A Response to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason

Thomas Paine, a famed Revolutionary political activist and Founding Father, is also remembered for his attempts to expose Christianity as a fraud in his pamphlet Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. As the title suggests, Paine investigates the purported superiority of true theology (i.e. Deism) over what he calls fabulous theology (i.e. revealed religion). A Deist, Paine professes to believe in one God but rejects revealed religion (like Christianity, Judaism and Islam). According to Paine, of all pretenders of true religion, there is nothing more derogatory to the true God than Christianity, and consequently, he dedicates the lion’s share of his work as a polemic against Christianity and the Bible. He inveighs against biblical revelation on two different fronts. First, God would not use human language (as in the Bible) to transmit his revelation. On top of that, alleged difficulties in the Bible undermine its claim to divine authority. Although Deism has largely disappeared from today’s arena of commonly held worldviews, Paine’s arguments against Christianity still resonate with modern atheists and critics of organized religion. Nevertheless, neither of his arguments presented in The Age of Reason proves to be compelling.

Paine defines revelation as “something communicated immediately from God to man.”i According to Paine, true revelation cannot be communicated through written or spoken wordii because human language, being local and changeable, cannot convey a universal and unchangeable message.iii Even if one undertakes translation, the translation is never able to attain the full likeness of the original. Thus, he argues that all religious texts such as the Bible must be deemed counterfeit. In contrast, the true revelation and word of God is Creation, which is seen by all and corrupted by none—an “ever existing original.”iv Man discovers true theology when he embraces natural philosophy and ponders the wisdom of the Creator as revealed in the created world. Thus, he writes, “Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.”v, vi

Paine’s argument against special revelation, however, is not without problems. True, the use of language as a vehicle for revelation has its limitations: (1) The original manuscripts of the Gospels were each written in only one language in a society alive with countless languages, and (2) one cannot even perfectly preserve the likeness of the original through translation. Nevertheless, a crucial weakness in Paine’s argument is that he implicitly assumes that God lacks sufficient reason to use special revelation (i.e. revelation given to a particular person/people at a particular time) as a means of “publish[ing]… the glad tidings to all nations.”vii All one needs to do in order to reject this argument is to suggest a possible sufficient reason. And in fact, many people have done just that: theologians and philosophers have given explanations such as God valuing the disposition of a person’s heart, intimately interacting with Creation, or allowing man to play a role in God’s purposes more than man’s complete understanding of the revelation. In addition, even if part of the meaning gets lost in translation, it is plausible that God is willing to reveal something in a certain way (i.e. special revelation) in order to produce sufficient understanding of the revelation’s content, even while such an understanding nevertheless remains partial due to the limitations of language. Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself acknowledges that all understanding—of Scripture, of God, of the world, of oneself—has meaning that gets lost in translation until the resurrected lifeviii: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”ix Thus, even though man’s understanding of God’s special (and universal) revelation is incomplete, it can simultaneously be sufficient for what God has purposed.

Most simply, Paine has missed the point of Christianity’s claim to special revelation. Caught up in the Age of Enlightenment’s fervor for a priori, necessary proofs about regularized laws of nature, he assumes that, if God has offered a special revelation beyond the laws of nature and Creation, there must be a necessary or logical proof explaining this fact. Yet, Christianity insists, at its heart, that this saving special revelation, the revelation fulfilled and culminated in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, is not merely a surprise but a gift: it is totally unexpected, totally unnecessary, and thus a total, free gift from God. Yes, Christian theologians speculate about the possibility of special revelation, but they only do so as a result of its historical actuality: their task is not, as Paine imagines it, to prove why God must choose special revelation but is rather, in their estimation, why God could and would choose special revelation.

Paine also devotes much of his pamphlet to challenging the authority of the Bible. He carries out his attack by listing out objections as he reads through the Bible; in fact, almost half the pamphlet is dedicated to this effort. The majority of his attacks involve claims to evidence against traditional authorship, accounts of divinely-mandated moral injustices, and contradictions within the text.

Now, although neither time nor space permit a point-by-point response to every accusation levied, a few general observations can be made that seriously weaken Paine’s case against biblical authority. First, although Paine believes that he is able to dismantle the claims of traditional accounts of biblical authorship (i.e. Moses authored the Torah, Joshua authored Joshua, etc.), even if he succeeds, he has not demonstrated how doing so subverts biblical authority: for an assent to traditional authorship is not a necessary condition for maintaining biblical authority. For example, the early Church Father Origen of Alexandria (184- 254) argued that “it mattered little whether a truth was spoken by Jesus or the apostles or Moses or one of the philosophers; if it were true, it was true, no matter its source.”x Or, to borrow Bishop Watson’s terminology, there is a difference between a “genuine” text and an “authentic” text: “A genuine book is that which was written by the person whose name it bears as the author of it. An authentic book is that which relates matters of fact as they really happened.”xi Watson’s point is that even if Paine succeeds in saying that Moses did not personally write the Torah, Paine has not given good reasons to doubt the Torah’s content.

Ignoring this strategic blunder, Christians still need not immediately abandon the truth of traditional authorship in the face of Paine’s assault, for his arguments against traditional authorship are quite obviously invalid. In arguing against traditional Mosaic authorship, Paine says that Moses could not have authored the Torah because Deuteronomy records his funeral. This line of reasoning is remarkably weak because traditional Mosaic authorship does not necessitate that Moses authored all of the Torah. It only holds that Moses played a significant role in its composition and therefore allows the possibility of editorial additions. Paine, however, takes a baffling all or nothing approach: since Moses likely did not author one part of the Torah, he could not have authored any of it. There is no reason to grant Paine this inference. Editions of The Age of Reason itself contain numerous editorial notes clarifying and expanding on Paine’s points, yet Paine would certainly say that such additions do not cast doubt on its authorship. It is unfortunate that Paine does not extend similar charity in reading the Bible, which he calls a forgery. Although affirming the traditional authorship of the Bible is not by any means a necessary condition for holding biblical authority, compelling arguments ought to be provided if it is to be questioned. Paine here gives none.

