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Remissio Peccatorum in Thomas Aquinas’ Doctrine of Justification: Did Aquinas Hold a Forensic View of Justification?

Aquinas’ use of remissio peccatorum in his Aristotelian taxonomy of justification as the “remission of sins” has led some to conclude that ultimately he argues for a forensic understanding of justification.[1] This conclusion, however, is problematic on multiple grounds. Aquinas uses the term more like we use the term when referring to the remission of cancerous cells in the body through chemotherapy.

This is partly because justification prior to the Reformation was understood as the initial healing grace that converts the human soul to God rather than something that establishes a forensic status (much like the Reformation doctrines of regeneration and conversion).  Furthermore, for Aquinas, all language about God is analogical in nature because God’s true essence is so far beyond our comprehension that language is woefully inadequate.  The combination of these two facets in Aquinas lead him to interpret biblical and theological language of divine forgiveness in ways that transcend any one-to-one linguistic human analogy (where wrongs are simply forgotten or overlooked) and find their ultimate meaning in the ontological effects of God’s eternal love in time.  Correcting this common misunderstanding of Aquinas’ use of “forgiveness” will eventually lead us to a contextual analysis of an entire group of forensic terminology used in Aquinas.

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First, a forensic reading of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification does not reflect a familiarity with the historical context. Aquinas’ approach to the doctrine replicates the standard medieval subject matter, which focused on the processus iustificationis—the sequential ordering of all necessary components of the infusion of grace. The organizing principle is one of infusion. Virtually all medieval theologians took for granted that justifying grace was infused, whereas the controversies mostly surrounded the details of how best to logically divide and relate the various components of infused grace.[2] Remissio peccatorum was a standard component of justifying grace in the scholastic schema, but was not interpreted primarily or purely as forensic, as we will confirm from Aquinas’ own use of the language.[3]

Second, this view misses the sense given by Aquinas to iustitia. Although Aquinas lists legal justice as one use of iustitia, he forgoes this use entirely in favor of Aristotle’s metaphorical justice. None of the articles in this section on justification have as their focus or subject matter an extrinsic legal status that must be remedied or overlooked.[4]

Third, this reading dislodges the inward place or location given to remissio peccatorum in Aquinas’ processus iustificationis. Remissio peccatorum is the terminus of the human soul’s movement: the arrival of the soul to sin’s antipodal. This terminus of interior movement does not cause the remission of sins, but is the remission of sins by reason of interior justice being diametrical to interior sin. This interior exclusion of justice’s opposite is the negative aspect of the metaphysical state within the human soul caused by the iustitia infusa, not a forensic result within the mind or reckoning of God, which is neither the focus of the articles nor included as one of the requirements for justification.

Fourth, this interpretation conflicts with the dynamic understanding and interpretation of remissio peccatorum in Aquinas that can be seen in his varied expression when reasoning.[5] Aquinas varies his expression when discussing remission, pardon, the non-imputation of sin, and forgiveness as the taking away of sin, as the remission of guilt, and as the removal of offense within the human soul. The second article asks whether the infusion of grace is necessary for the remission of guilt, which is treated in the article as the remission of and taking away of, ontological sin. His respondeo and adversus in this question also illustrate how his reference point for the divine imputation, whereby God does not impute sin to the justified, is grounded ontologically. As Bruce D. Marshall has keenly argued, the reason divine imputation implies by its very meaning an inward reorientation of the soul is because divine imputation is never counterfactual, as in the reckoning of a guilty sinner as not guilty, but is a divine attribution of responsibility (praise or blame) to the guilty or praiseworthy agent, and thus implies a correlative merit of either reward or punishment. The interior effect implied by non-imputation is the infusion of justifying grace, which is in turn explained as the temporal effect of God’s atemporal love:

When God does not impute sin to a man, there is implied a certain effect in him to whom the sin is not imputed; for it proceeds from the Divine love, that sin is not imputed to a man by God.[6]

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Now the effect of the Divine love in us which is taken away by sin, is grace, whereby man is made worthy of eternal life, from which sin shuts him out. Hence we could not conceive the remission of guilt, without the infusion of grace.[7]

The influence of the Pauline discourse on sin in the opening of his epistle to the Romans (interpreted as the pretext for the apostle’s proposed solution in justification) and of St. Augustine’s theology of culpability can be seen in how Aquinas grounds guilt (culpa) in the ontology of sin (peccatum) rather than sin’s record.[8] The debt sin incurs, for example, is a mixed bag, some of which disappears at the moment of justification by the infusion of grace, but some of which remains because not all sin disappears for the justified.

