Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gordon Wood Destroys Michael Novak

In recent years, a number of self-proclaimed "scholars" have attempted to jump into the historical arena, in the belief that "true" history has been hijacked. Michael Novak is one of these individuals. Don't get me wrong, I believe that history is a big enough field for all to participate, but we must remember that when the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of the historical community rallies against your claims (as has been the case with Novak's book on George Washington's faith), you know there is a problem.

In this audio clip, Novak presents his case, but is shot down by the foremost expert on the history of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood. Even Novak admists in this clip that Wood knows better than he. In light of the recent discussion of Washington, I thought this would be an appropriate way to keep the discussion going.

Here is the audio of this discussion. Click on Windows Media to access it once you get to the site.

18 comments:

Brad Hart said...

Steve:

After listening to the video clip I did not get the impression that Gordon Wood "destroyed" Novak. Instead, it sounds like they agreed on most things. If anything both Novak and Wood attacked the stupid comments of the various uninformed callers (especially the mason guy).

As far as Novak's book being attacked by the historical community, I have not found any major criticizm (if somebody knows of any, I would love to read it). I actually think that Novak and Wood were in agreement when it came to Washington's faith. Novak does not make the claim that Washington was a Christian in the orthodox sence. Instead, he claims that Washington was a religious man who was very guarded about his personal sentiments.

Jonathan said...

Novak does not make the claim that Washington was a Christian in the orthodox sen[s]e.

My reading of Novak's book is that on balance he feels the evidence points to Washington's belief in orthodox Christianity, but understands the kernel of truth in the skeptics' doubts. He wants to clearly show that GW wasn't a "Deist" as strictly defined, and I'm with him on that. Though, I disagree with his terming GW's God "Judeo-Christian." Judaism and Christianity teach incompatible theological truths; there may be a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage; but there is no such thing as a "Judeo-Christian" God.

Novak's book is shorter than Peter Lillback's and doesn't exhaustively pour through the historical record. But, to his credit Novak makes far more modest and defensible claims, and doesn't get into the lawyer like sophistry of Peter Lillback on matters like "why didn't GW take communion?" or "why was GW so silent in mentioning Jesus by name or example or explicating his religious specifics?"

Lindsey Shuman said...

Jon:

My understanding of Novak's work is that he argues for the orthodoxy of George Washington. To be honest, I have not read the book, so I really can't say much more. From the reviews of his book that I've read, this seems to be the main critisizm.

Brad Hart said...

Has anyone had the chance to read "Founding Faith" by Steven Waldman? I just finished the book this week and loved it. Waldman's arguments seemed to be based more on primary source evidence than do Novak's.

Jonathan said...

Novak does argue for the (probable) orthodoxy of Washington; but more so, he argues for the Christianity of Washington and almost hedges on whether disbelief in orthodox doctrine disqualifies one from being a Christian. In my personal correspondence with Ellis Sandoz, he seems to be struck by the same "hedge."

At least that's the idea I get here where Novak personally devotes an article to me and my assertions that the key Founders were not "Christians" because they disbelieved in orthodox Trinitarian logic. Also check out Gregg Frazer's comment to Novak's article on me.

This is important because many figures from the Founding era, including Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin identified and understood themselves to be "Christian." Yet, when defining Christianity, they noted their "rational," "pure," or "unitarian" Christianity (those tended to be the signifying qualifiers) rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, infallibility of the Bible, etc. The question is can such a system qualify as "Christian"? If it can, I'd have to concede Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin to be "Christian."

Jonathan said...

Another complicating factor is that some Founders & theologians, while they agreed on certain core tenets could disagree on a few of them. For instance, both Jefferson AND J. Adams rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, and infallibility of the Bible. But ADAMS, after Joseph Priestley (who was both Adams' and Jefferson's spiritual mentor) believed in the resurrection -- not of an Incarnate God -- but rather God doing for the most perfect man what He might one day do for all good men.

Or take Charles Chauncy, one of the most important pro-revolutionary ministers in the Congregational Church. Like America's key Founders (whom he influenced) he rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, and eternal damnation. But, apparently, he believed the Bible was infallible; because he argued his case rejecting these doctrines from the Bible alone.

This is one reason why I can't take seriously the notion that GW was a Christian because of one draft that he didn't even use terming discussing "the blessed religion revealed in the Word of God." Protestant Christianity formed one component of what is termed "theistic rationalism." Yet, because this system rejects core doctrines of orthodox Christianity, arguably it's not "real Christianity" even though the Bible/Christian religion had some important or qualified influence in shaping its doctrine.

