Main Point: Many English deists said they believed God or angels made revelations. In this post, I discuss some of these English deists.
Lord Bolingbroke had a position very common amongst the deists: he was an advocate of natural religion, or the religion every person could know without a supernatural revelation. But Bolingbroke also thought the Christian revelation was directly related to natural religion, or the law of nature. He said “the Christian law is nothing else than the law of nature, enforced by a new revelation.”[iii] While he allowed for supernatural revelation, he called natural religion “natural revelation.”[iv] Bolingbroke was more satisfied with natural religion, not because it meant God was distant and uninvolved with our lives, but because he thought natural religion had more positive features than supernatural religion. Natural religion did not rest on other people’s authority or testimony; its testimony was always available and it was more fair. Bolingbroke said that “the missionary of supernatural religion appeals to testimony of men he never knew . . . for the truth of the extraordinary events which prove the revelation he preaches. But the missionary of natural religion can appeal at all times, and everywhere, to present and immediate evidence, to the testimony of the sense and intellect, for the truth of those miracles which he brings in proof: the constitution of the mundane system being in a very proper sense an aggregate of miracles.”[v]
Matthew Tindal thought natural religion and supernatural revelation were complementary. He said, “the greater stress we lay upon Reason, the more we establish Revelation.”[vi]
Thomas Morgan said Christianity was a revival of the religion of nature but it “more clearly stated, and explained, enforced by stronger motives, and encouraged with the Promises of more effectual Aids and Assistances by Jesus Christ.”[xii] Morgan also said that because the pagans had intermixed “so much superstition and so many gross absurdities” into natural religion, Christian morality was superior to the pagan morality.[xiii] According to Morgan, the pagans had gone astray because humans suffered from original sin.[xiv] Because of these positions, Morgan considered himself a Christian deist.[xv]
Thomas Chubb agreed with Morgan that because reason had been neglected by the pagans, revelation was needed to bring people back to the right use of reason.[xvi] While he thought that the New Testament was a revelation of God’s will,[xvii] that did not mean there were no errors in the Bible. He said the apostles and first preachers “were infallible and did not err with respect to the grand errand they were sent upon because God would, and did interpose to rectify any error with respect to it,” but not so “with respect to every other point of lesser moment.”[xviii] So for Chubb, the Bible was accurate in its overall portrayal of Jesus and the early Christians, but it was not accurate in all its lesser points.
It is important to understand that while many deists emphasized natural religion, their notion of reason was not an autonomous judging faculty that humans used for ends we chose independent of God. Bolingbroke saw reason as intimately connected to God. He described reason as “a real divine illumination.”[xix] For Thomas Morgan, reason was the faculty through which divine inspiration was received. Thomas Gordon went even further. He said reason “is justly styled Divinae particula Aurae, a Ray or impulse of the Divinity. And in what sense can a Man be said to be made after the Image of God, unless by his possessing that REASON which is a divine particle of the GODHEAD?”[xx] Other deists likewise thought of reason as connected to God: they thought it was a gift from God and a faculty which showed us our divine moral duty. For this reason, Justin Champion said that for the deists “reason was lauded not as a secularizing principle, but as part of the ‘spiritual’ nature of humanity.”[xxi]