In 1730, a Christian deist named Matthew Tindal wrote a book entitled Christianity as Old as the Creation: or, the Gospel, a Republication of the Religion of Nature . As implied in this title, Tindal takes the position that the essential truths in Christianity have always been known by all human beings since the creation of the world. According to Tindal, any claim to receiving an exclusive “revelation” of truth by anyone, or the church, must be tested by human reason. Any such “revealed” truth that cannot be verified through human reason is either invalid or non-essential in Christianity.
Tindal finds that a number of church doctrines fail to pass the test of human reason but Tindal explains that the essential truths in Christianity are known naturally and universally. Tindal explains that whatever “honors God and is good for mankind” is in accord with God’s will and should guide human behavior. This, of course, is Tindal’s paraphrase of what Jesus described as love for God and love for “neighbor,” which Christian deists believe is the essence of Christianity.
Since I use the terms “Christian deism” and “Christian deist” in my essays, I have received e-mail asking whether these terms are “oxymorons,” figures of speech in which the words have opposite meanings. A Calvinist web page, which is opposed to “Christian deism,” claims that the term is internally “contradictory.” In response to these questions and comments, I would like to explain that the concept and term “Christian deist” is not my creation. The term was used in 1730 by Matthew Tindal in his book Christianity as Old as the Creation.
Some have asked the question, “Can a Deist be a Christian?” The reason for this question is that some persons equate “Christianity” with “trinitarianism.” Trinitarian Christians believe in the doctrines of original sin, the divinity of Jesus, substitutionary atonement through the death of Jesus, supernatural revelation of truth, and miracles to prove the authority of Jesus. Deists reject these trinitarian views. Even Thomas Paine, a deist whom I greatly admire, made the mistake of equating “Christianity” with “trinitarianism,” so when Paine contrasted “Deism” with what he called “Christianity,” he was really criticizing “trinitarian” doctrines.
“Deism” is a religious perspective based on the premises that all human beings at all times have known that a Creator, called “God,” exists and that all human beings have known how God intends for people to live. This knowledge comes from “nature” and human “reason.” “Nature” includes both human nature and the natural world around us. Human “reason” refers to our individual ability to observe and think logically about ourselves and our relationships with each other and our Creator. Deists believe that as a person lives in harmony with the design of human nature, the individual is living in obedience to the will of God which is the basis for all happiness in this life and beyond.
On the other hand, trinitarian Christians claim that “Christianity” is a religion based on “revelations” of “truths” not known to all persons but supernaturally revealed by Jesus to a man named Paul of Tarsus, and later modified and adopted by church councils and church leaders such as the Catholic pope. Those who view “Christianity” as based on “revelations” known only in trinitarian churches claim that this version of “Christianity” is the sole source of “salvation” from sin and its alleged penalty, everlasting torture in a place called “hell.” Of course, Christian deists reject this idea because it is an insult to the goodness of God.
Matthew Tindal’s book, Christianity as Old as the Creation, answers the question, “Can a deist be a Christian?” and refutes the trinitarian claim to an exclusive knowledge of God’s truth.
Matthew Tindal (1650?-1733) was educated as a lawyer at Exeter College, Oxford University. He earned three degrees and taught at All Soul’s College, Oxford, from 1678 until his death in 1733. He was also an advisor to the English government on international law. Tindal was a Christian deist, a member of the Anglican church, and a prolific writer. In his book, Christianity as Old as the Creation, Tindal set forth the basic views of Christian deism in 391 pages. The book is written in English but reflects Tindal’s broad education from his frequent quotations in Latin and Greek from ancient philosophers and “church fathers.”
Tindal takes the position that the basic teachings of Jesus are validated by human reason but church leaders have added many doctrines and practices that are either contradictory to the teachings of Jesus or are non-essential in Christianity.
Reprints of Tindal’s book are available but are rather expensive ($120) so the book is not widely read by the general public today. Since the book is lengthy, it is not feasible to present much of its content in one essay, but I will offer some excerpts from it.
