Re: The state of suburban theology

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Fri Jun 11 2004 - 15:43:52 EDT

>>> "Howard J. Van Till" <> 06/11/04 03:07PM

Perhaps Ted Davis can clarify for us the essence of deism and its
relationship to the mechanistic view of nature. Then we could reflect on
preparedness of "the suburban pulpit" to bring the fruits of "informed
theology" to the folks in the pew.

Ted replies:
I join Howard in calling for a return to a more traditional rel/science
topic, and I thank him for inviting my comments on this one.

In the past I've made several lengthy posts on "deism," about which a great
deal can be said. I'll keep this short, esp since I really don't know
exactly what lies behind the quotation Howard used (about suburban theology)
to introduce this issue.

Deism was the public theology of the Enlightenment (so called, it's
obviously a self-serving term that I find inappropriate in some ways,
nothing enlightened about slavery, indentured servitude, and colonialism for
example). It emphasized many things, but above all I would say it emphsized
these three things:

(1) Special revelation is a misnomer; the Bible is a pack of fables and
lies, except perhaps (I do say perhaps, thinking of Jefferson as an example)
for the moral teachings of Jesus. But the prophecies, miracle stories
(incl. those associated with the life and death of Jesus), and claims made
by various persons to be speaking for God are all just so much gar-bage (my
weak effort here to make an English word sound French, since much of the
Enlightenment is properly associated with France, the rest mainly with

(2) God exists, God created the world and us (separately, in the minds of
most Enlightenment thinkers, we did not evolve), and God is the source of
natural law incl those moral tenets associated (by Jefferson for example)
with natural law (such as our "inalienable" rights to property, liberty,
etc., rights that all landowning white men ought to have). But God is
absolutely not an absolute monarch; rather, God is a constitutional monarch;
otherwise we get the kind of God who can be used to undergird absolute
monarchies on earth. On earth, as it is in heaven. Thus, no miracles--God
does not, indeed must not, break his own "laws."

(3) No incarnation. This is just too scary an idea, it means that God
really cares deeply about our condition (which is "fallen," not a very nice
thing for enlightened men to contemplate) and, furthermore, it is closely
associated with an angry God who doesn't like sin and who does something
about it. But enlightened men don't sin, at least not against God, so they
don't need redemption.

To get a sense of my comments here, think of the contrast between (say)
David Hume or Thomas Jefferson on the one hand; and George Whitefield on the
other hand. Whitefiled bought the slavery part, I'll give you that; but
otherwise he's not really much of an enlightenment person. Too much
emotion, too much bother about sin and divine judgement. And too loud--you
could hear him in Philadephia when he spoke in Camden, across the wide
Delaware River. No moderation in that man.

This is longer than I wanted, but enough I hope to get us going.

Received on Fri Jun 11 16:02:40 2004

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