies

The Deistical Controversies


While the first half of the eighteenth century was the great era of the deistical controversy, the patriarch of English deism lived as early as the time of Charles I. Pained by the clash of religious opinions and the strife of sects, Lord Edward Herbert, Baron of Cherbury, set to work to find out the essential tenets of true religion. The results of his investigation and thought were expressed in several works, the principal of which were his "De Veritate" (1624), and his "De Religione Gentilium" (1645). He concluded that the essential articles of religion are the following five: 1. That there is one supreme God. 2. That He is chiefly to be worshipped. 3. That piety and virtue is the principal part of His worship. 4. That we must repent of our sins; and if we do so God will pardon them. 5. That there are rewards for good men and punishments for bad men in a future state, or, as he sometimes expresses it, both here and hereafter. The certainty of these truths he based upon reason, or intellectual intuition. Reason in all ages and the world over acknowledges them. Great multitudes may have lost sight of them, but this has been owing to the misleading influence of an ambitious priestcraft. Reason left to itself discerns them and gives as great assurance of their certainty as can be given. Revelation is not specially called for, and if it were provided it would be revelation only to him to whom it might come primarily; for other it would be only history or tradition, and would leave place for doubt. Lord Herbert did not deny the possibility of revelation; indeed, he claimed himself to have received a special revelation, or a sign from heaven. as respects the Bible, he assumed that it was largely occupied with the inculcation of his list of essential tenets. Unlike some of the later deists, he does not seem to have been possessed by an irreligious bias, by a spirit of profane frivolity or fanatical spite against revealed religion. Be was of a serious temper, and counted religion the most distinguishing characteristic of man. His system, however, if not professedly hostile to written revelation, tended at least to relegate it to the category of the useless.


Considerable industry was shown by Herbert in reviewing the facts of religious history; still his research was much less thorough than was needed to test his creed. as has been remarked, his five articles were not so much a legitimate resume. of beliefs which had been proved by him to be universally enforced by reason, as "precious and incomplete fragments of the Christian catechism." 1 Édouard Sayous, Les Deistes Anglais, p. 80. Even among the deists themselves there were not wanting those who subsequently assailed the integrity of Herbert's symbol by casting doubt on one or more items in his list of essential truths.


Hobbes, whose career as a writer began soon after Herbert's, is sometimes placed in the list of deistical writers; but the propriety of the classification may be questioned. With the leading tenet of Herbert and other prominent deists, that the reason of the individual may be trusted to assert the essential principles of religion, he revealed no sympathy whatever. The State, according to him, is the final authority in morals and religion; at least, he places no limitations upon the sovereignty of the State in these matters which he does not annul in one wav or another. In his scheme morality is legality. "The civil laws are to all subjects the measures of their actions, whereby to determine whether they be right or wrong, profitable or unprofitable, virtuous or vicious." 1 De Corpore Politico. Hobbes manifested a certain deference toward revealed religion; but evidently only in minds peculiarly constituted could his subordination of the religious to the political be held without involving the former in a species of contempt.


Charles Blount, who committed suicide in 1693, wrote in the preceding fourteen or fifteen years several works leavened with deistical teaching. His annotated translation of the first two books of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, was obviously designed to discredit supernatural features in the person and work of Christ, by suggesting a parallel between the narratives in the Gospels and the accounts of the heathen magician. More than one passage in the work has a Voltairean cast. Blount shows indeed in his style that he belonged to the era of Charles II. rather than to the serious age in which Herbert wrote. His circle of ideas, however, as appears from the "Oracles of Reason," published after his death, was much the same as that of his more earnest predecessor. No essentially new thoughts were contributed by him. "He belongs in the history of deism not as factor but as product." 1 Lechler, Geschichte des Englischen Deismus, p. 127.


In 1696, a year after the publication of Locke's "Reasonableness of Christianity" appeared a work entitled "Christianity not Mysterious." Though Locke disclaimed all association with its author, the work, no doubt, had its points of contact with his philosophy in general, and with the treatise which preceded it in particular. There was an approach to paradox, however, in its form of statement which gave it a different tone from that of any production which came from the hand of the philosopher. The writer in question was John Toland, a young Irishman of liberal education, who had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, but had been converted in youth to Protestantism. His book professedly, and perhaps really, was designed to favor rather than to oppose revealed religion. He wrote evidently from the standpoint of supernaturalism, and assumed the reality of special divine communications. He maintained also that the Scriptures contain nothing which is not in harmony with reason; but at the same time he held that they contain nothing which is above reason, -no mystery proper. There is no obligation placed upon man respecting the mysterious or unintelligible. Revelation instructs; it affords new facts or truths for the consideration of reason; but it is nevertheless amenable to reason, since it cannot be truly received except as it finds a place in rational conviction.