The book, Christianity as Old as the Creation, consists of fourteen chapters. Each of the first thirteen chapters presents a proposition in Deism which Tindal supports by the content of the chapter. In the fourteenth chapter of the book, Tindal refutes a publication by a “Dr. S. Clark” who wrote that, while there is value in natural religion (deism), the special “revelation” of truth possessed exclusively by the Christian church is distinct from, and superior to, natural religion.
In this essay, I will present the three propositions stated as titles of the first three chapters of Tindal’s book and I will offer some excerpts from each of these chapters.
Please note that this book was written over 270 years ago so the punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and the meaning of some words are different today. Where clarification is needed, I have provided this, but I have left the text essentially as Tindal wrote it. Of course, Tindal uses the words “he” and “him” when referring to God, as traditionally done in Tindal’s day, but this does not mean that Tindal’s concept of God is “anthropomorphic.”
The following is from Matthew Tindal’s book, Christianity as Old as the Creation:
Proposition: “That God, at all Times, has given Mankind sufficient Means of knowing what he requires of them; and what those Means are.”
Excerpts from Chapter 1:
“…. if God has given Mankind a Law, he must have given them likewise sufficient means of knowing it; he would, otherwise, have defeated his own Intent in given it; since the Law, as far as it is unintelligible, ceases to be a Law. Shall we say, that God, who had the forming of human Understanding, as well as his own Laws, did not know how to adjust the one to the other?”
“If God at all times was willing all Men should come to the knowledge of his Truth, could not his infinite Wisdom and Power, at all times, find sufficient means, for making Mankind capable of knowing what his infinite Goodness designed they should know?”
“…. Christianity, tho’ the Name is of a later date, must be as old, and as extensive, as human Nature; and the Law of our Creation, must have been Then implanted in us by God himself.”
“And if God designed all Mankind should at all times know, what he wills them to know, what he wills them to know, believe, profess, and practice; and has given them no other Means for this, but the Use of Reason; Reason, human Reason must then be that Means: For as God has made us rational Creatures, and Reason tells us, that ’tis his Will, that we act up to the Dignity of our Natures; so ’tis Reason must tell when we do so.”
“If then Reason was given to bring them to the Knowledge of God’s Will, that must be sufficient to produce its intended Effects, and can never bring Men to take that for his Will, which he designed they, by using their Reason, should avoid as contrary to it.”
“And therefore I shall attempt to shew you, That Men, if they sincerely endeavor to discover the Will of God, will perceive, that there is a Law of Nature, or Reason; which is so called, as being a Law which is common, or natural, to all rational Creatures;….”
“So that True Christianity is not a Religion of Yesterday, but what God, at the beginning, dictated, and stills continues to dictate to Christians as well as others.”
“Since none then that believe there’s a God, who governs Mankind, but believes he has given them a Law for the governing their Actions; this being imply’d in the very Notion of Governour and Governed; And since the Law by which he governs Men, and his Government must commence together, and extend alike to all his Subjects;….”
“….must there not always have been an universal Law so fully promulgated to Mankind, that they could have no just Plea from their Ignorance, not to be tried for it. And could any thing less than its being founded on the Nature of Things, and the Relation Men stand to God and one another, visible at all times to all, make it thus universally promulgated?”
Proposition: “That the Religion of Nature consists in observing those Things, which our Reason, by considering the Nature of God and Man, and the Relation we stand in to him and one another, demonstrates to be our Duty; and that those Things are plain; and likewise What they are.”
Excerpts from Chapter 2.
“By Natural Religion, I understand the Belief of the Existence of a God, and the Sense and Practice of those Duties which result from the Knowledge we, by our Reason, have of him and his Perfections; and of ourselves, and our own Imperfections; and of the relation we stand in to him and our Fellow-Creatures; so that the Religion of Nature takes in every thing that is founded on the Reason and Nature of things.”
