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The Anglican approach to Christian apologetics: Joseph Butler’s biblical cosmos

Editor’s note: This is the fourth piece in our series Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition. See the introductory essay by David Ney for more on Anglicanism as a community centered on the Word: “The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics.” Find all the essays (and others related to them) under the tag ressourcement.

Despite his recent neglect by theologians, Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) has continued to carry a fascination for philosophers of religion and of ethics. Philosophers tend to ignore Butler’s religious philosophy in The Analogy of Religion (1736) in favor of his ethical reflections in Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726).[1] When they do engage Butler’s Analogy, they focus on the natural theology of Part I and dismiss his case for Christian particulars in Part II.

It is Part II, however, that especially reflects his figural worldview. Trying to understand Butler without consulting Part II is like trying to understand Paul without consulting his epistles. It cannot be done. I will expand on this further, but by “figural” I partially mean that Butler shows how Scripture’s difficulties are analogous to the difficulties a believer must account for in life and nature, most notably the problem of evil. Inasmuch as the Analogy was targeted at deists who believed in God but rejected Scripture, its primary purpose was to show that “the way things are” is more congruent with either Christianity or complete atheism than with deism.  In fact, the Analogy is historically important because its simple arguments decisively led to deism’s demise.  A straightforward example: Christ’s Mediation was a moral scandal to deists because they thought it would be unjust if one man was punished for another. But Butler showed how Atonement was analogous to the creaturely existence we already live. If redemption is unfair, so is the created order. If it were not thus, no one would complain about the problem of evil:

And when, in the daily course of natural providence, it is appointed that innocent people should suffer for the faults of the guilty, this is liable to the very same objection as the instance we are now considering. The infinitely greater importance of that appointment of Christianity which is objected against, does not hinder but it may be, as it plainly is, an appointment of the very same kind with what the world affords us daily examples of. [2]

If the deist’s faith adapted to the unfair conditions of creation, why not in revelation? Conversely, given the deist belief in a good Creator, the a priori presumption that made belief in a Christian Redeemer impossible simultaneously made belief in a good Creator impossible. But a priori presumptions are extremely vulnerable to empirical refutation, as the example above shows. The deists were guilty of holding a double standard that was easily exposed by examples drawn from everyday experience — in this case, of the world’s unfairness. Presumptions aside, then, for Butler Scripture offered a compelling paradigm within which to interpret our experiences.

It is not possible to fully articulate Butler’s whole apologetic here: neither his analogical answers to the problems of miracles, “heteronomous” commandments, the idea of eternal rewards and punishments, nor the way his arguments can be deployed against atheists rather than old-timey deists.[3] Suffice it to say that in comparison to other apologetic strategies Butler more accurately describes the way people actually come to believe — through simple analogies and prudential judgments. Are biblical problems “like” life’s problems? On the whole, does one worldview make more sense of my life than another? Are there potential benefits or drawbacks in following one path?

Butler has little interest in prescribing belief on rational grounds. Rather, the cumulative force of his analogies is moral in that he crowns his apologetic with a tightened wager argument.[4] This method fits his assumption about how people actually come to faith.

The purpose of this article, instead, is to further fill out Butler’s figural worldview by asking a few questions. What is the Bible for Butler? How is it assented to? And does it line up with what we would expect divine revelation to look like?

I will begin with the last question and work backward: what would we expect revelation to look like? Butler’s answer is based on the analogical relationship of the “two books” articulated in the preface to the Analogy:

Hence, namely from analogical reasoning, Origen has with singular sagacity observed, that he who believes the Scripture to have proceeded from him who is the Author of Nature, may well expect to find the same sort of difficulties in it as are found in the constitution of Nature. And in a like way of reflection it may be added, that he who denies the Scripture to have been from God upon account of these difficulties, may, for the very same reason, deny the world to have been formed by him.[5]

This is the Analogy’s argument in a nutshell. And Butler skillfully utilized it to disarm objections to the Bible in his chapter titled “Of our incapacity of judging what were to be expected in a revelation; and the credibility, from analogy, that it must contain things appearing liable to objections.” Creation contains all sorts of things that we experience as absurd and inexpedient. For example, why did God create persons with the limitations they have and not with others? If there are no a priori grounds to answer this and any other imaginable question,[6] there can be no logical grounds for objecting to apparent absurdities and inexpediencies in Scripture. Indeed, we should expect them.

