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The eighteenth century was a century of paradox. On the one hand, it was the era of the Enlightenment, with all its philosophical questioning (at best) and skeptical rejection (at worst) of the Christian faith. On the other hand, it was also the era of the Evangelical Revival (as it is known in Britain) or the First Great Awakening (as it is known in America) in which untold myriads were brought out of spiritual darkness into the true light. The paradox is intensified by the way that these two phenomena acted upon and reacted to each other. The greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment, the German “sage of Königsberg” (modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), was clearly influenced by Christianity; the greatest theologian of the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), was clearly influenced by the Enlightenment.

In some ways, the Enlightenment (in German, the Aufklärung) grew out of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The origins of that revolution have been endlessly debated. What we can say, however, is that as modern science developed in the Western world, thinkers were increasingly impressed by its power to understand and manipulate nature through rational investigation. This began to encourage a sense that human reason is sufficient to answer all the meaningful questions of life. Less and less deference was paid to the established views of tradition and authority, which in matters of natural science had all too often proved inadequate and defective. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), who had provided most of the previous two millennia’s science, was weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Two significant examples can be given here. The old geocentric theory of the solar system was supplanted by the new and more effectively explanatory heliocentric theory championed by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) and Italian astronomer Galileo (1564–1642). The new physics, notably although not exclusively its theory of gravity, was championed by the preeminent English scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Rather than looking to the inherited wisdom of the past, therefore, the scientific enterprise taught people to think and to investigate nature for themselves. The expectation was that unceasing progress would be made in an ever more accurate understanding of the universe.

As the eighteenth century got under way, this attitude slid very easily into a much more comprehensive confidence in reason’s ability to map reality in every area of existence, including religion. If rational thinkers no longer gave uncritical deference to the teachings of Aristotle in the sphere of natural science, why should they give uncritical deference to the teachings of ancient religious texts such as the Bible?

Enlightenment and Religion

Enlightenment thinking gave birth to two tendencies in religion. The first is known as deism. This was a variety of theism that built its convictions not on supposed revelations in religious texts but on the power of pure reason. Deists conceived of God as the “Supreme Being” rather than the Trinity of Christian revelation, as a God who was rather like a cosmic scientist, designing and creating the universe to run like clockwork on its own. Having brought this perfect clockwork cosmos into existence, God then had nothing more to do but passively watch it ticking through its preordained motions. Deists, therefore, rejected miracles as needless “interference” in a world that already worked perfectly. As for salvation, all that was necessary was to observe the moral laws known to reason. In the hereafter, God would reward the virtuous and punish the wicked. No Savior was required. In the deist scheme, Jesus was reduced to a mere teacher who reminded people of moral truths that reason could discover by itself.

In the deist scheme, Jesus was reduced to a mere teacher.

Key deist thinkers of the Enlightenment era in Continental Europe were the French-speaking philosophers Voltaire (1694–1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), both of whom were antagonistic to orthodox Christianity. It was in France, indeed, that the Enlightenment achieved its first political triumph in the French Revolution of 1789. The country’s monarchy and aristocracy were destroyed in the name of reason and replaced by a sort of “people’s democracy.” Christianity was also swept away, replaced by the “cult of the Supreme Being.”

In the English-speaking world, the most effective popularizer of anti-Christian deism was the English thinker and propagandist Thomas Paine (1737–1809). His Age of Reason—an apt self-description of the Enlightenment—subjected the Bible to withering criticism as “more like the word of a demon than the Word of God.” Paine also advocated militant and revolutionary democracy in his treatises Common Sense and The Rights of Man. All three treatises had great influence in the American revolution of 1776. Some of the leading figures in America’s independence movement were deists, notably Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Jefferson produced his own edited version of the New Testament (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, known popularly as “the Jefferson Bible”) from which all supernatural elements had been carefully expunged. Another leading American deist was Benjamin Franklin (1706–90). Indeed, had it not been for the widespread spiritual effect of the First Great Awakening, it is conceivable that America’s revolution might have taken as destructively anti-Christian a turn as France’s. Thankfully, however, American deists had to acknowledge the strength and beneficent social value of Christian faith among the people they helped lead to independence.

The other religious tendency in the Enlightenment was pure atheism. This was the minority report—most non-Christian “enlightened” thinkers wanted to retain some minimal respect for religion. However, for the first time in the history of post-Constantine Europe, atheism enjoyed its distinguished philosophical proponents. The most heavyweight were the French thinkers Denis Diderot (1713–84) and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83). Together they edited the hugely influential Encyclopédie, published in multiple volumes between 1751 and 1772. It aimed to “secularize” knowledge and spread far and wide the concepts and values of the Enlightenment.