Toland's treatise was assailed with a storm of reprobation in his native country. "Ab Irish peer gave it as a reason why he had ceased to attend church, that once he heard something there about his Saviour, Jesus Christ, but now all the discourse was about one John Toland." 1 Hunt, Religious Thought in England. To escape imprisonment the unhappy author was obliged to leave Ireland. A few years later a paragraph in his "Life of Milton" was criticised as being an attack upon the received canon of the New Testament. The "Amyntor," which he wrote in explanation of his meaning, did not serve to clear up the subject, and a disturbance was raised which compromised his position in England. The rather intemperate opposition experienced by Toland seems to have acted upon him unfavorably, and his later works exhibit in their small regard for consistency marks of degeneracy. 2 The principal of these works bear the titles "Adeisidaemon," "Nazarenus," "Tetradymus," and "Pantheisticon."


The writings of Shaftesbury, published under the title of "Characteristics" (1711-14), have given rise to somewhat diverse judgments on the beliefs of the author. He may be regarded as having rendered good service by opposing the artificial and utilitarian theory of morals, by maintaining that virtue is not a matter of mere convention or custom, that it has a foundation in the inherent moral constitution of man, and that it can be sought apart from rewards which appeal to self-love. It is to be noticed also that he nowhere directly challenges the truth of revealed religion. But for all this, there are sentences in his writings which naturally awaken suspicion of an unfriendly attitude toward the Biblical faith. "No one," says Overton, "can fail to perceive a contemptuous irony in many passages in which Shaftesbury affirms his orthodoxy, or when he touches upon the persecutions of the early Christians, or upon the sacred duty of complying with the established religion with unreasoning faith, or upon his presumed scepticism, or upon the nature of the Christian miracles, or upon the character of our blessed Saviour, or upon the representation of God in the Old Testament or upon the supposed omission of the virtue of friendship in the Christian system of ethics. The general tendency of his writings is pretty clear, and is in harmony with the deistical theory that God's revelation of himself in nature is clear and sufficient for all practical purposes, while any other revelation is uncertain, obscure, and unnecessary. But he holds that it would be unmannerly and disadvantageous to the interests of the community to act upon this doctrine in practical life." 1 History of the English Church in the Eighteenth Century.


A radical attack upon the authority of Christianity came from Anthony Collins in 1724 in his "Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion." Here the bias which he had shown in a previous work, entitled a "Discourse of Free Thinking", (1718), came to an unmistakable manifestation. Though the general proposition laid down in the earlier work was unobjectionable even in the opinion of his opponents, in its defence and illustration side-thrusts were intruded such as argued no great respect for revealed religion. The drift of the later work was to show that the proof of Christianity is founded on the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, and that no fulfillment of these prophecies can be discovered except by wholesale recourse to type and allegory. From this it would follow of course that there is no proof of Christianity except of the most shadowy and unsubstantial nature.


It is worth while to observe that Collins, in defending his position, was led to deny that Messianic expectation was any considerable factor in Jewish thought and feeling before the coming of Christ. The contrast between this conclusion and the theory of Strauss, which makes Messianic expectation the creative force back of the gospel history, is one of the marked illustrations of disagreement in the camp of the doubters. 1 Compare John Cairns, Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century as contrasted with its Earlier and Later History, pp. 78, 79.


As Collins attempted to allegorize away prophecy, so Thomas Woolston attempted to allegorize away miracles. In his study of the early fathers he became possessed with a fanatical preference for the allegorical method of interpretation. The extreme to which he carried his hobby caused him the loss of his place as Fellow at Cambridge. This drove him well nigh to madness, kindled in him a burning spite against the clergy if not against Christianity itself, and intensified his original bias to allegory. In his "Discourses on the Miracles of our Saviour," published in 1727-29, he attempted to show that the narratives of Christ's miracles, when taken in a literal sense, involve gross contradictions and absurdities, and that they must therefore be wholly viewed as types or parabolical representations of his working in the spiritual sphere. The tone of these discourses was scurrilous to the last degree. "They contain the most undisguised abuse which had been uttered against Christianity since the days of the early heathens." 1 A.S. Farrar, Critical History of Free Thought, p. 137. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find Woolston subjected to fine and restricted in his liberty.


