Christian Deism

Main  point:  There were many deists in the eighteenth century who were intent on restoring what they saw as true Christianity.   Scholars have ignored their importance for our understanding of Enlightenment deism.   

There  were part of a large group of eighteenth-century English deists who claimed they were Christians and devoted their theological writings to explaining their conception of true Christianity.  These deists claimed true Christianity was nothing more than Jesus’ moral teachings.   They outright rejected or simply ignored all the other parts of the Bible and Christianity.  Furthermore, they commonly argued that Jesus taught only the simple message of deism: if people loved God and they were morally good, then they would be rewarded after they died.  These deists revered Jesus, but they did not believe he was God nor that he died for our sins.  They did believe, though, that people should follow Jesus’ example of submitting to God’s will and developing a closer relationship with God through prayer.  Some of these deists called themselves “Christian deists,” but because their beliefs were so different from what many people think of as Christianity, it is probably better to call them Jesus-centered deists.  The Jesus-centered deists did not act in concert and did not have a leader, and so they were not an organized movement.  But their shared theology, and their clear differences from other deists, and from the theologically liberal Christians, mean they should be considered a distinct school of thought. 

Other scholars have noticed that a few of the English deists claimed they were Christians.   But most scholars believe these deists did not actually think of themselves as Christians; rather, the deists only claimed to be a Christians as “a tactical move to deter accusations of heresy.”

In stating Jesus-centered deism was a distinct school of thought, I am claiming these deists were different from other deists as well as from the theologically liberal Christians.  (The most theologically liberal of the Christians who belonged to the Church of England were the Latitudinarians.  The most theologically liberal of the Christians who were not members of the Church of England were the Unitarians.)  The Jesus-centered deists were different from other English deists because the Jesus-centered ones focused their theological writings on explaining their idea of the nature of genuine Christianity.  The Jesus-centered deists did not just claim to be Christian and then sprinkle a few orthodox statements of belief into their writings; instead, they spent a considerable amount of time and energy explaining why their conception of true Christianity was the original kind of Christianity that Jesus taught.  They often went into detail about when and why true Christianity had been corrupted and how their contemporaries’ idea of Christianity was different from Jesus’ original teachings. 

The Jesus-centered deists were also different from the Latitudinarians and the Unitarians, who are sometimes called Christian deists by scholars.  For example, Robert E. Sullivan calls the Latitudinarians Christian deists, and David Holmes calls the Unitarians Christian deists.  The Unitarians and the Latitudinarians were similar to the deists in that they emphasized reason, morality, natural religion, and God’s goodness.  But the Unitarians and the Latitudinarians thought Christianity was profoundly connected to the Old Testament, and they believed the Old Testament was an accurate account of God’s activities.  This meant they believed that God had chastised whole countries with plagues, fires, and earthquakes as well as commanded the Israelites to kill the women, children, and babies of neighboring nations.  Unlike the Latitudinarians and the Unitarians, the Jesus-centered deists consistently said that God had to be good and fair by conventional human standards of fairness, standards that say every person has to be given what he or she deserves based on his or her own actions.  Therefore, the Jesus-centered deists either explicitly rejected the Old Testament or cautiously ignored it.  They did the same with other teachings of the New Testament that they found inconsistent with God’s goodness.

Taking all these factors into account, an English deist is a Jesus-centered deist if he satisfies three criteria.  To begin with, he must have declared himself a Christian.  He must also care enough about Christianity to focus his theological works on explaining his interpretation of genuine Christianity.  Finally, he cannot defend or accept the teachings of the Bible that portray God as unfair by conventional standards of fairness.  Therefore, he must either explicitly reject some books of the Bible or, more cautiously, just ignore them and consistently claim true Christianity was only loving God and being benevolent.

Based on these criteria, there were twenty-eight Jesus-centered deists in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England.  Considering there were only fifty-four English deists, that means over half of them were Jesus-centered ones.  Some of the most important Jesus-centered deists who lived in England were Thomas Amory, Peter Annet, Thomas Chubb, Thomas Gordon, Thomas Morgan, James Pitt, Matthew Tindal, and John Trenchard.

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