Turnbull and God’s moral government

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Source: George Turnbull, The Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy. Vol. 2: Christian Philosophy, ed. and with an Introduction by Alexander Broadie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).


George Turnbull’s Christian Philosophy, volume 2 of his Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy, was undoubtedly written by a devout Christian, though whether Turnbull throughout his life endorsed the kind of Christianity to be found in volume 2 is doubtful.

It is reasonable to suppose that he did at least begin as a Calvinist, for that was the kind of religion he would have learned from his father, the Church of Scotland minister George Turnbull senior, who was ministering to the Church of Scotland parish of Alloa in the Scottish county of Clackmannanshire when George junior was born.1 We do not know what sort of Calvinist George Turnbull senior was (for Scottish Calvinism covers a broad spectrum of belief), but if George Turnbull the younger began as a Calvinist of the more robust sort, he must have started to move away from this position when still quite young. For in Edinburgh in his later teens, after completing his studies for the arts degree (M.A.), he joined the newly founded Rankenian Club, whose ideological bias toward Lord Shaftesbury did not sit comfortably with Calvinism (though it could be made to sit more or less uncomfortably with it). In 1718 Turnbull tried (under the assumed name Philocles) to start a correspondence with the Irish free thinker John Toland (1670–1722), whose espousal of a form of Spinozistic pantheism2 (or atheism, as many judged it to be) made any hint of agreement with Toland a potentially risky enterprise for a youth wanting to make his way in the world. At about the same time Turnbull wrote a short work on religious toleration which, as he later claimed, was rejected by publishers because, in an age when religious free thought carried with it sanctions of one form or another, the publishers whom Turnbull approached were not prepared to take responsibility for marketing a tract advocating such thinking. Indication of Turnbull’s strength of opinion in the matter is found in a letter he wrote at about this time to the Irish peer Lord Molesworth. In a manner characteristic of Molesworth, Turnbull affirms that “our Colleges are under the Inspection of proud domineering pedantic Priests whose interest it is to train up the youth in a profound veneration of their Senseless metaphysical Creeds & Catechisms, which for this purpose they are daily inured to defend against all Doubters & Enquirers with the greatest bitterness and contempt, in a stiff formal be wildering manner admirably fitted indeed to Enslave young understandings betimes and to beget an early antipathy against all Free thought.”3

It is hard to believe that the Marischal faculty knew about Turnbull’s vigorous advocacy of religious free thought or his broadly sympathetic attitude to Toland. But, in any case, after becoming regent at Marischal College in 1721, Turnbull moved toward a more orthodox position; though not immediately, as witness the fact that the afore mentioned letter to Molesworth was sent a full year after Turnbull had taken up his appointment at the college. The softer position he adopted in his teaching involved emphasis on the central role of revelation in religion, though he did believe, and say, that, to speak generally, the Christian revelation could hold its own under cross-examination before the tribunal of reason since it satisfied criteria of rationality, such as consistency with itself and also with experience.

The Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy probably represents rather closely the belief system that Turnbull espoused both at Marischal and in the years thereafter until publication of the work. The period included a dramatic shift in Turnbull’s institutional religious allegiance. His matriculation at Exeter College, Oxford, with the aim of securing the degree of bachelor of civil law (duly granted in 1733) was probably due to his decision to seek a position in the Church of England. He was unable to take the matter any further in the short term because of his financial situation. Instead he spent time in Italy as private tutor to Lord Rockingham’s son. But finally in 1739, through the good offices of Thomas Birch4 and the Latitudinarian thinker Arthur Ashley Sykes,5 Turnbull was ordained into the Church of England by Benjamin Hoadly (1676–1761),6 bishop of Winchester. In 1741 Turnbull was appointed a chaplain to the Prince of Wales, and in 1742 Thomas Rundle (ca. 1688–1743), bishop of Derry, appointed Turnbull rector of the parish of Drumachose, County Derry. However, he spent no more than two years, and perhaps less than that, in his new charge, for by 1744 he was touring Italy as a private tutor to Horatio Walpole, and he never returned to Britain.7 That his death in 1748 was in The Hague was fitting for a man who seemed forever on the move. He was also restless in the spiritual sense, though consideration of the ecclesiastical circles within which he moved, and consideration of the individuals whom he cultivated, such as Sykes and Hoadly, suggest that he was on the liberal wing of the church—light on dogma and insistent on the importance of religious belief satisfying suitable criteria of rationality.