If man turns inordinately to a mutable good, without turning from God, as happens in venial sins, he incurs a debt, not of eternal but of temporal punishment. Consequently when guilt is pardoned through grace, the soul ceases to be turned away from God, through being untied to God by grace: so that at the same time, the debt of punishment is taken away, albeit a debt of some temporal punishment may yet remain.[9]

Mortal sin is said to be pardoned from the very fact that, by means of grace, the aversion of the mind from God is taken away together with the debt of punishment: and yet the material element remains, viz. the inordinate turning to a created good, for which a debt of temporal punishment is due.[10]

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Now it has been said above (A. 4) that the guilt of mortal sin is pardoned through grace removing the aversion of the mind from God. Nevertheless when that which is on the part of the aversion has been taken away by grace, that which is on the part of the inordinate turning to a mutable good can remain, since this may happen to be without the other, as stated above (A. 4). Consequently, there is no reason why, after the guilt has been forgiven, the dispositions caused by preceding acts should not remain, which are called the remnants of sin. Yet they remain weakened and diminished, so as not to domineer over man, and they are after the manner of dispositions rather than of habits, like the fomes which remain after Baptism.[11]

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Forgiveness is not comprehensive in justification because the infusion of grace pardons or takes away the will’s habit of aversion from God (mortal sin), but not all sin arises from aversion (i.e. venial sin). Sin and guilt are bound up together in the ontology of the disordered soul; their remission, forgiveness, or non-imputation is bound up with their coextensive removal, not merely a removal of a legal record of sinful acts extrinsic to the justified.

Similar varied expressions and reasoning appear when Aquinas elsewhere explains remissio peccatorum as the removal of offense by the infusion of grace, for the offense is understood to consist in a turned will. Aquinas’ discussion of penance’s ability to remit sin uses “taken away,” “blotted out,” “remission” and “pardon” interchangeably when arguing that sin can only be pardoned through the genuine repentance (i.e. the virtue of penance) caused by the power of infused grace which is effected through Christ’s Passion.[12] The divine pardon in Aquinas requires the soul of the offender be at peace with the offended in justification, but God’s peace with the offender is eternal and unchanging. When the latter is manifested in time as infused grace, sin and guilt are removed instantly and simultaneously. Aquinas’ respondeo in article two is worth quoting at length, as it captures well the orientation in his language of forgiveness, pardon, and remission:

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It is impossible for a mortal actual sin to be pardoned without penance, if we speak of penance as a virtue. For, as sin is an offense against God, He pardons sin in the same way he pardons an offense committed against Him. Now an offense is directly opposed to grace, since one man is said to be offended with another, because he excludes him from his grace. Now, as stated in the Second Part (I-II, Q. 110, A. 1), the difference between the grace of God and the grace of man, is that the latter does not cause but presupposes true or apparent goodness in him who is graced, whereas the grace of God causes goodness in the man who is graced, because the good-will of God, which is denoted by the word grace, is the cause of all created good. Hence it is possible for a man to pardon an offense, for which he is offended with someone, without any change in the latter’s will; but it is impossible that God pardon a man for an offense, without his will being changed. Now the offense of mortal sin is due to man’s will being turned away from God, through being turned to some mutable good. Consequently, for the pardon of this offense against God, it is necessary for man’s will to be so changed as to turn to God and to renounce having turned to something else in the aforesaid manner, together with a purpose of amendment; all of which belongs to the nature of penance.[13]

God is said to be offended by virtue of his excluding the offender from grace, thus the infusion of grace by definition removes the offense. In short, “sin is taken away by grace removing the offense against God.”[14]

But how does the discussion of pardon through penance relate to justification? Aquinas’ opening articles on Penance establish in different ways that “mortal sin cannot be forgiven without true Penance, to which it belongs to renounce sin, by reason of its being against God, which is common to all mortal sins.”[15] Now as we have already seen, this renouncing is the same movement of the will caused by the infused grace of justification.[16] If the meanings of offense and sin are not identical (and my argument does not require this) their meaning is so difficult to disentangle they appear as the same substantive act of justification viewed in different anthropomorphic imagery, all amounting to a vital ontological change within the sinner’s soul by the infusion of grace, which takes its power from Christ’s passion. The pregnant silences add weight to this interpretation while making a Protestant forensic interpretation problematic, such as the absence of any questions on: (1) God’s reckoning of punishment towards Christ as the basis of forgiveness, (2) why the guilt of all future sins are not removed by justification and (3) why one’s debt of future punishment must be forgiven more than once and (4) why Aquinas would allow the removal of any particular sin after justification to be classified under the rubric of a non-technical non-Pauline sense of justification used in a broader sense if justification is the forensic acquittal which has already taken place for all sin in justification, etc. [17]

