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The Theology of Paul

What you usually hear about Jesus today in churches and on TV is an interpretation that comes from the writings of a man named Paul who called himself an “apostle” (messenger) but was not among Jesus’ “twelve” disciples who are also called “apostles.”

Paul’s ideas about Jesus are found in letters which he wrote to churches and which were later included in the book called the “New Testament.”

Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, lived during and after the time of Jesus but Paul never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in some kind of mystical “vision” after the time of Jesus. From his “vision” of Jesus, Paul became convinced that Jesus was the Jewish “messiah” (“christos” in Greek) whom Paul believed would become the ruler (“lord”) of all humanity, not just the “kingdom of Israel.”

Paul referred to Jesus by the title of “christos.” The English word “Christ” in the New Testament is a transliteration of the Greek word “christos” (a verbal adjective meaning “anointed”) which, in turn, is a translation of the Hebrew word “mashiach” (a participle which also means “anointed”). “Mashiach” (“anointed” one) refers to someone who is chosen for a special purpose, such as a king. Mashiach is sometimes expressed in Greek as “messias” or in English as “messiah.”

Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the term “christos” is used as a title for Jesus. Jesus (the) Christ simply means Jesus “the anointed one.” Eventually the followers of Jesus became known as “Christians.”

What did Paul believe about Jesus, and how did Paul’s ideas become dominant in Christian churches?

Although Paul considered Jesus to be God’s Son, “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), Paul believed that Jesus was subordinate to God “the Father.” Paul wrote, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one lord (ruler), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Corinthians 8:6). “When all things are subjected to him (Jesus), then the Son himself will also be subjected to Him (God) who put all things under him (Jesus), that God may be everything to everyone” (I Corinthians 15:28).

Paul believed that Jesus was the means by which God “the Father” created “all things” and humankind. Paul’s belief reflects the influence of Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that a “logos” (a creative intelligence, or “mind”) created the order of the world. (The unknown writer of the book of John claimed that Jesus was this “logos” in John 1:1-14.) Paul was from the city of Tarsus where Greek ideas were well known.

Paul began preaching that Jesus was the “messiah” (Christos) whom the Jews were expecting but he immediately ran into a problem. The Jews were not expecting their messiah to be crucified. According to the book of Acts, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the (Hebrew) scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:1-3).

Paul’s theory about why Jesus had to die is explained in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Paul used the story of “Adam and Eve” in the Hebrew book of Genesis to explain the origin of sin and death. “Therefore sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Then Paul wrote that people are saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death on the cross (his crucifixion). “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ (Jesus) died for us. Since therefore we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). Paul’s explanation of the death of Jesus was in terms of a blood sacrifice to atone for sins.

In the days in which Jesus lived and Paul wrote, the Jews had a complicated sacrificial system in their religion. The book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible describes the kinds of sacrifices that were offered in the temple at Jerusalem to “atone” for sins, committed knowingly and unknowingly.

For sins committed knowingly against one’s neighbor, restitution was required and a “ram (male sheep) without blemish” was sacrificed in the temple as a guilt offering “to make atonement for him (the sinner) before the Lord, and he (the sinner) shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:6-7).

The offering of a sacrifice was considered an act of obedience to God. Paul used this “sacrifice” analogy to interpret Jesus’ crucifixion as an act of obedience to God to atone for the the sins of humankind. Paul wrote, “For as by one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s (Jesus’) obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

According to Paul, “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (sought after), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name (authority or status) which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord (ruler), to the glory of God the Father” (Phillipians 2:5-11).

Paul concluded that salvation from sin and death comes to individuals who accept Jesus as “lord” and believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Paul wrote, “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

The idea that Jesus was “sinless” came from Paul. Paul wrote, “For our sake He (God) made him (Jesus) to be (a sacrifice for) sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). A later writer in the book of First Peter (in the New Testament) referred to Jesus as “a lamb without blemish or spot.” “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (First Peter 1:18-19). This is clearly a reference to the sacrifice of a “ram without blemish” described in the book of Leviticus.

Paul called his message the “gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). Paul summarized his “gospel” in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethen at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

Paul’s “gospel” can be summarized as follows:

(1) “Christ died for our sins” — The penalty for sin is death but Jesus is God’s divine and sinless Son who died on the cross to pay the death penalty on behalf of humankind.

(2) “He (Jesus) was raised on the third day” — God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and gave him authority as “lord” (ruler) over all humankind, and whoever “confesses that Jesus is lord” and “believes that God raised him from the dead” will be saved from sin and death.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? It should because Paul’s theology became dominant in the Christian movement. Paul preached for about 30 years after the time of Jesus. He spread his views through his missionary journeys in many countries and he wrote letters to the young churches that he established or visited. His letters were kept and circulated among the early Christians.

Paul had very little success in convincing the Jews of Asia Minor and Greece that Jesus was the Jewish messiah so Paul turned his attention to Gentiles (non-Jews) who were attracted to Paul’s idea of “eternal life” through accepting Jesus as “lord.” Paul believed that Gentiles could become Christians without converting to Judaism with its requirements of circumcision and dietary laws.

In 66 AD, the Jews revolted against the Romans in an effort to liberate the kingdom of Israel. The Christians in Jerusalem saw what was happening and fled east across the Jordan river to Pella and other places. In 70 AD, the Romans crushed the revolution by destroying Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. Throughout the years, Jerusalem had been the headquarters for the Christians who were closest to Jesus, such as Peter, James, and others. Christians in Jerusalem considered themselves within Judaism. They had serious doubts about Paul and sometimes opposed him.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the influence of Jewish Christians began to decline. The churches in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and other places where Paul had spread his version of the “gospel” took over the leadership of the Christian movement. These churches were mostly in “Hellenized” areas where Greek culture and ideas had flourished since the days of Alexander the Great. The Christian movement began to establish its identity as a religion separate from its Jewish roots. But the movement carried with it the terminology which Paul used in his interpretation of the significance of Jesus.

