The Enlightenment: Did They Also Make Themselves? – what did it mean to Christian thinking

Both liberal and Fundamental theology has its earmarks that can be explored. Obviously there has been disagreement over the details however in the fundamentalist camp there were always certain values like the sovereignty of God, the infallibility of scripture and the immutability of God (Shelley, 2013, p. 420). Though there were different expressions of these truths within fundamentalism, such as Calvinism or Wesley/Armenian interpretations of soteriology, there was a unity on concepts like the transcendent nature of God and the authority of scripture. A great example of this are the Five Solas which were forged in the two centuries before the enlightenment worldview came about. The Five Solas were five statements of faith that almost all Fundamental theologians could agree on. However, as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came rolling in man began to think of himself in the light of modernity and this period “radically departed” from the reformation period that is so iconically summed up in the Five Solas (Grenz, Olson, 1992, p. 16). There were four fundamental characteristics of the Enlightenment as out lined by Grenz and Olson: reason, nature, autonomy and harmony (Grenz, Olson, 1992, pp. 20-22).  These four characteristics of the Enlightenment became the four solas of the new liberal theological orthodoxy. Two very distinct ways of thinking started to emerge that can be specifically seen in how each camp treated scripture itself, the Fundamentalists needed to adapt to changing ways of thinking while remaining faithful to God’s never changing principles as laid out in his Word, and the liberalist wanted to be faithful to the moral of Jesus’ story while embracing the idea of man’s reason, nature, autonomy and the pursuit of harmony; the Fundamentalists and Liberalist had their work cut out for them and both were greatly affected by men like Darwin, Newton, and Derrida.

Exploring how fundamentalism and liberalism treated scripture in the light of the four characteristics of the Enlightenment should make plain just how each side in this theological melting pot thought. Fundamentalism clung to the literal interpretation of scripture. Even when that flew in the face of the Enlightenment mind set of reason. As men thought deeper and deeper about how they might have come into existence, men like Isaac Newton were able to put together a picture of how the universe seems the run as a well tune machine. These seemed to distance God from the creation, making Him not necessary for the day to day existence of the world. However, by its nature Fundamentalism stated that each and every one of the happenings, that the naturalist was reasonably showing to be the work of nature, were in fact a result of the sovereign will of God. There is a scene in the movie Master and Commander were the naturalist and a young man are discussing the nature of animals and the young man asks, did God make them like that? The naturalist quickly replies, of course God made them like that, however the real question is did they also make themselves? This is a picture of how the Enlightenment principles were at work in the minds of people in that time.  Perhaps Jonathan Edwards is a good example of how someone from a fundamental mindset might approach the Enlightenment principles. Through his “natural philosophy, or indeed his theology of nature” Edwards confronted modernism and used it without leaving the fundamental foundation (Zakai, 2002, p. 26).

With the Enlightenment came Deconstructionism. Emanuel Kant is reported as saying that the “print posed a first threat to the process of enlightenment” (Pasanek, Wellmon, 2015, p. 360). What Kant is targeting there is what became known as Deconstructionism. Spolsky sums Deconstructionism up well with this statement “the deconstructionist project has made it impossible to ignore ‘‘how the rhetorical or tropological dimension of  language’’ undermines our confidence in stable, iterable, meaning” (Spolsky, 2002, p. 44). What is seen here is exactly how the liberalist views scripture. With reason and nature as primary sources of information, the last thing the enlightened mind wanted was mysticism or emotion clouding the subject. Instead of taking it at face value the liberal would read the text of scripture and deconstruct it for the meaning that applied to the situation and in so doing would place the text in subordination to the situation. From this mindset the Liberal is left asking what is the moral of the story and that is the dividing line between the Liberal handling of scripture and the fundamental. The new liberal mindset where reason is king did not allow for scripture to be king, and on to this stage walks the well known Charles Darwin. With his work, On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin provided the liberal with the chance to prove the Bible was not to be taken literally. Afterall, if the Species had come about over eons the account in Genesis was obviously metaphorical.

The Enlightenment brought about the age of reason and seen in the microcosm of scripture as an authority it is clear that the Fundamentalist clings to the authority of scripture and its literal meaning while the liberal clings to reason to understand scripture. The Fundamentalist mantra might be something like, even if I cannot explain why scripture is right, it is right. While the Liberalist would cry if I cannot understand it then scripture does not mean it. Of course there are all shades of liberalism and fundamentalism, however, the Fundamental cleans to and defends an orthodoxy that goes back to at least the Reformation while the Liberal must reinvent orthodoxy in order to fit his reason. Only one of these approaches can really weather the storm of serious cross examination. The two very distinct ways of thinking that started to emerge in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds are best defended or lost in scripture itself; as one clings to scripture and responds to men like Darwin, Newton, and Derrida from that rock and foundation and the other used men like Darwin, Newton, and Derrida to reinterpret unchanging truths.

 

References

Grenz, S. J., & Olson, R. E. (1992). 20th-century theology: God and the world in a transitional age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Pasanek, B., & Wellmon, C. (2015). The Enlightenment Index. Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (University Of Pennsylvania Press), 56(3), 359-382.

Shelley, B. (2013). Church history in plain language (4th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Spolsky, E. (2002). Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory as a Species of Post-Structuralism. Poetics Today, 23(1), 43-62.

Zakai, A. (2002). Jonathan Edwards and the Language of Nature: The Re-Enchantment of the World in the Age of Scientific Reasoning. Journal Of Religious History, 26(1), 15.

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