It has been concluded by some reviewers that this intemperate writer was not honest in his fanciful scheme. His turning of history into allegory they account as only a less open way of spurning Christianity altogether. And in truth there seems to be no means of avoiding this conclusion, unless an idiosyncrasy very narrowly distinguished from lunacy be ascribed to him.


Along with other miracles the resurrection of Christ was discredited by Woolston. This subject was further ventilated in a work entitled, "The Resurrection of Jesus Considered." Capital is here made out of the seeming discrepancy in the details of the gospel accounts, and the theory of intentional fraud is favored. The author, Peter Annet, who also composed some other treatises, was evidently animated by a spirit of bitter hostility to revealed religion.


In 1730 appeared one of the most important in the list of deistical works, "Christianity as old as the Creation." Matthew Tindal, the author, then in his seventieth year, had passed through a sufficient variety of theological vicissitudes, having been successively a disciple of the nonjuror Hickes, a Roman Catholic, and a Low Churchman. At the time of writing, he was, to use his own phrase, a " Christian Theist." It might be judged from the title of his work that he meant to prove the identity of revealed or Biblical religion with natural religion. But that was not his design. He aimed rather to show that natural religion, or that dictated by man's reason, is in itself perfect, and that the Christian religion, or any other, is a true religion only so far as it is identical with the natural. He argued that God in His immutability and benevolence can be supposed to give only such laws as correspond to the tired relations of men to Himself and to each other, that He would give only a perfect code, and that accordingly change or addition cannot be admitted without challenging the divine perfections. As respects the Scriptures, he indicated plainly enough that he regarded them as in part contradictory to natural religion, and, on the whole, quite as much a hindrance as a help to the ascertainment of the truth.


Tindal's natural religion, complete and unchanging, was manifestly a scholastic conceit. Its air of plausibility vanishes at once when one descends from the region of abstraction and considers men as they appear in authentic history. Abundant facts make it plain that the simple reason of mankind has been far from giving outright a complete stock of religious ideas, so as to leave no demand for the tuition and development which are supposed in a process of revelation.


Thomas Morgan, whose "Moral Philosopher" appeared in 1737-40, stepped aside from average deism in the stress which he placed upon the immanence or immediate action of Deity. His most characteristic trait, however, was his Gnostic antipathy to Judaism, or his disposition to interpose a very wide chasm between the Old and the New Testament. In accordance with this feature, he had a special regard for Paul among New Testament writers, reckoning him as the great free-thinker of his century, who rendered a most important service in opposing the Judaizers. His conception of the relation of Paul to the other apostles was not unlike that which more recently has been advocated by Baur and other representatives of the Tübingen school.


At the same time that Morgan was attracting attention, Thomas Chubb, a self-educated man from the laboring class, made his first considerable contribution to the deistic literature, his "True Gospel of Jesus Christ" being published in 1738. At this date his conception of Christ's person was of the Socinian order, and in His gospel he saw simply a republication of a pure ethical code. In his later writings he showed a more pronounced aversion to the supposition of any supernatural elements in the life of Christ, and also discredited the doctrine of special providence.


Bolingbroke, a striking example of the sceptical aristocrat and voluptuary, reserved his writings upon religion to be published after his death. They appeared in 1754. The method of Bolingbroke was pre-eminently historical. He wished to bring everything to the test of experience, and affected to despise speculation. Philosophers no less than theologians he regarded as the grand corrupters of truth. He believed in a God, but disbelieved in His direct control of the world after the work of creation. He held a contemptuous view of human nature, and doubted man's immortality. The Old Testament he treated with as much virulence as did Morgan. He praised the moral teachings of the Gospels, but denied the miracles, and claimed that the New Testament writers made corrupting additions to the teachings of Christ. "Bolingbroke, " says Lecky, "is a great name in politics, but the pretentious and verbose inanity of his theological writings fully justifies the criticism, 'leaves without fruit,' which Voltaire is said to have applied to his style."


We have passed by Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees," a work calculated to confuse moral distinctions, but not specially in the deistical vein, as also "Christianity not founded upon argument," by Henry Dodwell, Jr., a treatise professedly in favor of an unreasoning faith wrought in the heart by the direct agency of the Spirit, but probably intended to discredit revealed religion. Bolingbroke stands at the end of the great deistical era. Hume, who was known as a writer in the later years of Bolingbroke, in his radical scepticism went beyond and outside of deism, while Gibbon and Paine as belonging to the closing quarter of the eighteenth century were separated by an interval from the preceding list of deists.


