Adam Smith in Theological Perspective

Jordan Ballor for AdamSmithWorks

National Trust / Public domain

August 5, 2020
A new turn to religion in Smith studies helps provide a bertter understanding of the great Scottish philosopher and political economist than has traditionally been on offer. Paul Mueller’s essay, The Scottish Intellectual Tradition before the Enlightenment, is a fine introduction to some of the key features of the Scottish Presbyterian theological and political tradition leading up to Smith’s own time. This essay is intended to act as a kind of complement to Mueller’s work by locating Adam Smith’s theological perspectives between orthodoxy and Enlightenment.
Adam Smith is in many ways a key transitional figure between earlier confessional Presbyterian and Reformed orthodoxy and later, particularly Protestant, political economists. Any proper appreciation for Smith’s theological and religious thought must take into account Smith’s primary disciplines. Even as Theory of Moral Sentiments is replete with references to providence and divine wisdom, Smith was a moral philosopher and political economist, not a theologian as such. This fact, when placed in proper historical context, can help us appreciate the theological dimensions and significance of Smith’s work.
Rather than providing a close textual reading and explication of a particular passage or a comprehensive survey of religious and theological themes in Smith’s work, this essay sets the stage for a broad theological understanding of Smith. As fruitful and as important as focusing on a particular passage, image, or doctrine may be, it is equally important to have a more general perspective on Smith’s theological and intellectual context.

Historical Considerations
While there are numerous elements of Smith’s historical context that warrant particular attention, a few that are of especial relevance include ecclesial and political developments, theological contexts in the eighteenth century, and the relational and institutional dynamics of Smith’s life. Understanding the relationship between church and state, for instance, both in Scotland and in the Reformed tradition, leading up to and during Smith’s own time, can help us better understand the significance of Smith’s teachings related to the role of religion in society and the state’s role in promoting or protecting religion. Likewise the developments in theological controversy and the role of the confessions in Presbyterian theology provide an important backdrop for Smith’s own teachings related to divine providence, human virtue, reason, and revelation. And Smith’s evaluation of and by his contemporaries, most notably David Hume, provide a window into understanding the significance of Christian orthodoxy in Smith’s own thought and institutional context.

Church and State in the Reformation
As Mueller rightly observes, the tradition of limited government control of religion was embedded from the beginning of Scottish Presbyterianism. Christ, not the earthly king, is head of the church, and this understanding has radical implications for temporal authority, whether political or otherwise. For Scottish covenanters, for instance, the monarch was bound by law and subject to divine authority in a way analogous to the kings of Israel. Just as King David was obliged to obey the strictures of Torah, rulers in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition were likewise bound by legal and covenantal obligation. When righteousness and justice are violated, rulers are under divine judgment and must submit to prophetic rebuke, just as David did when confronted by Nathan and as Theodosius did when corrected by Ambrose.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) held to a mediating position on the question of the civil magistrate. Some Reformed traditions, particularly those associated with Zurich, argued that because the ruler holds the first position in civil affairs, those same rulers should be honored in the same way in the church. This element of the Reformed tradition tended to downplay the active role of the church in administering discipline. It was, rather, the responsibility of the Christian civil magistrate to correct errors and deliver punishment. The Genevan approach, associated with John Calvin, affirmed the Christian ruler’s duty to promote and protect true religion, but also emphasized a separate and distinct role for the church in administering discipline, up to and including excommunication. The WCF does not grant to the Christian magistrate “the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” that is, excommunication.

Other Protestant perspectives emphasized the interiority of faith against external coercion, and therefore did not grant the civil magistrate the responsibility to promote true religion. The WCF does affirm that the civil magistrate has “authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.”

One of Smith’s signature teachings regarding the establishment of religion was that the state should not work against, and perhaps should even promote, the proliferation of diverse religious expressions. Rather than the traditional Christian arguments in favor of religious liberty that emphasized the non-coercibility of faith, in The Wealth of Nations Smith seems more focused on the practical dimensions and consequences of religious freedom. When the state favors a particular confession or a narrow set of religious institutions, there is less incentive for providing religious service that is actually meaningful for people. On the contrary, argues Smith, where there is competition in religion within certain boundaries, ministers are more likely to be zealous and energized to provide better religious instruction and engagement. Pointing to historical examples of religious leaders relying upon public support for their maintenance and upkeep, Smith observes that “in general every religious sect, when it has once enjoyed for a century or two the security of a legal establishment, has found itself incapable of making any vigorous defence against any new sect which chose to attack its doctrine or discipline.” Established religion thus becomes enervated religion, and with this argument as Smith develops it at some length, the minority position within the history of the Christian church, that which argues for disestablishment and freedom of religion, is updated and given its due. The 1788 American revision of the WCF essentially adopts a position in accord with Smith’s view: “it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest in such a manner, that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging, every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.” At the same time, it is important for Smith that the government is freed from undue influence or even tyranny from ecclesiastical leaders, and so the liberation of the church and state has reciprocal elements.

