I noticed that the L.A. atheist examiner has been running a series on Thomas Paine, so I thought I would respond with my thoughts on the subject.
Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, which is credited with being the catalyst for the American Revolution, is considered to be a hero of secularists because he was a skeptic of the Bible. He was a deist, so he believed in God, but he didn’t believe that God was active in history. To deists, Jesus was merely a good teacher or a role model, not the Lamb of God who redeemed mankind from their sins, and parts of the Bible were thought to be the creation of man.
Even so, Paine often used the Bible in his arguments. In Common Sense he explained that even God never meant for kings to rule over men. Referring to the story of Saul, he explained, “That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchial government is true, or the scripture is false.” He then goes on to explain that God didn’t want them to have a king because the king would use the people to gain luxury for himself, to impose a tax which would become burdensome, and would use and abuse their sons and daughters for his own purposes. He explained, just as Samuel Rutherford (the Presbyterian) did, that the Law should be King (Lex Rex) rather than the King being the Law (Rex Lex).
Paine also used the Scripture to defend the abolition of slavery. Because Paine was a deist, he was a supporter of gradual emancipation. In 1780, as an Assembly Clerk, he wrote the “Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery.” But Paine’s deism didn’t mean he abandoned the Scriptures. In American Slavery in America, Paine appealed to the American people by reminding them that God was the Lord of all (a reference to Acts 17:26) and that Jesus commanded them to love their neighbor. He also said it was wrong to use the Scriptures to justify slavery and that it was a perversion of their purpose.
“Most shocking of all is edging the Sacred Scriptures to favour this wicked practice. One would have thought none but infidel cavillers would endeavour to make them appear contrary to the plain dictates of natural light, and the Conscience, in a matter of common Justice and Humanity; which they cannot be.”
He also explained why it was wrong for Christians to use Old Testament law to justify their enslavement of others, saying that we no longer consider that what the Jews did was right under the Gospel light (for example, polygamy).
But then, Paine travelled to Europe to help the French in their revolution. It was here that he wrote The Age of Reason. Whereas his previous writings showed honor to the Scriptures, this new writing mocked them.
“Did the book called the Bible excel in purity of ideas and expression all the books now extant in the world, I would not take it for my rule of faith as being the word of God because the possibility would nevertheless exist of my being imposed upon. But when I see throughout the greater part of this book scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices, and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales, I can not dishonor my Creator by calling it by his name.”
The American people, who were mostly of a Protestant background, rejected his attitude, particularly after seeing the Terror that was produced by France’s denunciation of God. (They changed the length of the work week to ten days to show their disdain for the seven day week instituted by God. They put up a statue of Lady Reason. They changed marital laws and many other laws to show that they rejected Christianity.)
In America, the Great Awakening had made many hearts tender towards Jesus. Though they still honored God, they were wise to clerical abuses such as those committed by the Roman Church and they were direct descendents of the Reformation so they understood Biblical principles such as original sin (which meant they understood the need for Montesqieu’s checks and balances), the priesthood of the believer (the anti-clerical doctrine that allowed individuals to gain access to God without a priest), religious toleration (Locke’s Treatise was based on biblical principles), and because they were creationists, they understood Jefferson’s argument in the Declaration that “certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were “endowed by the Creator.”
This gave America a stability and wisdom that could never be known by those who were merely rebelling against the abuses of the ancien regime of priesthood and monarchy. As a result of watching the impact of France’s total rejection of God, Americans decided that the better way was the way of grace and love--reject clerical abuses, but don’t reject Jesus.
After the French Revolution, Paine represented the extreme denial of God and his Word—and Americans saw that it led to the guillotine, so they rejected him. It was Paine’s use of the Bible, in conjunction with reason, which led to his greatest successes, but his rejection of the Bible would ultimately lead to his failure.