Between 70 AD and 100 AD, four unknown writers collected whatever could be found or remembered about the life and teachings of Jesus. These writings became the books known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. It is in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that we come closest to the teachings of Jesus in his parables and discover the “gospel of Jesus” which is very different from the “gospel of Paul.”

The book of John, which was written about 100 C.E., reflects Paul’s view that Jesus was God’s divine “Son” who lived with God in heaven before coming to the Earth.

What’s In A Creed?

Every church has a creed. A creed is a set of religious beliefs approved by a church. A creed usually consists of a brief written statement of beliefs. Some churches use written creeds that have a long history such as the “Nicene Creed.” Some churches claim to be “non-creedal” churches but this just means that there is no formal written creed that a member must accept in order to be a member. Actually, these “non-creedal” churches have specific “beliefs” that a member is expected to affirm. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo” meaning I believe.

The theology of Paul became dominant in the early Christian movement but one of Paul’s ideas caused much debate among church leaders. Although Paul believed that Jesus was “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:5) and Paul referred to Jesus as the “Son” of God, Paul believed that Jesus was subordinate to “God the Father” (I Corinthians 8:6; 15:28). If the “Father” and “Son” were both divine but one ranked lower than the other, this sounded like “two Gods” or polytheism (belief in more than one God). To refute the accusation that they were polytheistic, various church leaders tried to explain how Jesus related to “God the Father.”

This theological question was debated by church leaders for three centuries! There were charges and countercharges of “heresy” against one another. The Roman emperor Constantine, who viewed the Christian church as a positive influence in the empire, became concerned that the theological controversy might threaten the unity and stability of the empire. So Constantine called the church leaders together in a Council at Nicaea to settle the matter in 325 AD.

At that time, a Christian priest named Arius in Alexandria, Egypt, was preaching that Jesus was divine because he had been created by God the Father before the world existed but that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father. Arius’ view became known as “Arianism.” Arius’ bishop, Alexander, and the theologian Athanasius argued that Jesus was co-eternal (had always existed) and had equality with God the Father.

After a long and bitter debate at the Council of Nicaea, the view of Alexander and Athanasius prevailed and was adopted by the council which produced a written creed as follows:

“We believe in one God the Father All-Sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible;

“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.

“And (we believe) in the Holy Spirit.

“But those who say, ‘There was (a time) when he (Jesus) was not (in existence),’ and ‘Before he (Jesus) was begotten he was not (in existence),’ or that ‘He (Jesus) came into being from what-is-not,’ or those that allege, that the Son of God is ‘Of a different substance or essence’ or ‘created’ or ‘changeable’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes (condemns).”

The above creed makes it very clear that the church council at Nicaea declared that Jesus the “Son of God” was co-eternal with God the Father, a position taken by Alexander and Athanasius in opposition to the position taken by Arius who believed that God the Father had created Jesus before the world was created.

By viewing Jesus and God the Father as co-eternal (existing always) and being of the same “substance” and “essence”, the Council of Nicaea contributed to the use of the terms “Jesus” and “God” in a synonymous and interchangeable way. The terms are used interchangeably in sermons and some church hymns today.

However, the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) did not really settle anything. The debate continued about the relationship of Jesus to “God the Father.” Another church council met at Antioch in 341 AD and wrote a rather ambiguous creed that could be interpreted that Jesus and “God the Father” were co-eternal but had different “personalities” and held different “ranks.” This creed was acceptable to Arian churches in the East but the Western bishops held a council at Sardica in 343 AD supporting the Council of Nicaea creed.

In 344/345 AD another council at Antioch produced a creed that sounded like the Creed of Nicaea but allowed an Arian interpretation. In 357 AD, a council at Sirmium adopted an Arian creed that stated that the “Father” is greater than the “Son” but this creed was opposed by a council at Ancyra in 358 AD. Another council at Sirmium in 359 AD produced a creed that was more of a compromise but in 381 AD a council at Constantinople reaffirmed the Creed of Nicaea from 325 AD.

The Council of Constantinople did not leave a record of the creed it produced in 381 AD but the following creed came to be used generally in the church after that date and was affirmed by the church council at Chalcedon in 451 AD. This creed became known as the “Nicene Creed” because it is based on the Creed of Nicaea (325 AD) but substantial additions and modifications were made to the creed of 325 AD.

The “Nicene Creed” became the “orthodox” creed in trinitarian Christian churches and is recited in some churches today. This creed is as follows:

“We believe in one God the Father All-Sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end;

“And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets;

“(And) in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

“We acknowledge one baptism unto the remission of sins.

“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”

The “Nicene Creed” officially created the church doctrine of the “Trinity” of God as “Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit” who are “worshipped together.” This creed also included the doctrine that “remission of sins” came through baptism.

The western churches (under the leadership of the church at Rome), and the eastern churches (under the leadership of churches at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria) gradually drifted apart and split in 1054 when the church at Rome tried to assert leadership over all churches through the pope in Rome. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation began in the western “catholic” church. The Protestant Reformation produced innumerable Christian sects which wrote their own creeds or statements of beliefs. Although there are significant differences in the beliefs held by various Christian sects, the theology of Paul has provided a core of beliefs to the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Paul’s belief that Jesus was “in the form of God” is reflected in the creedal statement that the “Son” is of “one substance with the Father.”