Secondly, perhaps as a result of his insistence that true revelation must be universal and therefore not contextualized, Paine never makes the effort to understand the Bible’s Ancient Near Eastern setting and literary style. Few would object that contextual familiarity is necessary for any serious reading of an ancient text. One cannot help but get the impression that Paine takes on project far beyond his abilities. At times Paine’s ignorance becomes embarrassingly transparent for the reader, such as when Paine interprets Joshua’s removal of his sandal during a divine encounter as a comical gesture, not recognizing that such an act was a symbol of reverence in ancient times. Here and elsewhere Paine also criticizes the organization and structure of biblical writing, but one struggles to conceive how Paine is able to do so without any background or interest in the original Hebrew and its literary style.xii

Paine’s refusal to engage the context of the Bible also accounts for many of his alleged biblical contradictions and moral injustices. He holds that the Gospel writers could not have been or had access to witnesses of Christ’s ministry because of minor variances in the accounts, as in the case of the distinct wordings of the inscription above Jesus’ cross. Many of these alleged contradictions can be resolved when one evaluates what really constitutes an error according to the books’ respective genres. Wording variances do not constitute contradictions when the Gospel authors, like many other ancient writers, were less concerned with providing word-for-word quotations (ipsissima verba) than preserving the actual voice (ipsissima vox). Likewise, chronological variances do not constitute contradictions when writers sometimes opted to arrange events thematically.xiii The Gospel authors, writing in a genre that was accessible to them, their audience, and much of the ancient world, had no intention for their writings to be scrutinized as modern government records or court briefs. Instead, they sought to convey how the historical events which they had witnessed fit into what they saw to be the overarching divine narrative. Consequently, the books of the Bible must be evaluated on their own terms, according to their genre and authorial intent. Paine, however, has no interest in doing this.

Paine in short fails to present a sustained, rational critique of special revelation demonstrating the superiority of Deism. His argument against special revelation rests on the dubious premise that God cannot possess a sufficient motive in revealing himself through language or history, and the credibility of his attacks on the Bible suffers tremendously from his inability or unwillingness to move beyond his contextual insulation. It is true that the Bible seems to present moral and intellectual difficulties. Consequently, many have immersed themselves in studying the social-historical context of the biblical world and nuances of its languages in order to determine if such difficulties can be resolved or not. This form of careful and intellectually engaged treatment of the Scriptures exemplified throughout Christianity’s rich tradition of biblical interpretation is regrettably absent in Paine’s presentation, as it is in much modern anti-Christian and even secular humanist literature. What Paine lacks in thoughtful exegesis he tries to compensate for with pages chock-full of witticisms. Unfortunately, they serve as poor substitutes for substantive arguments.

 

i. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, Ed. Moncure D. Conway (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890) 23.

ii. For simplicity’s sake, I will label such revelations that use language or experience as “special revelation.” This includes the Bible, miracles, and Christ’s earthly ministry, all of which Paine rejects.

iii. Paine 46.

iv. Ibid.

v. Ibid.

vi. Christians too maintain that Creation is a general revelation made by God but they also hold that God has given special revelation and that both revelations cannot contradict one another.

vii. Paine 46.

viii. Similarly, the philosopher David Bentley Hart writes, “I suppose I should take some comfort from the thought that the translator’s dilemma is only an acute instance of a chronic condition. The ‘indeterminacy of translation’… is a universal reality, one that cuts across not only our efforts to make sense of foreign tongues, but even our daily labor to make sense of one another, or even to understand what we ourselves mean when we speak… Thus the soul’s primordial appetite for truth in itself… has here only shadows—though often golden shadows—to feed upon. I suppose that is why perhaps the loveliest and most absorbing promise in Paul’s letters is that one day we will not only peer into a glass, darkly, but see face to face…” David Bentley Hart, “Through a Gloss, Darkly,” First Things, First Things, August 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/issue/2012/08/augsept.ix. 1st Corinthians 13:12 (NASB).

x. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Taking the Bible Seriously,” The Dartmouth Apologia, volume 5, issue 1 (2011) 12.

xi. Richard Watson, An Apology for the Bible: In a Series of Letters, Addressed to Thomas Paine, Author of a Book Entitled, The Age of Reason, Part the Second, Being an Investigation of True and of Fabulous Theology (New-Brunswick: Abraham Blauvelt, 1796) 17-18. Some Christians such as Origen would argue that the importance of the textual meaning even supersedes that of historical occurrence.

xii. Indeed, in Part 1 of Age of Reason, Paine devotes a chapter to lampooning the misguided interests of Christian educators towards studying “dead languages” such as Greek: “The human mind has a natural disposition to scientific knowledges…It afterwards goes to school where its genius is killed by the barren study of a dead language, and the philosopher is lost in the linguist” (Paine 57).

xiii. Charles Dunn, “Can We Trust the Gospels: The Historical Reliability of the Narratives of Jesus”, The Dartmouth Apologia, volume 2, issue 2 (2008) 10-11.

 

Suiwen Liang ’13 is from Memphis, Tennessee. He is a Chemistry and Philosophy double major. 

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