In (the) God (of Deism) We Trust

Product Details It is no secret that many of America’s influential founders and leaders weren’t Christians, but deists.  Much more could be said about that statement, but I simply want to point our readers to a book that chronicles American religion – specifically the movement from Christianity and deism to atheism between 1700 and 1900.  Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America by James Turner is an excellent account of those 200 years of American religion. 

I’m not quite finished with it, so I won’t yet comment on it extensively.  So far I’ve found it very easy to read, clearly written, and more than a little fascinating.  The only gripe I have with it is that sometimes it seems that Turner doesn’t quite “get” the Reformation, nor does he seem to appreciate the nuances of Calvinism.  Aside from those issues, I’m really enjoying the book.  Here’s what he writes about deism – which is helpful even in our day where quite a few Americans are still deistic in their religious beliefs.

“Deism professed to be a religion founded on reason alone, composed solely of truths about God evident in the order of nature, subjecting all beliefs to the tests of reason and experience.  In fact, it usually amounted to a severely stripped down version of Christianity, with all that smacked of mystery and superstition pared away” (p. 52-53).

The fundamental tenets of most Deists are “that a Supreme being exists and requires worship, that a moral life is the best worship, and that God will reward virtue and punish vice in an afterlife” (p. 52).

“Thoroughgoing Deists expunged everything unsuited to a clockwork God: anything irregular (miracles, special providences, divine revelations), anything inaccessible to reason (the Trinity, the divinity of the man Jesus, the Resurrection).  Deists took rational religion with full seriousness” (p. 53).

“Alexander Pope…deified (Isaac) Newton as a demiurge of rational clarity: ‘Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and All was Light.’  …As Newton was deified, so the temptation was great to Newtonify the Deity” (p. 49).

For those of you interested in the history of American religion, you simply must get this book: Without God, Without Creed.  Again, it is not overly difficult to read; you can find a used copy on Amazon for a decent price.  It goes hand in hand with Nathan Hatch’s fine work, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Studying the history of American religion is important.  Not only does it teach us as Christians what pitfalls to avoid, it also gives us the background of many cults that exist in the United States today. Finally, it shows us why, as one author famously said, modern American religion is moralistic, therapeutic deism.

shane lems


Deism is not Christianity

This is a great section of Pascal’s PenseesHere he explains that deism is not Christianity (a point that most Americans don’t understand – specifically in the political realm).  I’ll also quote Peter Kreeft’s commentary on Pascal’s statement.

“And…they [unbelievers/skeptics] take occasion to blaspheme against the Christian religion, because they know so little about it.  They imagine that it simply consists in worshipping a God considered to be great and mighty and eternal, which is properly speaking deism, almost as remote from the Christian religion as atheism, its complete opposite….”

“But let them [unbelievers/skeptics] what they will against deism, their conclusions will not apply to Christianity, which properly consists in the mystery of the Redeemer, who, uniting in himself the two natures, human and divine, saved men from corruption of sin in order to reconcile them with God in his divine person.”

Here are Kreeft’s comments on this.

“How could a reasonable man confuse Christianity with deism?  Deism has a Creator without a Redeemer, transcendence without immanence or incarnation, God without Christ.  Imagine confusing Christianity with Christianity-minus-Christ!”

“Deism is still more respectable than Christianity today, just as it was in the seventeenth century, when it was invented.  It avoids ‘the scandal of particularity,’ the crime concreteness, the odium of distinctiveness.  It is generic religion.  And its god is not a crucified criminal.”

“And after creating the world, the deist god no longer gets his divine hands dirty doing miracles in it.  Its god is aloof, ‘the snob god,’ while the god of pantheism is ‘the blob god.’  You see, we make gods in our own image.  As one wag said, ‘God created man in his image and man has been returning the compliment ever since.'”

“But the Christian God is hardly made in our image.   Who wants to be a God who suffers hell on a cross for man’s sin?”

“Deism avoids the two fundamental truths of Christianity, sin and salvation.  It avoids blood.  It is not – as one of its twentieth-century proponents describes orthodox Christianity – ‘butcher shop theology.'”

“This is why Pascal says deism and atheism are opposites, rather than deism and pantheism.  Theologically and theoretically, the opposites are deism (divine transcendence without immanence) and pantheism (immanence without transcendence); but existentially and practically and humanly, the opposites are deism (human greatness without wretchedness) and atheism (wretchedness without greatness).”

These quotes can be found on page 284-287 of Christianity for Modern Pagans.

shane lems

The Creator/Creature Distinction, Missions, and Church Planting

 Most Christians probably haven’t thought how the biblical distinction between the Creator (the triune God) and creation (the universe and everything in it) has a lot to do with missions, evangelism, and even church planting.  Read this section in Chris Wright’s The Mission of God, where he shows how a the Creator/creature distinction has much to do with missions.

“The Bible makes a clear distinction between God the Creator and all things created….  Nothing in creation is in itself divine. …In the faith of Israel…the great realities of  the natural world, whether forces, phenomena or objects, had no inherent divine existence.  The Hebrew Bible…resists and reverses the human tendency to divinize or personalize the natural order, or to imbue it with any power independent of its personal Creator.”

