There are 2 key points that our book, Doubting Thomas, strives to make: 1) Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic (and even at the end of his life, when it was now available again, he publicly attended and financially supported Trinitarian worship services, while privately holding Unitarian beliefs), and 2) He did not believe in the separation of church and state in the way it’s practiced today—he did not believe in the separation of God and state or in state-sanctioned/state-mandated atheism. Groups like the ACLU are turning committed Christians today into second class citizens. Jefferson would be appalled at the distortion of his work by the modern militant secularists. Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom, including freedom for non-believers—not a champion of religious skepticism.
But here are some theological issues worth discussing.
How come Jefferson, who grew up as a Trinitarian (although in 1788 he expressed doubts from an early age on the doctrine of the Trinity) came to privately reject the Trinity in the last half or so of his long life? Later in life, Jefferson often blasts the “Platonists” and speaks badly of Athanasius, the 4th century champion of the doctrine of the Trinity. He blames acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity on Plato, the pre-Christian Greek philosopher. When Jefferson refers to the Platonists, you could virtually interchange the word “Trinitarians” for “Platonists.”
One of the key influences in Jefferson’s later thinking was Rev. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). He was a scientist, theologian, and prominent Unitarian minister, whom Jefferson respected. To fully grasp Jefferson’s understanding, especially the later Jefferson, it’s helpful to understand Priestley especially his book, The Corruptions of Christianity.
Priestley believed that just as the worship of saints and of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, arose within the Church—comprising “corruptions” in the Church—so there were corruptions even earlier within Christianity. He puts in that category core Christian doctrines, such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the atonement—Jesus’ death for sinners.
In reading Priestley, we see a man convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, that He was sent by God the Father, but that He was not God Himself and the record about Him was corrupted in the transmission. Priestley believed in primitive Christianity, so he says, but not later versions of it. But how do we get access to that primitive Christianity? By stripping away the miraculous from the Gospels? Not necessarily, since Priestley believed in the biggest of all Christian miracles—the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Priestley claims that the first writer to claim that Jesus was divine was the Plato-inspired Justin Martyr (of the mid-second century). He claims: “We find nothing like divinity ascribed to Christ before Justin Martyr.”
Yet the Bible claims that:
- Jesus could forgive sins, although only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7);
- Jesus was the Word of God made flesh “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:14, 1);
- the Jews picked up stones to kill Him “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33)—a claim Jesus did not dispute;
- before Abraham was, “I am” (a claim of deity, echoing back to God’s claim before Moses in the burning bush, John 8:58);
- Jesus was Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23);
- we wait for the return of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
And there are other verses that teach the divinity of Jesus. So Priestley is just wrong.
Priestley does concede that Clement I (whom he calls Clemens Romanus), writing around 100 a.d., calls Jesus “the sceptre of the majesty of God,” but that this is not necessarily the same thing as deity.
When viewing this, we have to conclude that either Priestley was not familiar with the Scriptures or that he had his pet views about Jesus with which he would not let the Scriptures interfere.
Years later, building on some of these same types of assumptions, Jefferson plows into the New Testament, claiming the wisdom and superior knowledge to be able to choose “diamonds from a dunghill” (his very phrase), in culling from the Gospels things that are true from things that are allegedly false.
However, C. S. Lewis, the great twentieth century Christian writer who taught at Oxford and Cambridge, once said this about Jesus and His claims to divinity:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Priestley and Jefferson (who apparently also came to believe that Jesus wasn’t divine) missed the mark in trying to totally downplay Jesus’ claim to divinity.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952, 1984), 56.