After pouring through the historical record, I think Paul Boller's assessment of GW's religion still stands. (Lillback and the Novaks effectively rebut that GW was a strict deist; they clearly show he believe in an active personal God, and was much friendlier to religion than Paine. But they do NOT rebut the following, quoting Paul F. Boller):

"[I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense."

Hercules Mulligan said...

Participating in the sacrament is not a requirement to be a Christian; there is nothing in the Bible that says if you don't take communion, you're a heretic. If you read the Bible, the practice was instituted and practiced, but the communion is not essential doctrine, like the divinity of Christ, the atonement, etc. Christianity is not a system of rituals, so to judge the Founders' Christianity by rituals is to judge based upon a misunderstanding of what Christianity is. And when you judge with faulty presuppositions, you're conclusions are bound to be erroneous.

As to the divinity of Christ, Washington believed in that. In his "Circular Letter to the State Governors," which he wrote upon his resignation from being commander-in-chief of the American Army in 1783, he made a reference to "the Divine Author of our blessed Religion." (source)

Is there any evidence that Washington denied, or said anything contrary to the deity of Christ, His atonement, or to the Trinity? Not that I am aware of. All the rest of the evidence that has hence far been presented is circumstantial and inconclusive. How can you affirm that Washington didn't believe in the Trinity, because he didn't regularly commune, didn't make overt references to it, etc etc? Isn't that what we call the argument from silence, which is very unreliable??

I don't care what the majority of professors think of Washington's faith. Most of them aren't Christians either. And if we are really going to be fair (if Washington's faith is THAT inconclusive), shouldn't non-Christian professors be just as biased in determining someone's Christianity, as a Christian professor is commonly assumed to be???

I said in my last comment on the last post related to Washington's faith on this blog, that the quote from his preliminary inaugural address hasn't been dealt with. That is affirmative evidence, not only that Washington believed in Christianity, but that he believed the Bible was inspired BY GOD. If you believe that, than you can't just accept Jesus' moral teachings and reject everything else. Because the Bible centers on who Jesus is, not just His moral teachings, although they are important for believers to follow.

I have presented this quote over and over again in debates elsewhere, but it has been avoided by those who deny Washington's Christianity.

Any comments on that quote and Washington's supposed theistic rationalism?

Hercules Mulligan said...

In order to really believe that the Bible is infallible, you have to accept that everything it says is true.

It clearly says that Jesus is the Son of God; that He paid the atonement for our sins; that He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit are One; etc. etc.

How in the world could Chauncey honestly defend his disbelief in those beliefs, and still believe in the infallibility of the Bible?? I don't know about his honestly and wisdom, but I don't think Washington was THAT ignorant of the Bible and THAT dishonest.

Jonathan said...

How can you affirm that Washington didn't believe in the Trinity, because he didn't regularly commune, didn't make overt references to it, etc etc? Isn't that what we call the argument from silence, which is very unreliable??

There are two parts to communion and Anglicanism that are relevant. The first is because Anglicanism is somewhat closer to Roman Catholicism than are the other branches of Protestant Christianity, communion played an especially important role in that Church (i.e. if you were a devoted as opposed to a nominal Anglican/Episcopalian, you TOOK communion). And secondly, communion REPRESENTS or SYMBOLIZES Christ's Atonement.

The logic of Occam's Razor suggests that those Anglicans/Episcopalians who systematically avoided communion were the ones who didn't believe in what the act represented: Christ's Atonement, and with it Christ's divinity and incarnation. GW never so told why he avoided communion. But such is a very common sense explanation. John Marshall likewise was one of those Anglican/Episcopalians who systematically avoided communion and this is what his daughter had to say on the matter:

"The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church."

[primary source available upon request]

I know she was talking about Marshall and not GW; but the point is to show that avoiding communion logically connects to disbelief in Christ's full Godhood, His Incarnation and Atonement. As I see it, it's the most logical explanation for why GW avoided communion.

As to the divinity of Christ, Washington believed in that. In his "Circular Letter to the State Governors," which he wrote upon his resignation from being commander-in-chief of the American Army in 1783, he made a reference to "the Divine Author of our blessed Religion."

