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Did Ben Franklin Speak “According to the Analogia of the Faith”?: “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” – Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible

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Did Ben Franklin Speak

“According to the Analogia of the Faith”? [1]:

“Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”

Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible

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“O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. . . “

Psalm 65:2

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“Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it. . . “

Psalm 127:1

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“And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”

-Benjamin Franklin, Madison Debates, June 28, 1787-

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The Enigma of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Pushing a button and listening to several adages at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, I soon learned that the esteemed scientist-inventor-diplomat and publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack anticipated by 200 years the erotic “Make love, not war!” creed of America’s 1960s flower children.  Franklin’s behavior in Paris may have endeared him to the French, but it certainly offended the moral sensitivity of his fellow diplomat John Adams.

The irony was that in 1740, long before Franklin’s diplomatic service in France, he had personally invited the renowned itinerant evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) to preach in Philadelphia.  Whitefield accepted the invitation to be a guest in Franklin’s home in the expressed confidence that Franklin had extended such hospitality “for Christ’s sake.”  Franklin, who had begun publishing Whitefield’s journal and sermons in 1739, promptly informed Whitefield that the invitation was “not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.” [2]

Later Franklin had a meetinghouse erected in Philadelphia to accommodate Whitefield’s evangelistic gatherings.  This became the first building of the Philadelphia Academy–later the University of Pennsylvania.  Within the dormitory quadrangle stands a statue of George Whitefield, one of America’s best kept secrets.  In 2003 the writer and a ministerial colleague were hard-pressed to find a single Penn student who was aware of it, much less of George Whitefield himself, and we were permitted to view it only under campus police escort.

The Historical Assessment

The assessment of Franklin’s beliefs is made difficult, not only by his laissez-faire lifestyle, but by his confessional shortcomings.  Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette puts Franklin, along with Jefferson, in the “more Deist than Christian” category–though not as extreme as Thomas Paine. [3]  In The Search for Christian America, Church historians Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden commented:

Benjamin Franklin was not as outspoken as Jefferson against traditional Christian beliefs, but he too saw Christ as primarily a moral teacher and true religion as an expression of perfectible human nature.  Jesus was a model from which one could learn the virtue of “Humility,” as Franklin conceded in his Autobiography.   But in spite of exertions by his more orthodox friends, including George Whitefield, Franklin never went further than that in his attitudes to the Christian faith. [4]

Really?  Or is it possible that a severe threat to the Continental Congress was God’s spur to harry  an elect sinner out of the Deist camp?  Sometimes the specter of one’s long-held goals about to go up in smoke is all it takes for a man to stand up and be publicly consecrated to the Lord’s work–even if that work involves the birthing of a republic.  Ultimately, of course, God alone knows the true motives of a man’s heart; and prophecy, in and of itself, guarantees nothing about the one prophesying. [5]

Overcoming Deism?

Theism–belief in a personal God- is distinctive to Judaism and Christianity. [6]  Deism, on the other hand, represents the denial of a personal God.  A man could hardly have remained a Deist and have said the kind of thing Benjamin Franklin said on June 28, 1787 before the Continental Congress, as recorded in the Madison Debates (which anyone can read online or by a visit to the Yale Law Library).  The occasion was the impasse over the manner in which the states should be represented in the legislative branch of the new government.  There was no historical precedent or existing political model to which one could appeal to resolve the deadlock.  Delegate was pitted against delegate as to whether legislative representation for the new nation should be on the basis of a state’s population or the equality of one state with every other.  Franklin rose to his feet and made the following appeal:

Mr. President

The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other-our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.- Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?  We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move-that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service- [7]

At the heart of Franklin’s appeal to the Continental Congress, to include prayer as foundational to the success of its deliberations, was a reflective testimony concerning answered prayer, a reference to God’s “superintending providence” in the American conflict with the British, and, most powerfully, an analogy based upon the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:29, and Psalm 127:1.  It was almost as if the statesman were delivering a prophecy to the Continental Congress “according to the analogia (lit. “upward oracles”) of the faith.” [8]

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http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_628.asp

 

Endnotes

[1]. Rom. 12:6; See previous articles #16 and #17 in this series.

 

[2]. Frank Lambert, “The Religious Odd Couple,” Christian History, Issue 38 (Vol. XII, No. 2) 1993, 31.

 

[3]. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row Publishers, 1953) , 1006-1007.

 

[4]. Mark A. Noll, Nathan A. Hatch, and George M. Marsden,  The Search for Christian America (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books 1983), 73

 

[5]. Matt. 7:21-23

 

[6]. Edward John Carnell stated, “All religions need a personal God; Christianity provides Him.”  An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 181.

 

[7]. Madison Debates, June 28, 1787, U.S. Continental Congress, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, New Haven, Connecticut: YaleLawSchool (Lillian Goldman Law Library); italics mine

[8]. Rom. 126; See previous articles #16 and #17 in this series.

Sources

Carnell, Edward John. 1948. An Introduction to Christian Apologetics. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing company: Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Lambert, Frank. 1993. “The Religious Odd Couple,” Christian History, Issue 38 (Vol. XII, No. 2)

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. 1953. A History of Christianity. Harper and Row Publishers: New York, Evanston, and London.

Madison Debates, June 28, 1787, U.S. Continental Congress, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, YaleLawSchool (Lillian Goldman Law Library);  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_628.asp

McCullough, David. 2001. John Adams.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Noll, Mark A., Nathan A. Hatch, and George M. Marsden. 1983. The Search for Christian America. Crossway Books: Westchester, Illinois.

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About the Writer

David Clark Brand is a retired pastor and educator with missionary experience in Korea and Arizona.  He and his wife reside in Ohio.  They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.  With a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, an M. Div., and a Th.M. in Church History, Dave continues to enjoy study and writing.  One of his books, a contextual study of the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, was published by the AmericanAcademy of Religion via Scholars Press in Atlanta.

 

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