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The Rise of the Enlightenment

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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January 6, 2024 12:01 am

The Rise of the Enlightenment

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 6, 2024 12:01 am

Much of the antagonism toward the truth of God in our society today can be traced back to the 18th century. Today, R.C. Sproul evaluates the attempts of the Enlightenment to overthrow divine revelation with human reason.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

The 18th century saw a strong reaction against the whole notion of the fall, against original sin, against Augustinian theology, against Luther and Calvin and the rest, with this movement called the Enlightenment. We live in what many call a post-Christian world. The influence of the Reformation in the 16th century by God's grace was vast.

So how did we get to this point in history? That some of what we'll consider on Saturdays over the coming weeks on Renewing Your Mind, as R.C. Sproul introduces us to the rise and aftermath of the Enlightenment. Ideas have consequences. How we think truly matters is why Paul tells us that we must have our minds renewed. And one of the reasons Dr. Sproul taught philosophy, helping us see the ideas that have shaped the world in which we live. You can take a study in philosophy with R.C. Sproul when you request his 35-message overview, The Consequences of Ideas, at

Well, here's R.C. Sproul on the rise of the Enlightenment. If we would have the occasion to visit Western Europe at this time in history and go on the tours that feature visits to the great cathedrals and the churches of Western Europe, we soon discover that many of them have become museums, and what some cynics refer to as the mausoleums for the death of God and of Christianity. The last figure I saw was that roughly 2% of people in Western Europe are regular in attending church, and that the culture in the main has been secularized. And historians look back to the 18th century and see in the 18th century some pivotal events that took place then that have led to the demise of the church in the life of people in the Western world. We've seen already that the 18th century can be called the age of empiricism because of what was going on in Great Britain with respect to the questions of epistemology that were dealt with with people like Locke and Berkeley and Hume, but also the 18th century is famous for a movement that is called the Enlightenment.

And even though the 17th century was called the age of reason from an epistemological perspective, the 18th century is also sometimes referred to as the age of reason, not because of the distinction between rational and empirical trends in philosophical inquiry, but now because of the enthronement of reason with a capital R over against the idea of biblical revelation. The 14th and 15th centuries brought the Renaissance to Europe, and during that period, as we have seen, there was an attempt to focus people's attention on this world and to focus philosophical energy on understanding man, or mankind as it were. One of the most important voices, as we've already seen, for the Renaissance thinkers was that of Erasmus, who was supposedly a Christian humanist, but we saw the whole movement of humanism developing a following not only inside the church, but also as an alternative to the Christian community. But those forces of the Renaissance were then followed immediately by the 16th century Reformation, which saw a strong current of revival of biblical Christianity. And in the 16th century, we noticed that one of the chief debates at the time was between Martin Luther and Erasmus, and the subject that they debated was the question of man's fallen nature, the doctrine of original sin, particularly as it influences our understanding of human freedom. Now, in that debate in the 16th century, historians will usually grant that Erasmus lost that struggle, and Luther and the Reformers were triumphant in restoring a strong Augustinian theology to the Protestant world. And it's also true that in the 17th century, Luther and the Reformers maintained their victory over the humanists of the earlier period. But by the time we reach the 18th century in Europe, we can say that where Erasmus lost the battle in the 16th century and the 17th century to Luther, the 18th century is the age of the triumph of humanism and of the forces of Erasmus over the Reformation.

Because at the heart of Luther's theology, of Calvin's theology, both of whom were so heavily dependent on Augustine, was the view that man, as the Bible suggests, is corrupt in the core of his being and has, because of a historical fall, is now caught up in this bondage of the human will to evil impulses. The 18th century saw a strong reaction against the whole notion of the fall, against original sin, against Augustinian theology, against Luther and Calvin and the rest with this movement called the Enlightenment. Now, in Germany, the Enlightenment was called the Aufklärung, which is simply the German word for enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was a strong force basically in three countries, Germany, France and England, and the thinking that came out of the 18th century Enlightenment had a tremendous formative influence on the New World as it was emerging here in the United States and also for the future of Western Europe. And when we go back to the 18th century and look at the Enlightenment, we see that the period did not present to us a monolithic movement. And sometimes people who look at the 18th century and speak of the Enlightenment sometimes caricature the Enlightenment as if it were a unified, systemic movement where all the philosophers believed basically the same thing, namely that it was a monolithic experience, but that's not the case at all.

