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Church History - The Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and Theological Liberalism Print E-mail
Church History

I.  Introduction:

 As we have seen over the past two weeks, the Protestant Reformation was a large and lengthy movement in the history of the Church.  Yet, we need to note that the Reformation not only changed the Church, it changed all of history.  In one sense we would see this as a very good thing, namely the recovery of justification by faith and the authority of Scripture.  Yet, this questioning and challenging of the authority of the Catholic Church would find its way into other spheres of life (including science, philosophy, government, interpretive methods, etc.).  What had been taken for granted in the past (for example the sun revolving around the earth) was now open for discussion and challenge.  Again, in some ways this would be good, leading to truth, while in other ways it would lead away from truth.  Tonight, I want us to consider some of these movements under three major headings: the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and Theological Liberalism.  Let’s begin with a word about the Scientific Revolution.

II. The Scientific Revolution

 Throughout the Middle Ages, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model, which placed the earth at the center of the universe, dominated. It was not seriously challenged during that period because the Catholic church held ultimate authority, and the Catholic church declared it to be right. However, when the Reformation challenged the ultimate authority of the church, this view of the universe came under intense scrutiny as well. Copernicus (1473-1543) postulated that it was the earth that revolved around the sun, rather than vice-versa. Kepler (1571-1630) proved this theory mathematically. Galileo (1564-1642) – using the newly invented telescope – also made many startling discoveries such as finding mountains on the moon and observing sunspots.

 The work of these three – along with others such as Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who devised the scientific method – revolutionized the way people viewed the world in which they lived. Rather than having truth dictated to them, the people began to study things for themselves and hypothesize about the unknown aspects of the world. In its beginnings, this new movement proved very beneficial to the Church, because these many discoveries – while startling – still occurred within the confines of a thoroughly Christian worldview. Even the main figure of this Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), declared himself to be a Christian. In the minds of these men, their scientific studies and discoveries did not weaken their belief in God, but rather, it strengthened that view because they could now see clearly that there was an intelligent design to the universe and that it had indeed been pieced together by a reasonable, orderly, all-powerful God.

 There were others, however, who – in challenging the authority of the church – went even further in their thinking, and this is where the church began to have numerous problems. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was the first champion of rationalism – the exalted use of human reason. Descartes still professed to be a Christian, but he was one of the first philosophers of this era to make extensive use of the power of reason to speculate about universal truths. He used rational arguments to prove both his own existence and the existence of God. While many of Descartes’ ideas were very strong, he signals the beginning of a trend that, over the next century, would repeatedly exalt the importance of reason in the arena of authority.

 This trend was furthered by John Locke (1632-1704) who claimed that all knowledge is gained through experience – nothing is inherently known. Locke declared that Christianity was the most reasonable of all religions, but he also declared that matters of faith can never be known with certainty. Matters of faith are at best speculation and therefore they should not be held as dogmatically as fully-proven scientific truths are to be held. The dangers of this line of thought for the church are obvious. If nothing regarding faith can be truly known, then where do we place our faith? Locke claimed that true religion should be focused on right conduct and toleration of other beliefs. So here we see the seeds of universalism as well as a distaste for doctrine which we have seen from other periods of church history to be a precursor of serious trouble. These are the seeds that would blossom into the open rejection of Christianity in the Enlightenment. These men, along with their successors, led the way in exalting the power of reason to such an extent that Scripture and faith were seen by many as unnecessary and inferior.

 The combination of this stark scientific realism with the cold spiritual state of many of the churches during the early 1600’s resulted in the beginning of a number of reactionary spiritual movements. One of these was Quakerism, founded by George Fox (1624-1691). The Quakers held that anything that resembled structured worship should be removed from the church – including hymns, sermons, sacraments and creeds. Instead, the service should take place in silence until the Holy Spirit moves upon someone’s heart and encourages them to speak. A second of these movements was German Pietism, which was led by Philipp Spener (1635-1705) and August Francke (1663-1727). German Pietism did not react as harshly as Quakerism; it still held that the mind was somewhat important. However, the main emphasis of the movement was on personal holiness and the practical aspects of Christianity.

One other movement that arose in this period was Methodism, founded by John Wesley (1703-1791). Methodism was the most popular and lasting of the three movements. It took Europe by storm and eventually crossed the Atlantic and did the same thing in America. Wesley was a member of the Church of England who was very disillusioned with the state of the church, so he sought to reform it. Methodism emphasized vital, living Christianity, and the ultimate task of their movement was the salvation of souls. The common thread between all three of these movements is an exalted emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit and an emphasis on the experiential side of Christianity instead of more rationalistic issues, such as doctrine, that focused more on the mind.

III.  The Enlightenment

   Building upon some of the central ideas in the Scientific Revolution, the main characteristic of the Enlightenment was rampant skepticism. Everything was examined scientifically and rationally, and if it did not appear to stand up to intense rational scrutiny, it was discarded. David Hume (1711-1776), following the skepticism of men like John Locke, declared that nothing could be known for sure. In holding with these ideas, Hume blistered Christianity and vehemently attacked traditional arguments for the existence of God. These men, along with others such as Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), greatly ridiculed Christians who declared that their doctrines were absolutely true.

