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Theologies of the 21st Century: Trends in Contemporary Theology

Theologies of the 21st Century: Trends in Contemporary Theology

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Theologies of the 21st Century: Trends in Contemporary Theology

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Oct 2, 2014


What theologies are popular and formative of Christian thinking in the present day? How should they be assessed by those Christians who want to be "in the world" without being "of the world"? Theologies of the 21st Century begins with an overview of the historical roots from which current theological thinking has developed, and then moves on to a detailed evaluation of the chief doctrinal and practical emphases, taking an evangelical biblical perspective that seeks to be at once both critical and irenic.
Oct 2, 2014

Über den Autor

David L. Smith holds a PhD from Southern Baptist Seminary. He has retired after half a century of service as a teacher, pastor, theology professor, and seminary academic administrator. He currently teaches part-time for the Lay Pastor Training Program of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (Canada).

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Theologies of the 21st Century - David L. Smith


Trends in Contemporary Theology

David L. Smith


Trends in Contemporary Theology

Copyright © 2014 David L. Smith. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Write: Permissions. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401.

Wipf and Stock

An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3

Eugene, OR 97401

ISBN 13: 978-1-62564-864-8

EISBN 13: 978-1-63087-505-3

Manufactured in the U.S.A. 09/29/2014

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. Other versions include: Holy Bible, New Living Translation copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

To my siblings and their spouses:Robert and (the late) Mary Smith,Marion and Truman Clark,Joyce and Donald Gallon.



his volume on contemporary

theology has been a labor of love in preparation for many years. Close to a decade ago, I sensed, from remarks by colleagues and from my own research hunting for course materials in the area of modern theological thought, that my original text in contemporary theology, A Handbook of Contemporary Theology, published by Victor/BridgePoint in


, was becoming increasingly dated, as were similar texts from the same era. After all, it is not exactly contemporary theology after a decade and a half!

Because I was experiencing a good relationship with Wipf and Stock in regard to other books, I proposed a completely new contemporary theology (not a revision of my original tome) which would bring the subject into the twenty-first century. They graciously agreed, and I set to work.

Sadly, it was not immediately to be. Shortly after contracting with the publisher, I left my employment as a seminary and Bible college administrator and seminary professor to become Senior Pastor of a struggling church in downtown Montreal (Canada). I found my time for research--other than for sermon preparation--virtually non-existent. It was necessary to contact Wipf and Stock, who kindly told me that when I did finish the manuscript, I should submit it to them.

That time has come. Now retired, I have been able to complete my work and present it for publication. I extend my gratitude to Wipf and Stock for their interest, and also to my wife who has said to friends, At least he has something to do to keep him out of my hair! Her forbearance is deeply appreciated.

Most of all, I am grateful to God who has allowed me to continue to be able to think (especially theologically), and who has let my intellectual faculties remain essentially as keen as they used to be.

David L. Smith

Cambridge, Ontario

May 2014.



t has been some

time since a new book introducing contemporary theologies has appeared, and theological thought—like everything else in the world—is not static, but on going. There are some very good texts in use in Christian colleges and seminaries, such as Grenz and Olsen,¹ Omerod,² and my own,³ but they are outdated or incomplete. A lot of theological water has flowed under the bridge since the early nineties. It is time for something in keeping with the present.

This book seeks to bring theology up to the present time. It recognizes the appearance of new theologies and the progress of others. It is written from an unapologetically evangelical viewpoint, but seeks to evaluate irenically from a biblical perspective each theology as it is presented.

The book begins with an examination of the historical-theological underpinnings of today’s theological landscape. It starts with the Enlightenment period, when traditional theological views began to be questioned, and when numerous scholars first expressed doubts about the value and truth of Scripture. It then examines theological developments of the 19th and 20th centuries, when major conflicts arose that threatened the very fabric of the Christian faith, and when some took new theological directions that either attempted cooperation with the burgeoning threats or reacted against them.

Having examined foundational matters, the book looks critically at the various theologies extant in our 21st century world. It does so topically, grouping several theologies under a unifying theme.

Section B considers three liberal theologies. The first, secular theology, is dying away because it has largely morphed into secularism (that is, minus the theology). There are a few, nonetheless, who continue to insist on referring to it as a Christian theology. The second, process theology, is alive and well. Some may question whether the third, the theology of hope, is a liberal theology or not, but a compelling case may be made for placing it in that category. I have joined to it futurist theology, popularized by Wolfhart Pannenberg (here, at least, the two are made one!).

Section C considers four liberation theologies. Latin-American liberationism is the oldest and most prominent of these, and has numerous proponents. Feminist theology has its origins in the American hemisphere, but has spread in its many varieties worldwide. Black theology is a unique American variety of liberationism. The fourth, queer theology, is also an American product, although it has now spread throughout the world.

