Share This Episode
Renewing Your Mind R.C. Sproul Logo

The Aftermath of the Enlightenment

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 13, 2024 12:01 am

The Aftermath of the Enlightenment

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

On-Demand Podcasts NEW!

This broadcaster has 1582 podcast archives available on-demand.

Broadcaster's Links

Keep up-to-date with this broadcaster on social media and their website.

January 13, 2024 12:01 am

Is God necessary to explain the world's existence and to find meaning for our lives? Today, R.C. Sproul continues his discussion of the Enlightenment to explain why some of its prominent thinkers sought to do away with religion.

Get R.C. Sproul's 'The Consequences of Ideas' 35-Part DVD Series and the Digital Study Guide for Your Gift of Any Amount:

Don't forget to make your home for daily in-depth Bible study and Christian resources.

A donor-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. Explore all of our podcasts:

Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul
Running to Win
Erwin Lutzer
Encouraging Word
Don Wilton
Encouraging Word
Don Wilton
What's Right What's Left
Pastor Ernie Sanders
Growing in Grace
Doug Agnew

What's going on now in the 18th century Enlightenment is an attempt to de-supernaturalize life, de-supernaturalize religion, if you will, so that the Bible has to go.

How did we get here today, living in the West in a society that has rejected God, extols science and reason, and so values the individual that we're all told to believe in ourselves? As you study philosophy and the history of thought, you begin to see how ideas build upon each other and that ideas have consequences. Welcome to the Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind, as we spend the next few weekends with R.C. Sproul's overview of philosophy, paying special attention to the Enlightenment and several significant figures. This overview is actually 35 messages and Dr. Sproul traces the development of philosophical thought that has shaped the Western world. Until midnight, you can request the special edition DVD and study guide with your donation of any amount at

Well, here's R.C. Sproul taking us back to the 18th century and the aftermath of the Enlightenment. We continue now with our brief survey of the Enlightenment.

We ask the question now, why was the Enlightenment called the Enlightenment? What was the new light that was being shed on issues of the day? Well, the 18th century Enlightenment, perhaps more than any period in the history of Western thought, showed a spirit of unbridled optimism with respect to the progress of the mind or what we might call intellectual progress.

We've seen the startling results in science and now revolutions occurring around the world and new paradigms for government with freedom and individual responsibility and these things that are taking place. The Enlightenment brought with it a severe tension between philosophy and the church because for many of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it was the church that was seen as the chief impediment or obstacle to further philosophical improvement and intellectual progress because the church was bound up in her dogmatism and was perceived by many of the critics of the Enlightenment to be the enemy of free thinking and free investigation for truth wherever it could be found. And so we see this critique emerge against the church and against Christianity. Now one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment was the French philosopher Voltaire, and Voltaire was very critical of the church, but he was not critical of theism. He was a devout believer in God and his problem, as he said, was he was not struggling against faith but against superstition, not even against religion but against the institutional church as he encountered it in his day. He wanted to leave room for faith, and so he was somewhat critical of religion, but his basic target was the church, and particularly the Protestant church at that day that had followed after Calvin and Luther, and he was also very critical of Pascal because of Pascal's revival of Augustinian thought within the Roman Catholic community, and Voltaire didn't like that. He shared Voltaire's concern for human corruption, but he saw more of the problem with superstition and an uninformed, unintellectual approach to faith.

But I would say that Voltaire is more of a literary figure, a kind of a transitional figure here, where he was a moderate with respect to his critique of religion. The French encyclopedists were the avowed enemies of all religion, and they were the ones, people like the Hobach and Diderot, who declared themselves personal enemies of God and brought forth the basic theme of the Enlightenment, which was this, namely, that the God hypothesis is no longer necessary to explain all of the old philosophical and historical problems, such as where did the world come from, what is the origin of human life. Now science, apart from the Bible and apart from religion, can answer all those questions that earlier philosophers had to fall back upon their speculation on the first cause as God to explain the world as we find it. So again, let me say that what they would condense their view of Enlightenment was that where the lights came on was to the realization that God is not a necessary hypothesis for theoretical thought. Now these men, in their efforts to put aside all forms of theism, developed the idea of spontaneous generation as the alternative to the Christian concept of creation, which view at that time seemed to be credible within the scientific world, but under later examination was found to be completely absurd.

Spontaneous generation means that things just pop into existence out of nothing. Now, for a short period of time, there were efforts in the Enlightenment to produce a natural religion, natural religion, which would be a religion based upon reason and a religion that would be noted for its chief article of tolerance or toleration. By the 18th century, Europe was fed up with religious warfare, with the endless disputes between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and all of the pain and suffering that had gone on in the world as a result of these fierce theological controversies. And so religion was upsetting daily life, and it was upsetting daily life, and of course these people thought that it was also a barrier towards a greater awakening or illumination that we can find through natural science. One of the ironies of this, of course, is that while this is going on in Europe in the 18th century, what's going on in America in the colonies is the Great Awakening, with the work of Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield Ashley, and the biggest religious revival that this new world will have experienced, not only up to that point, but since that point. And while religion is taking off in full force in America, it's suffering calamitous consequences under the impact of the Enlightenment in Europe. Now, for a time being, for a short period of time, the new religion that sought to replace classical Christianity on the continent was the religion of deism.

I've mentioned this in passing before, because of its historical significance. The deists were those who still affirmed the existence of God. They still believed that reason demanded God as creator.