There were a host of thinkers engaged in this movement called the Enlightenment, and they run the gamut on the philosophical spectrum and theological spectrum from the still highly religious to those who were absolutely cynical and skeptical and hostile towards any kind of religion. But as far as epistemology was concerned, the Enlightenment thinkers shared for the most part a common approach to knowledge, which was called the analytical method. And this method was a method that had been born in the laboratory of natural science because of the tremendous advances in astronomy, in physics, in mathematics, and in the other sciences with the discovery of the so-called scientific method. The thinkers of this time were now applying this method of learning not only to natural sciences like biology and chemistry and physics, but also they began to apply this methodology to what we would call the social sciences, and I'll give a couple of examples of that as we proceed. But again, the startling results of the Copernican Revolution, the Alaleos experiments and so on, and now specifically with the impact of the whole new scientific paradigm brought about chiefly through the work of Isaac Newton. Newtonian physics was indeed revolutionary. Now Newton himself had a very strong religious bent. In fact, he saw his work as a scientist in his own terms, in his own words, as being engaged in thinking God's thoughts after him.

But not everyone in this new emerging science had the same appreciation for religion that Newton did. And so this analytical method can be simply defined as this, that the task of philosophy and the task of science is to seek the logic of the facts. Now this is basically empirical in its initial stages. That is, as the scientist gathers his data empirically, he gets the individual pieces of information. Now the scientist is told to apply the rational skills of deduction to the inductive approach of collecting data, experimenting with the data and so on, and to see if the data yields an observable pattern or a coherent system. That's what is meant by looking for the logic of the facts. Now the idea here is that you don't begin with some kind of philosophical system and then use that as a grid to cover the facts and try to squeeze the facts into your preconceived system.

But rather the system is to emerge from a study of the facts. I run into this problem all the time in teaching systematic theology. That's one of the courses that I teach in the seminary, and that's basically my field, systematic theology. And I notice with each passing year a greater antipathy and distrust towards the very concept of systematic theology.

Students today have this kind of allergy against any kind of system. We're an anti-system society, and so often the accusation is that the systematic theologian has a theological framework and then he comes to the Bible and he tries to interpret every piece of information in the Bible into that framework or that theological system. Which would then of course involve us in a serious distortion of what is in the Bible. And so you have this clash between so-called systematic theology and biblical theology on the other hand, where the biblical theologians pay attention to the details of the various portions of Scripture and eschew putting them together in any kind of system. Well, what systematic theology has meant historically is not to come with a preconceived system to the Bible, but it's simply to look for the logic of the facts. That is, to see the holistic, comprehensive, coherent relationship of all of the individual parts of the Bible. That is, the assumption is that the Bible is unity. The Bible is coherent.

It comes ultimately from God, and so we should be able to find an inner logic in it. But in any case, that's just an illustration or example of this approach to knowledge, which I think is basically a sound approach. I have no complaint to make essentially against the analytical method or what we would call the scientific method today, as long as it is used properly. But one of the fascinating developments in the Enlightenment was, I said, that there's new excitement and confidence in the developments in progress in physics and biology and so on. This principle of the analytical method was then transferred in an attempt to understand the social sciences. For example, Montesquieu, as an Enlightenment thinker, wrote his famous book called The Spirit of the Laws, where he examined all of the different civilizations that he was aware of historically throughout the history of the West.

And he looked for patterns. And just like we would in biology divide things into kingdoms and phyla and genus and species and so on, what Montesquieu did was he said, well, the basic patterns are these. There are all kinds of individual governments that come and go throughout Western history, but there are three basic, generic forms of government that we find historically. There is, first of all, what you would call a dictatorship. And then there is, second of all, a monarchy or monarchial government. And third, there is some form or another of democratic government.

Now, in analyzing these various forms of government historically, he looked for laws that apply to government. Just like Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations said there are laws that govern economics, like the law of scarcity and supply and demand, Gresham's law that bad money drives out good money, and if you debase the currency, the old currency will suddenly pass out of existence as it will be held by those who are collecting it. Just as today, if you have silver coins from before 1950 or so on, their metal value is higher than their currency value. So nobody will take a silver 50 cent piece or a silver 25 cent piece and go to the store and use it interchangeably as a quarter because its silver content is so much higher than the currency value.

The good money has been driven out of circulation. That's one of the things that Adam Smith noticed. So what these people were doing was that they were studying the phenomena that manifests itself in these fields, such as economics and government and so on, and looking for patterns, looking for trends, looking again for the logic of the facts. Now when Montesquieu made his application of government to history, he noticed that there were certain basic underlying conditions that had to be maintained for certain forms of government to survive.