Section D delineates two different theologies arising out of evangelicalism. Open Theism is a child of Arminianism and Process theology. Evangelicals are, furthermore, increasingly considering the fate of the unevangelized and whether or not they may be saved apart from a conscious profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Section E deals with two theologies that have come about as the result of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement. They include signs and wonders (as particularly exemplified in the Vineyard, but in other, independent groups, as well), and prosperity, or health and wealth, theology, which is both old and new, and which comes in varying forms. One interesting aspect of this older theology that reacts against suffering and deprivation is the five-fold ministry, from which has more recently issued the New Apostolic Reformation.

In Section F, we examine three postmodern theologies. These include postmodern theology itself, postliberal theology, and postconservative theology along with its outworking, the Emergent Church..

Lastly, we consider indigenous theologies. These are theologies that have sought to proclaim Christianity in local context. They are essentially products of Africa and Asia.

The book concludes with a postscript that attempts to look into the near future, considering new theological directions being taken by some, and what may come about as a result. It also considers the future of the theologies already inspected.

Because this book is an introduction to these theologies and does not claim to contain all the details of each one presented, and because I would like readers to be able to evaluate these theologies for themselves, suggestions for further reading and study follow each chapter.

1. Grenz and Olson,


th Century Theology..

2. Omerod, Introducing Contemporary Theologie.

3. Smith, A Handbook of Contemporary Theolog.


Foundations of Twenty-First Century Theologies

Present theological movements either have their roots in—or were strongly influenced by—the Enlightenment, a period dating back to the seventeenth century or even earlier. We shall examine the causes of the Enlightenment and its resultant impact on orthodox Christian theology. Then we shall see how these theological changes continued to mutate through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to their present form in the twenty-first.


The Enlightenment


he Peace of Westphalia



, in which Protestants and Catholics were declared equal before the law, marked the opening of a new age which disestablished religion as the authoritative spiritual symbol in Western civilization in favor of human reason.¹ From that point on, scholars challenged the Church’s authority as archaic and its answers to scientific problems as absurd. They declared that Church pronouncements were insufficient proof for origins of creation or even for ethical issues. A much better gauge of these things was to be found in logical and empirical philosophy and what might be discovered by scientific methodology. While this shift did not happen overnight, it took place inexorably over the decades.

Background to the Enlightenment

Fourteenth century Italy witnessed the emergence of a group of philosophers and theologians who were devout Roman Catholics, but believed that God could best be worshiped by celebrating his creation and, especially, human beings who are the apex of that creation. They averred that the biblical recognition of humankind as the image of God meant that humans have an innate creative ability which manifests itself in music, scientific discovery, painting and sculpture, and other intellectual pursuits.

These humanists as they were called, seeking to bring their theories to full blossom, reached back to the glory days of Greece and Rome, seeking to reproduce the best of these periods and exceed them. It was not many decades before this rebirth gradually spread into France, Spain, and the other European nations. Nor did the Church attempt to repress these efforts. Wealthy and high ranking churchmen—including successive popes—competed with other princes to sponsor the finest artists and writers, such as Donatello, Botticelli, Rabelais, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Cervantes, to name only a few.

In reaching back to ancient times, a revival of the Greek language occurred, with an interest in translating from their original sources (rather than from Latin) the Greek classics and especially the New Testament. Armed with the fruits of their exegeses, scholars began to compare New Testament Christianity with Roman Catholic Christianity. They often found the latter wanting.

The late Renaissance period (fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) witnessed the popularity of theologians who openly questioned the governance and polity of the Church. In England, John Wycliffe, first a student and then a professor at Oxford, worked at translating the Bible into the English language. As a result of his studies, he became convinced that Scripture must have the supremacy over popes, bishops, and tradition. He also declared that only God might have lordship over other human beings. Any human institution derives its authority over others only from God, and when it ceases to be just, it loses that authority. Not surprisingly, Wycliffe was increasingly isolated by both the Church and the Crown and, following his death, his disciples—called Lollards—who were traveling evangelists, were persecuted and many were burned at the stake.

Wycliffe’s ideas did not die with him. They persisted not only in Britain, but spread to Bohemia, where they were imbibed by John Hus, a popular preacher in Prague and rector of its university. While his views were not identical to Wycliffe’s, on the essentials they were together, and Hus was able to use his position to institute liturgical reforms.² Through treachery, he was brought before the Council of Constance, where he was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. But his followers kept his name and beliefs alive.

Similar minds were at work in other countries in Europe. Their efforts helped foster a reformation movement that took greater shape in later years as a result of scholars and churchmen such as Desiderio Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli.