One: This wasn't written in GW's hand. Two: This was only one of TWO places where GW EVER mentions Jesus Christ by name or by person (thus it's not enough to demonstrate systematic thought on GW's behalf about Jesus) and Three: The sentiment is still consistent with Arianism (a popular form of unitarianism) which saw Jesus as a divine but created and subordinate being to God the Father. Madison in all likelihood was an Arian after Samuel Clarke and John Locke.

Is there any evidence that Washington denied, or said anything contrary to the deity of Christ, His atonement, or to the Trinity? Not that I am aware of. All the rest of the evidence that has hence far been presented is circumstantial and inconclusive. How can you affirm that Washington didn't believe in the Trinity, because he didn't regularly commune, didn't make overt references to it, etc etc?

He didn't talk like a Trinitarian. He didn't systematically refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as you would expect were he a Trinitarian. The word "redeemer" or "savior" was never recorded as coming out of his mouth. Out of the hundreds of prayers that Peter Lillback reproduces from GW's own mouth, not one of them was done in Jesus' name. And keep in mind that denying the Trinity back then could ruin one's public reputation, something GW guarded with his life! You have to look to secret letters for evidence to see Adams', Jefferson's and Franklin's heterodoxy. And one could keep one's secrets secret.

I don't care what the majority of professors think of Washington's faith. Most of them aren't Christians either. And if we are really going to be fair (if Washington's faith is THAT inconclusive), shouldn't non-Christian professors be just as biased in determining someone's Christianity, as a Christian professor is commonly assumed to be???

If you are going to insist on poisoning the well against non-Christian academics who read their "secular" bias into GW's faith, I'll note that two extremely distinguished sources that I oft-appeal to for authority -- those who endorse the notion that GW was a theistic rationalist -- Drs. Gregg Frazer and Gary Scott Smith, are both evangelicals of impeccable orthodoxy. In Smith's case, he chairs the history dept. at Grove City College, one of the most well-respected evangelical Christian colleges in the nation and has a new book out on the matter published by Oxford University Press. And Dr. Gregg Frazer -- a self proclaimed young earth creationist -- has as his minister and college President, Dr. John MacArthur, whose Christian fundamentalism puts him in Bob Jones territory. (I just listened to a sermon of his where he noted in no uncertain terms the Catholic Church to be an anti-Christ and apostate system.)

Indeed, it's precisely because "born-again" Protestant fundamentalists know that most folks nominally connected to "Christian" Churches, who understand themselves to be "Christian" in some broad-loose sense, really aren't "Christians," that they have an easier time noting the evidence utterly fails to show GW's "real" Christianity.

Indeed, an outsider to the Christian faith like myself might observe a) they called themselves "Christian," b) they were connected to "Christian" Churches, and conclude, therefore c) they were "Christians."

Orthodox evangelical Christians, on the other hand, would note if you walked down the street in America, a typical person encountered probably WOULD identify as a "Christian" in some sense (as 80% of Americans do). But most likely is not a REAL Christian, in the orthodox, regenerate, sense. And that the BURDEN is on those asserting GW's Christianity to so prove he walked that narrow path.

And finally, I'll repeat my answer to your citing GW's draft discussing "the blessed religion revealed in the word of God." 1) It's a rare example of GW discussing revelation as authority. 2) He trashed the speech -- I wonder why -- could it be he was thinking of things to say and that didn't really represent his true conscience? And 3) that fragment and the Circular to the States are consistent with the notion that the Bible is a partially inspired "Word of God" -- that man's reason determines which parts of revelation are valid, that the purpose of revelation is to confirm the findings of reason, not the other way around.

That's the theistic rationalist position. GW did NOT discuss the Bible or appeal to it as authority enough to conclude he thought it infallible. On the other hand, the few times he did refer to "revelation" suggests he thought at least some of it was legitimately revealed.

Jonathan said...

How in the world could Chauncey honestly defend his disbelief in those beliefs, and still believe in the infallibility of the Bible??

They may be an historically dissident, heretical minority, but I've got news for you: There have been plenty of notable "Christians" who seemingly claimed to believe the Bible infallible, but didn't see "the Trinity" in there, but rather saw its pages as describing Jesus as a being created by and subordinate to the Father. (Indeed a Father/Son relationship seems to intimate a subordinate Son, not equal to the Father!) Most were Arians. Notable ones include Isaac Newton and John Milton. These biblical unitarians were anything but "ignorant."