“It is important to distinguish between personalizing and personifying nature.  The Old Testament frequently personifies nature as a rhetorical device, a figure of speech, for greater effect.  Personification is a literary device in which nature is spoken of as if it were a person.  (i.e. Deut 30:19, Is 1:2, Ps 50:1-6, Psalm 19:1-4, etc.)….”

“But the point of this literary and rhetorical personification of nature is either to underline the personal character of the God who created it and is active in and through it, or to express the personal and moral nature of human beings’ relation to God.  Such literary usage is not ascribing real personhood or personal capacities to nature or natural forces in themselves.  In fact, to personalize nature in that way (that is, to attribute actual personal status to nature itself) results in both depersonalizing God and demoralizing the relationship between humanity and God.  To accord to creation the personal status and honor that is due only to God (or derivatively to humans who bear God’s image) is a form of idolatry as ancient as the Fall itself (cf. Rom 1:21-25), though now given new characteristically twentieth-first-century dress in the New Age movements.”

And finally, notice how he brings it towards missions.

“This countercultural thrust in the Old Testament has strong missional implications, for the gospel today still confronts (as it did in the New Testament) religious traditions that divinize nature, whether in some forms of primal religion, popular Hinduism, or recent New Age borrowings from both.”

Wright makes some great points there that Christians/churches need to think about as we “go forth” and tell people about Jesus.  The only thing I’d like to add is a reminder that the divinization of nature is not a belief that is only found in some foreign tribes in the dark jungles.  Most people who live next door to you, in your towns and cities (whether in Detroit, London, or Sydney) simply don’t believe in a basic distinction between God and creation.  They probably believe a smattering of New Age pantheism (“Green Mother Earth”) and/or a blend of deism (“one nation under G/god”), which makes for a messed up worldview.  Therefore, when discussing the Christian faith with those who are not Christians, one important area to discuss is the biblical Creator/creature distinction. 

The quotes from Christopher Wright are found on pages 400-401 of The Mission of God.  Now you can see why this book is on my list of recommended reading for church planters.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Jefferson Bible: American Religion

I’m sure many have heard about the Jefferson Bible of the early 19th century.  This is the (in)famous edition of the NT that has all the miracles and supernatural events snipped out.  In his own words, Thomas Jefferson said “it is a paradigma of his [Jesus’] doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the paper of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject” (p. 18).  In Jefferson’s view, Jesus’ teachings have been “disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers” who perverted the “simple doctrines” he taught by platonizing them, “frittering them into subtilties (sic) and obscuring them with jargon” (p. 16).  That sounds familiar – I’m thinking of Dan Brown or Deepak Chopra or higher criticism of 100 years ago or the Jesus Seminar.  There’s a lot to discuss here!

Jefferson believed that religion (including Christianity) was strictly a personal, private, inner matter.  Here’s how he said it.

“Say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my God and myself alone.  Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if it has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one” (p. 10).

Jefferson’s “religion” excluded the resurrection of Jesus – the stone was not rolled away.  In fact, he ends his cut-and-paste-NT with this verse:

“There laid they Jesus: and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed” (p. 168).

Jesus died.  The end.  However, because Jefferson believed in the moral teaching of Jesus, he considered himself a good Christian.

“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.  I am a Christian only in the sense in which he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

You get the picture.  The NT has been distorted.  Though Jesus is still dead, he was a good guy worth following; if you do your best to live like him, you’re a Christian.  And keep your religion to yourself, please, I’ll keep mine to myself.

Of course I don’t have time to go into it all here now, but I do recommend this “Bible” simply for the fact that it is a great example of American religion.  It is worthwhile to have a basic understanding of these things so we can better engage religious people around us and tell them the biblical truth that we didn’t make up, the truth that is a public fact of history, the truth that we have no business altering, cutting, or pasting: Jesus, the eternal Son of God and savior of sinners, came to earth, lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death on the cross, and rose again the third day to destroy the forces of sin, darkness, and hell.

This is not my opinion, it’s not a private value, not an inner hunch, not something in my heart, but a true fact to be proclaimed publicly, believed in, and lived according to in every area of life, private and public.

shane lems

The Jesus of America’s Founding Fathers

 I cannot recommend this book enough: Stephen Nichols, Jesus: Made in America (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).  Seriously, I couldn’t set this thing down.  In it, Nichols simply discusses how American evangelicals (broadly speaking) have viewed Jesus.  He starts in the Puritan era, walks through the frontier, Victorian New England, the social gospel, music, Hollywood, business and ends with the current political Jesus (Jesus was the younger Bush’s favorite philosopher, after all!).  This book is like a visit to the dentist – you know it ain’t gonna be pretty, but you need to know what’s wrong so it can be fixed.  What’s wrong?  Americans have refashioned Jesus more often and worse than the German liberals did 100 years ago.

