The Optimistic Rationalism of the Enlightenment

Trust in reason undermines all appeals to spiritual authority


The Enlightenment is a time period from the late 1600's to the late 1700's which asserted the sufficiency of individual, human reason to determine what is right, true and real. The thinkers of the Enlightenment optimistically assumed that reason based on empirical observation was the only necessary tool for accurate judgement. With the exaltation of reason, truth based on revelation, tradition or authority were criticized, suppressed or re-interpreted. Key players were the French philosophes, a collection of writers, journalists and other thinkers who made critical assessments of all human knowledge. Even the most sacred beliefs and doctrines were not immune.



Reformation Paved the Way for the Reign of Reason

Surprisingly, the Reformation paved the way for this iconoclastic activity. As Will and Ariel Durant state:

...the Reformation rendered two services to the Enlightenment: it broke the authority of dogma, generated a hundred sects that would formerly have died at the stake, and allowed among them such virile debate that reason was finally recognized as the bar before which all sects had to plead their cause unless they were armed with irresistible physical force.

The Enlightenment was as broad a movement as the Reformation before it, and a natural consequence to it. When the reformers freed themselves from the bond of eccesiastical dogma, they inadvertently encouraged the diversity of sects each submitted to their own understanding of the doctrines of Holy Writ. Autonomous spiritual discernment resulted in the right of individual judgment. It exalted the play of reason in human affairs. By the late 1500's, Robert Browne (1550-1633), a Puritan, argued that "any group of Christians should have the right to organize itself for worship, formulate its own creed on the basis of Scripture, choose its own leaders, and live its religious life free from outside interference, acknowledging no rule but the Bible, no authority but Christ."

By the mid-1600's, the growing number and variety of church sects along with their heated debates led some to question the truth of Chrsistianity itself. Bishop Fotherby (1622) lamented that "the Scriptures (with many) have lost their authority, and are thought only fit for the ignorant and the idiotic." And the Reverend James Cranford (1646) spoke of "multitudes" who "have changed their faith either to Skepticism...or Atheism, to believe nothing." A pamphlet entitled Hell Broke Loose: A Catalogue of the Many Spreading Errors, Heresies, and Blasphemies of These Times (1646) cited as heresy the opinion "that the Scripture, whether a true manuscript [an authentic text] or no...is but humane [man-made], and not able to discover [reveal] a divine God." Another heresy declared that "right Reason is the rule of Faith, and...we are to believe the Scriptures, and the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, so far as we see them agreeable to reason, and no further." Other areas of disbelief dealt with the existence of a literal hell and the divinity of Christ.

Deism, a product of the Enlightenment whose advocates included the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, sought a compromise by proposing a Christianity confined itself to a general belief in God and immortality.

In short, the Catholic Church was right in fearing the principle of private judgment because in it was seen an invitation to doctrinal and moral chaos. As a result of a belief in individual judgment of spiritual truth, varying sects arose with different interpretations on almost every point of doctrine. These sects vigorously opposed one another, exposing each other's weaknesses, and left "faith" vulnerable to rationalist appeals. Every sect called both Scripture and reason to support their side. Yet, this type of discussion of the Bible led to uncertainty regarding its perspecuity (clarity of meaning) and infallibility (truth validity).

In the words of Will and Ariel Durant, "the Protestant Reformation achieved more than it desired."



Influence of the Enlightenment on Spiritual Authority

Enlightenment thinkers, like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Pascal, Voltaire, Hume, Leibniz and Kant, did not debate Catholicism versus Protestantism. Rather, their questions touched on the whole of Christianity. They addressed emergent doubts and denials. They did not discuss the authority of the pope. They debated the existence of God.

Yet their appeals--whether for or against orthodox Christianity--were based on rational argument. There were no appeals to Church Fathers, creeds, established dogmas or even Biblical proof-texts. The process of argument was consistently spent building a chain of logic which led either toward or away from God.

Here we see the abandonment of any type of spiritual authority with a replacement of autonomous, rational judgment even by those sympathetic to a biblically-based Christianity .

Within the church, there was an increased reliance on rational judgment in establishing doctrine. Rational thinking was applied to the objective fact of God's encoded revelation in the Bible. Principles drawn from the scientific method were now proposed to organize the "facts" of Scripture.

For example, this interest in assorting, cataloging and systematizing Christianity, resulted in multi-volume tomes labeled "systematic theology." These began with extended introductions to a proper understanding of the Bible (e.g. John Calvin's Institutes of the Chrsitian Religion, 1536) and written commentaries to catechisms (e.g. Zacharias Ursinus lectures on the Hiedelberg Catechism, 1591). Such works culminated in sytematic theology texts by Charles Hodge (1872-1873), Augustus H. Strong (1886) and William G. Shedd (1891-1894), along with continued expositions of catechisms (e.g. A.A. Hodge on the Westminister Confession, 1869).

Even more practically, the form of the sermon came to take on the form of argumentation, much like a lawyer proving his case. The oldest book in my library, a collection of sermons by Nathan Perkins published in 1795, contains a series of arguments for various elements of the Christian faith. The following is an excerpt from his introduction to a discourse on the proper mode of baptism (original punctuation and capitalization preserved):

That the ordinance of water-baptism has been greatly abused and perverted, is readily acknowledged. Different denominations of professing christians, have entertained different opinions about its nature, as well as the subject and mode. But different opinons and different practices do not disprove the reality of the ordinance, or its utility as a christian privilege. They are however a full proof of the weakeness, prejudice, and imperfection of human nature. If we must relingquish all that has been perverted and abused in religion, or disputed and differently understood, we shall have nothing left. We must, as many have done, commence infidels. For there is no article either of religion or morals but has been disputed, perverted, and differently understood. I hope for a patient and candid hearing of the arguments, which shall be alledged to prove that baptism by water or christian baptism is not a piece of superstition, but appointed by Jesus Christ.--I would attempt humbly to enquire, what is the mind or will of God, as revealed in the holy scriptures, concerning christian baptism. I have taken all proper pains to search them, looking to the father of lights for his guidance and spiritual illumination--to weigh and compare what they affirm, and to examine the original language. I hope, by divine grace, to be preserved from all error in opinon, and intemperance of words, or harsh and uncharitable expressions, being fully persuaded, that the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.--

Perkins' sermons are replete with appeals to direct statements of Scripture and to what is of sound reason. They exemplify a form of preaching that became very popular, expecially among the Puritans. Correction of error and appeal to reason from the text of Scripture was standard format for proclaiming the Word of God.



Rationalistic Argument a Poor Servant of Spiritual Authority

In modern times, rationalistic argument lost, while the principle of individual judgment remained. This further weakened claims to spiritual authority. If spiritual authority (of revelation, doctrine or church leaders) is based on rational argument, what happens when people no longer accept rationalist assumptions? When mysticism or subjectivism is introduced, all spiritual authority is lost.


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Most recent revision was August 27, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Gerardo Marti
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