William Warburton’s 18th-Century Defense of Christianity

The 18th century produced a great many thinkers who made lasting contributions to the study of Christianity’s credentials. On the skeptical side, David Hume has been most significant. William Paley and Bishop Butler have had the greatest enduring influence on behalf of Christianity. Lesser lights from today’s vantage point were leading figures in their time. Among them, William Warburton, who died June 7, 1779—236 years ago today. Warburton’s greatest work was the nine-volume treatise with the odd title The Divine Legation of Moses. The full title was The Divine Legation of Moses, demonstrated on the principles of a Religious Deist. Deist contemporaries, who claimed they believed the doctrine of immortality, argued against the divine authorship of the “Law of Moses.” They reasoned that if the Law of Moses was divine, it would propound the doctrine of an afterlife, which it does not.

  1. Any divinely authored text will affirm a doctrine of immortality.
  2. The Law of Moses does not affirm a doctrine of immortality.
  3. Therefore, the Law of Moses is not a divinely authored text.

The argument has an odd appearance. It isn’t immediately obvious why deist writers, or anyone else for that matter, would think that a divinely inspired text must teach a doctrine of immortality. But, of course, the books of Moses were all there was of the Bible for generations of God’s people. As the source of their knowledge of God’s ways and plans for humanity, it may seem odd, if it is of divine origin, that nothing is ever said for immortality of the self in that source. Surely, if men and women are immortal, and this is by God’s design, then God’s revelation to humanity would indicate that this is so. Men and women are immortal, said these deists, but the Law of Moses says nothing about this. The implication is that the Law of Moses could not have been written under God’s own guidance.

William Warburton

William Warburton (1698-1779)

You don’t come across an argument of this sort much these days. And you don’t encounter the sort of argument Warburton made in direct response. Warburton turned the deistic argument on its head, arguing that silence on the question of immortality was actually evidence of divine authorship. The Law of Mose was the “Divine Legation,” and the absence of any direct reference to life after death is evidence of this. If the deist argument seems at all strange, Warburton’s reply seems more so. But the strategy intrigues. Ancient religions contemporaneous with the Jewish religion were unanimous in affirming an afterlife. These were, all of them, manufactured religions. The Jewish religion differed in this one striking respect: no doctrine of an afterlife. This anomaly in the history and sociology of religious belief invites explanation. For Warburton, the best explanation is that the Jewish religious system, rooted in the Pentateuch, was of divine origin. Warburton’s argument was sufficiently compelling that many critics took pains to respond. But this isn’t only because of the core argument. Into the Divine Legation, Warburton squeezed a host of other evidences for Christianity. Among them was the argument from prophecy, which he considered sufficient in itself to establish the truth of Christianity with moral certainty. Warburton was a colorful figure, with many enemies and some surprising friends. He crossed swords with the famed Conyers Middleton in public, but got on well with him personally. The story of Warburton’s life is told with candor, in the Preface to the Divine Legation, by his friend, agent, and executor, R. Worcester (signed at Hartlebury Castle, August 12, 1794). For a catalog of Warburton’s writings, available in PDF, click here.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

One Response to William Warburton’s 18th-Century Defense of Christianity

  1. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 6/19/15- Creationism, memes, masculinity, and more! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

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