Athanasius, a major architect of the creed of Nicaea (325 AD), adopted Paul’s doctrine of salvation coming through the death of Jesus. Believing that death is the penalty for sin, Athanasius wrote, “What then ought God do about this matter? Demand repentance….? But this would not safeguard the honour of God’s character, for He would remain inconsistent if death did not hold sway over man…. What else was needed (to save humankind from death) but the Word (logos) of God….” Here, Athanasius is using the Greek term “logos” to refer to Jesus.

(Note: “Logos” literally means “word.” Logos is the word used by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus to refer to the “reason” or “creative mind” that brought order out of chaos when the world was created. Later Greek philosophers said that it is the logos that gives intelligence to human beings. This philosophy is seen in the first chapter of the book of John.)

Then Athanasius explained, “The Word takes on a body (Jesus) capable of death, in order that, by participating in the Word, it might be worthy to die instead of all (humankind)…. Hence he (Jesus) did away with death for all who are like him by the offering of a substitute. For it was reasonable that the Word, who is above all, fulfilled the liability in (by) his death, and thus the incorruptible Son of God, ….naturally clothes all (believers) with the incorruption in promise concerning the resurrection (from death).”

It is clear that Athanasius adopted Paul’s theory of salvation which is called the “substitutionary theory of the atonement.” In this theory, Jesus substituted his death for the death of humankind, thus paying the “death penalty” which humankind had allegedly incurred by sin (disobedience to God). According to Paul and Athanasius, repentance from sin is not enough to obtain God’s forgiveness.

As seen in the “Nicene Creed,” the early church believed that salvation from sin and death came through water baptism. The creed states, “We confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” Since baptism is a function performed by the church, this belief gave the Christian clergy control over who could be “saved.” It also produced a belief that infants inherited guilt from “Adam’s sin” and were condemned to hell from the time of birth unless baptized by a Christian priest.

The theology of the Nicene Creed was carried over into the Lutheran churches in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 states:

“We unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicaea, ….all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ womb. ….Moreover, this inborn sickness and heredity sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. ….God the Son became man …. was crucified, died and buried in order to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but for all other sins and to propituate God’s wrath. ….It is taught among us that Baptism is necessary and that grace is offered through it. Children, too, should be baptized, for in Baptism they are committed to God and become acceptable to Him.”

During the Protestant Reformation, the “Reformed” churches, led by John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Menlanchthon, and others, differed in some respects from the Lutheran churches but accepted trinitarian theology and Paul’s theory of salvation through the death of Jesus.

An antitrinitarian movement also began in the sixteenth century and was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and by Martin Luther and John Calvin, leaders of Protestant churches. This antitrinitarian movement, led by Michael Servetus of Spain, Francis David of Transylvania, and Faustus Socinus of Italy, later became known as Unitarianism.

The antitrinitarians viewed Jesus as subordinate to God “the Father,” but there was no agreement among them as to who Jesus was. Michael Servetus (1511-1553) believed that God was Jesus’ father but that Jesus did not exist before he was born on earth, so Jesus was separate from God and subordinate to God. Francis David (1510-1579) believed that Jesus was “begotten in the womb of the virgin (Mary) by the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus did not exist before his birth on earth. Francis David believed that Jesus was both “God and man.” Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) believed that Jesus was a “true man by nature” but not a “mere man” because he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”

John Biddle (1615-1662) of England taught that Jesus had “no other than a human nature.” Theophilus Lindsey (1733-1804), who organized the first Unitarian congregation in England, believed that Jesus was a “man of the Jewish nation.” Thomas Belsham (1750-1829) of England believed in the “unity of God and the simple humanity of Jesus Christ.”

In 1819, the American minister William Ellery Channing preached his famous sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity” in which he admitted that there were various opinions among Unitarians about Jesus but there was agreement that Jesus’ death was not necessary to save people from the penalty of sin. Channing said that God is always ready to forgive those who repent.

Christian Unitarianism flourished in England in the 18th century and in the United States in the 19th century but declined and virtually vanished in the 20th century because there was no clear agreement among Unitarians regarding the identity and mission of Jesus. In 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in the United States deleted from its by-laws the traditional Unitarian Christian affirmation of “love to God and love to humanity,” thus officially separating the UUA from its Judeo-Christian heritage.

Historically, some Unitarian Christians have been able to recognize that the religion of Jesus is simply “love for God and love for neighbor,” and some Unitarian Christians have been able to recognize that Jesus saw himself as a human being like ourselves. But it was in the seventeenth century (C.E.) that a religious movement called “deism,” clearly recognized the humanity of Jesus and the universality of religious truths.

The Deists opposed the exclusive doctrines that were considered “orthodox” in trinitarian Christian churches such as “original sin” and the corruption of human nature, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus, supernatural miracles and prophecies, the exclusive revelations of truth from God to individuals or through “holy books” such as the Bible or Qu’ran (Koran), and vicarious sacrifice to atone for sin. The Deists emphasized religion based on nature and human reason that promoted belief in God and virtuous living.

A Man Named Jesus

I view Jesus as a human being, like you and me, but living in a different time and place. Jesus was a Jew, almost 2,000 years ago, and he shared the Jewish belief that God intended for the descendants of Abraham (the Jews) to become a nation. (Genesis 12:2).
The Jewish nation, known as the Kingdom of Israel, had a history of being dominated by other nations including Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Egypt, and Syria. In Jesus’ day, the Jews were ruled by the Romans. The Jews looked forward to the day when they would become what Abraham had envisioned — an independent nation obedient to God’s laws.

When John the Baptist began preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), some Jews believed that the time had come for a messiah (“anointed one”) to liberate the Jews and reestablish an independent Kingdom of Israel. Jesus joined this movement and was baptized by John the Baptist.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

At that time, Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” was a nationalistic one. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the coming of the kingdom, Jesus told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (non-Jews), and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (the Jews). And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:5-7).

