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Great Apologists: Joseph Butler

Joseph Butler (1692–1752) received an Oxford University education, was made bishop of Bristol and later Durham, and became chaplain to the queen of England. But prestige did not dominate his interests; rather, he was concerned about the defense of the Christian faith. In his day Enlightenment views prevailed in Europe. While faith and revelation were increasingly spurned or ridiculed, confidence in reason and science was rising. Biblical Christianity was openly attacked as irrational and superstitious. The intellectual elite regarded deism, with its disavowal of any divine activity after creation, as the true religion. Deism could not accept the supernatural involvement of the biblical God in history.

Butler’s Analogy of Religion undermined the deists by employing the very reasoning they used to attack the Bible. He claimed that if biblical revelation is to be doubted due to its difficulties and mysteries, then science should also be disbelieved. The same kinds of obscurities and unanswered questions are part of science, yet deists were all too quick to trumpet science as the new revelation. This example of inconsistent thinking, Butler argued, did not exalt the rationality honored by intellectuals. If anything, the common patterns in nature and the Bible point to one and the same Author. And if deists believed in the grandest of miracles, the creation of the universe, then why should they doubt the lesser miracles of the Bible? Butler’s Analogy mightily rebutted deism in his generation and became a standard text at Cambridge and Oxford for more than a century.

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