Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, Laws of Nature and Revelation

James Wilson wrote a great deal of what he thought about law, life, religion and philosophy in his public Works. Yet, perhaps because they were public lectures, he leaves some hard questions unanswered (he doesn’t address orthodox religious doctrine at all, or whether he believes the Bible inerrant). He praises both “reason” and the “senses” on the one hand and revealed truth on the other as both necessary for determining the ultimate nature of reality. Accordingly, both, by in large, agree and should work together. But both streams have their limits.

In Volume I of Works, Wilson says such things as:

[H]ow shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.


Reason, say they, is the first rule of man, the first principle of morality, and the immediate cause of all primitive obligation. But man being necessarily dependent on his Creator, who has formed him with wisdom and design, and who, in creating him, has proposed some particular ends; the will of God is another rule of human actions, another principle of morality, obligation, and duty. On this distinction, the kinds of obligation, external and internal, are founded. These two principles must be united, in order to form a complete system of morality, really founded on the nature and state of man. As a rational being, he is subject to reason: as a creature of God, to his supreme will. Thus, reason and the divine will are perfectly reconciled, are naturally connected, and are strengthened by their junction.85


Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive. Great and sublime truths, indeed, would appear to a few; but the world, at large, would be dark and ignorant. The mass of mankind would resemble a chaos, in which a few sparks, that would diffuse a glimmering light, would serve only to show, in a more striking manner, the thick darkness with which they are surrounded. Their weakness is strengthened, their darkness is illuminated, their influence is enlarged by that heaven-descended science, which has brought life and immortality to light. In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce his laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.


But whoever expects to find, in [Scripture], particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.


These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense. The information with regard to our duties and obligations, drawn from these different sources, ought not to run in unconnected and diminished channels: it should flow in one united stream, which, by its combined force and just direction, will impel us uniformly and effectually towards our greatest good.

From these passages in Works, I get the sense that Wilson believed in both reason and revelation. I don’t get the sense that Wilson believed the Bible inerrant or infallible, but nonetheless believed large parts of the biblical canon are God speaking to man. In Gregg Frazer’s PhD thesis, he views Wilson’s quote — “[t]his revelation is contained in the holy scriptures” — as compatible with what he terms theistic rationalism, that “some” revelation is legitimate, but that the Bible is not inerrant or infallible.

Frazer reads “[t]his revelation is contained in the Holy Scriptures,” as suggesting man’s reason must examine the good book to see which parts of it “contain” genuine revelation. I think that’s a fair reading of a somewhat broadly worded assertion.

And then we have the following from Wilson:

The law of nature is immutable; not by the effect of an arbitrary disposition, but because it has its foundation in the nature, constitution, and mutual relations of men and things. While these continue to be the same, it must continue to be the same also. This immutability of nature’s laws has nothing in it repugnant to the supreme power of an all-perfect Being. Since he himself is the author of our constitution; he cannot but command or forbid such things as are necessarily agreeable or disagreeable to this very constitution. He is under the glorious necessity of not contradicting himself. This necessity, far from limiting or diminishing his perfections, adds to their external character, and points out their excellency.

Now that passage is compatible with the idea that the Bible is inspired in *some* sense. I don’t see it as compatible with the idea of an inerrant, infallible Bible, talking snakes, 6-day creation, and so on.

In his letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, Jefferson addresses the problems with an immutable law of nature on the one hand and the text of the Bible on the other:

Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example, in the book of Joshua, we are told, the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said, that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not, by that sudden stoppage, have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time gave resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1, of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven; and 2, of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition, by being gibbeted, according to the Roman law, which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile, or death in fureâ. See this law in the Digest Lib. 48. tit. 19. §. 28. 3. & Lipsius Lib 2. de cruce. cap. 2. These questions are examined in the books I have mentioned under the head of religion, & several others. They will assist you in your inquiries, but keep your reason firmly on the watch in reading them all.

Now, I understand many orthodox Trinitarian Christians have struggled to reconcile real science on the one hand and the biblical record on the other. They might not necessarily turn into Jeffersons, cutting out most of the Bible as false. But they do seem to embrace more metaphorical explanations, including, most notably, of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. They don’t believe that the Earth actually stood still for several hours or that Lot’s wife actually turned into salt. They also accept Darwin’s theory of evolution and attempt to reconcile it with the Bible. Those are the kinds of “rational Christians” who better reconcile what James Wilson wrote in Works with their faith. It seems to me those who take a more literal view of the Creation story — young earth, 6 day creationists — should be much less receptive to James Wilson’s ditherings in Works.

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3 Responses to Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, Laws of Nature and Revelation

  1. Pingback: Will The Libertarian Idea Reclaiming The Moral High Ground For Liberty?” By Keith Hardine | right to resist bullying Blog

  2. Pingback: Will The Libertarian Idea Reclaiming The Moral High Ground For Liberty?” By Keith Hardine | right to resist bullying Blog

  3. Pingback: Will The Libertarian Idea Reclaim The Moral High Ground For Liberty?” By Keith Hardine | right to resist bullying Blog

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