The son of a Presbyterian linen-draper, he was destined for the ministry of that church, and—along with future archbishop Thomas Secker—entered Samuel Jones's dissenting academy at Gloucester (later Tewkesbury) for that purpose. Whilst there, he entered into a secret correspondence with the conformist controversialist Samuel Clarke; his letters were taken to Gloucester post office by Secker, who also collected Clarke's responses from there. Clarke later published this correspondence. In 1714, Butler decided to enter the Church of England, and went to Oriel College, Oxford. After holding various other high positions, he became rector of the rich living of Stanhope.
In 1736 he was made the head chaplain of King George II's wife Caroline, on the advice of Lancelot Blackburne. In 1738 he was appointed bishop of Bristol. He is said (apocryphally) to have declined an offer to become the archbishop of Canterbury in 1747. He became Bishop of Durham in 1750.
He is most famous for his Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726) and Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1736). The Analogy is an important work of Christian apologetics in the history of the controversies over deism. Butler's apologetic concentrated on "the general analogy between the principles of divine government, as set forth by the biblical revelation, and those observable in the course of nature, [an analogy which] leads us to the warrantable conclusion that there is one Author of both." Butler's arguments combined a cumulative case for faith using probabilistic reasoning to persuade deists and others to reconsider orthodox faith. Aspects of his apologetic reasoning are reflected in the writings of twentieth century Christian apologists such as C. S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery. Overall, his two books are remarkable and original contributions to ethics and theology. They depend for their effect entirely upon the force of their reasoning, for they have no graces of style.
The "Sermons on Human Nature" is commonly studied as an answer to Hobbes' philosophy of ethical egoism. These two books are considered by his followers to be among the most powerful and original contributions to ethics, apologetics and theology which have ever been made.
Today, he is commonly cited for the blunt epigram, "Every thing is what it is, and not another thing."
Butler died in 1752 at Rosewell House, Kingsmead Square in Bath, Somerset. His admirers praise him as an excellent man, and a diligent and conscientious churchman. Though indifferent to general literature, he had some taste in the fine arts, especially architecture.
Propers for Joseph Butler - Apologist, Bishop, Philosopher and Theologian
O God, who by thy Holy Spirit giveth to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise thy Name for the gifts of grace manifested in thy servant Joseph Butler, and we pray that thy Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Lesson - Acts 13:38-44
Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you. And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath. Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God.
The Gospel - St. John 3:11-16
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
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