How Did the Enlightenment Impact the Church?

In the Enlightenment, scientists had described a world that functioned according to laws laid down by God, who had set everything up and then left it to its own devices. This was deism. Now, it seemed that the world in its present state was not directly created by God. However, Darwin’s theories left a shrinking place for God. The theory of evolution denied the direct creation of man by God, and the greatest damage came from the application of that theory to the development of religion.

Dave Jenkins
How Did the Enlightenment Impact the Church?

The 20th century was a time of great flux, and anxiety in Europe as the supremacy of Christianity in Europe was being challenged by the fronts of biblical criticism and evolution. When people raise the question about the decline of Christianity among nations or a people group, one question that typically arises is, “How is this occurring?” The number one reason this occurs is because local churches can devalue the role of the Bible, which leads to an unhealthy church that doesn’t reach its surrounding area with the gospel. Understanding “What is Truth?” is of great importance for understanding truth as coming from God’s Word, which lays the foundation for understanding justice, morality, ethics, and religion.

The Loss of Confidence in Law and Religion

Dr. Harold J. Berman, professor of law at Harvard University, wrote The Interaction of Law and Religion in which he discusses how Western culture has had a massive loss of confidence in law and religion. Such a loss of confidence in religion and law has caused a double loss of confidence and a radical separation between the two. Berman concludes that you cannot have workable rules for behavior without religion, because only religion provides an absolute base on which morality and law can be based. He fears that Western society is doomed to relativism in law because of the loss of an absolute.

How can moral principles be grounded, and social organizations legitimized in the absence of a religiously based culture? Cultures that break away from the idea of an authoritative religion, and even from the concept of God, break away from the possibility of absolute truth. All that remains when this happens is existential relativism, a slippery, and ever-changing base on which no authoritative system of law or morals can be built. Religion-less law can never command authority.

Higher and Lower Criticism 

The Rationalism of the Enlightenment and idealistic philosophy of the Romantic era were the parents of a criticism that sought to destroy the supernatural nature of the Bible. Such a view sought to make the Bible a revelation that makes the Word a record of subjective evolution of religion in human consciousness. Higher or historical and literary criticism has come to be associated with the destructive views of liberalism and is the careful study of the historical background of each book of the Bible. 

Lower or textual criticism is the study of the text of the Bible in an attempt to ascertain whether the text that we have is one that came from the hands of the writers. Lower criticism has resulted in the granting to the text of the Bible a high degree of accuracy. Such a result has led Christians to be sure that we have the writings of the original authors of the Bible. Thus, no doctrine or ethical teaching of Scripture can be called into question by the most radical criticism. It has been radical, higher criticism rather than lower criticism that has destroyed the faith of many persons in the divine revelation of the Bible.

The Danger of High Criticism

Higher criticism was popularized by Jean Astruct, who divided the book of Genesis into two parts. Johann G Eichorn laid down the dictum that the Bible was to be read as a human book and tested by human means. Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen developed an elaborate system known as the Graf-Wellhausen theory, also known as the JEDP Theory The Graf-Wellhausen theory states that sections in which the name Jehovah is used constitute the early document. Another part by another author is known as E still another in Deuteronomy as D and P. In this fashion, the unity of the Pentateuch and its Mosaic authorship are denied. 

Hermann S Reismarus denied the possibility of biblical miracles and advanced that the New Testament writers were frauds. Gotthold Lessing argued that the Scriptures served man as a guide during the primitive phase of his religious development. Now, he claims that reason and duty are sufficient guides in a more advanced state of religion. Ferdinand Baur argued that the early church had emphasized the law and Messiah. In the 20th century, men like David Strauss denied both the miracles and integrity of the New Testament as well as the deity of Christ, whom he saw as a man who only thought he was the Messiah.

How Evolution Is a Counter Claim to Christian Truth

Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species in 1859. What was new about his theory was his powerful and persuasive explanation of how the process of evolution works with the theory of “natural selection.” He pointed out that creatures are similar to their parents but not identical; there are apparently random minor variations in each generation. He argued that those individuals that happen to be well suited to their environment will survive, prosper, and give birth to new individuals sharing their characteristics. Those less suited will die out, so any new characteristic with which an individual is born is likely to be passed on if it is useful. In this way, species evolve and develop in a process that is not random, or determined by God, but follows natural laws. 

Evolution Contradicts the Doctrines of Humanity and Sin

At another level, the theory of evolution contradicted fundamental Christian notions about humanity and sin. In 1871, Darwin expanded on his ideas in The Descent of Man, in which he argued that human beings evolved naturally from lower creatures. So not only does life itself follow natural laws, but the human mind and soul are not some supernatural element breathed into the body by God because they evolved from nothing. 

Darwin’s Philosophy Leaves a Shrinking Place for God

Darwin’s theories left a shrinking place for God. In the Enlightenment, scientists had described a world that functioned according to laws laid down by God, who had set everything up and then left it to its own devices. This was deism. Now, it seemed that the world in its present state was not directly created by God.

Evolution Denies Creation and the Bible

The theory of evolution denied the direct creation of man by God, and the greatest damage came from the application of that theory to the development of religion. God and the Bible were looked upon as the evolutionary products of man’s religious consciousness, and the books of the Bible were dated accordingly. Biblical eschatology, in which perfection would come into this world only by the direct intervention of God through the return of Christ. Instead, biblical eschatology was replaced by the evolutionary view of a world that was being increasingly improved on by human effort. Because man was not guilty through original sin, there was no need for Christ as Savior. 

How Biblical Christianity Responds to the Enlightenment 

Authentic Christian preaching both declares and defends the whole gospel. Christians must defend the following truths:

  • The deity of Christ 
  • The Virgin Birth 
  • Miracles 
  • The Incarnation of Christ
  • Christ’s substitutionary death
  • The resurrection of Jesus

We Need Bold and Courageous Christians Today

Christians dare not stop at these affirmations but must place the person and work of Christ within the context of God’s eternal purpose to save a people for His own glory. The task of preaching our postmodern context is comprehensive, even as it is driven by the desire to see sinners turn to Christ in faith. What is needed today is a generation of bold and courageous Christians who will be witnesses of the gospel and proclaim the whole counsel of God.

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Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOGInstagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.

Originally published December 05, 2019.