Several conclusions follow this line of reasoning. For one, there can be no presumption against revelation based on style and a dislike of its “hieroglyphical and figurative language.”[7] Why should there be no variant readings of texts or obscurity of style or disputes about authorship? Furthermore, we cannot know in advance how much information God would give us in a revelation, whether he would testify to it by miracles, or whether he would give certain, highly probable, or doubtful evidence for it, and whether all people would have the same degree of evidence. Neither do we know whether he would reveal everything at once or only gradually. Further, we do not know in advance whether divine revelation would be committed to writing or left to oral tradition.[8] Butler concluded that objections can only arise against particular claims of revelation and not against the possibility of it. And what would that revelation look like? There’s good reason to think it would be as puzzling as the Bible we have.

How, then, do people assent to Scripture as the starting point for interpreting their experience? As Butler accurately described it, this is a practical rather than a theoretical decision. On the one hand, it comes down to a cumulative judgment based on the respective power of the biblical world to describe the world of human experience over against other paradigms. It is often the case that as people practice Christianity, as they “try it on,” and as they learn its analogical thought patterns from within, they become convinced. On the other hand, it is a practical decision based on a healthy self-love. If Christianity is at all probable, ignoring the threat of eternal punishment is imprudent. Butler believed we should not be fussy about such consequentialist motives since they do issue in mature virtues (faith leads to understanding; hope to joy; fear to love).

One point about Scripture here is that it is assented to as a whole, and only as a whole does it have any power to frame human experience. Later critics complained about Butler’s approach here, but his acceptance of the “allness” of Scripture was within the main prayer book tradition. The Bible cannot be accepted piecemeal without diminishing the logical case for belief to the level of deism, which, because of its vulnerable a priori presumptions, has less coherence than agnosticism or atheism.

Another point is that the Bible’s purpose is to shape our moral life, a life of faith, hope, and love. Bertrand Russell famously said that if he found himself before God on Judgment Day, he would object, “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!” In accordance with the mainstream Christian position, Butler denied that the Bible was primarily meant to relay information.  Rather, it was meant to test our moral diligence. Life, according to Butler, is a kind of “probation”:

Thus, that religion is not intuitively true, but a matter of deduction and inference; that a conviction of its truth is not forced upon every one, but left to be, by some, collected with heedful attention to premises; this as much constitutes religious probation, as much affords sphere, scope, opportunity, for right and wrong behaviour, as anything whatever does. And their manner of treating this subject, when laid before them, shows what is in their heart, and is an exertion of it.[9]

It goes without saying, however, that because Butler’s argument is cumulative and moral, the Bible does not function straightforwardly as a foundation: if, say, we aren’t able to reconstruct the original autographs of Scripture, or if we aren’t able to prove that Jericho was conquered by Hebrews, or if we can’t find evolutionary science in Genesis, the whole edifice does not collapse like a house of cards. To use one of Butler’s disciple’s analogies: as the unity of nature is axiomatic for the scientist, so biblical unity is for the Christian.[10] No level of induction establishes a law of nature. Rather, the lawfulness of nature is assumed so that we can make sense of nature’s details. The same is true of Scripture. In Butler’s terms, no bit of “positive evidence” establishes faith.[11]

Butler’s doctrine of Scripture is also evident in his defense of prophecy. If God is the author of Scripture, human writers naturally become subsidiaries. We thus do not need to “prove” that they intended a future fulfillment in order for that fulfillment to be true.[12] One interpreter of Butler explains:

Such a [biblical] writer cannot fully understand what he writes, and the meaning of it is not confined to that part which he does understand. To reject alleged prophecies that fit later events in telling ways, merely because the human writers of those passages did not themselves intend to refer to those later events, is to prejudge the question of prophecy against them.[13]

It follows that there can be no single theory of biblical inspiration. Human intentions are merely instrumental to God’s purposes. In fact, God could use many different instruments for his ends: he might dictate words to a visionary, convey meaning through Job’s limited understanding, or he might signify several meanings through “hieroglyphics” that escape the writer’s intentions altogether. Therefore, the question of “how” the Bible was inspired is ultimately irrelevant to believing “that” it is. The analogy to our experience of nature should be clear. Believers accept the fact “that” God has a purpose for creation. But they are often in the dark about “how” he brings about those purposes and why he uses one method rather than another to affect them.

