14. The Enlightenment


"...in the middle of the eighteenth century, Voltaire ruled unchallenged over France and over civilised Europe. They had finally discovered and proclaimed liberty over the ruins of fanaticism. They sang, especially after drinking, about tolerance and brotherhood; they kissed passionately and even the most restrained wept tears of joy for humanity; it was truly wonderful to see... Men had finally become so perfectly happy that they could move beyond God and replace him, to their advantage, with philosophy and reason" (Les prisons du marquis de Pombal, August Carayon, 1865)

The term "Enlightenment" generally refers to an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe (commencing around the end of the English Civil War and concluding at the beginning of the French Revolution) and overseas colonies, in which ideas about God, reason (induction), nature (the universe being ruled by natural law) and mankind were blended into a new non-Christian worldview that gained wide assent and instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. From a theological standpoint, it signalled increasing secularisation of society and emphasis on humanism that flowed from the Renaissance and continues to this day.

These changes occurred at the same time as social reforms driven by concerned Christians, revivals in Europe and North America, including the Great Awakenings, and worldwide missions initiatives. A lot of uncritical commentary about the Enlightenment fails to acknowledge the work occurring at the same time by the world-wide Christian community. It also misses the point that, while the leaders of the Enlightenment were at the height of their popularity, they were in the minority; the majority of people continued to believe in God and go to church.

What Led to the Enlightenment?

Religious Factors

Political Factors

Social/Economic Factors


Deism is not a religion but a perspective on the nature of God.

Some Influential Public Figures During the Enlightenment


The more notable figures in the Enlightenment were French thinkers known as philosophes:

Voltaire (1694-1778), aka François-Marie Aroused, Deist, writer, historian, poet and critic of the church and Christian doctrine. He emerged as the Enlightenment's chief critic of contemporary culture and religion. Voltaire wrote at a time when a corrupt state Church and totalitarian government exercised control over nearly every aspect of French life. He reasoned that the best way to break the Church's hold on people's hearts and minds was to make his fellow citizens doubt its core doctrines. He also influenced Thomas Paine and other American revolutionaries and helped lead thinking up to the brutal French revolution.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whose writings (eg, man, if left to himself, is noble and good) greatly influenced the political thinking of his time.

Charles, Baron de Montesquieu(1689-1755) challenged the idea of rule by a monarch and championed individual freedom. Strong proponent of separation of church and state.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784) - in collaboration with Jean D'Alembert, founded the multivolume Encyclopédie designed to include all realms of knowledge. The work contained many articles attacking or critical of organised religion and Christian belief.



Diberot's Encyclopédie


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), philosopher and physicist, wrote on ethics and morals and prescribed a politics of Enlightenment.

Johann Gottfried von Herder, theologian and linguist, proposed that language determines thought.

Several European monarchs during this period, including Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria, were known as enlightened despots (!?) because they supported the ideas of the Enlightenment.


Adam Smith (1723-1790) - philosopher and economist - Smith was a Scottish philosopher and economist who is best known as the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth Of Nations (1776), one of the most influential books ever written.

David Hume (1711-1776) - philosopher and historian

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) - philosopher

North American

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) - a Founding Father of the USA, the main author of the Declaration of Independence and the third American President. A spokesman for democracy and the rights of man with wide influence; critical of the church, advocate for individual religious belief.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) - a Founding Father of the USA, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, sixth American President. Scientist, diplomat, author, philosopher. Claimed to be a Christian but was liberal in terms of theology, and a deist.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) - English-American political activist, author (writer of The Rights of Man), political theorist and revolutionary. His Common Sense (1776) was a central (Deist) text behind the call for American independence from Britain. Paine promoted reason and freethinking and argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular.

Jefferson's Bible


Benjamin Franklin

It is important to understand that many of these figures claimed they believed in God (atheists came later in the Enlightenment history and founded the basis of their atheism on the mistaken theism of the early Enlightenment).

Enlightenment versus Christian Belief - A Critique

1. The Enlightenment is sometimes viewed (by its supporters) as a movement in which the "human race awoke from its mental bondage and lethargy and entered into intellectual maturity". According to philosopher Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment was "the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy".

2. Central to the Enlightenment were the use and the celebration of Reason. Rationalism starts with the mind or thought, the power by which man thinks and understands the universe, and ends up with the explanation for everything in logical format. The goals of "rational man" were considered to be knowledge, freedom and happiness - without God or religion.

Early rationalists showed a distaste for late Mediaeval attachment to the likes of Aristotle, and scholasticism, and made the starting point knowledge of self rather than knowledge (and understanding) of God.

The Enlightenment movement advocated "reason" as the sole basis of ethics, knowledge and behaviour. Its leaders regarded themselves as courageous and elite, and viewed their purpose as leading the world towards progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, perceived as irrationality, superstition and tyranny (the so-called "Dark Ages").

