If You Thought King James’ English Was Tough, What about Thomas Jefferson’s?

This is a few days late, but pairs well with the recent post about a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. H. L. Mencken believed the Declaration of Independence was showing signs of inaccessibility:

The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.

The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.

With such remoteness in view, between 1776 and 1920 English, Mencken offered the following remedy (only the first two paragraphs):

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: First, you and me is as good as anybody and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day, like them South American coons and Bolsheviki, or every time some jobholder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, Bolsheviki, etc., and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.s would say the same. But when things gets so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal no much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the jump-off, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled…

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Which Bible, Whose Public School?

Are U.S. Christians really comfortable with bringing prayer and Bible reading back to public schools? If so, what do they do with this passage (which was part of yesterday’s Scripture readings)?

As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home. And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.” (Judges 19:22-30 ESV)

Or are those who want more Christianity in the public sector more comfortable with Mr. Jefferson’s Bible, the one that leaves parts like Gibeah’s crimes on the editing room floor?

Benjamin Corey Finds His Inner Thomas Jefferson

John Piper has his problems, but Corey’s objections to the retired pastor’s calculation of sin and punishment show he’s only been reading the Jefferson Bible, the one that cut out all the troubling bits:

Piper reminds me of something I’ve long believed: the Calvinist doctrine of God is far closer to Islam than Christianity. In a Christian doctrine of God, God is restrained in what he can do– for example, he cannot lie, he cannot deny himself, etc. However, Islamic theology, it is believed Allah can do “whatever he wills” which is the same position of Calvinism– God can do whatever God wants, and we have no right to question the morality of any of these actions.

But this isn’t the traditional position of Christianity, and this is where Calvinism steps outside of our tradition and becomes closer to other religions.

Piper’s answer, as he has done on other questions such as genocide of entire people groups, reveals a fundamental flaw in Calvinism: that an all-loving God perfectly revealed in the life and character of Jesus can be the author of acts that would be unspeakably evil if done by any other agent who possessed morality and a conscience.

Obviously, Corey has not read the Old Testament:

And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3 ESV)

But maybe Corey is one of those New Testament Christians. So I wonder what he thinks when he reads Jesus saying this?

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. . . .

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:16-22, 34-39 ESV)

Or does Corey think Jesus was John the Baptist for Mr. Rogers?

Rod Dreher noted recently the strange world of evangelical female celebrity and piety. In light Glennon Doyle Melton’s (whoever she is) decision to leave her husband of 14 years for a female soccer star, Dreher wondered what goes on among born-again women. According to the Chicago Tribune, Melton told her followers:

“My loves, here is the good news,” she writes. “You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! … That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are.”

To which Dreher responded:

You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! What theological codswallop. And yet, this kind of thing is celebrated by a lot of younger Evangelicals. Not even an attempt to base this in theological convictions; only self-worship.

Is this a female thing, this approach to mass Christianity, or is it general to our Christian pop culture today? Asking seriously.

Rod, read Corey. It’s an evangelical thing. Evangelicalism: blow it up.

Disloyalty

Rod Dreher admits to feeling unpatriotic during his visit to Monticello:

I had a very disconcerting moment, an unusual feeling, I think, for an American to have in a place like Mr. Jefferson’s house. We stood with the guide in the parlor, admiring the oil portraits Jefferson hung along the wall — most of them of historical figures he admired. On the southern wall were three portraits in a row: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke — described by Jefferson as “my trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced.” That, plus the marble bust of Voltaire flanking one side of the door in the entrance hall, really brought home to me how much a man of the Enlightenment Jefferson was. All the Founding Fathers were, but ignorant as I am about colonial history, I had not realized how deeply Jefferson identified with the Enlightenment.

As someone who has been doing a lot of reading lately in European intellectual history, and who has very mixed feelings about the Enlightenment, I was startled by the feeling that Jefferson was, well, wrong about some important matters. Obviously this is contestable, and I expect that most Americans would disagree. The only reason I bring it up was because I felt a bit profane, even unpatriotic, having those thoughts there…. I had a faintly similar sense of alienation. I wondered: Had I been alive during the Revolution, would I have been a Loyalist to the Crown, for the same reasons that being in Jefferson’s house and being confronted in his art by his Enlightened sensibilities made me feel so surprisingly alien.

Protestants don’t experience such a conflict in the presence of the Bible.

If Roman Catholics disagree with the pope, do they feel un-Christian? Can anything other than loyalty to the Bishop of Rome be acceptable in Roman Catholicism?

Would Canadians Even Object to This?

I know Thomas Jefferson gets bad press among certain Christians and some conservatives, but what exactly is wrong with this understanding of government?

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.

If you are a Covenanter, Neo-Calvinist monarchist, or pre-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic, maybe you do. But would Jesus, Peter, or Paul? Or Peter, Paul, and Mary?

