Check out the new Convergence Church Network! 

Visit and join the mailing list.

All Articles

Its Impact on Christianity


The Enlightenment was not a movement per se, but a cluster of ideas, conceptions and attitudes that were most dominant in Europe in the 18th century, primarily 1720-80. Some insist it began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and ended with the Thirty Years’ War and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 (others would more broadly date the Enlightenment 1650-1800).


The term enlightenment comes from the German Aufklarung (the French l’illumination) and refers to that period when the educated or intelligentsia “turned their backs on the authority of antiquity and turned to trust their own powers. It repudiated the authority of the past or of tradition and affirmed modern man’s power to find the truth for himself” (Ramm, The Evangelical Heritage, 64). In other words, there was among Enlightenment thinkers “a continuity of common commitment to the belief that reason and criticism were a more valid means of knowing the truth, a more likely route to human betterment and lasting dignity, than the prescriptions that had been passed down in tradition from the past” (Neil MacDonald, “Enlightenment,” The Dictionary of Historical Theology [Eerdmans, 2000], 175).


Some have called the Enlightenment “the Age of Reason”, but such implies that reason was ignored or unimportant before or after. Rather it was the heightened focus on reason that characterized the Enlightenment. According to McGrath, “an emphasis upon the ability of human reason to penetrate the mysteries of the world is rightly regarded as a [if not, “the”] defining characteristic of the Enlightenment” (Historical Theology, 220).


At its heart, the Enlightenment entailed a rejection of external authority and tradition. All was suspect except one’s own reasoning capacity. Reason thus became the guardian of the individual against prejudice and fanaticism that blindly appealed to ancient tradition. Revelation is, in effect, dethroned. No external revelatory authority is valid except that which has passed muster at the bar of reason. Only reasonable revelations can be accepted. A statement or assertion would now be accepted as true “only if its proofs were universally or publicly grounded” (Welcome to the Family, 228). Grenz explains:


“The Enlightenment principle of reason, therefore, presumed a human ability to gain cognition of the foundational order of the whole universe. It was their belief in the objective rationality of the universe that gave the intellectuals of the Age of Reason confidence that the laws of nature are intelligible and that the world is capable of being transformed and subdued by human activity” (Grenz, 68).


The Enlightenment criticism of traditional Christianity was grounded upon the principle of “the omnicompetence of human reason” (McGrath, 221). The status and capabilities of man were elevated, placing him, rather than God, center stage. Replacing the former “I believe in order that I may understand” was “I believe only what I can understand.” Or again, the paradigm for Christian theology was no longer “faith seeking understanding” but rather “faith requiring justification.” The arbiter of truth is no longer an external religious authority, whether Scripture or the church, but human reason. “No longer were thinkers willing to accept the old dogmas merely on the basis that they belonged to the received system of church doctrine. The light of reason possessed by each individual dethroned the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the foundation of authority” (Grenz/Olson, 15).


Thus all true religious propositions were assumed to be accessible to the mind (a denial of mystery in religion), free of internal contradictions and compatible with the moral sensibilities of the typically educated individual.


During the Enlightenment, “the supreme intellectual vice was dogmatism and the supreme intellectual virtue was tolerance” (Ramm, 64-5).


It was argued that Christianity, stripped of its supernatural baggage, is fundamentally rational and thus can stand up to logical scrutiny and critical examination.


If the fundamental concepts of Christianity are rational, there would appear to be no need for divine revelation. All we need to know could be derived from reason alone. Rational reflection on nature and humanity could bring us all the truth we need.


Reason was thus elevated as the arbiter of all truth. Whatever one might claim by virtue of revelation must be brought to the bar of reason and judged as rational or irrational. In this way any superstitious elements could be eliminated.


There was a high price to pay for elevating humanity to such a lofty place of importance. The world was no longer a place where humans occupy a special status as God’s creative pinnacle. The new science of the Enlightenment envisioned the natural order as a machine and humans as but a small cog in the wheel of universal reality. “Dethroned from their lofty position at the center of creation, they likewise lost their status as a special creation of God standing above the rest of the created order” (Grenz/Olson, 18).


The emerging role of science cannot be underestimated. Nature was an externally and objectively accessible phenomenon whose examination could yield quantifiable results. The Enlightenment mind treated as real only that which it could empirically measure. Newtonian science replaced the mysterious acts of God with orderly and lawful discovery:


“truth in the natural world could only be discerned through the scientific method, and must conform to general laws provable in theory to any rational person. As a result, biblical statements could no longer be automatically accorded the status of scientific or historical truth. The Enlightenment insisted that revelation must resign its claims on scientific and historical matters, unless established through their respective scientific methods” (WTF, 229).


Ernst Cassirer summarizes well by explaining how the intellectual center of gravity shifted its position:


“The various fields of knowledge – natural science, history, law, politics, art – gradually withdraw from the domination and tutelage of traditional metaphysics and theology. They no longer look to the concept of God for their justification and legitimation; the various sciences themselves now determine that concept on the basis of their specific form. The relations between the concept of God and the concepts of truth, morality, law are by no means abandoned, but their direction changes. An exchange of index symbols takes place, as it were. That which formerly had established other concepts, now moves into the position of that which is to be established, and that which hitherto had justified other concepts, now finds itself in the position of a concept which requires justification. Finally, even the theology of the eighteenth century is affected by this great trend. It gives up the absolute primacy it had previously enjoyed; it no longer sets the standard but submits to certain basic norms derived from another source which are furnished it by reason as the epitome of independent intellectual forces” (Philosophy of the Enlightenment, 159).


Impact on three specific Christian doctrines:


·It would be a mistake to think that the Enlightenment entailed a complete repudiation of divine revelation or biblical authority. The latter was still affirmed, but on the basis of its adjudication at the bar of reason. We can rely on divinely revealed truth only if we have been persuaded on other grounds that it has, in fact, been revealed. It is reason’s task to provide us with this assurance or, conversely, to destroy it. All claims to revelatory truth had to pass muster with reason. If a purported “revelatory truth” did not appear reasonable or rational or correspond with common sense, it was rejected. Thus reason ultimately set the parameters within which God was permitted to speak and act.


·Miracles were now in doubt. Normal human experience need not appeal to supernatural intervention or miraculous power to explain life or establish a cause for an effect. Thus science viewed miracles first as unnecessary and eventually as impossible. “The universe was governed by immanent laws which were never interrupted or suspended or contradicted by the supernatural or miraculous. Whatever version of Christianity was to survive the Enlightenment, it would have to be a Christianity denuded of the supernatural” (Ramm, 68). It became the prerogative of the scientist, not the theologian, to inform mankind of the origin of the universe and how it functions. The natural realm was viewed as mechanical, orderly, regular, not subject to alleged divine intrusions or disruptions. The natural realm is objectively accessible. We can study it, analyze it, understand it without need for transcendent information or illumination.


·According to Paul Tillich, “the most passionate point of attack of the Enlightenment against Christianity dealt with the doctrine of original sin” (A History of Christian Thought, 363). The Enlightenment rejected the notion of a fallen, corrupt human nature. It was too pessimistic and inconsistent with human accomplishment and initiative. Of course, if there is no original sin, if humanity is not fallen, what becomes of the need for redemption? And if there is no need of redemption, what need of a divine redeemer?