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From Enlightenment to Liberal Theology: How the "Light" Led to the Dark Ages of Theology

These next two posts will be about how the Enlightenment, and reactions to it, eventually played a major causal role (among other causes) in the rise of liberal theology. Overviews of history always distort things; there is no escaping it. I will no doubt (as all do) oversimplify things. Experts on these subjects are welcome to correct me and help me better understand the nuances that my presentation may obscure, or challenge my thesis altogether. However, I am not alone in my opinions here. I am taking my queues from fallable experts:
Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990, second edition (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005).
Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishers, 2007).

After the Darkness, There Were Competing Lights

“After the darkness, there was light.” At least that is how enlightenment thinkers conceived of the radical change that began to take place in the mid-seventeenth century and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. Although it might be more accurately portrayed in the plural ‘Enlightenments’ to underscore the diversity of perspectives during this period, the popular icons of this period sought freedom from superstition and religious authority on the one hand, to reach terra nova through reason and science on the other. It is characterized as an age of optimism. Many from this period had become fed up with years of religious persecution when the church killed “heretics” (anyone who disagreed with the reigning religious persuasion), and were eager to overcome the age-old hostile debates between Catholics and Protestants through reason. This can be seen in the decline of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and the church and the rise of the middle class and nationalism. Paralleling these more secular drifts of the Enlightenment was a series of evangelical “Awakenings” in

Britain, Jansenism in France, Pietism in Germany, and the Great Awakening in America. Both the Awakenings and the Enlightenments had incredible impacts on the culture, and would ultimately compete for the allegiance of the hearts and minds of Western Culture.
Alternatives to a Revelation-Dependant Epistemology Proposed
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the forerunner for the Enlightenment period. His obsession to find the one true method for settling all disputes about fact and truth would become typical of the enlightenment optimism. He argued for a revolution in the approach to knowledge. He inverted the method of his day, rationalism and deductive reasoning, and argued that one should arrive at the general maxims last, only after beginning anew and rebuilding the foundations of knowledge through an inductive method. Not long after Bacon published his popular book, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582/3-1648) proposed that religion should only accept what is rational. Such a sentiment would become the typical modus operandi for Deism.
John Locke (1632-1704) influenced the minds of many with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) in which he tried to provide foundations for knowledge by arguing that ideas were not a priori but rather, each person is born with a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) and knowledge comes through sensation and reflection. Locke also pushed for certain political changes, most notably: 1) toleration for all religious persuasions except for Roman Catholics, rather than a state church that enforced its views and 2) democracy based on the consent of the governed. Although John Locke himself was somewhat of a Christian apologist, he gave reason and science the authority in his epistemological system. He denied John Calvin’s claim that a basic knowledge of God was a priori, rejected the doctrine of original sin, and saw education as the key to transformation.
If Reason Can’t Demonstrate it, It Aint So


As rationalism and science gained more authority, deism became more intellectually credible than traditional Christian faith. Although Sir Isaac Newton (1624-1727) himself believed in an open universe, his laws of motion were picked up and used in an ever-increasingly secular model of science in which belief in miracles and the supernatural were considered anti-science. In an attempt to demonstrate that nothing in Christianity was contrary or above reason, Deists like John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1655-1733) bent over backwards to reduce the central teachings of Christianity to things that can be universally verifiable. This went beyond Locke, who allowed for adherence to truths which were “beyond” reason, and cultivated an attitude that rejected everything that could not be grasped by human reason. If humans cannot explain it, it must not be true—so much for doctrines about the incarnations of a deity, or substitutionary atonements, or miracles such as the rising of the dead. Reason alone will not lead to such notions, therefore, they must be rejected as a naiveté of the primitive thought.

Wipe Out the Imfamy! (trans-rational religion)

Voltaire (1694-78) was the leader in the French Enlightenment (along with other men, together known as the philosophes). They escalated the revolution one step further. Whereas the deists were trying to associate their views with traditional Christianity, Voltaire was willing to sever all ties to Christianity and attack every major Christian doctrine with great hostility, chanting, “Wipe out the infamy” (i.e. organized Christianity). Christianity was thought by these men to be antithetical to reason and natural religion, so they sought to break the anciene regime’s strong hold on French culture. The French revolution was radical, political, and bloody.