From Aquinas’ discussion above concerning Penance, we can add a fifth reason why a forensic interpretation of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification is problematic: It fails to fully calculate Aquinas’ doctrine of God, which drives him to reinterpret all theological language as anthropological accommodations aiding the understanding (forgiveness, pardon, debt, etc.) in ontological terms. The divine disposition never changes, which means whatever takes place in time—including the sinner’s justification—does not cause any change in God, only in the human person. It is impossible for God to literally be of one disposition prior to a person’s faith, then of a contrary disposition instantaneously once that person becomes just by grace: all such language in Aquinas represents the change or effect of the relationship between the temporal finite and the eternal infinite.[18] One might think Christ’s humanity could potentially offer wiggle room here, an exception in the divine Godhead since the human act of forgiveness on the part of the one forgiving need not imply a change in the human will of the offender from sin to justice, but Aquinas explicitly rejects this possibility.[19]

Sixth, and perhaps most important in confirming the above interpretations, this view of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification fails to properly synthesize Aquinas’s other definition of justification. Although Aquinas formally borrows the Aristotelian strategy of definition, he more consistently defines justification in non-forensic terms as a movement from internal sin to internal justice with no intention to switch “senses” of the word iustitia, having already forgone legal justice as the apostolic sense given to justification by Paul. This makes viewing the latter definition as his interpretation of the former natural and fitting.[20] Both definitions offer a terminus: remissio peccatorum in the first and iustitia infusa in the second. Understanding these as different ends in justification would require a strained interpretation, but understanding them as different aspects of the same end of justifying grace is logically and contextually sensitive and unproblematic. The soul’s movement in justification, by virtue of being a movement to justice, is also a movement away from non-justice. The substance of this end remains the same in either description. Although this can be referred to as a dual movement, this should not obscure Aquinas’ understanding of the movement’s singularity: the movement bears a dual relation to its respective objects because they are opposites, resulting in a dual relation of the terminus of the same.[21] In other words, the remission of sins in Aquinas should be seen much like a spiritual parallel to the remission of cancerous cells—it refers to the expulsion or termination of ontological sin and the guilt inherent therein. The definition of justification as the expulsion of sins rather than the infusion of justice in Aquinas can be seen as the result of Aquinas’ overall tendency to inherit his loci communes from the Christian Tradition while avoiding the redundancy of defining justification self-referentially by its root word—justice.

Finally, as McGrath points out, the processus iustificationis discussed by Medieval scholastic theologians was understood to refer to a distinct and irreducible package of grace in which the presence of any one of the elements logically entails the other elements and “therefore expressly includes” those correlated elements.[22] The remissio peccatorum is only the final element in a logical schema used to parse an instantaneous movement within the human soul. Thus, even if we were to mistake remissio peccatorum as merely God’s erasure of a sin record (an unperceptive reading as I have argued), any purely or primarily forensic reading of justification in Aquinas would still be a gross distortion of the substance of his doctrine, confused by lack of familiarity with the scholastic theological tradition that inspires the language of his formulations. The substance of the act of justification even upon this misreading of remissio cannot be reduced to its terminus, as this would exclude the middle term that logically comes between the infusio gratiae and this terminus.[23]

There is a purely forensic notion that can be reasoned from Aquinas’ doctrine of justification, although Aquinas does not include it in any of his articles on justification for reasons we will note below. The gift of justifying grace logically presupposes an eternal and deliberate forbearance of the penalty of mortal sin in the providence of God. As Marshall so deftly captures this in his article on the role of reckoning in Aquinas, he is worth quoting at length here:

Why does God cause this justice in the first place, the justice that actually heals the wound of sin, repairing sin’s interior damage and leaving nothing in us that merits the punishment of final separation from God? This doesn’t just happen, but is a deliberate divine action, and so presupposes a specific intention and disposition on God’s part. Essential to that disposition, it seems, is the non-imputation or non-reckoning of sins or faults. God forbears to count our sins against us, by imposing the penalty their guilt deserves, and instead restores the harmony and beauty of the creature by the utterly undeserved gift of sanctifying grace. The gift requires forbearance. God holds in check his right to punish the outrages we have committed against him, and instead treats us with patience and mercy.[24]

Marshall explores this aspect of grace under Aquinas’ rubric of “covering.” Its application is limited to the “stain” of specific acts of sin, not the sin disorder itself which causes the acts. As he further notes, the historical occurrence of such acts can no more be changed or erased than history itself can be altered or undone. It is important to note, in light of Marshall’s insight, that if the divine act of justifying regards a permutation, this act cannot be applied to facts about what happened in the past. However, the deliberate forbearance of God is related to this permutation in Aquinas as cause to effect.

Inasmuch as by the divine act whereby the guilty sinner is healed of her mortal sin wound and given the greatest good, Marshall argues that by this act God is effectively treating the unworthy sinner “as though [past acts of sin] had not been done.”[25] The divine covering as presented by Marshall is certainly the closest Aquinas’ theology of grace ever comes to affirming anything comparable to the Reformation views of justification. Marshall even argues that Aquinas’ view of grace in the divine covering approximates the view of Martin Luther because Aquinas views God as treating what is the case, as though it were not the case, but Marshall’s reason for the comparison may be misleading.[26] Technically this would be true only if we exclude the divine mercy from God’s ordering of providence, for the act of healing the cause of sinful acts presupposes them as a reason for the act: God is treating the acts of sin as though their cause needed to be expunged. Whether God punishes acts of sin in the executing of divine justice or heals their cause in the ordering of his mercy: in either case, God is not ignoring sinful acts committed as though they had never happened. Rather, God is treating them under different aspects of the divine providence. Although history cannot be changed, the divine act of justification changes what can, and at least part of the reason for the divine act lays in the very acts of sin committed. The divine act of justification stands in relation to what can be changed as the mover to the moved. This same act relates to what cannot be changed (the acts of sin committed) as a reason of movement.[27]

Thus even when we scrutinize Aquinas’ notion of covering and come to the brink of our quest to find a purely forensic notion comparable to strictly forensic Reformation renderings of sola fide, counterfactual interpretations are, in the end, only illusory. The anthropological language of God hiding his face, forgetting our sins, or covering them, all refer anthropologically to God’s will to order the acts of sin under one aspect of providence rather than another.[28] And what is more: the language of covering is wholly absent from Aquinas’ doctrine of justification proper in the Summa. It is neither one of the required elements nor a side discussion, as it belongs more properly to his doctrine of providence wherein he explores the eternal and unchanging divine wisdom in the mind of God. As I have already shown, grace is the effect of divine charity in time for Aquinas.[29] Justification therefore cannot be located in the divine providence, but only in the execution of divine providence, which Aquinas calls the divine government.

Two things pertain to providence—namely, the reason of order, which is called providence and disposition; and the execution of order, which is termed government. Of these, the first is eternal, and the second is temporal.[30]

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Every aspect of history fits under God’s order of providence by which he directs all things to an end.[31] Now predestination regards the ordering of some free agents to a particular end—namely, that of eternal life. Whereas humans are said to destine something by firmly planning it in the mind, so predestination “by reason of the antecedent nature it implies, can be attributed to a thing which does not actually exist” yet, and so has not only a future orientation but is firmly in the mind of God prior to the existence of anything outside of God.[32] This is why justification places something in the justified, but predestination does not place anything in the predestined, as infusion belongs rather to the execution of divine providence ex tempore [in time], whereas the predestination of such infusion is in the mind of God ab aeterno [before time].[33]

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[1] McGrath rightly points out that a forensic interpretation of justification in Aquinas is “a serious misunderstanding.” McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, 3rd Edition (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 64. On the influence of Aristotelian physics within the Dominican school of theological speculation inherited by Aquinas in his doctrine of justification, see Ibid., 63-64. On this and other misguided reasons for taking Aquinas as a “proto-Protestant” see Francis Beckwith, “Doting Thomists: Evangelicals, Thomas Aquinas, and Justification,” Evangelical Quarterly 85 no. 3 (2013): 211-227.