Indeed, as an outsider to the Christian faith who has a hard time believing the Bible infallible, I'll note that reading the good book as though it were, some texts do seem to argue for the Trinity, and others do seem to argue for Christ's subordination to God the Father.

Chauncy did often exhault and appeal to "reason," but insisted the Bible alone disproved original sin and the Trinity.

Brian Tubbs said...

Can we all agree that George Washington was a man of integrity? And can we all agree that integrity means that a person lives according to his or her stated principles and ideals?

If this is so, then why did George Washington remain closely aligned with the Anglican and later Episcopal denomination, if he did not share its core tenets? Professing agreement with an organization's beliefs, while deep down disbelieving those tenets, would be hypocrisy. And this is inconsistent with Washington.

Now, I know that Jonathan (and others) will probably point to Jefferson and some other Founders who were nominally aligned with denominations, and whose writings show them to not share in their beliefs. But we're not talking about Jefferson. We're talking about George Washington.

I don't mean to slam Jefferson, but you simply can't compare the two men when it comes to moral character and integrity. Washington stands head and shoulders taller.

I'm not saying that GW was a Bible-thumpin' street preacher or anything like that. He did not wear his religion on his sleeve. He did not shove it in anyone's face and he bent over backwards to show tolerance and speak up for religious liberty. But to say that he was not in agreement with the church that he affiliated with pretty much his entire life is to accuse him of dishonesty and hypocrisy. I don't think GW warrants such an accusation.

Jonathan said...

One big problem I'm having with the point you raise Brian -- this is something that has been occupying my mind as I think about GW's faith -- is that the Anglican Church had as one of its core tenets loyalty to England and those who were the most devoted Anglicans remained Tory loyalists. If you look at GW's vestryman oaths, he pretty much pledges himself to remain loyal to high church Anglicanism and the King.

Another problem would be, assuming GW did believe as I argue, what would he do? The theistic rationalists believed religion was a social duty and supported a religious citizenry (even if some like TJ and JM were more separationists when it came to connections between religion & govt.; they still were "pro-religion" in general). If they couldn't worship in those Trinitarian Churches, they'd wouldn't be able to go to church at all.

Because unitarianism was a heresy there weren't many unitarian churches from which to choose. That's certainly why Jefferson, a militant unitarian, never actually joined a unitarian Congregation. Priestley's church in Phila. wasn't established until 1796.

There were many of them in Boston (at least many of the Congregationalists had unitarian preachers). For instance, since 1750 J. Adams' Church preached unitarianism.

King's Chapel in Boston, the first first official Unitarian Church, officially became so in 1782. And they were an Episcopalian Church, which shows that even ministers of Trinitarian Churches embraced unitarianism and universalism and reformed their churches. Reform often occurs from the inside out. Often folks (for instance the first reformers!) remained affiliated with an organization some of whose tenets they disagree with. Luther I understand, wanted to remain a Catholic.

Jefferson, because he disagreed so much with Trinitarianism, I think was interested in reforming the system from the inside out. If you look at B. Franklin's letter to Ezra Stiles, he pretty much calls the Trinity and related doctrines "harmless irrationalities" and professes agnosticism on them. If that were one's attitude on those doctrines, one probably wouldn't be too concerned that churches scrap those doctrines ASAP.

From my reading of GW's God talk, I'm convinced that the major difference between him on the one hand and Jefferson and Adams on the other, is whereas they thought quite a bit about the Trinity, actively rejected it, and thought it a harmful doctrine, Washington seemed utterly agnostic or unconcerned with it.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I remain unconvinced that Washington was not a believer in the Bible for several reasons:

(1) There is nothing in all his many writings, either public or private, where he gives any indication of heterodoxy. We know that men like Jefferson and Adams and maybe Madison were not believers in the Bible because of what they said. With Washington, he was silent, and it is only up to speculation to decide WHY he was silent. He may have thought it unnecessary to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity, etc. As a Christian, I can certainly understand that. For example, in all my discussion hence far, I have never spoken in "trinitarian" terms, or really manifested my outright belief in it. Will I be looked as an agnostic or the like 200 years after I'm dead??

(2) Those who were intimately aquainted with Washington (his family members, close friends, etc) all testify to his Christianity, and they said so with conviction. You may support the idea that Washington did not regularly participate in communion services by using Nelly Custis' letter, but that omission didn't affect her belief in her grandfather's Christian faith -- she was convinced that he was a Christian.