Within this position he was sufficiently discriminating to be strongly hostile to others who might also be thought to belong more or less loosely to the liberal, rationalist side of the Church. The evidence for this is a series of works written in the 1730s, some of which have as their targets Matthew Tindal (ca. 1657–1733) and Anthony Collins (1676–1729). Tindal had begun as an Anglican and had then converted to Catholicism in the hope of gaining the wardenship of All Souls College, Oxford, under James II. He subsequently reconverted to Anglicanism, became a Latitudinarian, then a deist, and is even reported to have said that there is no such thing as revelation. His books, such as Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (1706) and Christianity as Old as Creation (1730) were excoriated by many, and Turnbull joined in the excoriation. Anthony Collins was judged by numerous commentators, including Turnbull, to have denied divine providence, revelation, miracles, and the immortality of the soul, a judgment based particularly on his A Discourse on Free thinking (1713). A further work by Turnbull, A Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Connexion Betwixt the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ, should be mentioned here. In this short book, which he wrote in 1726 and published five years later, he argued, in line with lectures he had delivered to his students at Marischal College, that just as scientific propositions are demonstrated by experiments, so also Christian teaching regarding the afterlife is demonstrated by the miracles performed by Christ. The chief targets of this work were Tindal and Collins.

The following year (1732), in Christianity Neither False nor Useless, Tho’ Not as Old as the Creation, Turnbull again had Tindal in his sights, as is indicated by the title’s reference to Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation. In this attack Turnbull takes up cudgels on behalf of Samuel Clarke, who had argued: “[I]f by the Course of Nature, be meant only (as it truly signifies) the constant and uniform manner of Gods acting either immediately or mediately in preserving and continuing the Order of the World; then, in that Sense, indeed a Miracle may be rightly defined to be an effect produced contrary to the usual Course or Order of Nature, by the unusual Interposition of some Intelligent Being Superiour to Men.”8 On the basis of this and of closely related arguments of Clarke’s, Turnbull examines the nature and attested occurrence of miracles in the course of defending Clarke on the relation between revelation and natural religion.

The revelation at issue is of course the Christian one, and Turnbull’s commitment to it is nowhere more clearly in evidence than in his An Impartial Enquiry into the Moral Character of Jesus Christ (1740), in which he seeks to argue that the works of Jesus bear testimony to the truth of his teachings on moral matters, and that he is shown by those teachings to be the greatest among moral philosophers.

The overarching concept in Turnbull’s Christian Philosophy is that of God’s moral government of the world, a government that is particularly at work in the allotment of recompense for our good and evil deeds. And the Biblical text that runs as a leitmotif through Turnbull’s discussion is: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7–8). Turnbull attends to the relationship between this life and the next, and argues that our future state will correspond exactly to our present one by a divine dispensation that is universal in the sense that God does not, so to say, need to make a separate decision in respect of each person, for he has established a rule or law that governs the outcome for each and every individual on the basis of how each has lived. Turnbull stresses that the situation is exactly as in the natural world. It is by a law established by God that fire heats things and ice cools them—and by a law likewise that people are recompensed in due season for their deeds. That, in short, is how the system works, and divine providence is to be understood in these terms.

Turnbull is engaged in an exercise of rational (or natural), not of revealed, theology; and since he is placing great weight on a proof text in the New Testament, he begins by demonstrating the existence of a morally and intellectually perfect being, God, and then argues that the content of the Christian revelation, at least in respect of its moral dimension, can withstand cross-examination. It is with this in mind that Turnbull argues that if a messenger from God has to address a people who do not know God, the messenger must first persuade the people, by rational means alone, that God exists and that he is good and wise. Turnbull spells out the argument by which persuasion can be effected. It is based on a concept of power that has since become particularly associated with Thomas Reid. Reid follows Turnbull very precisely in denying that no purely material thing has power, and that power resides only in a being with intellect and will. The underlying consideration, stressed by both Turnbull and Reid, is that any purely material thing, far from being powerful, is entirely powerless to respond otherwise than the way in which it does to forces operating upon it. The sun does not exercise power in heating this planet, for it cannot not heat it—it is powerless not to.9 Turnbull was not the first to offer this account of power, but the probability is that it was from Turnbull that Thomas Reid, then in his midteens at Marischal, first learned it.

Turnbull proceeds to deal with the fact that the existence of God renders problematic the existence of evil, and he responds to this challenge in a traditional way by admitting that there are evils but that they do not characterize creation as a whole, for they are permitted to exist not for their own sake or because God takes pleasure in them, but because they are the outcome of laws that are designed to produce the best possible world overall. Things that seem evil are seen by us from an overly narrow perspective, and if we had “one united view,” the apparent evils would be judged to play a necessary role in the unfolding of a perfect universe.

Among apparent evils are those that befall the virtuous, evils that therefore cannot be seen as a punishment for wrongdoing. But Turnbull has a more ample perspective. For this life is, as he reminds his readers, a time of probation, and the apparent evils that befall us enable us to grow in spiritual and moral strength by the exercise of self-discipline in adversity. They can therefore even be seen as goods graciously bestowed on us by God, goods that create a space for us within which we can grow toward our perfection. In fact, Turnbull insists that we can grow by our response to apparent goods as well as to apparent evils. No less than poverty, prosperity presents us with the opportunity to enhance our moral substance and to demonstrate our self-discipline. This might seem an unexpected line, but Turnbull’s focus on prosperity as a “means of trial” fits the traditional suspicion of luxury as a potential cause of moral and spiritual corruption. In that sense, every circumstance or state in which we find ourselves is good, at least to this extent, in that it constitutes an opportunity for us to do good and to become better.