Mr. Jefferson and Gubmint

Since I am doing a lot of reading of Mencken these days, I was curious to see what the bad boy of Baltimore had to say about the Declaration of Independence and its author. The following excerpt from his review of Albert Jay Nock’s, Jefferson (1926) seems as apt these days as when Nock and Mencken first wrote about the nation’s third president. And it suggests that libertarianism, contrary to its critics, is not as bad as all that:

Of the Jeffersonian system Mr. Nock offers a clear and comprehensive account, disentaingling it from the trivialities that party history has thrown about it. The essence of it, he says, is to be found in what would be called, to-day, Jefferson’s class consciousness. He divided all mankind into two classes, the producers and the exploiters, and he was for the former first, last and all the time. But there is no consolation in the fact for for the Marxians who now rage in the world, for to Jefferson producers meant far more than mere handworkers. A manufacturer, if he made some useful thing, was also a producer, so was a large landowner, if only he worked his land; Jefferson regarded himself as a producer, and his friend Jimmie Madison as another. Living in our own time, no doubt, he would put Henry Ford in that category; Henry, in fact, put himself there, and with no little show of reason. The only genuine non-producer, in the Jefferson lexicon, was the speculator — that is to say, the bonder, the promoter, the usurer, the jobber. It was against this class that he launched all his most awful thunderbolts of invective; it was this class that he sought to upset and destroy in the ferocious and memorable campaign of 1800. His failure was colossal. Driving that class out of the executive offices and making life very warm for it in the hall of legislation, he only shoved it into the courts, and there it has survived gloriously ever since, gradually extending and consolidating its power. Since Marshall’s day the American courts have suffered many vicissitudes and entertained many heresies, but in one department, at least they have kept the faith heroically: they have always protected the virtuous and patriotic bond-holder.

That is a useful reminder of where the power in the U.S. (and the world) still resides even after the banking failures of 2008 and the federal government’s bailout and “reforms” of Wall Street. And yet, Mencken still found a kind word to say about Jefferson’s outlook:

[Jefferson] was less the foe of the Federalists than of government in general. He believed that it tended inevitably to become corrupt — that it was the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. The less there was of it, the better he liked it, and the more he trusted it. Well, that was a century ago, and wild doctrines from the barricades were still in the air. Government has now gone far beyond anything dreamed of it in Jefferson’s day. It has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a state religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. (Mencken, Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series, 448-49)

No amount of turning the magistrate into the good and Christian ruler can undo what the Psalmist sang, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”

What's the Big Deal?

Carl Trueman is rightly confused about the allies of the gospel making such a big deal of complimentarianism. I’ll see him a confusion and raise him a bewilderment — why are professional historians so worked up about David Barton? For weeks, nay, months academics hounded the God-and-country amateur historian, who sees faith writ large everywhere in the American founding (like some seminary presidents we know). For a summary of some of the objections, go here and here. And when word came that Thomas Nelson was recalling Barton’s book on Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, one might have thought that Lyndon Baines Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act. So seemingly controversial had Barton become that Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World magazine, believed he needed to create distance between his own understanding of the United States and Barton’s:

We report in our current issue—and plan to report again in our next—about a controversy between two groups of Christian conservatives (also see “Lost confidence,” by Thomas Kidd, Aug. 9). On one side are David Barton and his many readers. Barton has provided a useful service for many years in fighting the left’s interpretations of history. On the other side are other Christian conservatives who point out what they believe are inaccuracies in Barton’s work. Left-wing historians for years have criticized Barton. We haven’t spotlighted those criticisms because we know the biases behind them. It’s different when Christian conservatives point out inaccuracies. The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron,” and that’s our goal in reporting this controversy. As the great Puritan poet John Milton wrote concerning Truth, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Olasky goes on to observe that historians have not been so obsessed with another popular and flawed account of U.S. history, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Olasky has a point but it is not entirely accurate. This summer the History News Network ran a poll among its readers on the “Least Credible History Book in Print.” For most of the time that people responded, Zinn led the pack. But when editors made the final tally, Barton surpassed Zinn by nine votes (650 to 641). In which case, if this poll is representative, academics can spot a bad book on the left and on the Christian fringe (to call Barton the right is an injustice to conservatism). Do Christians have as good a track record of acknowledging bias among their favorite writers on politics, history, and economics?

And yet, the question remains whether professional historians have sought to have Zinn’s book recalled? I am actually not sure whether historians wanted to see Barton’s book removed from the marketplace. Thomas Nelson likely made its decision to pull The Jefferson Lies for economic as much as scholarly reasons. Even so, considering all the bad books that publishers print, I am still befuddled by the large and concerted critique of Barton. I get it. He’s on Glenn Beck. But how many academics listen to or watch Beck? Thomas Nelson is a big and profitable trade press. But how many academics receive the company’s catalog? Barton’s ideas are silly and irresponsible. So are Zinn’s, right?

So I guess I really don’t get it. It seems to me the free market makes a lot of bad products available including books. What’s one more?

Hearing (all about) Me Speak

As Zrim has already indicated, pronunciations matter. If you say the word evangelical with a long e in the first syllable, as in “egads,” then according to popular wisdom you are one, that is, a born-again Protestant. If you pronounce it with the short e in “whatever,” then you aren’t ehvangelical.

