Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Benjamin Rush, Trinitarian Universalist

Benjamin Rush is another interesting case among the Founders. The Christian Nation crowd offers quotations of his taken out of context. Yes, he was a bit more traditonal in his believes than Washington and the other key Founders. However he was still a theological liberal who denied eternal damnation and opposed the death penalty, both on biblical grounds.

Regarding his theology, Rush described it as “a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches.” He converted from Calvinism to Arminianism, and then to theological universalism, believing all would eventually be saved, after a long period of temporary punishment for non-Christians. As he wrote in “Travels through Life,” his autobiography:

At Dr. Finley’s school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.

Elsewhere Rush noted he believed the Bible forbade the death penalty. He notes the case of the woman about to be stoned to death for adultery — a capital crime in Old Testament times — where Jesus forbade her execution. Rush intimates that the literal meaning of Jesus’ words “Let he who is WITHOUT sin,” suggests that only God (or if Jesus were not God, a uniquely sinless human like him) is qualified to implement capital punishment. WITHOUT Sin. Not “you may have problems of your own, you hypocrite,” but WITHOUT Sin.

Here is a short passage from Rush’s writings. By all means, read the entire context.

[W]hile I am able to place a finger, upon this text of scripture, I will not believe an angel from heaven, should he declare that the punishment of death, for any crime, was inculcated, or permitted by the spirit of the gospel.

It’s the same theologically liberal hermeneutic of, instead of appealing to specific “proof texts,” abstracting general principles from the “spirit” of scripture to reach specific conclusions not mentioned therein, that also made the Christian case against slavery. The Bible nowhere specifically abolishes slavery; to the contrary many specific texts recognize its validity. It’s only by taking the principle that because all men are created in God’s image, they are equal, and then applying that to slavery, that the “spirit” of the Bible likewise can be said to be anti-slavery as it is anti-death penalty.

The death penalty and slavery are good examples of social issues where the Bible gives no clear cut answer and texts can be offered on both sides. (On slavery, I’m inclined to argue the Bible is a pro-slavery book, or at least one utterly unconcerned with its abolition.) History, not hermeneutics, answers the question. History has answered the question with slavery; it’s still out on the death penalty.