Erasmus, although he never broke with the Church, sought its reform through satirical writings and commentaries. In his 1509 book, In Praise of Folly, he ridiculed the various vocations of the Church for their greed and superstition. For example, the priests: [They] would make their credulous proselytes believe, that if they pay their devotion to St. Christopher in the morning, they shall be guarded and secured the day following from all dangers and misfortunes.³ He also harshly criticized the doctrine of Transubstantiation and other rituals that were not practiced by the New Testament church.

In 1517, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, and ignited a flame which could not be extinguished, the Protestant Reformation. Luther challenged the Church’s sale of indulgences as wicked and unscriptural. He argued that the Bible took precedence over conciliar and papal authority. He insisted that all believers were priests before God, and that there are only two legitimate sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In 1521, Luther was condemned by the Diet of Worms, but was protected by his sponsor, the Elector Frederick.

Aided by Philip Melancthon, who wrote the first Protestant systematic theology (Loci Communes), Luther shaped his new church based on justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. While efforts were made during the mid-sixteenth century to seek some concord between the Catholics and Lutherans, they were to prove fruitless. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, however, established an agreement of toleration, which lasted until the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618.

In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, a humanist whose hero was Erasmus, led the battle for reform. Elected as the People’s Priest of the Great Minster Church of Zurich, Zwingli convinced the local authorities that only those traditions authorized by Scripture should be binding. In his Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523, he promoted the supremacy of the Bible over the Church, the doctrine of salvation by faith, the right of priests to marry, the rejection of the mass as a sacrifice, and the rejection of the doctrine of purgatory. Zwinglian preachers were sent to the other cantons and before long Basel, Strasbourg, Berne, and other centers had become Protestant.

Zwingli’s efforts were cut short when he was killed at the Battle of Kappel, where he was leading an army against the Roman Catholic cantons. But the Reformed Church in Switzerland continued to grow. It was strengthened greatly by the advent of John Calvin to the church in Geneva. Calvin was a Huguenot refugee from French persecution, and an enemy of Rome and its religious system. Educated at the universities of Paris and Orléans in theology and law, his Institutes of the Christian Religion would become a standard in Protestant theological thought.

Other reformed movements came out of the Protestant Reformation, including the Radical Reformation and the English Reformation. Both continued the fight against papal authority and the right of the Church to dictate what was right and what was not (if it could not be substantiated by the Scriptures).

Europe grew weary of wars between Protestants and Catholics, each pronouncing anathemas on the other. With the advent of divisions within Protestantism that warred with one another—each claiming to be the true approach to God, each claiming to hold God’s authority over his people—there was an even greater repulsion formed within the common person. Something had to be done! That something was the Enlightenment.

The Renaissance humanists had insisted on the right of every individual to determine personally through research and reason what is truth, whether in religion, science, or life in general. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century and the Baptists of the early seventeenth century insisted upon the right of conscience for every person, regardless of where that might lead religiously. A new scientific spirit wafted through Europe and Britain and, because it encountered resistance and even persecution by Rome, adopted an antagonistic attitude towards established Christianity.

As we examine the primary movers and shakers of this Enlightenment period, we shall consider their thought in regard to the doctrines of revelation and God, and Christ and salvation. The reasoning behind such a procedure is an assumption that the major differences between various modes of theological thought in the current century derive from these doctrines. Since most theologies are rooted in history, how the thinkers of this period dealt with these beliefs will help us better to understand present ideas.

Changes in Theological Views

Up to the time of the Enlightenment, the people of the Christian countries had generally accepted the view that, while Nature could provide glimpses of God and who he might be, sin had sufficiently darkened the human intellect that any intimate, salvific knowledge of the Creator could be attained only through his divine self-disclosure as found in the Bible. Enlightenment scholars disagreed. While acknowledging God somewhat as Creator, they rejected the idea that he would intervene in the natural order with a special revelation. Nor was such a revelation really needed, for their view was that the human mind had not been badly contaminated by sin and that human reason was sufficient to determine ultimate truth. In due course, Enlightenment scholars determined that, through using rational reflection, humans could uncover moral and religious truth apart from divine revelation.

Just as the doctrine of special revelation was aggressively assailed by Enlightenment scholars, so they attacked the orthodox doctrine of God himself. Prior to this era, the majority of church leaders and common people alike were theocentric (God centered) in their outlook. They perceived God as a personal Being who not only created all that is and set it in motion, but who also cares for his creation and sustains it. When necessary, he becomes involved in the concerns of human beings, and on occasion, intervenes in his creation supernaturally to achieve his ends for their welfare.