(Note: The terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are synonymous.)

In the beginning, Jesus was clearly a Jewish revoluntionary and he was eventually crucified as such by the Romans. But as Jesus traveled and preached the coming of the “kingdom of God,” Jesus’ concept of the kingdom began to change.

When Jesus encountered a Caananite (non-Jewish) woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon, the woman asked Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter.

Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Note: At that time, Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary and he thought that his mission was only to help the Jews.)

But the woman came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord (sir), help me.” Jesus replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Note: In this statement, Jesus expressed a prejudice that was common among the Jews at that time. Jesus referred to the Jews as the “children” of God and to the Caananites, non-Jews, as “dogs,” implying that non-Jews were inferior to Jews.)

The Caananite woman replied, “Yes, lord (sir), yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” And the woman’s daughter was healed, according to the book of Matthew (15:22-28).

It seems that Jesus learned a lesson in humility and faith from this Canaanite woman. As Jesus encountered persons of other nationalities and religions, Jesus gradually overcame his prejudices against such persons. Jesus ended his days on earth telling his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And Jesus used a Samaritan (a non-Jew) as an example of a “good neighbor” in the parable of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37).

As Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” grew, he used parables (stories) to try to explain his new concept. Many of Jesus’ parables begin with the statement, “The kingdom of heaven is like ….” It is in Jesus’ parables that we find the “kingdom of God” defined as the reign of God’s laws (commandments) in the hearts of individuals and in the reformation of society. Jesus prayed to God, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Jesus summarized the laws, or commandments, of God as follows: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the (Mosaic) law and (teachings of) the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Jesus, as a Jew, probably never gave up his hope that someday the Kingdom of Israel would be reestablished as an independent nation obedient to God’s laws but Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” contained the hope that God’s law of love would rule in every human heart and in all of human society.

Jesus believed that he had been “anointed” to preach the gospel (good news) that the “Kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news ….” (Luke 4:18). The Greek word “christos” means “anointed one” so Jesus eventually became known as Jesus “the christos.” And the followers of Jesus eventually became known as “Christians.”

Jesus knew that he was risking crucifixion by the Romans because Jesus was preaching the coming of the kingdom of God. The Romans viewed this message as words of a Jewish revolutionary seeking to liberate the Jews from the Romans. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for revolutionaries.

Jesus took this risk and was crucified by the Romans. Although Jesus survived his crucifixion, at least for some days, his cross became a symbol of unconditional love for others and a commitment to the mission of spreading the gospel of God. Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).

Later, a man named Paul misinterpreted the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul believed that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice to pay a death penalty on behalf of humankind to save people from the “wrath” of God. Paul believed that Jesus was a divine and sinless being who sacrificed his life as a “substitute” to atone (make amends) for the sins of humankind, like a “ram without blemish” was sacrificed as a “guilt offering” to God in the Jewish temple, 2,000 years ago (Leviticus 6:6-7). Today, the so-called “substitutionary theory of the atonement” is based on Paul’s belief.

But Jesus saw himself only as a “man who has told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) and Jesus did not see his cross as a “substitute” for anyone. In fact, Jesus made it very clear that he expected his disciples to risk their own lives if they chose to follow him. Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).

Here, Jesus is clearly saying that a person must be prepared to pay whatever it costs to live by the commandments — to love God and neighbor. The cost to Jesus was crucifixion. However, it is our willingness to bear our own cross (whatever it may be) that identifies each of us as a disciple of Jesus. The cross of Jesus serves as an example to be followed; it does not serve as a substitute to save us from anything.

Deism and Cultural Religions

“Deism” is a name given to the only religion that is known to all human beings regardless of time and place. Deism is called “natural” religion because its principles are known from nature and human reasoning.

In contrast to Deism (which is a universal religion), there are many “cultural” religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Trinitarian Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and others, which were developed in particular societies by individuals and groups living in certain geographical areas.

A cultural religion is taught to persons born in or living in an area where the cultural religion is dominant. For example, if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would probably be a Muslim (Islamic religion); if you were born in China, you would probably be a Buddhist; if you were born in Spain, you would probably be a Catholic (Trinitarian); if you were born in Salt Lake City, you would probably be a Mormon, etc.

Of course, some individuals leave the cultural religions that they learned as children, but most persons never leave their cultural religions because such religions are interwoven into the cultural fabric of their particular society. Membership in the cultural religion is expected if a person wants to be “in good standing” in a particular community or society.

Unfortunately, most cultural religions are “exclusive” religions; that is, each cultural religion claims to possess “truths” that have been revealed only to the founder or leaders of that cultural religion. Often the claim is made that God revealed these “truths” through “supernatural means” such as “angels, mystical visions, and tablets of stone or gold.” The alleged benefits of a cultural religion are available only to those persons who know of and “believe in” that cultural religion. All other persons are viewed as “unbelievers” and “infidels” who, allegedly, will be punished by God for their “unbelief.”

The so-called “supernatural truths” in a cultural religion are written into a book, such as “The Holy Bible,” “The Holy Qur’an (aka Koran),” “The Book of Mormon,” etc., which must be revered and obeyed by “believers” who expect a reward for their obedience. These “believers” often shun and sometimes persecute the “unbelievers” or “infidels.”

The history of the world has repeatedly shown what happens when two “cultural” religions clash in a particular geographical area. Often, political leaders use their cultural religion as an excuse for expanding political control over other countries in order to seize the natural resources of those other countries.