It is to be noticed of this school of skeptics that they appear in contrast with more recent doubters, in that they drew their premises from reason and history, and scarcely at all from the domain of physical science. "Nearly all the early members of the Royal Society, nearly all the first teachers of the Newtonian philosophy, were ardent believers in revelation." 1 Lecky, History of England in the Eighteenth Century, ii. 572. As respects metaphysical tenets, the deists in general were not widely distinguished from their opponents. Locke was very largely the oracle of both parties.


The deistical writings called forth an immense literary activity from the friends of revealed religion. To every noteworthy attack an extended response was made. Collins' principal work elicited thirty-five replies within two years. Woolston's attack on miracles received within a brief space about sixty replies. Tindal's work was honored with one hundred and fifteen answers. Some of these productions, to be sure, were only brief essays, but others were of the nature of elaborate apologies.


Among the more noteworthy replies to the attacks of the deists, the following may be named: Lardner's "Credibility of the Gospel History;" Bentley's "Phileleutherus Lipsiensis," in reply to Collins on Free Thinking; Edward Chandler's "Defence of Christianity from the Prophecies of the Old Testament;" Samuel Chandler's "Vindication of the Christian Religion" (against Collins); Thomas Sherlock's "Use and Intent of Prophecy," also his noted treatise, "The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus;" Zachary Pearce's "Miracles of Jesus Vindicated;" Richard Smalbrooke's "Vindication of Our Savior's Miracles;" William Law's "Case of Reason" (against Tindal); James Foster's "Usefulness, Truth, and Excellency of the Christian Revelation;" John Conybeare's "Defence of Revealed Religion;" Bishop Butler's "Analogy" (1736); John Chapman's "Eusebius" (against Morgan); William Warburton's "Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated," also his "View of Lord Bolingbroke's Philosophy;" John Leland's general work entitled "A View of the Principal Deistical Writers," besides several specific treatises from his pen.