And then he reduced these various aspects to those things that he believed were most necessary, and I'll just give a quick example of this sort of thing. He turns his attention to these three forms of government and he said, the single most important necessary ingredient for the successful continuity of a dictatorship is fear, that dictators capitalize on fear in order to stay in power. That's why when you find dictators, you'll find frequently secret police, all kinds of purges of hostile opposition and so on. And people are oppressed under this kind of a regime because when a dictator rules, there's always more power in the masses than in the individual who holds sway. And the only way he can keep himself in power is to so intimidate the masses and keep them afraid to revolt and to rise up against his dictatorship that he has to have a reign of terror in order to do that. Now we've seen that over and over and over again in history and certainly since the 18th century with the police state of Russia and of Germany and other examples of that around the world. I remember when Lech Wałęsa was placed under house arrest during the communist regime, I wondered what was going to go on there. He had become so popular in Poland and so famous that I figured that the Soviets understood that if they killed him, that it was actually too late to kill him because he would become a martyr and that could trigger a revolution. Because what Wałęsa represented was one man who stood against the system with courage and that's the thing that will always topple dictatorships according to Montesquieu.

Now he also made this observation. He said that traditionally and historically when one of these forms of government falls, it is inevitably or invariably replaced by one of the other three. Now coming down to monarchy, he said that the single most important ingredient for a monarchy to survive is the principle of honor. That's why in the medieval times there was so much attention given to courtesy, which is a shortened word for two words, court etiquette. And you all have your ladies and lords and the chivalry of all of that business and the pageantry and the pomp and circumstances that go with the monarchy. We see it today even in England with all that goes on with the royalty and all of the curtsying and bowing and the accouterments of a monarchical system. The whole principle here is that the royalty is to be held in high esteem and in high honor by the subjects to the king or to the queen and then that works its way down through the dukes and the duchesses and the earls and the ladies and all of that. And whenever there is a loss of honor and the people no longer have respect for their monarchical rulers, then the monarchy collapses. Now obviously we've seen in the Western world all kinds of constitutional monarchies that don't rule with the same kind of absolute power that earlier forms of monarchy did in Europe, but we've seen, for example, the crisis in England over the whole business of the divorce, pending divorce between Charles and Diane.

Because all of a sudden the monarchy, even though it's only titular in its representation, was in serious trouble in England because it had been disgraced. And once disgraced, once the honor is lost, then with it comes the stability of it. The third form of government in its broadly based format is the democratic form, and the democratic form, which as I find interesting, according to Montesquieu, finds as its most important necessary condition for its survival and for its continuity of existence is what he called civic virtue. Civic virtue, where there is an educated and enlightened sense of responsibility and of obedience, civil obedience, and of respect for law. And the idea is when the law is no longer respected and public morality fails, then inevitably the democracy crumbles. And that's an interesting view because now looking back to the beginnings of this country, which tried to follow broadly a form of democratic government even though it was constituted as a republic, nevertheless we've seen that very crisis attach itself to our own culture and people wonder whether the grand experiment of the American model is going to survive because of the loss of civic virtue.

And of course if it collapses, then what do you look for? You look for either a monarchy, which is highly unlikely in this day and age, or the worst alternative, the problem of dictatorship. Well in any case, these are the ways in which the Enlightenment thinkers used the new science to apply themselves to the social sciences, and one of the most important social sciences that emerged in the 18th century was that of political theory. This is the golden age of political theory where all kinds of new paradigms were emerging and new thoughts were brought to the fore on how to create an ideal form of government. And again, that's tied into this business of original sin because in the past, original sin meant that people were corrupt and fallen and could not govern themselves. But with the triumph of the new humanism and the rejection of this pessimistic view of human nature came the view that really what has to happen is the improvement of society. And once society is improved, then human behavior will improve and new forms of government will be the key to bring in this kind of utopian civilization. Well, we'll see how that works out in the broader application of the theories of the Enlightenment in our next session.

That was R.C. Sproul as we spend several Saturdays considering the rise and aftermath of the Enlightenment. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and I'm glad you're with us for this Saturday edition. You can study philosophy deeper when you request R.C. Sproul's The Consequences of Ideas series for donation of any amount at From Socrates to Plato, Augustine to Aquinas, Dr. Sproul will help you see the progress of ideas and philosophical thought that led us to where we are today. This special edition DVD set along with the digital study guide can be yours when you give a gift of any amount at R.C. Sproul will continue this introduction to the Enlightenment and the aftermath next Saturday, here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-06 03:21:09 / 2024-01-06 03:29:03 / 8

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