“….’tis evident by the Light of Nature, that there is a God; or, in other words, a Being absolutely perfect, and infinitely happy in himself, who is the Source of all other Beings; and that what Perfections soever the Creatures have, they are wholly derived from him.”
“Since then, it is demonstrable that there is such a Being, it is equally demonstrable that the Creatures can neither add to, or take from the Happiness of that Being; and that he could have no Motive in framing his Creatures, or in giving Laws to such as them as he made capable of knowing his Will, but their own Good.”
“It unavoidably follows, nothing can be a part of the divine Law, but what tends to promote the common Interest, and mutual Happiness of his rational Creatures; and every thing that does so, must be a part of it.”
“As God can require nothing of us, but what makes for our Happiness; so he …. can forbid us those Things only, which tend to our Hurt;….”
“From our Consideration of these Perfections, we cannot but have the highest Veneration, nay, the greatest Adoration and Love for this supreme Being; who, that we not fail to be as happy as possible for such Creatures to be, has made our acting for our present, to be the only Means of obtaining our future Happiness; so that we can’t sin against him, but by acting against ourselves, i.e., our reasonable Natures: These Reflections …. not only force us to express a never-failing Gratitude …. but make us strive to imitate him in our extensive Love to our Fellow-Creatures:….”
“Our Reason, which gives us a Demonstration of the divine Perfections, affords us the same concerning the Nature of those duties God requires; not only in relation to himself, but to ourselves and one another; These we can’t but see, if we look into ourselves, consider our own Natures, and the Circumstances God has placed us in with relation to our Fellow-Creatures, and what conduces to our mutual Happiness: Our Senses, our Reason, the Experiences of others as well as our own, can’t fail to give us sufficient Information.”
“With relation to ourselves, we can’t but know how we are to act; if we consider, that God has endowed Man with such a Nature, as makes him necessarily desire his own Good; and therefore, he may be sure, that God, who has bestowed this Nature on him, could not require any thing of him in prejudice (*detriment) of it; but on the contrary, that he should do every thing which tends to promote the Good of it. The Health of the Body, and the Vigor of the Mind, being highly conducing to our Good, we must be sensible (*aware) we offend our Maker if we indulge our Senses to the prejudice (*detriment) of these: And because not only irregular Passions, all unfriendly Affections carry their own Torment with them, and endless Inconveniences attend the excess of sensual Delights; and all immoderate Desires (human Nature being able to bear but a certain Proportion) disorder both Mind and Body; we can’t but know we ought to use great Moderation with relation to our Passions, or in other Words, govern all our Actions by Reason; That, and our true Interest being inseparable.” (*Note: Brother John has inserted some words parenthetically in this paragraph to clarify the meaning of certain words which Tindal wrote in 1730).
“As to what God expects from Man with relation to each other; every one must know his Duty, who considers that the common Parent of Mankind has the whole Species alike under his protection, and will equally punish him for injuring others, as he would others for injuring him; and consequently, that it is his duty to deal with them, as he expects they should deal with him in like Circumstances.”
“All Moralists agree, that human Nature is so constituted, that Men can’t live without Society and mutual Assistance; and that God has endowed them with Reason, Speech, and other Faculties, evidently fitted to enable them to assist each other in all Concerns of Life; that, therefore, ’tis the Will of God who gives them this Nature, and endows them with these Faculties, that they should employ them for their common Benefit and mutual Assistance. And the Philosophers, who saw that all Society would be dissolved, and Men soon become destitute of even the Necessaries of Life, and be prey to one another, if each Man was only to mind himself and his own single Interest; and that every thing pointed out the Necessity of mutual Benevolence among Mankind; did therefore rightly judge, that Men were by their Nature framed to be useful to one another; “Ad tuendos conservandojq; omines hominem natum effe,” says Cicero. Therefore, every Man, for the sake of others as well as himself, is not to disable his Body or Mind by such Irregularities, as may make him less serviceable to them.”