Theological and Philosophical Developments
The 1707 union between England and Scotland saw the establishment of the Presbyterian church in Scotland and the Westminster Standards as the doctrinal and confessional authorities of that church. The so-called Marrow Controversy broke out in 1718 with the reappearance of a text that was originally published in the seventeenth century, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Thomas Boston (1676-1732) was among those who championed the treatise, while it was opposed by a majority of Scottish churchmen. The republication of The Marrow ignited another round of controversy about the place of works in the Christian life and the relationship of works to justification and sanctification.

Controversies and polemics like this, sometimes including ecclesiastical discipline and church splits, in part gave rise to the phenomenon known as “Moderatism” in the church of Scotland. As Stewart J. Brown writes, Moderatism “represented a sustained effort by a group of ministers and lay leaders to adapt Reformed theology to the distinctive flowering of intellectual culture that would later be termed the Scottish Enlightenment.”1 Moderatism lasted for a century, from roughly 1730 to 1830, with its pinnacle of influence from the 1760s onward, precisely during the time of Smith’s intellectual maturity.

While the Moderates deemphasized the confessional standards relative to the views of their more zealously orthodox opponents in the church, the Westminster Standards remained the official confessional authorities in the church and Moderates conformed to them, at least formally and nominally. The eighteenth century was a period in which Protestant theology, which had been firmly embedded in educational institutions, moved away from neo-scholastic methods, especially as these had been closely connected to confessional orthodoxy.

One consequence of this was the increasing distinction, if not categorical division, between what was understood as natural and supernatural and a corresponding reorientation of the relationships between reason and faith. As Richard A. Muller characterizes this shift, “Whereas the high orthodox theologians maintained the ancillary status of reason and philosophy and did not perceive a need either to buttress or to preface their theologies with a rational or natural theology prologue, this approach did become a standard pattern among the nominally orthodox thinkers of the late orthodox era.”2 Reason and natural theology increasingly became the prolegomena for supernatural revelation and theology.

There is a confessional precedent for this methodological approach, which became increasingly characteristic of theology in the eighteenth century. John Calvin and the Reformed confessional tradition had distinguished between the two “books” of divine revelation: nature and Scripture. Natural revelation is to be corrected and normed by special revelation. As the WCF puts it in the context of worship, for example, “The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.” Natural revelation thus shows people that there is a God who is to be worshiped, but it is necessary for special revelation to correct the errors of fallen humanity: “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

With the development of the Christian intellectual tradition in the eighteenth century, a sharper methodological distinction was introduced, which corresponded to a distinction between natural philosophy and Christian theology. Natural philosophy worked primarily from the data available from the “book” of nature, while Christian theology concerned itself with the “book” of Scripture. Most orthodox approaches manifested a coherent and complementary relationship between human reason and special revelation. But by Smith’s time it was far more common not only to distinguish but to more radically separate the subject matter, methods, and ends of philosophy and theology.

Intellectual and Institutional Dimensions
The relationship between reason and revelation is a standard topic in Christian theology, and in this sense the eighteenth-century developments reflect the natural progress of a particular Christian theological and confessional tradition. As we have seen, there is some doctrinal basis for distinguishing between the “books” of nature and Scripture and correlatively between a course of study in natural philosophy as opposed to Christian theology.

Smith’s scholarly work should be understood as embedded in the larger university curriculum of the time. Certainly there was room for the scholar to integrate theological insights and perspective into their systems of moral philosophy, as Smith’s mentor Frances Hutcheson had done. But while Smith did lecture early in his career on natural theology, he was primarily a moral philosopher and political economist. His scholarly task was not to exposit the sacred text of Scripture or to teach dogmatic theology. Rather, in his two major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, he set forth a moral and natural philosophical account of the human person in society.