[2] For an informed summary of the medieval theological context, see McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 55-207. It might be added, given McGrath’ summary, that if Aquinas held a forensic doctrine, so did most Medieval theologians, as Aquinas’ understanding of justification in terms of the remission of sins was apparently ubiquitous. Aquinas cannot be singled out in this regard as unique.

[3] Bruce Marshall, “Beatus Vir: Aquinas, Romans 4, and the Role of ‘Reckoning’ in Justification” in Reading Romans With St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Mathew Levering and Michael Dauphinais (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 219-231. As Marshall points out, language that has come to be seen by post-Reformation eyes as forensic Thomas (and others) had never understood as purely forensic, but actually interpreted these notions in transformational terms. For example, “for God to forgive our sins or not to impute them is for him to keep the damage they have caused from standing,” which damage is repaired by the infusion of grace. This way of reading biblical forensic language was well established by the medieval period. Ibid., 227.

[4] We will consider later whether a purely forensic element can be found in Aquinas’s thought, however peripheral it is to his choice articles on justification in the Summa.

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[5] For terminological clarity, see Marshall, “Beatus vir,” Reading Romans, 219 ff. I will be borrowing here from Marshall’s apt language which is the only source I know that captures Aquinas’ forgiveness and imputation language within a careful taxonomy of a nexus of kindred concepts such as guilt (culpa), stain (macula), sin (peccatum), evil (malum), reckoning (imputare or repatare), penalty (poena), etc. Marshall discusses, for example, how the kindred concepts such as “sin” and “guilt” by virtue of their interchangeability are practically equated in Aquinas, even though elsewhere he clarifies that each term covers a different aspect of a singular reality. He also shows how terms like “forgiveness” and “non-imputation” amount virtually to the infusion of grace as the repair of sin’s internal damage. My argument here is based on similar reasoning.

[6] ST I-II.113.2.ad.2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the Summa are taken from the English translation, Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981). To be as specific as possible, I have distinguished between Aquinas’s “On the Contrary” (the sed contra, herein abbreviated as sed.), his “I answer that” (the respondeo, herein abbreviated as resp.), and his answers to objections (the adversus, herein abbreviated as ad).

[7] ST I-II.113.2. resp.

[8] On Augustine’s doctrine of culpability, see Gerald Heistand, “Augustine and the Justification Debates: Appropriating Augustine’s Doctrine of Culpability,” Trinity Journal 28 no. 1 (2007): 115-139. In Aquinas, see for example how guilt is said to be capable of being “brought back to justice,” by which he means interior justice. ST III 86.4.resp. If by “guilt” he intended a record of sins and by justice he intended to refer to an exterior forensic justice, he would be arguing here that sin’s record can be converted to a just record, which would be intelligible. How a record of sin becomes a proper constitution of the soul, however, is so difficult to see that it demonstrates the absurdity that ensues when confusing Aquinas’ language of sin, guilt, and forgiveness as forensically oriented.

[9] ST III 86.4.resp.

[10] ST III.86.4.ad.1. Italics added.

[11] ST III.86.5.resp. Italics added; Italicized “fomes” original. Here we can also see that justification does not take away all sin so as to perfect the justified, but only takes away sin’s dominance over the will, or what Aquinas calls “mortal sin.” The justice in justification therefore is pivotal but not comprehensive.

[12] ST III.86.1.resp.

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[13] ST III.86.2.resp. Italics added.

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[14] ST III.86.3.resp.

[15] ST III.86.3.resp.

[16] In light of Aquinas’ interpretation of forensic language, although one might still say forensic elements exists in Aquinas’ soteriology in one sense, because they are interpreted ontologically as shown one could equally say forensic elements do not exist in the same. The sinner has a debt of punishment with respect to his future prior to justification, which Aquinas allows to be removed by justification. However, even in this case the debt of punishment is still interpreted ontologically and not legally, as Aquinas locates the debt in the ontological sin of the soul rather than on a legal record, so that when the ontological sin is removed no legal debt can possibly remain.

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[17] Aquinas inextricably attributes forgiveness of sins to the virtues of faith, penance, and charity. E.g. ST III.86.6.ad.1-3.

[18] “Two things pertain to providence—namely, the reason of order, which is called providence and disposition; and the execution of order, which is termed government. Of these, the first is eternal, and the second is temporal.” ST I.22.1.ad.2.

[19] He quotes the authority of Gregory of Nyssa on Christ’s pardon of the adulterous woman to justify his position: “He drew inwardly by grace, i.e. by penance, her whom He received outwardly by His mercy.” ST III.86.2.resp.