As we have seen in this course, there was spiritual darkness during the Mediaeval period (as there is in every age), vested interests did not allow open enquiry, but there were also, always, Christians who pursued a Biblical world view and message.

Christ has taken us out of darkness into His light (1 Peter 2:9). That is "enlightenment".

During the Enlightenment, people were taught that unending progress in knowledge, technical achievement and moral values would be possible. Following the philosophy of John Locke, 18thcentury writers believed that the human mind begins as a blank sheet and that ideas and knowledge come only from experience and observation guided by reason.

Read Romans 3 for a description of human nature (and its capabilities) without God.
Consider also 1 Corinthians 3:19 and James 3:15

Although they claimed that they saw the church as the principal force that had "enslaved" the human mind in the past, most Enlightenment leaders did not renounce religion altogether. They opted rather for a form of Deism, accepting the existence of God and a hereafter, but rejecting most Christian theology.

3. In contrast to earlier eras in which (in Christendom) popes, priests, tradition, and the Bible were the authorities, the Enlightenment emphasised the authority of reason, of the individual ("I am the master of my destiny!") without God, over revelation. It stressed the overall goodness of people; while acknowledging that people could act wickedly; views concerning original sin and the depravity of man were replaced with an optimistic perspective concerning human nature: man could overcome evil on his own effort through reason and education ....if he is so inclined, cf Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-19

We only know Christ through divine revelation (Luke 10:22; John 6:44, cf Matthew 16:17); not persuasion of reason. In fact, our minds need to be "renewed" (Romans 12:2).

Enlightenment writers were mistaken in their assertions that belief in God and the use of reason (God-given, after all) were in conflict. The Christian faith is a reasoning faith. Reason is not used to create belief, but is a tool with which faith and understanding of Christianity can be explored and expanded.

Where there is conflict between God and human reason, "Let God be true, and every human being a liar." (Romans 3:4)

4. Human aspirations, rationalists believed, should not be centred on the next life, but rather on the means of improving this life. Happiness now was placed before salvation in the future. Nothing was attacked with more intensity and ferocity than the traditional Church.

5. Also characteristic of this new 'Age of Reason' was optimism about the betterment of society. Reason, education, science, and technology were believed to be ushering in a "technological Messianic" age in which many of the world's problems would be solved. The Enlightenment stressed the equality of all persons, believing that all were endowed with natural rights. It rejected the traditional view of the "divine right of kings" in which rulers were viewed as deriving their authority directly from God and (by extension) resisting injustice was a sin. There were exceptions to Enlightenment optimism, eg Rev John Malthus (1776-1834), who had views about famine, disease and natural disasters and their roles in keeping world population in check. Christians believe the only way to renew society is through a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

6. The Enlightenment spawned the discipline of biblical criticism which became popular in the major universities of Europe. There was no place left for the supernatural. Miracles and supernatural accounts in Christianity were rejected; they were viewed as being incompatible with reason. As a result, the Bible was subjected to unrelenting criticism. Traditional authorship of the Bible was rejected and anything supernatural was dismissed or reinterpreted. While some Enlightenment thinkers still embraced traditional Christianity, the Enlightenment gave birth to growing numbers of atheists, agnostics and Deists. For instance:

7. The Enlightenment made God an object in the universe, rather than a personal being. This identification broke the link between God and the tradition of scripture, liturgy, practice and thought that was a mark of the medieval church. God was perceived to be an immaterial entity that/who (?) could nevertheless interact with the material world. Such a construction produced obvious problems with the theology of the nature of God, creation, divine inspiration of the Scriptures, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (as the Son of God, not just a moral example, or a Teacher), His resurrection, and the message of Redemption and eternity.

8. In Enlightenment thought, human subjectivity replaced God (cf Romans 1:22). Each and every individual becomes his or her own reference point; there is no single truth, and no assurance, no moral or spiritual compass, just each person's opinion.

The End of the Enlightenment

It is difficult to date precisely when the Enlightenment era ended although some point to the French Revolution.

"There is an air of naivety about the so-called 'Age of Reason'. In retrospect it seems extraordinary that so many of Europe's leading intellects should have given such weight to one human faculty - Reason - at the expense of all the others. Naivety of such proportions, one might conclude, was heading for a fall; and a fall, in the shape of the terrible revolutionary years, is what the Age of Reason eventually encountered." (Davies, N, p. 577)

In today's "postmodern world" (and after two world wars, a cold war and ongoing conflicts) many key assumptions underlying the Enlightenment have been rejected, including overconfidence in reason and the innate goodness of man inevitably leading to an enlightened society.

If the church is to become an authentic voice in our time it must confront the false alternatives that have come down to us from the Enlightenment and proclaim a God who is real and a theology that is faithful to the Bible and the early church and is relevant to our era.

French Revolution

American Revolution

Issues Facing Christians During this period


Section OverviewArticle List