 The intellectual champion of the Enlightenment was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who, like Locke, divided the world into things that we can definitely know and things that we cannot know at all. All aspects of religion fell into the second category. In a sense, Kant was the apex of the work of these thinkers, and therefore, his work greatly affected the thoughts of many of the leaders who would come after him. These men still held that God existed and many of them fell back on deism, which teaches that God is the perfect watchmaker who created the universe to follow certain laws and then left it to exist on its own. This allows for men to still ‘believe’ in God, while denying any supernatural activity. It denied many of the foundational truths of Christianity (Incarnation, Resurrection, etc.). 

 In order to fully understand the Enlightenment and its detrimental impact on the Church, we must examine the ideas which drove the movement. The first of these ideas was a belief in the inherent goodness of man. Man was not inherently evil, but rather – as Locke stated – he was born morally neutral. This leads us to the second main idea which is that education is the main key to progress. Because they believed that man was inherently good, it was easy for them to believe that if man could just gain enough knowledge, he would eventually be able to solve all the problems of humanity – physical, psychological, and moral. The combination of these two ideas leads us to the crowning idea of the Enlightenment that man is the center and apex of all creation. This was a thoroughly man-centered movement. Mankind had already proven their greatness by discovering the structure of the universe, and the limits to the greatness that they could attain were completely obliterated in their mind. If skepticism was the driving philosophy behind the Enlightenment, then progress was its watchword, because progress was inevitable and perfection was attainable.

 It is easy to see why this movement was so detrimental to the Church because all three of these ideas run directly contrary to truths expressed in God’s word. Man is not inherently good but thoroughly and entirely wicked, and therefore he does not merely need to be educated on how to live – he needs a change of heart brought about through the working of God to cause him to place his faith in Christ that he might become a new creation. Further, this all happens to the ultimate glory of God and not merely for the good of man. Sadly, however, many in the Church did not engage the movement on such terms. Instead, many in the Church simply handed science and philosophy over to the secular world and retreated into themselves and their community rather than engaging the culture.

IV. Theological Liberalism

 Because of the lack of critical engagement by many in the Church, the core ideas of the Enlightenment began to infiltrate the Church itself during the nineteenth century. Many began to take the skeptical approach of the Enlightenment toward faith and the Scriptures. As we mentioned earlier, such a dramatically rational view of the world eliminated any possibility of the existence of miracles. Therefore, many Christians began to question the person of Jesus Christ. Was He really the second person of the Trinity? Many concluded that he could not have been and that the Incarnation was rationally unacceptable and therefore had to be discarded. In its place, they exalted Christ as the perfect man. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) regarded Jesus as “a man who exhibited…God-conscious dependence. Christ’s work on the cross served as a model of self-denying love for us to emulate in all ways.” Christ was no longer the Son of God who took on flesh and lived a perfect life, died on the cross, was buried and raised on the third day in order to take the wrath of God for the sin of all those who would believe. He was a man just like us, and no more.

 Tragically, it did not stop there, but such a move opened the door to what Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) would later call the “demythologizing” of Scripture. In essence, this meant the discarding of anything miraculous and anything that did not have to do with conduct in this life. Any discussion of the need for atonement or redemption or sanctification was thrown out, and a fully “practical” religion was raised up in its place – one without doctrine or dogmatic truths or creeds or any such thing. This theological liberalism, which reached its peak in the middle and last half of the 1800’s was the apex of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It was those ideas carried to their logical conclusions, and the result for the Church was disastrous. Obviously, the Lord in his grace sustained a faithful remnant who did not succumb to these ideas – and that is much of what we will discuss in the next weeks – but the ramifications of this were so far-reaching that we are still battling the remnants of it today.

V. What can we learn from this period?

 The first thing I think we can learn from this period is that the creation around us is meant to turn our attention toward God. Look at Romans 1:19-20. Look also at Romans 10:18. This is a quote from Psalm 19 – a Psalm which is talking about nature and how it speaks of God. This may seem elementary and unimportant, but it is extremely important as it relates to science. The study of nature and creation must never become an end in itself; it must always be done in submission to the One who created it. The world – just like man – was not created without a purpose. It has an end, and therefore, science has an end – to glorify God through the study of what He has created. It was made to point us to Him, and that must not be forgotten.

 The second thing that we can learn from this period is that reason alone cannot be our guide. Why is it that reason alone cannot be our guide? Look at 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 with me. Here we see a clear declaration that God’s wisdom is meant to thwart the wisdom of the wise. It is meant to move them away from their understanding so that they might be humbled and recognize their utter sinfulness and place their faith – and not just their reason – in Christ by the power of the Spirit. This brings us to the ultimate problem with relying solely on our reason, namely our falleness. As we saw, this is a reality that many in the Enlightenment, even within the Church, denied. And if man is not fallen, it is very easy to declare that simply educating that person on what is right and what is wrong will enable him to do that which is right. However, because of Adam’s fall, our heart is completely wicked and our nature is that we are utterly fallen and wretched creatures (Gen 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3). If left to ourselves, we will never choose the virtuous path. Yet, Scripture declares that the intellect is not to be completely abandoned, but it is to be redeemed with the rest of the individual. Look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:6 after declaring that he did not come to them at first with great words of wisdom. Look also at 2:12. So you see that our understanding, our reason, is redeemed just as our hearts and spirits are at salvation so that we can truly once again understand and love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. May God grant us grace to do just that! Amen.

1 This manuscript is a combination of two others prepared by Chad Davis.  For the originals look here.
2 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 74.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 30 August 2007 )

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