“In short, considering the variety of Circumstances Men are under, and these continually changing, as well as being for the most part unforeseen; ’tis impossible to have Rules laid down by External Revelation for every particular Case; and therefore, there must be some standing Rule, discoverable by the Light of Nature, to direct us in all such Cases.”
“In a word, as a most beneficient Disposition in the supreme Being is the Source of all his Actions in relation to his Creatures; so he has implanted in Man, whom he has made after his Image, a Love for his Species; the gratifying of which in doing Acts of Benevolence, Compassion, and Good Will, produces a Pleasure that never satiates; as on the contrary, Actions of Ill-Nature, Envy, Malice, etc. never fail to produce Shame, Confusion, and everlasting Self-reproach.”
“From those Premises, I think, we may boldly draw this Conclusion, That if Religion consists in the Practice of those Duties, that result from the Relation we stand in to God and Man, our Religion must always be the same. If God is unchangeable, our Duty to him must be so too; if Human Nature continues the same, and Men at all times stand in the same Relation to one another, the Duties which result from thence too, must always be the same: And consequently our Duty both to God and Man must, from the Beginning of the World to the End, remain unalterable; be always alike plain and perspicuous; neither changed in Whole, or Part; which demonstrates that no Person, if he comes from God, can teach us any other Religion, or give us any Precepts, but what are founded on those Relations.”
“To sum up all in a few words: …. it being impossible for God, in governing the World, to propose to himself any other End than the Good of the Governed: and consequently, whoever does his best for the Good of his Fellow-Creatures, does all that either God or Man requires.”
“Hence, I think, we may define, True Religion to consist in a constant Disposition of Mind to do all the Good we can; and thereby render ourselves acceptable to God in answering the End of his Creation.”
Proposition: “That the Perfection and Happiness of all rational beings, supreme as well as subordinate, consists in living up to the Dictates of their Nature.”
Excerpts from Chapter 3:
“The Principle from which all human Actions flow, is the Desire for Happiness; and God who does nothing in vain, would in vain have implanted this Principle, This only innate Principle in Mankind, if he had not given them Reason to discern what Actions make for, and against their Happiness.”
“The Happiness of all Beings whatever consists in the Perfection of their Nature; and the Nature of a rational Being is most perfect, when it is perfectly rational; that is, when it governs all its Actions by the Rules of Right Reason; for then it arrives at the most perfect, and consequently the happiest State a rational Nature can aspire to: and every Deviation from the Rules of Right Reason, being an Imperfection, must carry with it a proportionable Unhappiness; and a Man’s Happiness and Duty must consist of the same things, ….”
“…. Men, according as they do, or do not partake of the Nature of God, must unavoidably be either happy, or miserable; And herein appears the great Wisdom of God, in making Mens Misery and Happiness the necessary and inseparable Consequence of their Actions; and that rational Actions carry with them their own Reward, and irrational their own Punishment: ….”
“The end for which God has given us Reason, is to compare Things, and the Relation they stand in to each other; and from thence to judge the Fitness and Unfitness of Actions; and could not our Reason judge soundly in all such Matters, it could not have answered the End for which infinite Wisdom and Goodness bestowed that excellent Gift; and for which we can’t enough adore the goodness of God.”
“…. since ’tis impossible in any Book, or Books, that a particular Rule could be given for every Case, we must even then have had recourse to the Light of Nature to teach us our Duty in most Cases; especially considering the numberless Circumstances which attend us, and which, perpetually varying, may make the same Actions, according as Men are differently affected by them, either good or bad.”
“Thus, I think, I have fully proved from the Nature of God and Man, and the Relations we stand to him and one another, that the divine Precepts can’t vary; and that these Relations, which are the permanent Voice of God, by which he speaks to all Mankind, do at all times infallibly point out to us our Duty in all the various Circumstances of Life.”
(NOTE: This essay covers only the first three chapters of Matthew Tindal’s book, Christianity as Old as the Creation.)