For example, when the Jews invaded Canaan and eventually took political control of the land, the Jews claimed that God had given Canaan to the Jews so they could establish the Kingdom of Israel and replace the Canaanite religion with the Jewish “true” religion. When the Arab Muslims invaded the same land about 1,800 years later, the Muslims claimed that they had been commanded by God to conquer the land and establish the Islamic “true” religion there. It is clear that the Jewish and Arab political leaders used their cultural religions to fan the flames of religious zeal to motivate their people to conquer other lands and take control of the natural resources.

Today, the Israeli Jews and the Arab Muslims battle for control of the same land, and their political leaders use religious leaders to enflame their people in the conflict. In their blind religious zeal, both sides commit inhumane acts in the name of their God: Jehovah or Allah. In following the dictates of their own “cultural” religions, many of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims are violating God’s natural law that requires love, or compassion, for all “neighbors,” (including those “neighbors” who are viewed as “enemies”), as taught by the deist Jesus (Luke 10:30-37; Luke 6:27; Matthew 5:44).

The man known as Jesus of Nazareth was as Jew. His cultural religion was an ancient form of Judaism which led the Jews to conquer the land of Caanan by military force and rule it politically. In Jesus’ day, the Jews had lost political control of the land and were ruled by the Roman Empire.

Jesus joined a religious/political revolutionary movement which was led by John the Baptizer. The purpose of the revolutionary movement was to free the Jews from the Romans and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, which the Jews called the “kingdom of heaven” (aka “kingdom of God”), and in which the Jews expected to enjoy peace and prosperity. Like John the Baptizer, Jesus initially viewed the “Kingdom of God” as exclusively for the Jews. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the countryside to announce the coming of the “kingdom of God,” Jesus instructed his disciples to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (non-Jews), and enter no town of the Samaritans (people of mixed race and religion), but go rather to the house of Israel (the Jews). And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.” (Matthew 10:5-7)

As Jesus preached his message about the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” he encountered Gentiles, Samaritans, and Romans who had the same human needs and hopes that the Jews had (Matthew 15:22-28; Matthew 8:5-13; John 4:46-53: Luke 7:1-9). Jesus revised his view of the “Kingdom of God” to include everyone who was willing to love God and “neighbor” (Mark 12:28-34) and Jesus gave up the idea that the “rule of God” would come on earth through military force (Matthew 26:52). Jesus preached “repentance” (turning away from lovelessness) and “forgiveness” of others as the way to establish the “Kingdom of God” on earth.

Jesus tried to reform his “cultural” religion. Jesus said that “love your neighbor” meant more than just loving your “Jewish” neighbor. It meant having compassion on anyone who is suffering, even those who are considered “enemies” (Matthew 5:43-47; Luke 10:29-37). Jesus taught that evil behavior begins with evil thoughts (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). He taught that good deeds can be done any time, even on the Sabbath that ordinarily is a day of rest (Matthew 12:9-14). He opposed the commercializing of religion by the money-changers who earned their living off of pilgrims who came from distant places to worship in the temple at Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12-13). He opposed the blood sacrifices that were part of the temple rituals which were intended as atonements for sin (Mark 12:32-33; Matthew 12:7). He urged people to pray in private, and not make a public display of prayer or giving of alms to the poor (Matthew 6:1-6).

It is no wonder that the religious leaders of the Jewish “cultural” religion viewed Jesus as a dangerous heretic and a revolutionary who might also offend the Roman rulers and cause them to take revenge on the Jews by destroying the Jewish temple and the Jewish capital city, Jerusalem (John 11:48).

Jesus’ determination to preach his vision of the “Kingdom of God on earth” eventually led to his crucifixion. After surviving his brief crucifixion, the wounded Jesus met briefly with his disciples to charge them with the mission of preaching “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations (Luke 24:47). Some days later, Jesus departed from his disciples. Various and conflicting stories are told about Jesus’ departure. Some of his disciples believed that Jesus had temporarily “ascended to God in heaven” and would return to the earth during the disciples’ lifetimes. But Jesus was never seen again by his disciples.

During the next four hundred years, a “cultural” religion was created around Jesus. This religion was based on the teachings of a man named Paul from the city of Tarsus. Paul claimed that Jesus was the divine Son of God who was sent by God the Father to die as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humankind (Philippians 2:6). Paul was a Jew who compared Jesus’ crucifixion to the Jewish practice of blood sacrifice in the temple as an atonement for sins (Romans 5:8-9).

Church leaders took Paul’s view that Jesus was the only divine “Son of God” and added that Jesus, together with “God the Father” and the “Holy Spirit,” was to be worshipped as one God, officially stating this doctrine of the “trinity of God” at the Council at Constantinople in the year 381 (of the Christian Era) and reaffirming this doctrine at the Council at Chalcedon in 451 CE. Church leaders, such as Athanasius, also adopted Paul’s theory that Jesus’ crucifixion was a “blood sacrifice” to atone for the sins of humankind. This theology became known as “trinitarianism,” and this is the cultural religion taught in Trinitarian Christian churches today.

Actually, Jesus’ own religious beliefs have nothing to do with the theology which is taught in Trinitarian Christian churches. Jesus was a “deist” because he taught the truth which he discovered in himself. Jesus described himself as only “a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) but he made no exclusive claim to knowing God’s truth (or God’s will). Jesus said that everyone is taught directly by God (John 6:45), and those who seek to follow God’s truth, or God’s will, are able to recognize that Jesus taught this same truth, and are attracted to Jesus (John 6:45; John 7:17).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, some Deists in England began a reform movement to return Christianity to the natural religion, or deism, of Jesus. These Deists became known as “Christian Deists.” Christian Deists recognized that natural religion can be summarized as “love for God, and love for neighbor (everyone)” as Jesus taught. The practice of love for God and neighbor is necessarily accompanied by the practice of repentance and forgiveness.