[20] My point here goes beyond McGrath’s point that elsewhere Aquinas defines justification in non-forensic terms. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 64-65. My argument is that the forensic concept of remissio peccatorum in Aquinas is ultimately interpreted primarily in non-forensic terms in such a way that both definitions refer to the same substantive act.

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[21] McGrath’s labeling of this movement as a “dual motion” is not incorrect, as “motion” here is singular. However, referring to the motion as a singular motion with a dual relation better captures the type of duality involved. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 65.

[22] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 64.

[23] Perhaps this point might be better appreciated by Protestants through pointing out that likewise, inasmuch as being declared righteous per se could be on the basis of infused or forensic righteousness, if a declaration were considered the terminus apart from its logical relationship to something else (such as the reasons for the declaration), this too would be inadequate as a sufficient summary of the forensic doctrines of justification in Protestant theologies.

[24] Marshall, “Beatus vir,” 228-229.

[25] Aquinas, Lectures on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Fabian Larcher, ed. Jeremy Holmes (unpublished), §338. Quoted from In ad Rom by Marshall, “Beatus vir,” 232.

[26] Marshal, “Beatus vir,” 232. Footnote 40.

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[27] “… the type of things ordered towards an end is, properly speaking, providence. For it is the chief part of prudence, to which two other parts are directed—namely, remembrance of the past, and understanding of the present; inasmuch as from the remembrance of what is past and the understanding of what is present, we gather how to provide for the future.” ST I.22.1.resp. Providence is eternal

[28] Aquinas’ reply to the objector in adverses 4 of Tertia Pars’ 88th article, quoted by Marshall, is a shorthand reply restating what Aquinas has already argued in the main article: When an act of mortal sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment for one who previously enjoyed the benefits of grace, this does not mean former acts of sin and the debt incurred by them have simply “returned.” The newly committed sins and the corresponding debt they incur and distinct from the specific acts of sin and their corresponding debt previously committed, for the latter were already “overlooked” (i.e. ordered to the divine mercy) in the first showing of grace. This first showing of grace is a temporal and therefore historical effect of God’s eternal love in time and therefore cannot be undone anymore than history can be undone: “what grace has once done, endures for ever.” ST III.88.1.ad.4. Quoted by Marshall, “Beatus Vir,” 236. Now in this context what is “covering” the stain of past sins if not the past forbearance shown by God in the first showing of grace? The function of covering here reaffirms the main logic in Aquinas’ respondeo and closely resembles the function of pardon and forgiveness in every showing of grace that removes mortal sin.

[29] The effect of eternal divine charity in time is nothing less than the effect of God’s essence on created objects, for “eternity is nothing less than God himself.” ST I.10.2.ad.3.

[30] ST I.22.1.ad.2.

[31] “The providence of God is nothing less than the type of the order of things towards an end.” ST I.22.2.resp.

[32] ST I.23.2.ad.2.

[33] Harm Goris, “Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination, and Human Freedom,” in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, eds. Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 101. Goris notes that while Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm denied foreknowledge and foresight in God on the basis that God is timeless, Aquinas did not believe God’s timelessness excluded the use of such language by temporally situated creatures from whom there is a past, present, and future. Ibid., 103.

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das Gefühl ad nauseam: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Paradigm for Christian Theology

