Friday, January 07, 2005

Faith Versus Good Works

"Franklin's objection to the Calvinist theology of the Puritans of Boston and the Presbyterians of Philadelphia was based on its insistence that salvation could come only through God's grace rather than through good works. In 1734, a preacher from Ireland named Samuel Hemphill came to Philadelphia and began preaching the doctrine of good works, much to Franklin's pleasure. But the local synod put him on trial for heresy. In a fictional dialogue Franklin printed in his paper, he defended Hemphill and his doctrine."
Walter Isaacson, A Benjamin Franklin Reader, pp.101-106


The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 10, 1735
(Beginning excerpted)
...T. Perhaps you may think, that though faith alone cannot save a man, morality or virtue alone, may.

S. Morality or virtue is the end, faith only a means to obtain that end: and if the end be obtained, it is no matter by what means. What think you of these sayings of Christ, when he was reproached for conversing chiefly with gross sinners, the whole, says he, need not a physician, but they that are sick; and, I come not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance: does not this imply, that there were good men, who, without faith in him, were in a state of salvation?...

T. If Mr. H Is a Presbyterian teacher, he ought to preach as Presbyterians use to preach; or else he may justly be condemned and silenced by our church authority. We ought to abide by the Westminster confessions of faith; and he that does not, ought not to preach in our meetings.

S. The apostasy of the church from the primitive simplicity of the gospel, came on by degrees; and do you think that the reformation was of a sudden perfect, and that the first reformers knew at once all that was right or wrong in religion? Did not Luther at first preach only against selling of pardons, allowing all the other practices of the Romish church for good? He afterwards went further, and Calvin, some think, yet further. The Church of England made a stop, and fixed her faith and doctrine by 39 articles; with which the Presbyterians not satisfied, went yet farther; but being too self-confident to think, that as their fathers were mistaken in some things, they also might be in some others; and fancying themselves infalliable in their interpretations, they also tied themselves down by the Westminster confession. But has not a synod that meets in King George the second's reign, as much right to interpret scripture, as one that met in Oliver's time? And if any doctrine then maintained is, or shall hereafter be found not altogether orthodox, why must we be for ever confined to that, or to any, confession?

T. But if the majority of the synod be against any innovation, they may justly hinder the innovator from preaching.

S. That is as much as to say, if the majority of the preachers be in the wrong, they may justly hinder any man from setting the people right; for a majority may be in the wrong as well as the minority, and frequently are. In the beginning of the reformation, the majority was vastly against the reformers, and continues so to this day; and, if, according to your opinion, they had a right to silence the minority. I am sure the minority ought to have been silent. But tell me, if the Presbyterians in this country, being charitably inclined, should send a missionary into Turkey, to propagate the gospel, would it not be unreasonable in the Turks to prohibit his preaching?

T. It would, to be sure, because he comes to them for their good.

S. And if the Turks, believing us in the wrong, as we think them, should out of the same charitable disposition, send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, ought we not in the same manner to give him free liberty of preaching his doctrine?

T. It may be so; but what would you infer from that?

S. I would only infer, that if it would be thought reasonable to suffer a Turk to preach among us a doctrine diametrically opposite to Christianity, it cannot be reasonable to silence one of our own preachers, for preaching a doctrine exactly agreeable to Christianity, only because he does not perhaps zealously propagate all the doctrines of an old confession. And upon the whole, though the majority of the synod should not in all respects approve of Mr. H's doctrine, I do not however think they will find it proper to condemn him. We have justly denied the infallibility of the pope and his councils and synods in their interpretations of scripture, and can we modestly claim infallibility for our selves or our synods in our way of interpreting? Peace, unity and virtue in any church are more to be regarded than orthodoxy. In the present weak state of humane nature, surrounded as we are on all sides with ignorance and error, it little becomes poor fallible man to be positive and dogmatical in his opinions. No point of faith is so plain, as that morality is our duty, for all sides agree in that. A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian: for there is no such thing as voluntary error. Therefore, since 'tis an uncertainty till we get to heaven what true orthodoxy in all points is, and since our congregation is rather too small to be divided, I hope this misunderstanding will soon be got over, and that we shall as heretofore unite again in mutual Christian Charity.

T. I wish we may. I'll consider of what you've said, and wish you well.

S. Farewell