There’s a new book on the founding of America that has been receiving a lot of praise lately. It’s another book by atheist philosopher Matthew Stewart which he provocatively entitled Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. Stewart’s foundational premise is that "'Nature's God' … the presiding deity of the American Revolution is another word for 'Nature.'" To support this claim, Stewart traced the origin of the phrase “Nature’s God” back to a poem written in 1732 by Alexander Pope and argues from thence that this God could not possibly be the God of the Bible but rather a pantheistic god from ancient Greece.
The glaring problem with Stewart’s assertion is that it contradicts statements made by the very same sources that he cites in support of his claim. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is found in Stewart’s treatment of Alexander Pope’s use of the phrase “Nature’s God” in his famous Essay on Man. Stewart quoted the following two lines from Pope’s poem:
Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God;
He then proceeded to ignore the remainder of the stanza as well as historical commentaries on the meaning of this phrase and instead presented his own explanation for these lines. Here is what Stewart wrote about Pope’s reference to Nature’s God:
"True piety," in other words, consists in the scientific study of nature, not in adherence to any private, sectarian faith.
The phrase "Nature's God" also appears in one of the letters that Bollingbroke sent to Pope, composed before the Essay was but published long after. Bolingbroke undoubtedly drew support for the intuition, if not the phrase itself, from his encounters with Shaftesbury and Locke among others. Whatever the actual and unrecoverable chain of direct and personal influences -- and even allowing that they might well have drawn their inspiration directly from those glowing stars and blossoming trees without need of elaborate metaphysical treatises -- those two philosophers and their many allies were simply decorating an idea that emerged in antiquity, was present in the work of Bruno and Vanini among others, and was most perspicuously articulated by Spinoza. To cut a long story short: "Nature's God," the God of Thomas Young and the presiding deity of the American Revolution is another word for "Nature."
When we consider the context of these lines from Pope’s Essay, however, an entirely different view of Nature’s God presents itself before us. Here is a more complete quote which allows us to see more of what Pope wrote about this God of Nature:
See the sole bliss Heav'n could on all bestow!
Which who but feels can taste, but think can know:
Yet poor with fortune, and with learning blind,
The bad must miss; the good, untaught, will find;
Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God;
Pursues that Chain which links th' immense design,
Joins heav'n and earth, and moral and divine;
Sees, that no Being any bliss can know,
But touches some above, and some below;
Learns from this union the rising Whole,
The first, last purpose of the human soul;
And knows where Faith, Law, Morals, all began,
All end, in LOVE OF GOD, and LOVE OF MAN. (emphasis in original)
Now, Stewart claimed that the phrase “Nature’s God” is just another way of referring to nature itself and that the religion which equated these two is actually pantheism and not Christianity. He wrote that “pantheism is … the idea that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing.” But notice the two phrases that Pope emphasized in this stanza. This section of the stanza is actually a reference to Matthew 22:37-40:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
If Pope was referring to the words of Scripture as accurately depicting the first and the last purpose of the human soul, then it would seem to follow that the God whom he described as “Nature’s God” was indeed the God of the Bible. In fact, this is the exact claim made by William Warburton, the Bishop of Gloucester in his 1763 commentary on these lines. In his explanation of Pope's famous lines, the Bishop wrote:
(instead of adhering to any sect or party, where there was so great odds of his chusing wrong) that then the benefit of gaining the knowledge of God's will, written in the mind, is not confined there; for standing on this sure foundation, he is now no longer in danger of chusing wrong, amidst such diversities of Religious; but by pursuing this grand scheme of UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE in practice as well as theory, he arrives at length to the knowledge of the REVEALED will of God, which is the consummation of the system of benevolence. (emphasis in original)
Warburton claimed that Pope was describing the man who begins searching for God through an application of his own reason to the things of nature that he observes around him thus discovering a “scheme of universal benevolence.” Then if this man were to further pursue this idea of universal benevolence, his path would eventually lead him to the “Revealed will of God.” Thus Pope's contemporary assures us that he was indeed referring to the Scriptures in the final two lines of the above quote and, consequently, that he was referring to the biblical God when he spoke of “Nature’s God.”
