Franklin's View of Sin

from Benjamin Franklin
Edmund S. Morgan

He never came to accept the Bible as a divine revelation or Jesus as the son of God. But he characteristically discover a new basis for Christian morality in the usefulness that was so unhappily missing from what he had earlier taught his friends about the rightness of everything. His new view was "that tho' certain Actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it [the Bible], or good because it commanded them, yet probably, those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us."

This is how Franklin remember his change of heart and change of mind in the autobiography, and it seems to have been a accurate description. He enunciated the same view of moral in Poor Richard's Almanack for 1739, in slightly different form: "Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden but it is forbidden because it's hurtful. . . . Nor is a Duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded, because it's beneficial." Franklin arrived at this formula for reading the biblical Commandments only after a great deal of thinking on his own about what was hurtful and what was beneficial to himself and to the rest of God's creation.

Morgan typifies Franklin's thought as Deist--although I'm not quite certain that that is the appropriate categorization.  It is certainly Arian and I must trust Mr. Morgan, I suppose on the matter of the range of deist thought--it is conceivable that all deist thought is arian, but not all arianism is deist, but it will take a better theologian than I am to prove the case either way.  Regardless of the error with respect to the divinity of Christ, does that cause all theological propositions from Franklin to be wrong?  I don't think so, and there is much here in the understanding of sin that would help us find the way back on track.  If one were to stop trying to convince people to avoid certain actions--let us say premarital sex--on the basis of Biblical restriction and start delivering the same proposition in terms of the harm to the person and society--one might not convince more people to avoid it, but one would present the religion of Christ in a more Christian manner.  When the thought is directed, as I must suppose God's thought is, first to the good of the individual and a society of which he or she is a part, compassion comes to the fore rather than condemnation.  Franklin's approach would allow him to confront sin (had he chosen to do so) and retain his respect for the dignity of persons--something that a lot of so-called Christian palaver seems to abrogate.

The downside of this utilitarian view of sin is that one is likely to keep one's peace regarding it.  It is but a short way from commandment to logical proposition to inaction based on one's view of what a logical proposition requires from the person holding it.  But that argument is for another time and another place.


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