(NOTE TO READER: This essay is based on two religious documents written over 300 years ago when spelling and sentence structure were sometimes very different from today. So this essay will not be easy reading, but I will provide some help along the way. Good luck. BJ)
How you live is determined by your beliefs. A belief is an idea that you accept as true or factual. Your beliefs come from your own observation, experience, and reasoning, and from what you accept from reading or hearing the beliefs or teachings of other persons. The beliefs that influence how you live are ordinarily called a “philosophy of life” or “religion.”
Some beliefs are true and some beliefs are false. It is important for you to examine your beliefs to assess the validity or invalidity of the ideas represented in your beliefs. It is also important for you to know the source of your beliefs, and why you hold your beliefs.
Beliefs, or ideas, may become part of a religious system that is passed down from generation to generation in a particular society or culture. The antiquity of a belief may give an idea the appearance of “authority” although the idea is actually erroneous. For centuries, it was believed that the sun circled the earth, but this was eventually proven to be a false idea. It can be personally dangerous for a person to challenge an ancient belief, as Copernicus and Galileo found out. It takes courage to do this.
In England, beginning in the seventeenth century of the Christian Era (or Common Era), a number of persons began questioning the validity of some beliefs stated in the national Church of England’s creed known as the 39 “Articles of Religion.” The 39 Articles, officially adopted in 1571, were based on ideas from Roman Catholicism as modified by Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.
I am quoting the “Articles of Religion” in some detail in this essay so you, the reader, will recognize that most of the doctrines found today in Trinitarian Christian churches came from such sources.
This essay examines some of the ideas codified in the 39 Articles of Religion that Deists rejected and refuted. These included doctrines concerning the Trinity of God, the divinity of Jesus, original sin, the sacrificial death of Jesus as an atonement for sin, predestination, and “hell” as a place of unending torment for non-Christians.
This essay also examines the earliest known published statement of deist beliefs, “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion” published in 1693 in a book entitled The Oracles of Reason. The contrast between the “39 Articles of Religion” and “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion” is amazing and, I think, quite enlightening.
The Trinity of God
“Article I” of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Faith in the Holy Trinity,” states that “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
The word “Son,” of course, refers to Jesus and this Article claims that Jesus is divine, or God. In the 17th and 18th centuries, denial of the “divinity” of Jesus was an offense under English (and French) civil law and was punishable by imprisonment or execution. Writers who denied the divinity of Jesus used various devices to protect themselves from prosecution. Some published their writings anonymously, or attributed their views to ancient writers who were deceased. Others put their views in the mouths of fictional characters in a story or in an imaginary debate.
The earliest known published statement of deist beliefs was in a book, The Oracles of Reason, containing writings from Charles Blount and others in 1693. One article, entitled “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion,” began with (Chapter I) “The Deists Opinion of God” which stated “Whatever is Adorable, Amiable and Imitable by Mankind, is in one Supreme infinite and perfect Being, Satis est nobis Deus unus” (Latin is translated: “One God is enough for us.”)
This statement affirms the Deist belief in the unity of God, and specifically omits any reference to Jesus as part of a “Godhead” or “three Persons.” Such a denial of the “divinity” of Jesus, of course, was considered “heresy” and subject to prosecution by civil authorities.
It was generally believed that Charles Blount wrote “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion” but Blount’s name does not appear on the document in the book. On the page just preceding the “Summary Account,” Blount published a letter that he wrote to a “Dr. Sydnham” stating that Blount had seen a statement of “the Deists Arguments” and “according to my promise I have herewith sent them to you.” Blount was careful not to say whether he agreed with the “Deists Arguments.” In fact, Blount wrote “that human Reason like a Pitcher with two Ears, may be taken on either side” and “undoubtedly, in our Travails to the other World the common Road is the safest,” referring to traditional Christianity. By this device, Blount protected himself from civil authorities but Church of England clergy viewed Blount as a deist in disguise.
The Divinity, Incarnation, and Sacrificial Death of Jesus
Article II of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man,” states that “The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man; who truly suffered, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original sin, but also for all actual sins of men.”
This Article II is intended to explain how the “Son of God” became a human being (Jesus) without relinquishing his “divinity.” This was allegedly accomplished through a “virgin birth.” This doctrine of the “virgin birth” is essential in trinitarian theology. It enables Jesus to acquire a human nature so he could represent humankind, and it allows him to be “sinless” by not inheriting a “corrupt human nature” (from Adam’s original sin) that made sinning inevitable for human beings born in the ordinary way. As a “sinless” human being, Jesus could offer his life as a sacrifice “without spot” to atone for the sins of others, and thus “reconcile His Father to us,” according to the 39 Articles of Religion.