Enlightenment scholars shifted in their focus from the theocentric to the anthropocentric (human centered).⁸ God tended to be relegated to an impersonal position. While it was acknowledged that he had created the universe and had set it in motion, he was much too busy to intrude in the lives of his creatures. And while he had certain moral expectations, he had not revealed these in a book or through a single person, but had left it to humans to determine by themselves through the use of their mental faculties. Universal moral codes might be uncovered by logic and reason. Their philosophy was known as Deism.

Enlightenment concepts of revelation and God had a profound effect on the doctrines of Christ and salvation. Much of Enlightenment thought was a reaction against the teaching of the Calvinist Reformers (especially those of Geneva). Beza, for example, taught that God, before the foundation of the world, had foreordained some to be predestined to eternal loss and others to eternal salvation. In fact, he had even permitted the Fall so that his decrees could be actualized. Then he determined to send his only Son to be crucified as a substitutionary atonement for the elite elected to be saved.

The majority of scholars in Europe and America of the eighteenth century found it difficult to accept the idea of such a capricious God, who would condemn all human beings because of the (original) sin of one individual and then send his innocent Son to die an agonizing death on behalf of a few, and not all, human beings. Such teaching was in itself immoral and needed reforming.⁹ Furthermore, because of their idea of a transcendent God who was completely removed from this world and its concerns, they questioned whether God really would have a divine Son, much less send him on such a mission!

The Enlightenment in Europe

The Enlightenment appears to have begun in France. One of the original figures was Michel de Montaigne, a wealthy French lawyer and humanist of the late sixteenth century. He became famous for his Essaies (literally, attempts), in which he asked repeatedly, What do I know? His point was that, since it is impossible to know with any certainty that our values derive from God, we have no right to seek to force others to adopt them. Nor do we have the right to impose on other cultures our dogmas and morals when they are based on tradition rather than on absolute truth. Who are we to insist that we are superior to other cultures just because they differ from us? It was this sort of thinking that led to a questioning of everything.

René Descartes

The element of doubting all, even Scripture, was strongly emphasized by René Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician whose works highlighted the first half of the 17th century. He insisted that I have known with absolute certainty only my own existence and God’s.¹⁰ Everything else must be questioned, unless it can be demonstrated with mathematical certainty.

From his assumption that God exists, Descartes sought to use reason as a means of defending the Christian faith. In so doing, however, he committed so many errors in logic that philosophers coming after him gradually tore down his arguments even to the point of questioning his major assertion, cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). But his declaration of doubting everything they kept and extended into the realm of the spiritual and religious.

The Philosophes

The 18th century saw the advent of the French philosophes, such as François-Marie Arouet (better known by his pen name, Voltaire) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire was a colorful character, who hobnobbed with the aristocracy, and was known for his biting satire. He despised organized religion and saw true theists as adoring God and as loving all people without seeking to penalize them for lack of doctrinal beliefs or even of Christian morality. His well-known cutting satire, Candide, is evidence of his views:

[The theist] has brothers from Pekin to Cayenne, and he reckons all the wise his brothers. He believes that religion consists neither in the opinions of incomprehensible metaphysics, nor in vain decorations, but in adoration and justice. To do good—that is his worship; to submit oneself to God—that is his doctrine.¹¹

Voltaire used his wit to attack the Church without mercy, accusing it of duplicity and vice.¹²

Rousseau was a Genevan Huguenot who converted in early life to Catholicism, back to Protestantism in his fifties, and ended his life as a Deist. He blamed his despicable behavior and many illegitimate children on the flaws of society. He insisted that human beings, left to their own devices, are noble creatures. If one desires children to avoid the corrupting elements of society, they should be allowed to learn what they want to learn. Children left unbothered will teach themselves. Like Voltaire, Rousseau had no use for the institutional church. He believed that Christianity should be done away with, and replaced by civil religion: Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is too favorable to tyranny not to be taken advantage of by it. Christians are made to be slaves; they know it and do not care; this short life has too little value in their eyes. . . .¹³ While he believed in a Higher Being, his God was a transcendent mystery who could not be rationally comprehended.¹⁴

Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach

A somewhat different sort, but with an even more extreme attitude, was Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. Born in 1723 in Germany, he was brought up by an uncle in Paris, and was educated at the University of Leyden. Proficient in several languages, he translated numerous scientific works from German to French and a number of religious and political essays from English to French as contributions to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie (which strongly castigated Roman Catholicism and saw religion simply as one branch of philosophy).