Whether or not we then do good is in our power, which, as Turnbull reiterates, is very extensive, and always extensible if only we make the effort to gain more knowledge of the natural world. Such knowledge of the laws by which God governs the world empowers us to use nature’s divine laws to secure our own purposes and make our lives more fully embody our own values. God’s governance of nature by means of general laws is crucial to Turnbull since otherwise we should have absolutely no means of knowing how to use it purposefully. We would be forever in a state of infancy similar to the one—stressed in volume 1—that would arise if the law of habits did not inform our nature.

The law of habits is also put to work in volume 2, this time in connection with the thought that recompense in the next life must be appropriate to our virtue or vice in this life, for the law of habits underlies our moral liberty. Such liberty implies not only knowledge of our circumstances and of natural law, but also a faculty of reason that exerts authority in us according to the dictates of right judgment. Just as repetition makes bad habits a ruling power in our souls, so also it is by repetition that reason acquires its “rightful power and authority of governing”: “This is the consequence of the law of habits, which renders us capable of improvement to perfection” (p. 669). On this crucial matter Turnbull deploys the first volume’s doctrine that moral liberty consists in the habit of deliberating prior to acting, thereby preventing our appetites from hurrying us into action.

The disposition to give reason its head as against appetite is in accordance with “the order and perfection in our constitution,” or “our natural make and constitution.” Turnbull concludes that a person so disposed is a “law to himself,” in the sense that he has within himself a principle whose office is to give law to his appetites and affections. This is life according to our natural frame and, hence, according to God’s intention for us. Our constitution is therefore a “law to itself” in the strict sense, for it was enacted by God as lawgiver when he created our constitution, particularly the mental part anatomized in volume 1 of the Principles. Moving in these deep theological waters, Turnbull always sees himself as guided by the light of reason. He only ever argues on the basis of revelation when the revelation has itself been subjected to critical scrutiny and shown to be at least consonant with reason and, in many cases, to be an irresistible conclusion from reasonable premises.

The main title of volume 2, Christian Philosophy, would on its own raise expectations that central Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, would be discussed. The work is in fact an exercise in natural, not revealed, theology, and this is clearly indicated by its lengthy subtitle: The Christian doctrine concerning God, providence, virtue, and a future state, proved to be agreeable to true philosophy, and to be attended with a truly philosophical evidence. The subtitle tells us what the book really is about, and Turnbull argues that while he assuredly needs the doctrines of volume 1, he does not need to discuss such concepts as that of the Trinity in order to establish his main thesis, namely, that it is possible to demonstrate the truth of St. Paul’s declaration: “Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he reap.”

Turnbull presents an array of insights that bear a strong resemblance to ones found in the writings of his pupil Thomas Reid. How far Reid was directly influenced by Turnbull’s lectures, delivered to the class of 1723 at Marischal, is a matter of speculation. But it is difficult to resist the suspicion that Turnbull, a restless, energetic person who was intellectually and morally strong, must have made a considerable impact on Reid and indeed on all the boys in his charge.

[1. ]He moved to take charge of the parish of Tyninghame in East Lothian one year later.

[2. ]See Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 609–14.

[3. ]Letter dated 3 August 1722. The letter is quoted in M. A. Stewart, “George Turnbull and educational reform,” in J. J. Carter and Joan M. Pittock, eds., Aberdeen and the Enlightenment (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987), 95–103; see 96. For much of the biographical information in this introduction (as for the introduction to volume 1) I have relied on this article by Stewart and also on Paul Wood, “George Turnbull (1698–1748),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4. ]Birch was treasurer of the Society for the Encouragement of Learning, which Turnbull had joined soon after its inception in 1735. Turnbull had had hopes at one point of being appointed its treasurer and, also, of receiving the society’s support for the publication of his Treatise on Ancient Painting (which was eventually published, without the society’s help, in 1740). Birch, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and secretary of the society from 1752 to 1765, was one of many English divines, most of them at Oxford, assiduously cultivated by Turnbull.

[5. ]A strong advocate of rationalist Protestantism, whose stance at times bears a passing resemblance to that of David Hume. See Sykes’s discussion of miracles in his The Principles and Connexion of Natural and Revealed Religion (London, 1740).

[6. ]Hoadly led the extreme Latitudinarian party in the church. He had no time for the mysteries of the faith, insisting instead that religious beliefs should be able to withstand cross-examination by reason.

[7. ]If, as I conjecture in the introduction to volume 1, Turnbull had contracted tuberculosis or bronchitis, then he may well have thought that a lengthy stay in Italy would be of benefit to his health.

[8. ]Samuel Clarke, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation, Boyle Lecture 1705 (London, 1706), 356–57.

[9. ]Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, Essay I, in The Works of Thomas Reid, D.D., ed. Sir William Hamilton, 6th ed., 2 vols. (1863; reprint, Bristol: Thoemmes, 1999).