We should repent of (turn away from) any failure to love, and seek forgiveness from God. When possible, we should also seek forgiveness from any person whom we have failed to love. We receive forgiveness from God if we are willing to forgive other persons who repent of their failures to love us (Luke 11:4; Matthew 6:14-15). Christian Deists believe that by love, repentance, and forgiveness, we are doing God’s will that brings us a sense of inner peace and joy, and helps to create the “kingdom of God” on earth where people can live together in unity and peace.

History of Christian Deism

In the 17th century CE (Christian Era or Common Era), in England, some individuals began to openly oppose church doctrines that appeared unfair or unreasonable. These individuals, who were called “deists,” were opposed to such doctrines as “original sin” which claims that human nature is inherently corrupt or evil because of the “original sin” of “Adam,” the so-called “first” human being according to the story in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.

The doctrine of “original sin” provided a foundation for the entire structure of trinitarian theology which was eventually adopted by the Christian church after several centuries. According to trinitarian theology, the corruption of human nature leads all persons to sin (disobey God) which is punishable by death in “hell,” a place of everlasting torment. The church claimed that human beings can only be saved from this punishment by believing that God’s divine son became a human being, Jesus, whose death was a “sacrificial atonement” to pay the death penalty as a “substitute” for humankind. The Deists rejected the church doctrine that belief in Jesus’ death provides “salvation” from sin because most human beings have never heard of Jesus during the history of the world. Deists believe that God would not treat people so unequally and unfairly. With its claim to holding the “keys to heaven and hell,” the church exerted a tremendous influence after Christianity became an institutional religion officially recognized by the Roman empire in the 4th century.

In the 5th century, the Roman empire began to crumble. Germanic tribes (barbarians) invaded from the north and conquered the city of Rome. The Roman emperor in Constantinople abandoned the western part of the empire (Italy, France, etc.). The Christian church filled the leadership vacuum in the west as Christian clergy performed civil administrative duties in addition to church duties.

Beginning in the sixth century (about 500 CE), Europe entered a period known as the “dark ages.” Life for most people was depressing and tenuous because of poverty, disease, and war. The promise of a better life in the “hereafter” had great appeal, and the threat of “hell” for those who refused the offer of “salvation” gave the church power over the illiterate masses of people. The church also used the threat of “excommunication” to exercise power over government leaders. With its growing power, the church gained wealth, especially in land.

In western Europe, where the nations of Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany developed, the Christian church was a dominating force, politically and intellectually. The church insisted that the Bible (Old and New Testaments), as interpreted by the church, was the final authority in all matters–religious, scientific, or otherwise.

Beginning about 1300 C.E., the Renaissance came. There was renewed interest in the culture of the ancient Romans and Greeks, including literature, law, architecture, philosophy, and art. Interest in what the ancient Roman and Greek writers said in their original texts led to the development of textual criticism which could also be applied to the Bible. Questions began to be raised about the text of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church.

The literature of ancient Rome and Greece offered a positive view of human nature and human potential. It did not have the negative and depressing view of human nature which is found in the church doctrine of “original sin.” Roman and Greek culture emphasized the good and beauty in the world, and the responsibility of individuals for their own behavior.

Trade with the Far East (China and Japan) led to the discovery of cultures that existed continuously from before the time of “Noah” when the Bible claimed that the world had been destroyed by a flood. This raised questions about the reliability of the Bible.

Discovery and exploration of the “New World” (America) brought new wealth to European countries. Scientific discoveries in astronomy discredited the belief that the earth was the center of the universe as taught by the church. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, about 1450, enabled the printing of thousands of religious tracts in the 1500s and later.

The Protestant Reformation began in the 1500s, leading to the development of Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) churches. The Protestant reformers opposed the authority of the Roman Catholic pope but made no effort to reform trinitarian theology.

The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation brought religious, philosophical, and political changes to Europe and England. The 1600s brought scientific advances in medicine, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Isaac Newton’s theories about the universe and gravity presented new ways of looking at the world.

In the latter half of the 1600s (the seventeenth century), a number of Anglican ministers and other writers began to question trinitarian doctrines that appeared to be contrary to nature and reason. These writings continued through the 1700s, and the name “deism” was given to the views expressed by these writers.

Deism was not an organized religious movement. It was an effort by individual writers to reform Christian theology by ridding the church of certain doctrines that were inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Deists also rejected the concept of “supernatural revelation” of truth, and belief in “miracles” contrary to nature.

Deists opposed the doctrines of original sin, divinity of Jesus, and substitutionary atonement through the death of Jesus. Deists also rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of “predestination” that claimed that individuals were either “saved” or “lost” (condemned to “hell”) before they are born. This gloomy doctrine made God appear to be a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

In contrast to trinitarian doctrines, the English deists wrote that (1) the existence of a Creator (God) is known through nature and reasoning, (2) individuals should worship (honor) God by virtuous behavior (love for others), (3) individuals are accountable for their behavior, and (4) repentance is the means for obtaining God’s forgiveness for wrong-doing. The writings of the English deists occurred mostly in the 1600s and 1700s. Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648) was an early proponent of natural and universal religion based on human reason. Although Herbert was not a deist, some of his ideas were adopted later by deists.

Charles Blount (1654-1693) was the earliest identifiable deist in England. He wrote a book Religio Laici (“Layman’s Religion”) in 1683, based on Edward Herbert’s book De Religione Laici (“A Layman’s Religion”) which was published in 1645.

Blount also published a book, entitled Oracles of Reason, in 1693, containing an article “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion,” the earliest known published statement of deist beliefs. Blount rejected the doctrines of the “Trinity of God” and “substitutionary atonement” through the death of Jesus. Blount questioned the stories of “miracles” in the Bible, and he believed that much of traditional Christianity has been invented by priests and other religious leaders.

