musings on the church calendar from one who seldom doubts
During the 1700’s a group of British nonbelievers identified as ”Deists” were very active in expressing their negative opinions on Christianity. Although they believed that nature proved an intelligent entity designed the world in which they lived, they rejected Christianity because of their doubt of miracles, as well as because of what they believed to be the cruelties and contradictions of the faith. One of their stoutest foes was Joseph Butler, who served, among others, as head Chaplain to Caroline, wife of George II, as Bishop of Bristol, Dean of St. Paul’s, and later Bishop of Durham. His arguments against Deism and defense of Christianity by showing the weaknesses of Deist philosophy compared to orthodox Christian views established him as the preeminent defender of the Christian faith and morals in his time.
Butler was born May 18, 1692 at Wantage, Berkshire (today’s Oxfordshire), England to a Presbyterian family headed by his father, Thomas Butler, who was a draper. It was the Presbyterian ministry to which he seemed to be headed when he decided to become a cleric, as he first entered the dissenting academy of Samuel Jones at Gloucester.
After instituting a private exchange of information with the well-known Anglican philosopher and theologian, Samuel Clarke, Butler became more interested in the Anglican clergy for a career. He attended Oriel College, Oxford, in 1714 receiving a Bachelor of Arts there in 1716. Later in his career he received a Doctor of Law in 1733.
After his ordination as a deacon in the Church of England on October 26, 1718, Butler rose steadily, being ordained to the priesthood on December 21, 1718. Among other notable positions he served as Rector at Stanhope in the County of Durham. In 1736 he began serving as the head chaplain of Caroline, wife of George II. On December 3, 1738 he was consecrated Bishop of Bristol. While still in that post, Butler was installed as Dean of St. Paul’s on May 24, 1740. Although it is not established, some believed that he was offered, but declined the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. He did become the Bishop of Durham November 9, 1750 and ceased serving as Dean of St. Paul’s at that time.
Butler’s Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed, published in 1736, was the work that has been called the major Christian argument against nonbelief by English deists like John Toland and MatthewTindal for a century. It was there that he advanced the position that nature upon which deists placed such reliance had many mysteries and cruelties, so nature shared those with the very same alleged defects of Christian faith complained about by the deists. Using their own dependence on natural theories in defense of their beliefs by such deists, Butler pointed out many “analogies” to nature and human conduct that, as he expressed in his opinion, made the principle doctrines of Christianity victorious over contrary deist positions.
One of Butler’s main targets for criticism in his sermons was Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. The Bishop stood for the thesis that the motivations of people were more complicated than and not as selfish as Hobbes contended. He was convinced that human beings have an innate sense of good and bad behavior (“conscience”) received from our Creator. One’s proper balance of virtuous living with self-interested action is rewarded (or its misuse is punished) by our just Heavenly Father in the afterlife.
Another main target in Appendix 1 to Butler’s Analogy was what John Locke described as a theory of “personal identity.” In Locke’s opinion that personal identity was not because of having the identical body and soul, but rather to having the same consciousness and memory, with memory the binding ingredient. The Bishop pointed out that humans differentiate actual memories from false or imagined ones because it was they who experienced those that are truly remembered. For this reason personal identity is presupposed by memory and it cannot actually be the source of identity.
Bishop Butler died June 16, 1752 at his home, Rosewell House, Kingsmead Square in Bath, Somerset, England. He is remembered on June 16th in the Anglican and Episcopal churches. -Considered “as one of the preeminent English moralists,” Butler influenced numerous philosophers and theologians such as David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, Henry Sidgwick, John Henry Newman and C. D. Broad.+
(c) 2016 Thomas H. Peterson
Sources: Calendar of Saints (Episcopal) Joseph Butler;
James Kiefer’ Christian Biographies; elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/