While the ability and aptness of these replies were not the sole causes that drove the deistical writings into comparative neglect on English soil by the middle of the century, they may be credited in some measure with this result. No doubt there wars a failure in many instances to employ the best arts of defence. Especially must this be allowed if regard be had to a truly valid and permanent vindication of Christianity. A disproportionate stress was placed upon external as compared with internal evidences. The historical factor in revelation, or its necessary dependence upon conditions that could be realized only through a lengthened progress, was not duly considered. The extent to which the Biblical writings transcend the mere office of instruction, and present truth in such form and connections as to make it a power over heart and conscience, was inadequately emphasized Miracles were viewed too exclusively as mere supports of revelation, instead of being included among the means of revelation; moreover, the supreme marvel of sacred history, the great moral miracle of the gospel, the unique and holy character of Jesus Christ, was not lifted into suitable prominence. Nevertheless, much good work was done in offsetting deistic argumentation or insinuation. Butler's "Analogy," in whatever degree it may fail to meet more recent types of scepticism, was in its whole texture an apt response to the contemporary deists. This has been acknowledged by John Stuart Mill. "The argument of Butler's 'Analogy,'" he says, "is, from its own point of view, conclusive; the Christian religion is open to no objections, either moral or intellectual, which do not apply at least equally to the common theory of deism." 1 Essays on Religion. With others of the apologists also we find not only indications of careful research, but likewise of an excellent insight into some of the main aspects of the subjects under review. For example, the necessity of taking Christian evidences in their general scope and proper connection is thus asserted by Zachary Pearce: "There is no proposition in Euclid or Newton, though never so strictly demonstrable, but will lose all its force of conviction if a man begins at the wrong end, disjoints the several parts of the proof, or places them in a wrong or unnatural order. It is the same thing in Christianity. If a man singles out a miracle or a prophecy, and having exposed, as artfully as he can, the literal story of either, if from thence he forms an argument that these do not prove Jesus to have come from God, or to have been the Messiah, he may to weak understandings seem to say something material, and may triumph in the quaintness of his objections; for, no doubt, every miracle of Christ singly considered does not infallibly prove His divine mission, nor does every prophecy, singly considered, point Him out for the true Messiah. Exceptions may be drawn from the circumstances of some of them by men disposed to cavil. But all this while truth is truth, and would appear so if the proofs were pursued in their natural order." 1 The miracles of Jesus Vindicated, part i. James Foster finds in the like consideration a ground for a normal estimate of the gospel miracles. "In my opinion," he writes, "it is not rational to suppose that miracles alone, and apart from all other considerations, are an absolute and decisive proof of the truth and divinity of any revelation, but considered with all their circumstances; either as they attest a wise and holy doctrine, --a doctrine worthy of God, calculated to promote the moral perfection and happiness of mankind, and wisely suited to the condition and necessities of those for whose use it is particularly designed; or else, as they are friendly and beneficent miracles, and bear upon them the strongest characters of wisdom and goodness, as well as power; and consequently cannot, without the utmost absurdity and most manifest contradiction to the nature of things, be looked upon as the operations of evil spirits." 1 The Usefulness, Truth, and Excellency of the Christian Revelation Defended, pp. 51, 52. The answer which John Leland returns to the fundamental objection of deism against a positive religion, namely, that it lacks the requisite characteristic of universality, will strike most as well put. "The asserters of the Christian revelation," he says, "are under no obligations to limit God's universal benevolence. They leave those that are destitute of this revelation to God's infinite mercy; and can think more favorably of their case than those consistently can do who will not allow that they were under any great darkness, and suppose them to have acted in manifest opposition to the most clear universal light. ... If all men everywhere were required actually to believe that revelation, and were condemned for not believing it, it would be necessary to have it universally promulgated. But since the actual believing of it is required of those only to whom it is actually published, and they to whom it is not made known are not put into a worse condition than if there had been no such revelation granted at all, no argument can be brought to show that it is inconsistent with the divine wisdom and goodness to grant such a revelation to some part of mankind, though it be not actually promulgated to the whole human race, especially if in its own nature and original intention it was fitted and designed to be of universal extent, which is the case of the Christian revelation." 1 A View of the Principal Deistical Writers, i 32-35. Conybeare meets the deists with no small degree of tact, in that he both honors the function of reason and shows that it does not preclude the utility of revelation. Two or three extracts will euffciently illustrate his position. "it is an over-pious strain of some good men," he remarks, "who assert that we must deny our reason in matters of religion; and that doctrines, however apparently absurd, must be received when recommended under that sacred name. Those who maintain this position do not consider that they do at the same time overthrow the very foundations of religion. For, beside that it is in itself impossible that a man should be persuaded of the truth of a proposition which he at the same time believes to be absurd, such a denying our reason in one point (were it possible) must destroy the use of it in all others. If a man should be satisfied of the truth of a proposition which appears to him to be absurd, he might as well be satisfied of the falsehood of a proposition which appears to him to be demonstrable. Upon this supposition no arguments can be urged on which securely to build our faith. ... There is hardly any one point in morality which does not admit of various degrees of clearness in different periods of life. The very same man must perceive things in different lights as experience and study shall open his mind and gradually improve his reason. Can any one affirm that he had the same view of every point of morality when he first employed his thoughts about it, which he afterwards had, upon increase of years, and a maturity of consideration? But if some things are capable of becoming more clear by an advantageous change of circumstances, then it is certain that they are not absolutely clear to all; and every man who doth but reflect a little on his own gradual progress in moral wisdom and knowledge, must be conscious of this truth. ... Suppose a question should arise whether every man be capable of mastering the several arts and sciences without a teacher; and it were alleged that every one must be capable of this, or else he would be unable to judge whether his master should teach him right or wrong, and consequently such teaching could be of no service to him. Would such arguing as this be admitted? No, certainly; and for this reason, namely, that things which might not be known, or perhaps knowable, without teaching, may yet immediately approve themselves to the mind when taught. In like manner, things which could not be discovered without a revelation may yet, upon that revelation, appear so plainly agreeable with reason that a man may not entertain the least doubt whether they are capable of being true or no." 1 The Credibility of the Mysteries of the Christian Religion; a Defence of Revealed Religion against the Exceptions of a late Writer. Conybeare wrote with special reference to Tindal's ill disguised attempt to prove revelation both needless and impossible. The following passage from William Law, aimed against the same deistical author, is also worth quoting: "Had mankind continued in a state of perfect innocence, without ever failing in their duty either to God or man, yet even in such a state they could never have known what God would, or would not, reveal to them, but by some express revelation from Him. And, as God might intend to raise them to some higher and unknown state of perfection, so He might raise them to it by the revelation of such things as their own reason, though innocent and incorrupt, yet could not have discovered. But if man in a state of innocence could have no pretence to set himself against divine revelation, and make his own reason the final judge of what God could, or could not; reveal to him, much less has he any pretence for so doing in his present state of sin, ignorance, and misery. His nature and condition is so far from furnishing him with reasons against revelation, against any supernatural help from God, that it seems to be inconsolable without it." 1 The Case of Reason or Natural Religion fully stated.

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