Heir to a sizable fortune, d’Holbach hosted great parties to which he invited intellectuals and philosophers who were considered extremely radical for their time. His guests included such people as Diderot, Rousseau¹⁵, scientist Joseph Priestley, historian Edward Gibbon, philosopher David Hume, and diplomat Benjamin Franklin. Some were atheists like himself, and others were political revolutionaries.¹⁶

D’Holbach was not merely a translator of other people’s masterpieces, but an author in his own right. Two notable volumes, Système de la Nature (System of Nature) and Le Bon-sens (Common Sense) were condemned by the parlement de Paris and burned in public because of their notoriety. At the same time, few knew that he had written them, because they were published anonymously.¹⁷

In his book, Système de Nature, d’Holbach advanced the idea of deity as a human projection from things experienced within Nature, which is everything there is:

For a being formed by Nature, and circumscribed by her laws, there exists nothing beyond the great whole of which [humankind] forms a part, of which he experiences the influence. The beings which he pictures to himself as above nature, or distinguished from her, are always chimeras formed after that which he has already seen, but which it is impossible that he should ever form any correct idea, either as to the place they occupy, or of their manner of acting. There is not, there can be nothing out of the Nature which includes all beings.¹⁸

Gotthold Lessing

During this same time, a German librarian, Gotthold Lessing, an amateur theologian who disparaged orthodox Christian thought, attacked its approach to Scripture. He published the Wolfenbüttel Fragments, selected portions of a manuscript by H.S. Reimarus, who held that Jesus was a radical reformer who was misled by Jewish thought and paid for it with his life. After his death, some of his followers established their own religion, claiming falsely that he had been resurrected by God. The history of Christianity—indeed, of the Bible as a whole—could never be substantiated by reason.¹⁹ But it was better to search for truth than actually to possess it.²⁰

Immanuel Kant

One of the greatest of the German Enlightenment philosophers was Immanuel Kant, born into a Pietist family in Königsberg, East Prussia. He wrote numerous philosophical works, among the most important a trilogy: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on Ethics, and Critique of Judgment. In them Kant averred that much traditional religion no longer is reasonable. According to his view, we can verify truth only through the content of our experience. But, neither a pure conception nor the general experience of an existing being can provide a sufficient basis for the proof of the existence of the Deity.²¹ Kant did affirm that transcendental theology can posit the existence of a Supreme Being, but nothing can really be known of such a Being. Such a view—the only correct one for Kant—must eliminate any phenomenal elements, especially anthropomorphisms.²² To do so would, of course, rule out any conception of the Trinity or a divine-human Son of God.

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza, generally regarded as founder of the Dutch Enlightenment, was born in Amsterdam to Sephardic Jewish parents who were refugees from the Portuguese Inquisition. He was excommunicated in 1656 from his local orthodox synagogue for apostasy, because he had conceived God, not as personal, but as Nature. His magnum opus, Ethics, was published by colleagues after his death, and contains his thoughts on God and virtue.

Spinoza’s view of God was essentially panentheistic: Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can either be or be conceived without God.²³ In other words, the material world exists in God, and is simply an extension of his attributes.

At heart, Spinoza was a fatalist: . . . all things have been predetermined by him (God), not indeed from freedom of will or from absolute good pleasure, but from His absolute nature or infinite power.²⁴ God himself does not possess free will but is a slave to his nature. As a result, God has no love for us nor concern about us.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Spinoza had no use for organized religion. He found Christianity no longer inwardly persuasive. It had been captured by greedy and malevolent frauds, and the reasonable person would abandon it, for it no longer directed human behavior.²⁵

The Enlightenment in Britain

The Enlightenment in Britain was as much political in its beginnings as it was religious. It began with the Civil War of 1642–1651, which led to the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son, Charles II, and to the establishment of a republic known as the Commonwealth (1649–53) and then the Protectorate (1653–59), with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. It also marked an end to the establishment of religion with its special privileges for the Church of England and its discrimination against other Protestant denominations.

The republic was short-lived in England, for it did not bring the reforms desired by a majority of the English people, and in 1660, Charles II was recalled as the monarch. With his return, the old religious order—the established Church of England—was reinstituted, though toleration for other Protestants was granted (but not their complete freedom).

Charles II did not enjoy the concept of divine right (that God had appointed the king, and he was answerable only to Him) that had cost his father his head. England had become a constitutional monarchy, as James II found to his sorrow in the bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688. The revolution occurred because James was an overt Catholic, and so was rejected by his predominantly Protestant subjects. The English people invited his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to occupy the throne and James II was sent in exile to France. With the accession of William and Mary, a greater tolerance entered Britain. A Bill of Rights was passed, bringing both parliamentary power and personal freedoms. In this more liberal environment, science, the arts, and philosophy found new vitality.