The “sinless” human nature of Jesus and his “sacrifice” for humankind are also stated in Article XV of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Christ alone without Sin” which states that “Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who by sacrifice of himself, once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. . . . ”
“A Summary Account of the Deists Religion” refutes the idea that God requires a sacrifice. In Chapter II “Concerning the manner of Worshipping God,” it is stated that it is not “By Sacrifice; for sponsio non valet ut alter pro altero puniatur;” (Translated: “it is not a valid agreement that one man can be punished for another”) and “no such sponsio (agreement) can be made with a bruit Creature (man); nor . . . can any External Rite, or Worship reinstate the Creature (man), after sin, in his (God’s) favor, but only repentance, and obedience, for the future; ending in an Assimulation to himself, as he (God) is the highest Good, . . .” This statement contains the basic Deist belief that repentance, followed by trying to be like God in goodness, is sufficient to obtain God’s forgiveness of sins. Deists specifically reject the belief that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice required for obtaining God’s forgiveness. (Note: words are added in parentheses to clarify meaning.)
“A Summary Account of the Deists Religion” rejects the idea that God can be worshipped through “any External Rite.” It is stated that “this is the first error in all Particular Religions; that external things or bare opinions of the mind, can after sin propituate God;” In other words, in “particular” (commonly known) religions, external rituals and theological opinions cannot atone for sin or please God.
It is then added that “hereby (the use of external things and opinions of the mind) Legislators (religious law makers) have endeared themselves, and flattered their Proselytes (followers) into good opinions of themselves (the religious lawmakers), and mankind (has) willingly submitted to the cheat; Enim facilius est superstitiose, quam juste vivere (translated: “Indeed, it is easier to live superstitiously than to live justly/rightly.”)
Chapter II of “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion,” gives three reasons for why Deists do not believe in a “Mediator” to reconcile us with God: “first, it is unnecessary; Miserecordia Die being sufficiens justitiae suae (Translated: “the mercy of God being enough to satisfy God’s justice”); secondly, God must appoint this Mediator, and so (God) was really reconciled to the World before. And, thirdly, a Mediator derogates (detracts) from the infinite mercy of God . . .”
Chapter II of the “Summary Account” also states that Deists do not believe in using images to worship God because it is an “impossibility” for “an infinite mind (God) to be represented in matter.”
After rejecting the ideas of worshipping God through images, sacrifice, and mediator, the “Summary Account of the Deists Religion” states that Deists believe that true worship is expressed “by an inviolable adherence in our lives to all things naturally good by an imitation of God in all his imitable Perfections, especially his goodness and believing magnificently of it.” In other words, we honor God by trying to imitate God’s goodness, and by trusting in God’s goodness. This is a common theme found in the writings of the early Deists: worship (show respect for) God by virtuous (good) behavior.
Original Sin, Predestination, and Salvation
Article IX of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Original and Birth-Sin,” states that “Original Sin . . . is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. . .”
Article XVII of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Predestination and Election,” states that “Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby before the foundations of the world were laid, he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he has chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honor. . . . (But) for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or to wretchedness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.”
Article XXXI of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of the Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross,” states that “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. . . .”
Article XI of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of the Justification of Man” states that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings; . . .”
Article XVIII of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of obtaining Salvation only by the Name of Christ,” states that “They are also to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For the holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”
Articles IX, quoted above, presents a view that human beings inherit a corrupt nature at birth and cannot avoid sinning, thus deserving “God’s wrath and damnation.” Article XVII claims that God, before the creation of the world, chose some persons “out of mankind to bring them to everlasting salvation,” and persons not chosen by God will face “God’s wrath and damnation.” This is called “predestination,” an idea that John Calvin promoted and is central in “Calvinism.”
Deists, of course, reject the idea that human nature is inherently corrupt. Deists also reject the idea that persons are predestined to be “saved” or “damned” before they are born. It would certainly be unfair and unloving for God to do this.
Articles XXXI, XI, and XVIII, quoted above, claim that Jesus’ death on a cross is the only means for saving people from “God’s wrath and damnation,” and it is “only by the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” Deists reject this claim because most people who have lived, or are living today, on the earth have never heard of Jesus. God would certainly be unfair to expect people to believe something that is unknown to them.
Deists also reject the idea that God requires a human sacrifice to appease God’s “wrath” and to obtain God’s forgiveness. Deists believe that repentance is the universally known means for obtaining forgiveness from anyone who has been offended. According to one deist, God forgives us if we repent of our wrongs against others, and we are willing to forgive those who repent of their wrongs against us (Luke 11:4; Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 6:14-15). The deist’s name was Jesus.
The 39 Articles of Religion depict God as wrathful, unfair, and vengeful. Deists believe that this false characterization is an insult to the goodness of God. According to one deist, this is “blasphemy against the Spirit (God)” and “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit (God) will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31-32). Again, that deist was Jesus.