This understanding of Pope’s statements is consistent with Bolingbroke’s comments about this idea in a letter that he wrote to Pope prior to the Essay on Man. Bolingbroke said:
You will find that it is the modest, not the presumptuous enquirer, who makes a real, and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths. One follows nature, and nature’s God; that is, he follows God in his works, and in his word.
And lest we doubt that Bolingbroke was here referring to the Bible, we should note that he further explained that:
They [the fathers of the Christian church] had a much surer criterion than human reason, they had divine reason, and the word of God to guide them, and to limit their enquiries ... Christians ... made a very ill use of revelation and reason both. Instead of employing the superior principle to direct and confine the inferior, they employed it to sanctify all that wild imagination, the passions, and the interests of the ecclesiastical order suggested. This abuse of revelation was so scandalous, that whilst they were building up a system of religion, under the name of Christianity, every one who sought to signalize himself in the enterprize, and they were multitudes, dragged the scriptures to his opinion by different interpretations, paraphrases, and comments.
Here again, we see that when Bolingbroke discussed “nature’s God” with Pope, he was referring to the God of the Bible and not merely to a nebulous god which is discoverable by reason apart from revelation. By the way, we can also see in this statement that Bolingbroke viewed revelation to be superior to reason.
In addition to Bolingbroke, we could look at a defense of Pope’s essay which was also written by Warburton. In this defense, we can see that Warburton recognized this stanza of Pope’s essay to be a reference to the God of the Bible. Here is what Warburton wrote:
That then the Benefit of gaining the Knowledge of God's Will written in the Mind, is not there confined; for that standing on this sure Foundation, he is now no longer in Danger of chusing wrong, amidst such Diversities of Religions; but by pursuing this grand Scheme of Universal Benevolence, in Practice, as well as Theory, he arrives at length to the Knowledge of the revealed Will of God which is the Consumination of the System of Benevolence ... The Poet, in the last Place, marks out [from l. 342 to 363] the Progress of his Good Man's Benevolence, pushed thro' natural Religion to revealed, 'till it arrives to that Height, which the Sacred Writers describe as the very Summit of Christian Perfection.
One of the most interesting things about this defense is that Warburton's opponent, Mr. DeCrousaz, also recognized Pope's comments as referring to the Bible. DeCrousaz was critical of nearly all of Pope's Essay, but when he came to this section, he said:
We are brought at length to the Truths of Revelation. -- See Man once again re-established in his Rights, raised as far above Brutes as Heaven is above the Earth.
Even Pope's critics recognized that he was referring to the Bible in this Stanza.
Thus we see that both Pope and Bolingbroke, the two people that Stewart credits with introducing the phrase “Nature’s God” into English, both identified that God as the God of the Bible. Pope's contemporaries, even those who were critical of his work, recognized that he was referring to the God of the Bible. Bolingbroke said that the God of Nature gave the fathers of the Christian church a revelation which was superior to reason. And Pope’s defender Warburton recognized that Pope was referring to the truths of the Bible which are identified in the Gospels as “the very Summit of Christian Perfection.”
Stewart may wish all he wants for Pope’s God of Nature to be a mere pantheistic reference to Nature itself, but the facts say differently. For Stewart to leave these facts out of his book is either an incredible display of ignorance or a cold, calculated deception. I’ll leave you to decide which one may be correct, but for myself, I would prefer not to insult Mr. Stewart’s knowledge by choosing the former.
(By the way, this review has also been posted on Amazon, and I would appreciate it if you would take a moment to go to the bottom of the review page and click "yes" to say that this review was helpful. The more "yes" votes my review gets, the more likely it will be seen by those considering Mr. Stewart's book.)
 Stewart, Matthew, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, pg 7
 Pope, Alexander, An Essay on Man, pg 107-108
 Stewart, Matthew, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, pg 166
 Pope, Alexander, An Essay on Man, pg 108-109
 Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, The Works of the Late Right Honorable Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, vol. 3, pg 344
 Ibid, pg 345
 Warburton, William, A Critical and Philosophical Commentary on Mr. Pope’s Essay on Man, pg 170-172
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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