Matthew Tindal

An early Enlightenment scholar and widely considered to be the father of Deism was Matthew Tindal. In his book, Christianity as Old as the Creation, Tindal asserted the basic views of what he termed Christian deism, namely, that God from the beginning bequeathed to human beings laws and rules for their behavior. Having come from a Perfect Being, such a religion must also be perfect and complete. Furthermore, he must have given them adequate means of knowing and carrying out his law:

. . . God was always willing that ALL Men shou’d come to the Knowledge of True Religion; and, we say, that the Christian Religion being the Only True and Absolutely Perfect Religion, was what God, from the very Beginning, design’d for all Mankind. If so, it follows that the Christian Religion has existed from the Beginning; and that God . . .has continued to give all Mankind sufficient Means to know it . . . .²⁶

It was not that Tindal really believed that Christianity had existed before Christ’s advent, but rather that it was a replication of the perfect religion that God had designed from creation.

Nor would God’s judgment be based on the determination of a sacred book such as the Bible, but on how people used their reason, for reason was given by God for the purpose of determining his will. If people have done everything in their power to reason what God desires of them, that would be sufficient, even if they were of differing opinions and, subsequently, of differing behaviors.²⁷

The Christian demand that faith is necessary to salvation was, for Tindal, ridiculous, for faith consider’d in itself can neither be a Virtue, or a Vice; because Men can no otherwise believe than as things appear to them. Indeed, what greater insult could there be to God than to presume that he expects people to make judgments beyond the faculties he has given them? Or what can be more absurd than to imagine that God will shew his Favour to one for believing what he could not but believe? Paraphrasing James 2:19, he noted that devils have faith, and everyone knows they are not saved!²⁸

John Locke

One of the chief architects of the British Enlightenment, John Locke, held that Christian faith and belief in God are simply common sense, and may be deduced through experience. In his work, An Essay Covering Human Understanding, he writes:

I grant the existence of God is so many ways manifest, and the obedience we owe him so congruous to the light of reason, that a great part of mankind give testimony to the law of nature: but yet I think it must be allowed that several moral rules may receive from mankind a very general approbation, without either knowing or admitting the true ground of morality, which can only be the will and law of a God . . . .²⁹

Though the name Christian was later added, it is a religion as old as human nature, and was implanted within humans by God himself.

Locke urged toleration for Christians of belief other than the Establishment, because their views could be upheld by the light of reason. For atheists, however, he advised no protection, for they were fools who would destroy society;³⁰ after all, the knowledge of God (is) the most natural discovery of human reason.³¹

Joseph Butler

Not all Enlightenment figures were Deists or detractors of orthodox Christian faith. An able defender of traditional Christianity was Joseph Butler, a Church of England prelate and master theologian. In 1736, he set out his apologetic for the orthodox Christian faith in The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. He asked how any person with common sense could conceive how the world came to be and continue apart from an intelligent Being overseeing it. Indeed, without an intelligent Author and Governor of Nature, no account at all can be given, how this universe, or the part of it particularly in which we are concerned, came to be, and the course of it to be carried on, as it is; nor can any, of its general end and design, without a moral Governor of it.³²

Like the Pentateuch author of old, Butler assumed the existence of God, as did those Deists against whom he wrote. But he did assault them for promoting the idea that revelation was unnecessary and that reason and nature together were all one needed to understand the workings of life on this planet. He observed that natural religion, clear of superstition, could not have reasoned out the workings of God. To suggest that revelation is superfluous is wild and extravagant thinking.³³ Revelation frees natural religion from superstition. It is, thus, an authoritative publication of natural religion, and so affords the evidence of testimony for the fruit of it.³⁴ Indeed, the Gospel illuminates natural religion, especially in regard to the future state, with a degree of light, to which that of nature is but darkness.³⁵

David Hume

David Hume, regarded by many as one of the luminaries of the Enlightenment, was born in 1711 to a moderately wealthy Calvinistic family near Edinburgh, Scotland. At the age of eleven, Hume was sent with his older brother to be educated at the University of Edinburgh where he studied mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy. He traveled to France, where he lived for several years, studying French literature and philosophy. It was during this period that he rejected the Calvinism of his upbringing along with its God, and became at best a skeptic and at worst an atheist.

A prolific author, Hume’s greatest work was arguably An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which he set forth his derision for both God and the church:

The ultimate Author of all our volitions is the Creator of the world, who first bestowed motion on this immense machine, and placed all things in that particular position, whence every subsequent event, by inevitable necessity, must result. Human actions, therefore, either can have no moral turpitude at all, as proceeding from so good a cause; or if they have any turpitude, they must involve our Creator in the same guilt, while he is acknowledged to be their ultimate cause and author.³⁶

Nor did he have any use for the supernatural claims of the Bible. Everything in experience rejects the possibilities of the miraculous: It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations . . . .³⁷ The Christian faith, despite its claims, was never established with the aid of the miraculous, for no miracles have ever happened.