One important source for understanding the intellectual influences and contexts for Smith’s thought is his personal library. A survey of his collection demonstrates strong interests in history, philosophy, politics, science, literature, and language. There is relatively little in the way of Christian theology, although the appearance of works by Protestant figures including Bartholomaeus Keckermann (1572-1609), Thomas Gataker (1574-1654), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Johann Albert Fabricius (1668-1736), and Alexander Webster (1708-1784) should be noted. A comprehensive engagement with Smith’s theological sources, both in terms of his library as well as the references in his works, has not yet been undertaken.

Another significant element of Smith’s intellectual development has to do with his personal relationships, including his teachers, friends, and correspondents. David Hume (1711-1776) looms large on this account, both in terms of Smith’s engagement with his work and especially perhaps in light of their friendship. Scholars including Gavin Kennedy and Dennis Rasmussen have argued that Smith’s religious and theological sentiments in his published writings do not fully capture his own religious and theological convictions.3 Others, like Gordon Graham, are more dubious about attributing particular (anti)theological convictions to Smith and placing too much conjectural weight on his relationship with Hume.4 In addition, Ryan Patrick Hanley has recently connected Smith’s account of wisdom and virtue with God, arguing that for Smith, “the end of our goodness thus isn’t simply our own happiness but the promotion of the happiness of all, and thereby God’s will, here on earth.”5

If Hume is the “infidel” to Smith’s “professor,” however, there are other important relationships that can help us to understand Smith’s relationship to religion. Here the influence of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) must be considered as significant, as well as those somewhat more distant connections to figures like Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and John Witherspoon (1723-1794).

Conclusion: Between Orthodoxy and Enlightenment
We find in Smith a key figure standing between the eras of orthodoxy and Enlightenment. Smith is undoubtedly a monumental contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment. At the same time, his work in TMS is rife with claims concerning the divine, God the wise and beneficent creator and sustainer of the world. The attributes of Smith’s God very much resemble those that the WCF states can be discovered through the light of nature: “the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable.”

Smith’s work focuses not so much on the theological implications of this situation; after all, this natural knowledge of God, as the WCF continues, is “not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.” Although the idea of eternal salvation is not absent from Smith’s system, his emphasis is certainly more temporal and worldly than eternal and heavenly. In this way Smith stands as a figure between the earlier orthodox theology and a newer, entirely secular, rational philosophy. Muller describes the general trend in the eighteenth century this way: “As orthodoxy faded, rationalism gathered strength and, in the eighteenth century, provided a new philosophical perspective that, even in alliance with theology, proved inimical to the task of creating a large-scale biblical orthodoxy for Protestantism comparable to the broad theological, philosophical, and cultural synthesis offered by earlier generations of Protestant thinkers.”6 Smith is not a theologian, and even if his thought might exhibit theological elements and emphases, it is fair to say his frame of reference is rather more earthly than heavenly. He is, however, a moral philosopher and political economist writing in an age and context in which religious and theological convictions remain salient.

A deep understanding of this context has important implications for our understanding of imagery in Smith’s writings, whether the “invisible hand” or the “wealth of nations.” Likewise a theological account of Smith must account for the later editions and revisions of his work, including the emendation of material that is more theological than philosophical in TMS.

One final consideration can also help the careful interpreter of Smith to appreciate the import of his work. Whether one considers Smith an orthodox Christian, or a principled skeptic, or something in between, his immediate contemporaries and following generations found in his work a resource of great value for their own formulations and contributions to classical political economy. And many of those who were thus influenced by Smith were committed Christians, clergy, and theologians. They were able to, at least on their own terms, synthesize Smithian political economy and Christian theology and morality. An account of Adam Smith’s work in theological perspective must do justice therefore to Smith’s legacy and the reception of his work by thinkers like Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), and Richard Whately (1787-1863), or what Paul Heyne has called the “clerical laissez-faire.”

  1. Stewart J. Brown, “Moderate Theology and Preaching, c. 1750-1800,” in The History of Scottish Theology, Volume II: From the Early Enlightenment to the Late Victorian Era, ed. David Fergusson and Mark Elliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 69.
  2. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Volume 1: Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 122.
  3. Gavin Kennedy, “Adam Smith on Religion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, ed. Christopher J. Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli, and Craig Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 464-484; Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
  4. Gordon Graham, “Adam Smith and Religion,” in Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy, ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 305-320. See also Graham’s review of Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor, in Cosmos + Taxis 5:3+4.
  5. Ryan Patrick Hanley, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 175-176.
  6. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:145.