Taking the Rejection of Revelation to it’s Logical End
By the time David Hume (1711-76) appears on the scene, he represented the British Enlightenment’s most radical and skeptical form. He took the culture’s rejection of certainty through revelation to its logical conclusion. His Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) resulted in a reduction of what people thought of as firm “knowledge” down to habits of association of ideas united by the imagination and given names. He showed that there is no certainty that what we perceive with our senses actually directly corresponds with reality, and that the categories we put on our sense perceptions are also arbitrary habits that cannot be proven to be accurate. Perhaps nothing lies behind our sense perceptions; perhaps reason itself is just an arbitrary habit we humans have. Although Hume was skeptical, this did not stop him from making all sorts of arguments with his reasoning faculties. He gained notoriety for giving a conclusive argument against the possibility of miracles, establishing the empiricist maxim: Whatever books do not have experimental reasoning about matters of fact and existence, Commit them to the flames! He also was thought to have disproved the knowledge of self and God, along with knowledge of cause and effect that served as a basis for science.
Revelation, Reason, Science, and a Change in Light Posture


It must be pointed out that science and reason were not discovered during the Enlightenment, but they were developing disciplines long before they took center stage during the Enlightenment. Questions of human existence, the meaning of life, the destiny of man, the existence God, along with questions about metaphysics, ethics, and morality were largely settled by religious beliefs—Christianity in particular. The shift during the Enlightenment was a shift from thinking that the most ultimate questions about human existence were not clearly spelled out in scientific data and must be found in revelation, to a distrust in revelation (long years of religious wars may have helped that along) and an optimism on the ability of science to discover and unravel the ultimate questions of life. To say it another way, theology as the “queen” of science was dethroned by virtue of the dethroning of the king himself—revelation. Although science existed before the Enlightenment, science began to take the place of sole arbitrator of all truth.


Inasmuch as science was a form of human reason, some pointed out that science itself was dependant on reason and philosophy. This created a competition for the epistemological throne of all knowledge. Empiricism on the one hand championed the inductive method as supreme (as seen in John Locke) while rationalism (as seen in Descartian philosophy) on the other championed deductive reasoning as the only sure method for establishing the credibility of knowledge (even scientific knowledge). Without a great deal of exaggeration we might say that the Enlightenment witnessed a change in light posture. The “light” from science and reason before the Enlightenment was in a posture of humble submission to a divine revelation. After the Enlightenment, science and reason began lording it over divine revelation, forcing that revelation to submit to modern science and human reason—whether that meant an outright denial of revelation’s claims, or creative ways of interpreting that revelation so that it still fit what seemed “reasonable” to the modern mind. The most devestating shift for religion was when this came to mean that truth claims in religion not only had to be compatable with science and reason, but had to be verifiable by science and reason. This effectively placed science and reason as the only ultimate grounds for knowing anything for sure. If reason or science can’t demonstrate it—it probably aint so! (or at least you shouldn’t count your life on it) Note: One can see how easily this transitions to pluralism and the relativization of religious truth claims: We don’t really who’s right and who’s wrong unless science can arbitrate truth claims, yet we can’t say that these claims are not true, for they transcend verification principles of science and reason. Maybe they have truth in them which will one day be verified by science and reason, but sceince and reason are “where it’s at.”

Can’t Reason and Science “Get Along?”: Immanuel Kant
If the Enlightenment can be seen as in great part a struggle for an alternative epistemological foundation to the revelation-dependant framework of traditional Christianity, then it could also be seen as a virtual king-of-the-hill competition between a robust rationalism on the one hand, and a “see it to believe it” empiricism on the other. Following this oversimplification, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) might be seen as the man who broke up the fight and attempted to make peace between these two paradigms by taking the best from each and fusing them together into a system known as epistemological dualism or Rational Empiricism. Although in light of the debates of his contemporaries the genius in which he was able to pull this off is hard to follow for those who are not schooled in Enlightenment philosophy, his basic epistemological outlook is rather simple. He was a rationalist who tried to make room for scientific empiricism. His theory was that the rational mind imposes innate (a priori) categories on all empirical sense perception, thereby interpreting them and playing a more fundamental role with respect to knowledge construction, yet leaving room for meaningful knowledge construction by the scientific method. **If all one had was a series of sense perceptions without categories of the mind to interpret and relate the data, life would be a meaningless string of consecutive sense perceptions that bore zero relation to one another. On the other hand, if all one had were empty “filing” categories without sensory data to be “filed” in them, they remain completely blank. According to Kant, however, if we proceed as though these categories of the mind are legitimate, we can have constructive interpretation of the sensory data resulting in meaningful knowledge.
Did Kant Leave Us With With a Hole in the Epistemicological Boat?