William Paley

William Paley, an English divine and philosopher, sought to defend orthodox Christianity from Deism using the realm of natural theology. In 1794, his book A View of the Evidence of Christianity was made required reading at Cambridge (and remained so until the twentieth century). His magnum opus, published in 1802, was Natural Theology: or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of Deity, collected from the Appearances of Nature.

His former work sought to prove the reality of the Christian faith as delivered by the Apostles in the Bible. In it, for example, Paley refuted the arguments of David Hume who found the idea of miracles incredible. Citing Hume’s position, Paley noted: They are equally incredible, whether related to have been wrought upon occasions the most deserving, and for purposes the most beneficial, or for no assignable end whatsoever, or for an end confessedly trifling or pernicious. This surely cannot be a correct statement.³⁸ He accused Hume of failing to follow simple mathematical practice. When a theorem is proposed to a mathematician, the first thing he does with it is to try it upon a simple case, and if it produce a false result, he is sure there must be some mistake in the demonstration. He cited what he termed Hume’s theorem: if twelve men of sterling character and reputation related an account of a miracle they had seen happen, and if they stuck to their testimony despite threat of torture or even death, I would undertake to say that there exists not a skeptic in the world who would not believe them . . . .³⁹

In his latter work, Paley advanced a defense for the existence of an intelligent and creative God through what is now a famous philosophical argument known as the watchmaker argument for God:

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker—that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.⁴⁰

That one might not know everything to know about the watch would not in the least affect the argument that it had a designer and maker. So with God.

The Enlightenment in America

What was happening in Britain and Europe had a strong influence on thinking in America. In pre-revolutionary America, orthodox Christianity was at a relatively low ebb (Bibles could be printed only in England and not in America), and the true movers and shakers were politicians—such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc.—who were Deists. They had little use for organized religion (albeit they were nominal Anglicans), but acknowledged the existence of a Supreme Being and sought to practice virtue. Both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution demonstrate their influence in writing their various components.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States from 1801–09, was particularly enthused by the works of the British Empiricists Locke, Newton, and Bacon. While he realized that religion was a benefit in establishing a moral society, Jefferson had little use for organized Christianity. Along with many of his English heroes, he scorned the professional clergy as those who would dupe our honest and unsuspecting brethren with their advocacy of dangerous superstitions, fear mongering and guilt. As a Deist, Jefferson had rejected the divinity of Jesus, but revered him as a foremost teacher of virtue and morality. That is why in 1819 he published his revision of the Bible, known as The Life and Morals of Jesus, in which he stressed the Gospel accounts of Jesus as moral teacher and exemplar, but deleted any mention of miracles or other supernatural occurrences, such as the resurrection.⁴¹

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, who helped in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, was largely self-educated through a love for reading and experience. A multi-talented person, he was a printer, author, publisher, scientist, and diplomat.

Franklin was, at best, a Deist, holding a Supreme Being above all creation, and at worst, a polytheist, who assumed many gods: I believe there is one supreme most perfect Being, author and father of the gods themselves.⁴² While the supreme God neither expected nor required human worship, Franklin considered it his duty to pay divine regards to SOMETHING. But, undoubtedly, this Being had created other beings vastly superior to humans; they could provide a more rational and generous praise.⁴³

In a letter in 1790 to the President of Yale College, shortly before his death, Franklin responded to that academic’s questions about his own religious beliefs. While subscribing to a supreme Being,

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is like to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have . . . some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize on. . . . I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequences of making his doctrines more respected and more observed. . . .⁴⁴

Franklin believed religion in general to be a good thing. In a letter to a man who had asked his opinion of a proposed manuscript against religion, he replied that religion was necessary to the promotion of virtue. He quoted Montesqieu, If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it?⁴⁵

Thomas Paine

A friend of Franklin’s and a fellow revolutionary, Thomas Paine was also a Deist, but much more hostile towards organized religion than was the former. In 1781, Paine was made part of an American mission to France. He remained in that country, writing in support of revolution against the French crown. When revolution occurred, he was appointed a member of the French legislature, even though he was not a citizen. He was, however, caught in the excesses of the revolution and was thrown into prison, but was released through the efforts of the American ambassador, James Munroe. It was during this time that he wrote The Age of Reason, an apology for his religious views: I believe in one God and no more; and I hope for happiness in this life. . . . I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My mind is my own church. . . .⁴⁶

Paine had no faith in Jesus Christ. He discounted the virginal conception of Jesus as a false story. In regard to the resurrection, he declared, The story, so far as it relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it.⁴⁷

His view of other Christian doctrines was no better. He railed at the idea of God sending his Son to shed his blood as a payment for human sin: . . . it is impossible to conceive a story more derogatory to the almighty, more inconsistent with his wisdom, more contradictory to his power, than this story is.⁴⁸

His view of the Bible was of the lowest caliber. His idea of the Old Testament would have thrilled an ancient Gnostic, for he termed it a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales. He had little higher use for the New Testament.⁴⁹ It should not be surprising that, when Paine returned to the United States from Europe not long before his death, the majority of the American population viewed him as a reprobate and an atheist.