(3) In general (with a few exceptions which have been pointed out in the course of discussion), it was believed that Washington was a believer in Christianity. That view did not become significantly challenged and disbelieved until recent times, I think within the 20th century. But in all my research, I have never seen those who claim the heterodoxy of Washington (of whatever kind) to present conclusive, affirmative evidence. Only speculative reasons as to why he wasn't always naming Jesus, why he wasn't naming the Trinity, why he didn't take communion (at least he didn't do it often after the conclusion of the Revolution, although Mrs. Alexander Hamilton left a testimony to her children that she knelt beside Washington and received communion with him when he became President). And if we think of the character of Washington, as Brian has pointed out, heterodoxy may not have been the only possible reason for his omission.

At the present, I have no time to debate specifics, but I can't say that my opinion of Washington has changed much after thinking through this discussion and racking my brains. When in doubt, lean with the testimony of those who knew him, and therefore were better acquainted with his personality, character, and motivations for doing things.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

Well maybe the only way we'll know for sure is on the other side. IF Herc. and Brian are right about who God is, and the narrow, exclusive path to get to Him, I have a feeling that you are far liklier to find Dr. James Abercrombie in Heaven. And when you get there I would think you would want to shake his hand for having the balls to stand up to and publicly reprimand GW for turning his back on the Lord's Supper. In that event, you can at least congratulate him for me.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I think that you have a point, Jonathan, in saying that only on the other side of the grave can we really know who is saved and who isn't. One's faith is a matter between himself and God, and his eternity will be determined based upon how that individual responded to God in his (or her) earthly life.

I don't know whether or not Abercrombie will be in Heaven; I don't know much about his faith. But I also know of no place in the Scripture that commands Christians to participate in the Lord's Supper in order to be saved. This is probably a typical Anglican or Catholic tradition (I don't know how strictly they cling to it), but they aren't God's mouthpieces. What He has ordained He has set in His Word.

I think that the Presbyterian Rev. John M. Mason explained the concept of the Lord's Supper well, when he conversed with the dying Alexander Hamilton:
"'[T]he holy communion is an exhibition and pledge of the mercies which the Son of God has purchased; that the absence of the sign does not exclude from the mercies signified; which were accessible to him by faith in their gracious Author [Jesus Christ].' 'I am aware,' said he [Hamilton], 'of that. It is only as a sign that I wanted it.'" (letter)

Obviously, Hamilton understood this concept. Salvation comes through believing in Christ, not through taking the Sacrament. The Sacrament is a SIGN of the fellowship that believers have with Christ, but it is only a sign. It has no inherent power to bring salvation, according to the Bible.

The only difference between Hamilton and Washington is that Hamilton wanted a sign of this fellowship, as a public profession of Christian belief. There is the probability that Hamilton felt that he had not given full evidence to his fellow countrymen that he had accepted Christianity, although he had defended it publicly during his lifetime. Washington apparently, did not desire the sign (or at least, did not desire it at his deathbed; he took it upon his inauguration, however, according to Mrs. Hamilton). But that does not mean that he rejected Christian belief, even though he did not regularly participate.

Jonathan said...

I think this was a good thread and am not interested in reanimating it; though the discussion should continue in subsequent threads. But let me add one little response to something Herc. said in his last post:

"There is nothing in all his many writings, either public or private, where he gives any indication of heterodoxy."

The words "nothing at all" are too strong, in my opinion. I agree there are no "smoking guns" as there are with Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin; but rather some useful pointers. GW, like Jefferson and Madison later did, referred to the Native American's God as "The Great Spirit," twice when speaking to them. That is something I would think no orthodox Christian would do. Or at the very least -- like GWB referring to the Muslim's God as "Allah" by name -- it would be something for which orthodox Christians would strongly criticize him.

And Washington also said whatever it was in "religion" he valued that supported republican government, the Universalists who denied eternal damnation possessed that quality and GW defended the chaplaincy of the Universalist John Murray.

[It's my contention that the things that define Christianity's orthodox essence -- original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible -- had little to do with what GW et al. valued in religion and its support for republican government; rather they valued the teaching of the existence of PROVIDENCE and a future state of rewards and punishments -- something that existed in many religions beyond Christianity. And they greatly valued Jesus of Nazareth's moral teachings.]

These are a few of the words and deeds that I believe point in the direction of GW's heterodoxy.

victor said...

i thing how washing tone did,t believe trinity


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victor
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