It is important to notice that Kant’s basic approach involves a posture of skepticism with regard to the certainty of all knowledge. Only if the imposing categories of the mind can be trusted can we be sure our knowledge corresponds to reality. However, as Kant stressed, we cannot prove these categories to be precise. We cannot escape these categories so as to experience reality apart from the mediation of them. If we were able to somehow “cut out the middle man” of our mediating categories, this could be called direct knowledge or Noumena (knowledge apart from the construction of the mind). Unfortunately for Kant, all knowledge construction is based on Phenomena instead—reality as it appears to us by the mediation of our mental categories. As Kant understood it, then, hard science is a combination of sense experience and mental interpretation. However, when this paradigm is extended to Christian theology, Kant believed such theology is mere speculation because knowledge about metaphysics (beyond the physical, beyond matter) is by definition beyond our sense perception. We have never seen, tasted, heard, or felt God by mediation of our senses, thus our language about such things bears no correspondence to any immediate human experience, nor is God one of the 12 inborn categories (“filing cabinets”) of the human mind (at least according to Kant). With neither a fundamental a priori grounding, nor a fundamental empirical grounding, God-talk can only be justified from the standpoint of deduction or indirect reasoning (i.e. speculation).
So what does all this have to do with Christian theology? Everything. Although for Kant all knoweldge is phenomenalogical, and therefore it cannot be ultimately verified, even once one grants that our minds construe sense data with basic reliability, language about metaphysical realities go “beyond” sense perception and are not one of the twelve innate mental categories. God-talk, therefore, is on epistemologically slippery ground. If we adopt Kant’s paradigm for knowledge construction, religious language only becomes relevant inasmuch as it is able to capture something of direct human experience. Talk about God, anything beyond scientific verification or that which reason necessitates becomes passé and looked upon as mere speculation.
. .
The Enlightenment as the Leavening Effect of the Renaissance Era
If the Renaissance Era (1300’s-1600’s) saw the “rebirth” of classical texts, which texts began to provide a canon or dialogue point in the educational enterprise, then the Enlightenment might be seen as the fruit of this new canon in the hands of those fed up with religious authoritarianism and looking for an alternative authority for truth. Although initially the revival of classic texts aided the Reformation’s conservative views on Scripture, in the long run this revival led to a replacement in European culture of the biblical worldview. When more attention is given to Philosophy and science than the Bible, over time this has the effect, not only of eroding the authority of basic biblical presuppositions and produced radical forms of skepticism, but it also of initiating creative new ways of interpreting the Bible so that it fits with one’s pre-commitments to a certain philosophy (whether or not the authors of the Bible ever intended their writings to be interpreted in this way). Nowhere is this leavening effect more evident than in the epistemological revolution that took place in the period of the Enlightenment. It was during the Enlightenment that the Bible began to be interpreted by deists in a creative way that enabled them to stiff-arm the Bible actual teachings in favor of their own philosophy of deism. The supernatural aspects of the Bible are reinterpreted to have only a symbolic and/or ethical meaning, not a metaphysical “dogma.” It is this bold step of hermeneutical creativity which can be seen to have given rise to the Classical Liberal Theology in the latter days of the Enlightenment.
.. .

In my next post, I will discuss Romantacism as a reaction to the Enlightenment, and Schleiermacher as case in point of the causal connection between the Enlightenment and Liberal Theology, for he is considered the father of Classical Liberal Theology.



  1. Celucien L. Joseph says:

    Good analysis. If If may complement what you’ve written. The Enlightement movement has also revolutionized various fields of studies (i.e. history, theology, philosophy, literature, etc). For example, reason was taught to be the the ultimate source of knowledge and sole
    measure of truth, proponents of this theory also cast doubts upon the biblical witness and interrogate the historicity of the elements embedded in the texts of both Testaments. According to this philosophy, the human mind is capable in arriving at new results, apart from external assistance. For, truth propositions are anthropocentric and could only be assessed by human intellectuality. So there was no room for supernaturalism or divine intervention.

    Good work my brother.

  2. Bradley says:

    Good word bro. I take your compliment seriously given your Ph.D. studies in history. Thanks.

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