The Kantian Revolution

The ultimate Enlightenment philosopher was Immanuel Kant of Königsberg University in Prussia (northeastern Germany). Much of post-Kantian theology has been articulated in response to Kant. If we limit ourselves to Kant’s theological impact, there are several key issues.

First, Kant subjected all traditional arguments for God’s existence to a devastating critique. The argument from design (the complexity of creation requires a designer), the cosmological argument (finite things require a transcendent cause), the ontological argument (the very concept of God as the maximally perfect being demands that He actually exist)—nothing could satisfy Kant’s undoubtedly brilliant intellect. Human reason, reflecting on the world, could find no path to the knowledge of God.


Second, Kant maintained that all our knowledge is “filtered” through our mental and sensory equipment. Consequently, we can only ever know things as they seem or appear to us once they have been thus filtered (Kant called these appearances “phenomena”). But things as they truly are in themselves (“noumena”) remain forever beyond our grasp. This obviously affects in a serious way our capacity to have any objective knowledge of God.

Third, and in spite of the above, Kant remained a theist (of a deistic sort). He argued that human reason, considered practically, imposes a “moral law” on human conduct. In order, however, to make sense of this moral law, we must make three “postulates” (something akin to theoretical assumptions): human freedom, human immortality, and the existence of God as the ultimate sanction behind the moral law. We must postulate freedom, despite the absence of any scientific evidence for it, to give an incentive to people to strive after obedience to the moral law. We must postulate immortality to satisfy our sense that virtue and happiness ultimately coincide (as they often do not in this present life). And we must postulate God as the perfect Judge who will ensure that virtue is rewarded and evil punished in the hereafter.

Kant, then, denied that God could in any sense be known but retained Him as a necessary “postulate” of the moral law. This approach may well have given a whole new lease on life to moral arguments for God’s reality, which have figured so strongly in post-Kantian Christian apologetics (for example, in C.S. Lewis). In his own view, Kant had done good service to religion: he had “denied knowledge to make room for faith.” Theologians were not so sure. In the Bible, faith is never a postulate devoid of substantial knowledge.

Kant’s ambiguous relationship to religion is shown in two other facets of his life and thought. First, almost in spite of himself and his Enlightenment optimism about the power of reason, Kant was compelled in his rational investigation of the moral law to confess something very much like the Christian doctrine of original sin. There is, he acknowledged, a mysterious flaw in human nature—as he termed it, a “radical surd” of evil—that continually undermines our efforts toward goodness. Other Enlightenment thinkers were outraged by this element in Kant’s philosophy, seeing it as a sellout to Christian dogma. We may more generously ascribe it to Kant’s intellectual honesty about the human condition.

Second, Kant preserved a high moral reverence for the figure of Jesus. Jesus is not, for Kant, the Son of God or Redeemer of sinners. But by virtue of His profound teaching and influence, according to Kant, Jesus is the founder of a new moral kingdom in the world. Kant made a bold attempt to denude Christianity of all its supernatural aspects, reinterpreting it in a strictly moral (and moralistic) way. His writings inspired many forms of “liberal” theology.

Kant denied that God could be known but retained Him as a necessary “postulate” of the moral law.
Moravian Missions

Kant’s residual Christianity, if we may call it that, perhaps had a biographical root in his early upbringing in a devout Lutheran family deeply imbued with the religious values of Pietism. This widespread movement of spiritual renewal within Lutheranism fed directly into the great Evangelical Revival in Britain through the Moravians. They were descendants of the Hussites, who had fled from persecution and settled in the German estate of Bethelsdorf, owned by the Lutheran Pietist Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760). Zinzendorf, a pioneer “ecumenist,” had forged a friendly union between Lutheran Pietists and Moravians in Bethelsdorf, where Pietism’s renewal spirit took on the shape of a mighty, classical revival in 1727. This intense local revival led to a far-flung missionary enterprise on the part of the Moravians, one that carried the gospel in a mere five-year period to Greenland, Lapland, the Virgin Islands, North and South America, and South Africa. By the time of Zinzendorf’s death in 1760, the Moravians had sent out at least 226 missionaries. Zinzendorf also bequeathed a rich legacy of hymns to evangelicals worldwide, many of which were translated into English by John Wesley (1703–91).