In chapter 2, Nichols shows what Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, and Washington thought about Jesus.  To summarize, Nichols shows how they liked Jesus for morals and ethical examples, but wanted nothing to do with Jesus the eternal Son of God who died on a cross to redeem broken sinners.  Nichols also describes how Jefferson was the precursor to the religious climate today: it is fine to follow Jesus, as long as you separate him from the state and keep him tucked away all privately in your heart.  It is ok to close your eyes and walk with him while the dew is still on the roses, but you can’t lift your eyes and pray to him as the Creator, Savior, Lord, and Almighty Ruler who is coming again to judge the living and the dead.

Here’s Nichols’ own words.

“The Jesus of America’s founders compares to Jesus throughout the rest of America’s history like a prelude to a symphony: we hear in brief the melodies and motifs to come.  Jesus is a fine purveyor of morality and virtue.  He is humble and meek, industrious and honest.  The Gospels are a fine companion for life, especially for the young who are making their way in the world.  Both Jesus and the Gospels are indispensible to both public welfare and private devotion and piety.  Jesus is needed in life, to be sure, but he is also needed at death, where he welcomes departed saints into heaven’s bosom.  But he is less than divine.  He is amiable and loving, but not judge” (p. 72-2).

I’ll post more on this later; for now I’ll go back to cringing at the “Washington’s Prayer at Valley Forge” painting I saw the other day.   Since he rejected the deity of Christ, well,  he surely is not a model for Christian prayer.  I wonder if that painting is in the Patriot’s Study Bible…

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Paradoxes and Contradictions in American Christianity

Product Details

Since reading D. G. Hart’s A Secular Faith, which deals with Christianity in/and America, I grabbed George Marsden’s Religion and American Culture.  Both are fascinating and well worth the investment and time.  I am always dismayed when reading of the history of Christianity in America, from Finney to Fundamentalism to faith-healing, though I suppose most Western countries have at least some distressing parallels to our situation here.  One particular thing that has always amazed me is how Deism and Christianity coupled together to get this country rolling, so to speak.  Here’s a bit of Marsden’s commentary on that.

“[Thomas] Jefferson and [Benjamin] Franklin and some of the other leading revolutionaries were ‘Deists’ who believed in what they viewed as ‘rational Christianity.’  They abandoned those parts of Christian heritage that they thought were not based on reason, yet they retained faith in a creator deity since they believed it was unreasonable to think that the wonderful machine of the universe appeared without a designer.  They also believed in a created moral order, reflecting the wisdom of the Supreme Being and necessary for the practical ordering of society.  They admired the moral teachings of Jesus, but did not consider him to be God incarnate.”

“You might suppose that the nation Jefferson, Franklin, and their Deist friends helped create would become a very secular place, accelerating the forces in the society away from the impact of traditional Christianity.  The relationship of American culture to such secular trends, however, has always been far more complicated than the trends, filled with paradoxes and contradictions” (41).

“Paradoxes and contradictions” – that explains it well.  The moral side of Christianity and the moral side of Deism fused, then wedded some Enlightenment elements and political distaste for British rule, and the outcome was a pretty solid constitution and country.  Fascinating!  Do we read “God” in the early American documents in the Deist (non-trinitarian) sense (god) or in the Christian (trinitarian) sense (God)?    These paradoxes and contradictions are also captured in one of Marsden’s main points in this book: “Even at its most religious, the United States was in many ways a very secular place” (12).

If you want a great study of the history of religion (specifically Christianity) in America, read these two books together (A Secular Faith and Religion and American Culture).  I also now want to read this one by Marsden.

Above quotes taken from George Marsden, Religion and American Culture 2nd ed.(Orlando: Hardcourt College Publishers, 2001), 41.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Don’t Come to the Garden Alone!

I’m sure many of you have heard the hymn “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles (d. 1946).  The song has always given me the creeps.  Here are a few lyrics.

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…he speaks, the sound of his voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing…  and the melody that he gave to me within my heart is ringing.  …and the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”

That gives me the creeps – roses, sweet voices, intimacy like “none other has ever known”  – these just scream to me the notes of enlightenment deism, rationalism, and mysticism, not to mention the fact that a Mormon could sing this song with a clear conscience.  Here’s another solid reason why the hymn just plain scares me: Miles’ account of how he penned the hymn.  I have to summarize it a bit, but I’ll include a few quotes, so pay attention to those.

In April, 1912, Miles was sitting in his dark room – a photography room with his organ inside it.  He was reading John 20 there, the text where the risen Christ meets the weeping Mary.  Miles wrote, “I seemed to be part of the scene.  I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life….  My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall.  As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches.”  Miles then recounts the scene unfold as he saw it, somewhat similar to John 20.

Miles continues: Mary’s word “Rabboni!” ends the vision.  “I awakened in sun light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating.  Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote, as quickly as the words could be formed, the poem exactly as it has since appeared.  That same evening I wrote the music.”

There are 100 things I could say about this, but I’ll have to save it for later posts on a closed canon, the regulative principle of worship, mysticism, rationalism, deism, revivalism, and so on.

Almost forgot: I got the above quote from Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 365 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 113.

shane lems

sunnyside wa