Although the name Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is notoriously hard to spell, his name appears in every serious treatment of contemporary theology precisely because his theology is just as notoriously hard to expel from the influence of Christian thought. He is not called the “Father of Liberalism” without good reason. His “children” still carry out his basic paradigm in contemporary theological development. If we can speak of the history of Western Philosophy in terms of Pre- and Post-Kantian, then perhaps we could almost just as easily speak of Christian theology as Pre- or Post-Schleiermachian. His influence is not easily exaggerated. How did Christianity go from a reliance on biblical revelation, belief in the supernatural, reliance on a personal creator God, and defining its core in terms of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, to a reliance on philosophy, an allergic reaction to the supernatural, reliance on personal subjective consciousness, and defining its core in terms of grand feeling (das Gefühl) of dependence on the greater whole of existence? Although it may seem quite a leap for Schleiermacher to go from a conservative Pietist upbringing to a completely new paradigm for Christian theology, to be sure, his thought did not develop in a vacuum. By paying close attention to the effect of Enlightenment ideas on his generation, it becomes easier to see how Schleiermacher’s views, though a great leap from historical Christianity, was more like a baby step from the sentimental philosophical paradigm which was gaining popularity in his day.
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Romanticism’s Apparent Influence on Schleiermacher
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The latter period of the Enlightenment (in which Schleiermacher was born) began to see reactions against reason’s claim to supremacy and sufficiency for all knowledge. Many began to look at a reduction of reality to neat scientific and rational formulations as a gross misrepresentation of the complexity of reality. As a result of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism, mystery and imagination fought for the honored seat at the round table of legitimate expressions of that transcendant reality. The Romantics, as they were called, did not believe that ultimate reality could be known to finite human minds. Science and formal reason, they argued, are only one kind of “logic” by which humans make decisions of value and truth—and not even the most important kind either. After all, people do not tend to make decisions about love and friendships based on a certain scientific data or after a long and hard-fought deductive method of reasoning. Intuition, inspiration, imagination, and intense emotions that energize the human will, in the view of a Romantic, comprise the real “stuff” of life and ultimate reality. In Schleiermacher’s day, there was a new emphasis on the epistemological implications of such realities. Rationality began to be seen as cold and restrictive, much like the Enlightenment thinkers thought of the religious authoritarianism they hoped to overcome.
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In comes Schleiermacher. While Schleiermacher followed Kant in seeing the need for placing theological discussion on a locus other than pure reason (see above essay on Kant), neither did he wish to consider Christianity as a form of knowledge or a system of morality, as Kant implied. Rather, Schleiermacher saw religion as grounded in das Gefühl—an awareness of one’s own existence on the one hand (consciousness) with one’s dependency on God on the other (God consciousness). For him, then, the role of theology was to explore and explain the implications of that feeling of dependence.
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An Extra-Textual Approach to Defining Traditional Christian Terms
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Of course, if one has come this far down the road over discussions on proposing an alternative to basic trust in the Bible (see previous essay on the Enlightenment), the Bible’s teachings about the foundations of knowledge are already considered passé. Thus, for those who were “enlightened” with a new approach to knowledge, if the Bible is to be understood as having any relevance to real knowledge, it must be re-interpreted in light of enlightenment presuppositions. This was an extra-textual approach to theology: starting from a certain adherence to a philosophy derived from outside the Bible, by which one then proceeds to interpret the Bible according to its standards—rejecting or reinterpreting wherever discrepancies exist. Based on this combination of Romanticism and Kantian epistemology, Schleiermacher built an extra-textual approach to Scripture, and built his theology on the foundation of das Gefühl. Anything that could be shown not to have any correspondence to this Gefühl was thereby deemed by Schleiermacher as irrelevant for theology. Thus, while the doctrine of creation was seen as constructive toward cultivating this sense of dependence, the mode of creation had no such convenience to theological development. The Genesis account of creation may or may not be historically accurate—as Schleiermacher himself did not believe it was—but this is not what is important. Even if it were historically accurate, however, it would not necessarily inform our feeling of dependency, and therefore, should never be made into an article of faith which defines the nature of Christianity. Such doctrines are not rejected because they are necessarily incompatible with science, but because they do not bear direct relation to the human experience of Gefühl. Furthermore, doctrinal formulation as such is of secondary importance, since its purpose is to explain and cultivate the all important experience of Gefühl.
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The primary religious truth of Christianity is redemption, which is an experience, not a doctrine. This experience, following the Germen pietistic notions in which Schleiermacher was raised, is the essence of Christian piety—the fundamental basis for theology. For Christianity, however, this is not merely a subjective piety but a corporate one. Christianity, according to Schleiermacher, affords a superior level of God-consciousness than what one might come to on her own or through some other religion. The origins of this heightened piety must be traced back to a sufficient cause: Jesus. Heresy is redefined as doctrine which fails to give an adequate explanation for this sufficient cause. Since Christ’s activity has such great effects on producing such widespread and intense God-consciousness, we must give adequate attention to his person to account for this. What kind of person could be such a catalyst for such higher-order piety? A superior to be sure, in two ways: his own level of God-consciousness and his ability to impart this feeling to others. Inadequate attempts to give a sufficient cause, therefore, of Christian origins, play out in either failing to account for his work of imparting this Gefühl to others (the redemptive work of Christ) or in failing to account for what kind of person could be capable of not only having, but powerfully imparting such higher experiences of Gefühl to others (the person of Christ). That is, heresy is the result of failing to ascribe to Christ’s person what his activity demands, thus failing to have an acceptable form of Christian faith.