The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was not a deist, but he wrote a book On the Reasonableness of Christianity, in 1695. Locke viewed Jesus as the “messiah” or “Son of God” whom God sent to confirm the truths that could be known through human reasoning. Locke did not deny the idea of “supernatural revelation” but he believed that any alleged revelation had to be reasonable. Locke also was willing to accept some church doctrines that were “mysteries,” or beyond human comprehension, if such doctrines were not contrary to reason. Locke considered himself an Anglican Christian but he admitted that human reason could discover the same truths that were taught by Jesus. Locke wrote this book in an effort to support what Locke considered to be “orthodox” Christianity, in opposition to deism, but his book unintentionally gave support to deist beliefs, and led trinitarian clergy to accuse Locke of being an antitrinitarian.

John Toland (1670-1722) published a book Christianity Not Mysterious, in 1696 (one year after Locke’s book mentioned above), in which Toland wrote that any doctrine that was “mysterious,” or beyond human comprehension, was not essential in Christianity. Toland believed that God would not expect anyone to believe something that was beyond human comprehension or was contrary to reason. The trinitarian clergy recognized that Toland was questioning the doctrine of the “Trinity of God.” Toland’s book was burned in Ireland, and the Church of England brought charges against Toland.

Thomas Woolston (1669-1733) was an Anglican minister who believed that the events recorded in the Old and New Testaments should not be taken literally and historically, but had to be interpreted allegorically. These included the stories of the virgin birth and miracles of Jesus. Woolston was imprisoned for “blasphemy” which was considered a religious and civil offense.

Matthew Tindal (1657?-1733) was an Anglican lawyer and writer who wrote Christianity As Old as Creation, or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature, in 1730. Tindal believed that God’s revelation came through nature as understood through human reasoning. Tindal rejected the doctrine of “original sin.” Tindal believed that God’s truth cannot be limited to a particular place or time, as it is as old as creation.

Thomas Morgan (169?-1743) was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1717 and later became a medical doctor. He wrote a book The Moral Philosopher, in 1737, in which he identified himself as a “Christian Deist.” Morgan agreed with Matthew Tindal that Christianity is essentially a republication of truths found in “natural religion” which is known as “deism.”

Henry St. John (1672-1751), also known as Viscount Bolingbroke, was a prominent politician who served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War at various times in the government of England. When his political party was out of power, St. John began studying philosophy and became a deist in his religious philosophy. He was personally acquainted with Voltaire who had a high regard for St. John as a philosopher. St. John was also aquainted with the poet Alexander Pope whose poetry was influenced by St. John’s deism. St. John’s belief in the existence of God was based on “intelligent design” seen in nature. He wrote, “When we contemplate the works of God . . . they give us very clear and determined ideas of wisdom and power, which we call infinite . . . ”

Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) was a humble candle-maker and brilliant writer. His writings brought him to the attention of some Unitarians with whom he associated in London for a few years but he later returned home to his life as a candle-maker and writer. In 1739, he published The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted. Chubb considered himself to be a Christian Deist, and his writings brought deism to ordinary people.

Peter Annet (1693-1769) was a schoolmaster and prolific writer. In Deism Fairly Stated, in 1744, Annet wrote that “Deism . . . is not other than the Religion essential to Man, the true, original religion of Reason and Nature; such as was believed and practised by Socrates, and others of old . . .” Annet questioned the validity of miracles and held a very low opinion of the “apostle Paul.” Annet also questioned the records of the “resurrection of Jesus.”

Annet was the editor/publisher of a periodical called Free Enquirer in which he questioned Old Testament history. For this he was imprisoned for one month and had to stand in pillory. Later, in his sixties, Annet was arrested again for “blasphemous libel” and was sentenced to one year of hard labor in prison. After his release, he returned to school teaching in a grammar school until his death.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a deist, emigrated from England to America in 1774, and became famous for his writings which inspired Americans to seek independence from England. Paine was active in the American Revolutionary War, and his writings were credited by George Washington for rallying financial and moral support for the American army when it appeared that America was losing the war for independence. Paine wrote his deistic book The Age of Reason, in 1794, opposing both traditional Christianity and atheism. Paine would not call himself a “Christian” because the only “Christianity” he knew was trinitarian Christianity.

Religious and political conditions in England prepared the way for the development of deism in the 17th century. Anglican ministers and university professors were familiar with rationalism since the days of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), an Anglican theologian. The English revolution of 1688 brought changes in civil government, and eventually some freedom of the press. The Protestant Reformation gave rise to various Christian denominations in England.

But the Protestant Reformation was not aimed at reforming trinitarian theology. The deists undertook this task by trying to remove the doctrines that had been developed by the church after the time of Jesus. Deists saw themselves as carrying the Protestant Reformation to its logical conclusion by reforming the theology of the church.

In England, deism was never an organized movement. It existed in the writings of individuals who expressed their personal religious beliefs. Occasionally, there were private meetings of small groups for discussion. In France, during the French revolution, an effort was made to replace the Roman Catholic Church with a form of non-Christian deism. The Catholic Church and the French monarchy were viewed as allies in suppressing the French people, so the church and the monarchy were attacked simultaneously. During the revolution, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was renamed “The Temple of Reason.” But the effort to replace the Catholic Church with the “Cult of the Supreme Being” did not succeed. Non-Christian deism was too abstract to attract the devotion of the people.

In the United States, English deism did have some influence in the 18th and 19th centuries. English philosophy and religion came to the United States through books and personal communications between individuals in both countries.