The mention of Wesley alerts us to the way that revived Moravianism fed into the Evangelical Revival in Britain. Wesley himself was profoundly influenced by the Moravians. He visited Bethelsdorf in 1738 and, as it were, caught some of the Moravian fire. Wesley went on to incorporate aspects of Moravian piety into Methodism, such as the “class meeting” and the “love feast.”

The Church in America

The connection between the Evangelical Revival in Britain and the First Great Awakening in America was established in the life and ministry of George Whitefield (1714–70), the supremely eloquent English Calvinist who spent much of his time preaching with effect in the American Colonies. The American religious scene was very diverse, including Anglicans or Episcopalians (such as Whitefield), Congregationalists (such as Edwards), Baptists (such as the celebrated Calvinist preacher and agitator for church-state separation Isaac Backus [1724–1806]), Quakers, Moravians, and Roman Catholics. Presbyterianism also planted itself firmly on American soil when the first presbytery was organized in 1706. Its leading figure was the Scottish-educated Irishman Francis Makemie (1658–1708). From small beginnings, Presbyterianism would flourish in America, giving to the wider church a greater number of illustrious Reformed theologians than any other American Protestant body.

Rome and the East

Two main events within the Roman Catholic world compel our attention. First, by the 1760s, the convulsive Jansenist controversy was finally laid to rest. It had been wrecking Rome’s peace for more than a century, as the Jansenists fought by every means to rehabilitate Augustine’s doctrine of grace within the Roman church. That valiant endeavor, after many twists and turns, ran at last into the sand as the second half of the eighteenth century dawned. Most of the remaining active Jansenists went into schism against Rome, forming their own Jansenist church in tolerant Protestant Holland. Freed from the constraints of loyalty to the papacy, they there developed into a more Protestant body, whom we might characterize as “high-church Calvinists.” Augustine’s theology of grace went permanently into eclipse in Roman Catholicism as a result.

Kant attempted to denude Christianity of all its supernatural aspects.

Paradox strikes again in the second event. The chief enemies of the Jansenists had been the Jesuits, or Society of Jesus. Yet in what should have been their hour of triumph, disaster befell the Jesuit order. Too many people, both ordinary Roman Catholics and powerful figures, had become both disenchanted and alarmed by Jesuit tactics, intrigues, undue power, and apparently conspiratorial influence. Hardly, then, had the Jesuits won their long duel with Jansenism when they themselves fell from favor in spectacular fashion. They were suppressed in France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, and elsewhere in a series of clampdowns from 1759 to 1782. The most bitter pill for the Jesuits, the “shock troops of the papacy” as they have been nicknamed, was when the papacy itself turned on them in 1773, and Pope Clement XIV abolished the Jesuit order.

It was only after the Europe-wide trauma of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (ending in 1815) that the Jesuits were reestablished. A newly conservative European order, reacting against the perceived perils of revolutionary democracy unleashed in France in 1789, welcomed the Jesuits back as allies of Christian politics and morals against the forces of secular radicalism.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox world was undergoing its own trials and tribulations. With its ancient heartlands now under Islamic domination, the banner of free Orthodoxy flew proudly in the hands of vast, mighty Russia. However, Russia’s czar in the last decades of the seventh century and the first decades of the eighteenth was the formidable Peter the Great (reigned 1682–1725). Peter became enamored of most things Western, and he harnessed the powerful machinery of the Russian state to “modernize” (Westernize) his empire. For the Russian Orthodox Church, this meant the loss of its autonomy. The office of patriarch of Moscow was abolished in 1721 after lying vacant for twenty years. Peter replaced it with a body called “the Holy Synod.” Modeled on Lutheran forms of church polity, it had ten (later twelve) members, all appointed by Peter and whom he could also dismiss at will. The synod’s presiding officer was a lay procurator, a position that evolved into a very powerful official who ensured that the church was submissive to the czarist state. At the same time, a somewhat Lutheran­-leaning theology began to circulate in the Russian church. The systematic theology of Platon Levshin, Moscow’s metropolitan (archbishop) from 1775 to 1812, is little different from a Lutheran treatise.

Machines and Music

One last word on the eighteenth century—another paradox. On the one side, it was the century that witnessed the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution—the birth of the machine age, with all its transforming impact on technology, society, and human thought patterns.

On the other side, the same “century of the machine” witnessed an outpouring of creative musical genius perhaps unsurpassed in history. Composers including Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) ensured that music would never quite be the same again. Many of their works are explicitly Christian in nature and have provided spiritual as well as aesthetic inspiration to millions. Karl Barth captured this in a beautiful if half-humorous saying: “When the angels play music for God, they play Bach. When they play for themselves, they play Mozart.”

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