Free Will and Good Works
Article XI of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Free-Will,” states that “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God; Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing (enabling) us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”
Article XIII of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Works before Justification,” states that “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet (prepared) to receive grace or deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.”
The two Articles, quoted above, claim that human beings have no “free will” to choose to do good works, and that any good works done by a non-Christian are “not pleasant to God.” Evidently, the writer of these articles was not familiar with the teachings of Jesus on this subject (Matthew 25:31-44). Deists believe strongly in human “free will” and personal responsibility for choices. Also, Deists believe that the best method of worshipping (honoring) God is by imitating the goodness of God, as demonstrated in “good works” based on love for others. Anyone can choose to do this. We do have “free will.”
Hell and the Devil
The 39 Articles of Religion contain a number of references to “damnation” for non-Christians and one reference to “Hell” and the “Devil.”
Article III of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of the going down of Christ into Hell,” states that “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” The idea that Jesus “went down into Hell” does not come from the New Testament, but is found in early creeds of the Catholic Church. There are various theories behind this idea. Some say that Jesus went down into “Hell” to win a victory over the “Devil” who allegedly rules “Hell.” Others say that Jesus went down into “Hell” to pay the penalty for the sins of humankind. All of this, or course, is imaginary. No explanation is given in Article III but this Article is evidence that the creed of the Church of England includes a belief in “Hell.”
Article XVII of the 39 Articles of Religion, entitled “Of Predestination and Election” refers to what happens to those persons who are not “predestined” for salvation from “curse and damnation.” Those “curious and carnal persons . . . . have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s predestination, (which) is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them into desperation, or into wretchedness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.” Apparently, it was believed that persons who were predestined to Hell would be under the control of the “Devil” and would suffer “desperation” and “wretchedness.”
The ideas of “damnation,” “Hell,” and the “Devil” were intended to strike fear in people, and give the trinitarian Christian church great power over people by the claiming that the church offered the only means of “salvation” from such threats. In the 17th century, the government used the national Church of England to control the people (i.e., discourage political dissent), and the Church used its power to obtain money to acquire land, construct buildings, and pay the clergy. Fear is an effective way to exert control over people. But that was the 17th century. Whether this is still true today, I will leave to the reader to judge.
Needless to say, Deists reject the idea of everlasting torture of people in a fiery “Hell.” If a person refuses to live as God intends for us to live, God certainly has no obligation to give another life to that person. But Deists do not believe that God takes revenge by torturing people. The ideas of “Hell” and the “Devil” came from Zoroastrianism, and were adopted by other religions. As stated in A Summary Account of the Deists Religion, “Indeed, it is easier to live by superstition than to live justly/rightly.”
In “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion,” Chapter III states that “A man that is endued with the same vertues as we have before mentioned need not fear to trust his Soul with God after death: For first, no Creature could be made with malevolent intent, the first Good who is also the first Principle in all Beings hath but one affection or Property, and that is Love; which was long before there was any such thing as Sin. Secondly, At death he goes to God, one and the same being, who in his own nature for sins of the Pentitent hath as well an inclination to Pity and Justice, and there is nothing dreadful in the whole Nature of God, but his Justice, no Attribute being terrible. Thirdly, Power is ever safe and need not revenge for self-preservation. Fourthly, However, Veri simile est, similem Deo a Deo, non negligi” (Translated: “It is probable that a man who is like God would not be neglected by God.”)
The above paragraph is stated in the English of more than 300 years ago, and may sound complex and convoluted, so let me state the thoughts in modern English: A person who tries to be good to others should not fear to trust his/her Soul to God at the time of death, for four reasons: First, God has a loving nature and did not create humankind with any malicious intent. Second, God has as much Mercy as Justice, and a Penitent person will be forgiven of sins. Third, there is nothing that a person can do that is a threat to God, so God has no need to take revenge. Fourth, it is reasonable to believe that a person who tries be good like God will be cared for by God.
The article “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion” is certainly more reasonable than the 39 “Articles of Religion.” Most of the 39 Articles of Religion contain doctrines found in Roman Catholic creeds, but some Articles reflect Protestant ideas. Some of the 39 Articles, not discussed in this essay, specifically rejected Roman Catholic doctrines related to the Pope, purgatory, and “transubstantiation” (the belief that bread and wine turned into the actual body and blood of Jesus in the “Eucharist” or “Lord’s Supper”).
The beliefs found in the 39 Articles of Religion developed over fifteen centuries and became codified in church creeds and documents which gave the beliefs the appearance of authority from antiquity. The powers of civil authorities and church courts were used to enforce acceptance. Imprisonment and execution were used against those who dared to question Church doctrines. This leads me to admire the courage of the early Deists who risked their lives to promote a reasonable religion for those who choose to think.
July 11, 2004