Ethan Allen (1737-1788), a hero in the American Revolution, was the first well-known deist in America when it was under British rule. In 1762, Allen moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, where he became a deist after becoming acquainted with Dr. Thomas Young, a physician and deist, who lived just north of Salisbury in New York. Allen and Young began to write a book on deism but Young moved to Albany, New York, in 1764, and took the manuscript with him. In 1781, Allen acquired the manuscript from Dr. Young’s widow and completed the book, “Reason the Only Oracle of Man or a Compendious System of Natural Religion,” in 1782. The book was not published until 1784 because Allen had difficulty in finding money for the printer. Since Allen claimed to have never read any writing by a deist, the deistic content of the book apparently came from Dr. Thomas Young.

Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777) was a prominent physician who practiced medicine in western New York, in Boston, Massachusetts, and in Philadelphia, Pennsysvania. Young was a patriot in the American independence movement, and a leader in the “Boston Tea Party,” one of the events that led to the start of the American Revolution.

Dr. Young was a frequent writer of medical and political articles in newspapers and a magazine. His religious views were well-known, and his deistic creed was published as a letter in a newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, in 1772. This is the earliest published creed by an identifiable deist in America. Also, Young was apparently the primary author of a manuscript on which Ethan Allen based his book, “Reason the Only Oracle of Man,” published in 1784 after Young’s death.

Dr. Young wrote that his religion was based on two principles: “1st. To believe that God is, and is the rewarder of all those that diligently seek him. 2nd. To do justly, and to love mercy among us being, As ye would that others do unto you do also unto them in like manner.” Young’s statement is a concise summary of deism: (1) Believe that God exists, and (2) Do justly, and love mercy (kindness). The “do justly and love mercy” comes from the Hebrew prophet Micah (6:8). The remainder of Dr. Young’s statement paraphrases Jesus, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so unto them” (Matthew 7:12) which is now called the “Golden Rule.”

Dr. Young wrote, “I believe that in the order of nature and providence, the man who most assiduously endeavors to promote the will of God in the good of his fellow creatures, receives the most simiple reward of his virtue, the peace of mind and silent applause of a good conscience, which administers more solid satisfaction than all of the others enjoyments of life put together.”

Deism is clearly present in the personal beliefs of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he referred to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” Although he was reared in the Episcopal Church and participated in the parish, Jefferson held deistic views. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general and particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, of consummate skill, indefinite power in every atom of composition….it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is….a fabricator of all things.”

Jefferson believed that the teachings of Jesus had “been disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers” but he believed that Jesus taught “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Jefferson made his own “Bible” by extracting what he found to be valid in the life and teachings of Jesus. This “cut and paste” version is now called “The Jefferson Bible.” It omits the “miracles” of Jesus and makes no reference to the “resurrection” of Jesus.

To Jefferson, religion was a private matter. He wrote, “I have ever thought religion a concern purely between God and our consciences for which we are accountable to him, and not to priests.”

Elihu Palmer (1764-1806), an ex-Presbyterian minister, was a deist who was active in preaching deism and organizing Deistical Societies in New York and Pennsylvania. He also edited and published deistic newspapers and wrote the “Principles of Nature” (1801) as follows:

1. The universe proclaims the existence of one supreme Deity, worthy of the adoration of intelligent beings.

2. Man is possessed of moral and intellectual faculties sufficient for improvement of nature, and the acquisition of happiness.

3. The religion of nature is the only universal religion; that it grows out of the moral relations of intelligent beings, and it stands connected with the progressive improvement and common welfare of the human race.

4. It is essential to the true interest of man, that he love truth and practice virtue.

5. Vice is every where ruinous and destructive to the happiness of the individual and of society.

6. A benevolent disposition, and beneficient actions, are fundamental duties of rational beings.

7. A religion mingled with persecution and malice cannot be of divine origin.

8. Education and science are essential to the happiness of man.

9. Civil and religious liberty is essential to his interests.

10. There can be no human authority to which man ought to be amenable for his religious opinions.

11. Science and truth, virtue and happiness, are the great objects to which the activity and energy of human faculties ought to be directed.

Elihu Palmer’s statement of “Principles” would certainly gain approval from most intelligent and civilized individuals today but, in my view, the “Deistical Society of New York” was a mistaken effort to organize “deism” apart from its Christian foundation in the teachings of Jesus.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), was reared in the Calvinism of the Presbyterian Church but, as a youth working in his brother’s printshop, he saw some anti-deist literature which had the opposite effect on Franklin. Franklin said that he briefly became a “thorough deist” but, at age 19, he adopted a materialistic philosophy. Franklin then returned to the Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia, but he ceased attending this church when Franklin was 22 years of age. Then Franklin wrote his own “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” returning to his deistic views of religion. Near the end of his life, Franklin wrote, “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion . . . .” Franklin’s deism is apparent in this statement, but there is no agreement among deists that the soul is immortal. Deists do agree that God’s power to give life is not limited.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson kept their deism very private because both were prominent political leaders, and they wanted to avoid controversy over religion. Ethan Allen published his (and Dr. Thomas Young’s) book, The Oracle of Reason, only after Young’s death and shortly before Allen’s death, so this book had little or no influence on the deist movement in the United States at that time. Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer both opposed the irrationality of trinitarian theology but failed to accept the English deists’ view of Jesus as a teacher of the natural religion of deism. The deaths of Paine and Palmer ended their efforts to organize local non-Christian deistical societies.

In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in deism. The internet has provided more communication between individuals who are interested in natural religion based on human observation, experience, and reasoning. Individuals are experimenting with ways to bring deists together for mutural support and the promotion of deism. I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus make the principles of deism understandable and provide a personal religion that can be practiced every day. I hope that my essays may assist others in identifying themselves as “Christian deists” who choose to follow the human Jesus. May God bless you.