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Schleiermacher’s Children: The Birth Of Classical Liberal Theology
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Schleiermacher did not, however, see Christianity as the only source of meaningful theology. The feeling of dependence is universal, and therefore it is inevitable that all religious language would find some way to divulge it. Religious tradition passed on from generation to generation helps people to experience and better understand das Gefühl. In this sort of framework, non-Christian religions, although inferior to Christianity, are not so much “wrong” as they are different and second-rate ways of affirming the one common human experience of das Gefühl.
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Such a paradigm for theology redefined Christianity. This way of doing Christian theology, using the traditional language of Christ, redemption, doctrine, heresy, etc., yet infusing meanings in them foreign to the traditional confessional statements of Christianity (and foreign to Jesus’ own first century Jewish framework to be sure) inevitably created great confusion in the church over the real meaning of Christianity. Who is God the Father? The whole of reality. Who is Jesus? The perfect ideal of God-consciousness. Who is the Spirit? An ability to interpret this feeling of dependance in a common way. What is Sin? Lack of God-consciousness. What is the Genesis account of the Fall? A symbol of the lack of God-consciousness. Why should we preach the word? To evoke this God-consciousness to new levels. What is salvation? Connecting with our God-consciousness.
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In this project, Schleiermacher literally carved out a whole new path for being Christian and doing Christian theology. His ideas were not just a new development of traditional Christian thought. They assumed a posture of casual dismissal of such thought and an attempt to subvert the historic Christian faith with something more “relevant” to a Post-Enlightenment world. It would be a careless understatement to say that Schleiermacher’s new paradigm was picked up by later theologians. His theology was not just picked up by some. In many cases, it virtually replaced Christianity. His influence was deep and wide. The tradition is known as Classical Liberal Theology. After Schleiermacher’s bold move, Christianity was never the same.
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Although those who came after him varied in their own take of the essence of Christianity, all sought to redefine it with extra-textual philosophical frameworks. Several common themes run throughout this classic period of Liberal Theology which might be considered to have followed (in some way) or further developed Schleiermacher’s theology: 1) allowing for a disconnect between science, history, and reason on the one hand, and religion on the other, 2) taking for granted that the referents for religious language are sufficiently explained outside of a transcendent reference point (i.e. reducing theology to anthropology), 3) attempting to boil all religions down to some commonality in human experience (i.e. pluralism), 4) attempting to find the value in Scripture by going beyond the original intent of the authors, adapting such texts to current modes of thinking (i.e. extra-textual hermeneutics), 5) accepting Kantian starting points (i.e. anti-supernaturalism, noumena vs. phenomena), 6) downplaying the importance of church dogma (i.e. anti-confessionalism), 7) forfeiting any real hope to establish the uniqueness of Christ (i.e. Christianity as superior in degree rather than superior in kind), 8) holding a naïve optimism with respect to human nature, 9) attempting to get beyond the biblical texts about Jesus to discover the Jesus of history (i.e. the quest for the historical Jesus), 10) reducing world religions down to the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, 11) reducing Christianity to ethical and social concerns (e.g. the social gospel).
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Although Classical Liberal Theology would eventually be challenged, even Karl Barth, arguably one of Classical Liberal Theology’s most vocal critics, when asked by Carl Henry whether or not the resurrection was historical, refused to answer the question and downplayed the importance of such questions. This approach to theology of which Schleiermacher is considered the “father,” eventually took over much of mainline Protestantism in what is known now as the modernist controversy. The theology of Vatican II in many respects gave way to the spirit of the modernist age, leaving a permanent impact on confessional Roman Catholicism as well as protestantism. In short, Schleiermacher’s approach to Christianity spawned a new epoch.

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:
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Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990, second edition (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005).
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Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishers, 2007).
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After the Darkness, There Were Competing Lights
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“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.
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Alternatives to a Revelation-Dependant Epistemology Proposed
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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.
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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.
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If Reason Can’t Demonstrate it, It Aint So

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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.
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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.

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Taking the Rejection of Revelation to it’s Logical End
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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.
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Revelation, Reason, Science, and a Change in Light Posture

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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.

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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
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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.
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Did Kant Leave Us With With a Hole in the Epistemicological Boat?

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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).
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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.
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The Enlightenment as the Leavening Effect of the Renaissance Era
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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.
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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.

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