For the most part, it may be said that Enlightenment philosophers’ Deistic views on revelation, God, and Christ led to unbelief and a practical atheism. As Bruce Demarest notes, since these ideas were diametrically opposed to revealed faith based on God’s grace and salvation in Jesus Christ, they were a powerful catalyst for various forms of irreligion in eighteenth century Europe and beyond.⁵⁰ That such was the case will be evident in our study of the nineteenth century.

1. So Manschrek, The Church from the Reformation to the Present,



2. González, A History of Christian Thought,





3. Erasmus, In Praise of Folly, as cited in Manschrek,



4. Manschrek, The Church from the Reformation to the Present,



5. Ibid.,




6. Newman, Modern Church History (A.D.







7. Demarest, General Revelation,





8. Not all Enlightenment thinkers held such a view. A minority continued to be theocentric.

9. Edwards, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years,



10. Ibid.,



11. Voltaire, Candide, quoted by Manschrek,





12. Dowley, Eerdmans’ Handbook,



13. Rousseau, The Social Contract, cited by Manschrek,



14. Dowley, Eerdmans’ Handbook,



15. While Rousseau was not as radical as d’Holbach, he was impressed by the latter so much, it is commonly agreed, that he presented him in his La nouvelle Héloise, as Wolmar, an atheist in whom resided all of the Christian graces.

16. LeBuffe, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’Holbach,


, para.



17. Ibid., para.



18. d’Holbach, The System of Nature,





19. Edwards, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years,



20. Williams, Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim,



21. Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason,



22. Ibid.,



23. Spinoza, Ethics,



24. Ibid.,



25. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason,



26. Tindal, Christianity as Old as Creation,



27. Ibid.,



28. Ibid.,,





29. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,



30. Edwards, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years,



31. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,



32. Butler, The Analogy of Religion,



33. Ibid.,



34. Ibid.,





35. Ibid.,



36. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,



37. Ibid.,



38. Paley, Evidences of Christianity,



39. Ibid.,





40. Ibid.,





41. Corrigan and Hudson, Religion in America,



42. Franklin, Posthumous and Other Writings of Benjamin Franklin,





43. Ibid.,







44. Franklin, The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin,







45. Ibid.,





46. Paine, The Age of Reason,





47. Ibid.,



48. Ibid.,



49. Ibid.,



50. Demarest, General Revelation,




Foundations: The Nineteenth Century


he Enlightenment period, with

its blunt intellectual arrogance, aroused opposition in many. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, a movement had been spawned that was grounded in emotion rather than rationalism, seeking mysticism rather than clarity, and desiring rebellion against the rules more than submission to set standards.

This new mood was called Romanticism. It began in the latter part of the eighteenth century (in Britain and Germany particularly), and held sway into the twentieth century. It affected art, literature, and music, but also extended to politics, philosophy, and theology.

Although the Enlightenment had aroused a reaction against its cold thought and distant transcendence, thus birthing that more emotional and mystical movement known as Romanticism, nineteenth century scholars could not escape many of its foundational concepts. Although eschewing rationalism, Romantics—like their eighteenth century predecessors—remained largely anthropocentric, focusing on human power and ability (while paying God only lip service).

Early German Thought

Though the Romantic period may be said to have begun in Great Britain in the area of literature with the poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, its theological beginnings were in Germany. Several theologians—particularly Fichte and Novalis—would have a strong influence on the ideas of those coming to the task later in the century.

Johann Fichte

A disciple of Kant, Johann Fichte had a strong influence on his contemporaries through his philosophical system, the Wissenschaftslehre, the basics of which were published in his 1794-95 work, Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre. Because the English translation of Wissenschaftslehre as science of knowledge or doctrine of science falls short of its full meaning, the word is usually left in its German form.⁵¹

Fichte built upon Kant’s notions about God and morality by extending them to the idea of revelation. In his system, he declared that the most certain proof for the existence of God is the moral order in the world. God acts only as the universal moral order. Nothing more is necessary to our religion. Other than this universal moral order, there is no reason to recognize a Special Being as the Cause of this universe. Any supposed revelation of God’s activity in the world must pass a moral test: nothing that violates the moral law can be attributed to Him. ⁵²

According to Fichte, the Bible as a whole was not necessarily representative of truth because on occasion it violated moral laws. In his classes, he argued that the Apostle John was "the only teacher of true Christianity—namely, that the Apostle Paul and his party, as authors of the

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