Joseph Butler was in Bath. He hoped that the natural hot springs would do him good, for he was not feeling at all well. Just in case the remedy should prove unsuccessful, he gave orders that his speculative, unfinished manuscripts be burned.
A Bishop of the Church of England, Butler had written the most famous apologetic of his age. This was the Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. A religious philosophy known as Deism agreed that God had made the world but denied he had used prophets, visions, angels or revelations to teach men about himself. Deists attacked the Bible, saying it had imperfections that proved it wasn't from the hand of God. Butler's book was written to answer the Deists.
Centuries earlier, the Greek theologian Origen had said, "Those who believe the author of nature to be also the author of scripture must expect to find in scripture the same sorts of difficulties that they find in nature." Butler's Analogy used Origen's argument.
For example, a Deist might complain that scripture says God visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation. How could that be fair? Butler replied that nature does the same thing. To give a modern example, a pregnant woman takes LSD. Her daughter is born with deformities and in turn she gives birth to another defective child either because of carrying LSD-mutated genes or because of labor difficulties owing to her own malformation. It was unreasonable to accept nature as coming from God but to deny the revelation that affirmed the very principle that we see in nature. The point is, our decisions do affect other people and so we should endeavor to make decisions that take into account the interests of others.
This is just what the scripture teaches, although it adds grace to the equation--God often breaks the cycle of nature and sets things right. The natural equivalent of grace would be for the daughter or grandchild to receive medical attention that corrects the problem.
Butler argued that nature itself suggests man is immortal. Some things make sense only if this life is a probationary period. The existence of conscience is a strong support for the Christian claim that there is a moral law, he said. The Analogy was a cool and reasoned piece of writing, so much so that Butler scarcely discussed sin or Hell.
Did Butler get infected with the disease he was trying to cure? After he met John Wesley, he condemned "the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit" as "a horrid thing--a very horrid thing." He also described revelation is a "horrid thing," which seems a peculiar statement for a defender of Divine revelation to make! But, while acknowledging that the great doctrines of Christianity cannot be proven by philosophy, Butler showed that Christianity has enough probability to make its acceptance a reasonable response.
Butler died, after all, while at Bath, on this day, June 16, 1752. Just as he had requested, his manuscripts were burned.
- Bagehot, Walter. Literary studies. London, Dent; New York, Dutton, 1911.
- Butler, Joseph. Analogy of Religion. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856.
- "Joseph Butler (1692-1752)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/b/butler.htm
- Various internet and encyclopedia articles.
Last updated May, 2007.