The same goes for conservatism. If you slip in an extra syllable, as in “conservativism,” then you are likely unfamiliar with the discussions about what it means to be a conservative. But if you say the real word, “conservatism,” then you’re in the ball park of knowing something about the American Right even if you are not a card-carrier.

A twist on correct pronunciation came for me as my wife and I were driving to Washington, D.C. last week for the Round Table on the future of evangelical politics hosted by Brian Lee and the saints at Christ Reformed Church (URC). Scanning the dial in hopes of finding a voice different from Sean’s, we stumbled upon the local affiliate of the EWTN radio network which broadcasts the Al Kresta show weekdays at 4:00. This particular day found the host away at a conference and the show re-airing the “best of” Al Kresta. Imagine my (all about me) surprise when my wife and I heard Al introduce the hour-long interview I did about From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin on September 20, live in the Ann Arbor studio. Imagine my (all about me) further surprise to hear me babble on like a surfer dude. Which raises the question, if you sound goofy, can you really call yourself a confessional Protestant or a political conservative?

But misgivings about my voice and diction did not prevent a thoroughly enjoyable event with Michael Gerson and Terry Eastland thanks to the great hospitality and event planning of Brian and Sara Lee. The audio for the event is here (though you will need Quick Time to listen). Future events still include David VanDrunen this Thursday night (October 20), and Dave Coffin preaching(Sunday, October 23).

I believe the biggest difference to surface between Mike Gerson and me was his willingness to appeal to higher law (justice and human dignity) in thinking about a Christian understanding of politics and my reluctance to jump over existing laws, institutions, and powers for the sake of a higher good. I also believe this is one of the most profound difference between evangelicals and confessional Protestants in the sphere of religion, and between evangelicals and conservatives in matters political.

Consider, for instance, the willingness of revivalists to circumvent ordained clergy in order to bring the gospel to people (some of whom are already church members). George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent did this. The Gospel Coalition is still doing it. Think too of the way that evangelicals will appeal to the Bible to circumvent the authority of creeds or confessions with Scripture functioning as a higher law above man-made doctrines.

In politics evangelicals will appeal to Christian morality usually without considering such matters of state sovereignty. This happens when evangelicals look to the federal government to implement laws that state or local governments have not adopted, or when born-again Protestants seek to intervene internationally without doing justice to the existing governments in place. I know, I know, these matters are difficult and the complexity of the situation can lead to pacifism or even indifference. I also concede that folks like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., neither of whom used a long e when saying the word evangelical, also appealed to the higher law for the Declaration of Independence and Civil Rights. Still, evangelicals appear to me to be largely indifferent to existing governmental structures and laws when political forms get in the way of eternal truths. And every conservative (both religious and political) knows that this is a recipe for revolution.

This is not to say that Gerson espouses such radicalism, but only to point out that implicit in the appeal to a higher law is an impulse that makes evangelicals insufficiently aware of the restraint and stability that conservatives hope to preserve.

Desert Island Texts


I recently heard a sermon that included the point about the value of biblical memorization. Along with it came the warning about what would happen if we found ourselves in a situation without access to the Bible. If believers do not hide the word in their hearts, the logic goes, they will not have any spiritual nourishment when either deserted or imprisoned. The idea of finding yourself in a situation either hostile to Christianity or without the public ministry of the word is obviously troubling.

But upon further reflection, so is the Marcion-like canon one might actually have stowed away in one’s heart in preparation for such circumstances. Unless you are Jack Van Impe – the prophecy guy who has the entire Bible memorized (I think) – you are like me left with a very odd assortment of memorized biblical passages that may or may not come to mind in solitary confinement. In my own case, I have at one time or another memorized Psalms (1 and 23), the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the Luke birth narrative, the Magnificat, and John 3:16 (does John 3:16 actually count?). And to pass Hebrew in seminary (received an A, mind you), I memorized the entire book of Ruth from which the final exam came. That way, as long as I knew enough Hebrew to see there the passage assigned for translation began and ended, I could “translate” “competently” for a satisfactory grade.

But again, unless you memorize the entire Bible, doesn’t committing to memory an isolated passage undermine the point of why God gave us the entire Bible? Does memorizing a passage on the love of God, or on the free offer of the gospel, or a specific parable help us to know all of what God has revealed? Granted, isolated texts contribute to the whole. But without the whole, could the isolated texts lead us astray and defeat the point of sermon exhortations to memorize more Scripture? Surely, a selective approach to the canon did not work out well for Thomas Jefferson or Marcion.

Perhaps a better memory aid to all of God’s truth is the catechism. Here is a tool that is a summary of all of Scripture. It gives the high points about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and Christian duty. It also is relatively easy (except for the Larger Catechism) to memorize.

This is another way of suggesting that the gap between man-made creeds and God’s word is not as large as people think. Of course, if the gap is as large as the biblicist strain of Protestantism alleges, then Christians like Gilligan better have mastered large portions of Scripture if they are going to withstand the wiles of Ginger. But if it is possible and even right for those appointed by God to teach his word to develop faithful summaries of biblical truth in the pedagogical device of questions and answers, then the texts that Christians should be memorizing in preparation for Bible-less conditions is the catechism.