What, then, is Scripture? Butler implies it is God’s instrument to separate the sheep from the goats and to order both according to his intentions.[14] And his primary intention is to bring his lost sheep to a deeper faith in him.

In combination with a limited free-will defence, his defence of Atonement, and an analogical argument about human ignorance concerning God’s methods in both nature and Scripture, this sums up Butler’s theodicy. We know “that” our Creator and Redeemer is good, but his ways in the world are sometimes obscure. Worse, God’s ways are seemingly unfair. But if life is a test of faith, hope, and love, it is not clarity about God’s ways that matter but the integrity of our response. This has sometimes been taken in a rationalistic direction: the exercise of human freedom requires God to allow evil. But Butler is far too aware of the limits of human reason to presume that all evil can be explained in this way. Indeed, by admitting that the Creator submitted to the unfair punishment of the Cross, Butler implies that suffering and injustice have been inseparably bound to the being of God. If we were capable for a moment of transcending the limits of human knowledge, would God’s suffering be any more explicable? Butler’s deferral of a total explanation only makes sense from within the biblical cosmos where, in the words of Andraé Crouch, the saints endlessly wonder:

I don’t know why Jesus loved me …
I don’t know why he sacrificed his life …
But I’m glad he did!


[1] Both texts are included in Joseph Butler, The Works of Bishop Butler, ed. by David E. White (University of Rochester Press, 2006).

[2] Butler, Analogy, Part II, V. vii [21] in Works, ed. by White, p. 259.

[3] Basil Mitchell, “Butler as Christian Apologist,” in Joseph Butler’s Moral and Religious Thought: Tercentenary Essays, ed. Christopher Cunliffe (Oxford University Press, 1992); Terence Penelhum, Butler (Routledge, 1999).

[4] For a comparison see Albino Babolin, “Deus Absconditus: Some Notes on the Bearing of the Hiddenness of God upon Butler’s and Pascal’s Criticism of Deism,” in Joseph Butler’s Moral And Religious Thought: Tercentenary Essays, ed. Christopher Cunliffe (Oxford University Press, 1992); and Penelhum, Butler, pp. 89-96. According to Butler, there should be no difference in the rule of life between someone fully convinced and someone still unsure about Christianity. See Analogy, II.VI [9] in Works, ed. by White, pp. 266-67.

[5] Butler, Analogy, Introduction [6] in Works, ed. by White, p. 153.

[6] Why should our optical nerves cross over to the opposite side of the brain? Why should the bronchial tube and esophagus be so dangerously interconnected? Why did God create pandas with such fussy sexual preferences? The questions are endless. Evolutionary biology might solve the “how” of these states of affairs, but it does not answer the “why” from the perspective of a designer.

[7] Butler, Analogy, Part II.III [1] in Works, ed. by White, p. 239.

[8] Butler, Analogy, Part II.III [3] in Works, ed. by White, p. 241.

[9] Butler, Analogy, II.VI [8] in Works, ed. by White, p. 266.

[10] A.E. Taylor, “The Vindication of Religion,” in Essays Catholic & Critical, ed. Edward Gordon. Selwyn (Macmillan Co., 1926), pp. 29–82, at 38. In fact, Butler implies as much in his defence of miracles when he says that there is no such thing as chance, Analogy, II.IV [4] in Works, ed. by White, p. 249. See also my forthcoming article here on Lionel Thornton.

[11] See Butler, Analogy, II.VI, “Of the Particular Evidence for Christianity,” in Works, ed. by White, pp. 263-72.

[12] This naturally undercuts the evidential power of prophecy, but I argue that for Butler Scripture is only meant to convince those with certain virtues.

[13] Penelhum, Butler, pp. 183-84.

[14] It did not matter to Butler whether his treatise persuaded everyone.  People are likely to ignore evidence they don’t like, and that is their problem. But this too is part of Providence’s design. Analogy, II.VIII [10] in Works, ed. by White, p. 296.


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