Voltaire, for example, was convinced that reason demonstrated compellingly the need for a necessary being and followed Descartes at that point. But they wanted to strip religion of all of the accretions that have been heaped upon it through the history of the church and get back to the basics of natural religion, the religion by which God reveals Himself in nature. So, natural religion supplants biblical religion. And here is where we find the initial stages of radical criticism being offered against the integrity of the Scriptures, because there's an all-out effort by the Enlightenment thinkers to get rid of the authority of the Scriptures. Now, that also, according to experts on this period, was motivated in large major by the resistance against Augustinian theology and against the doctrine of original sin. I mean, there was a tacit agreement that Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and so on, that the Reformers were right about the condition of man's fallenness and that they had the Bible on their side over against Erasmus' higher view of man and against all Pelagian forms of theology. So, rather than try to ground their anti-Augustinianism on a different interpretation of the Bible, they decided to do what?

Get rid of the Bible and look at our understanding of mankind through the eyes of nature. So, you see all kinds of philosophies emerging in the 18th century extolling the virtue and the innocence of man in nature, which reaches its supreme expression in the work of Rousseau. But in any case, what the Enlightenment thinkers are seeking, first of all, is a natural religion that is marked by toleration, and it gets the name of deism. And deism is a particular form of deism that still says that God creates the world, but He basically steps back out of the world and lets the world operate according to the fixed natural laws that He has imbued into the creation, and God doesn't intervene in the structure of human events. Now, of course, as an organized religion, deism had a very short lifespan.

So, there was just simply a blip on the radar screen of Western history, but I've also said many times that even though it passed away quickly, the ongoing consequences of it reached down even to today. And there were those in the colonies who were practicing deists, and their contribution to the formation of the ideals of the American governmental system is a matter of much debate and so on, but that they were engaged in it and that they were real is beyond dispute. But in any case, you have things in the Declaration of Independence that speaks about we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, okay, or later on we hold these truths to be self-evident.

The language of that kind of documentation is language that comes right out of this environment of the 18th century, which was an attempt to base government and religion on nature. This is also the heyday of natural law. Now, the medieval church believed in natural law. St. Thomas Aquinas was a great advocate of natural law, but the natural law theorists of Christian history took their cue from the biblical exposition of natural law because Paul, for example, in Romans 2, speaks about the law of God that is written on our hearts, that not only do we learn God's law from listening to Moses and the Ten Commandments and so on, but we also have conscience and we also have an innate understanding of right and wrong.

This is the kind of thing that Immanuel Kant labors with with respect to his view of ethics. But that is the natural law or the Lex Nautilus was seen by the classical Christian synthesis as a reflection in this world of the so-called Lex Aeternitatis or the eternal law of God, so that natural law was a consistent application of biblical law. Now, what's going on now in the 18th century enlightenment is an attempt to de-supernaturalize life, de-supernaturalize religion, if you will, so that the Bible has to go and supernatural revealed theology has to go, and in its place comes natural theology or natural religion. And this is a very important point to understand because part of the hostility in our own day against natural theology is rooted in the church's awareness that it was the advocates of natural theology who gave birth to this critique of Revelation, of the Bible, and all the rest.

I, for example, am an outspoken advocate of the reconstruction of natural theology but not in the enlightenment sense where you reduce Christianity to what can be learned simply through a study of nature, but rather more in terms of the classical synthesis as Aquinas had it, where natural theology simply reinforced what was already present in the Scripture. Now, in any case, deism was welcomed by the moderates of the enlightenment, but the radicals of the enlightenment, people like, as I said, Diderot and the French encyclopedist, saw deism as a fatal compromise with religion. In fact, Diderot said that what deism managed to accomplish, and a positive note, was that it cut off ten heads of the hydra of organized religion. Going back to the ancient mythology of the hydra, you know, you cut off a head and grow two and so on. This one cut off ten heads, but he said, deism left that one head, the head of deism, and Diderot said, as long as that one head is left, all the other heads will come back.

They'll all grow back, and we'll have all the same religious problems in the future that we had in the past. And so, Diderot was not satisfied with this compromise. He wanted to take the axe to the root of the tree, or really to take the axe to the neck and cut off all of the heads of hydra, including the head of deism, and get rid of religion altogether. Now, Rousseau is one who was very important in this period because he also fought against the classical Christian view of original sin. And having rejected the biblical view of mankind, Rousseau came to the conclusion, and you've heard the famous statements, man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.

And say it again, man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. Now, the real chains that he's out to conquer are the chains of original sin, that doctrine of original sin that again was recovered by Pascal and others in his own day. And Rousseau, granted he agreed that there was much corruption in humanity, and society and civilization in the eighteenth century, according to Rousseau, was decadent. And because of the obvious corruption of human institutions, which the Reformers would point to as proof of the truth of original sin, let me just add a comment parenthetically, Edwards over in America wrote his masterful treatise on original sin in the eighteenth century, and he argued for the doctrine of original sin not only exegetically, which he did do, showing the biblical case for original sin, but he also has a lengthy section in his treatise on original sin proved by natural reason. And again, to simplify this, what Edwards was saying was if the Bible didn't tell us anything about a historical fall or anything about the doctrine of original sin, pure unvarnished reason would have to construct a theory of original sin to account for the universality of corruption, and that all people everywhere struggle with sin. If we're all born neutral and not fallen, one would expect not to find this kind of universality of human corruption. So, it's that kind of issue that Rousseau was struggling with, and he then gave his description of what he called the human state of nature. Sort of like the innocent savage, we are all born free from any kind of original sin.

But then he was faced with this question. If we are all born free of original sin and born actually in a virtuous state, why is the world so corrupt? Why is society decadent? Well, the answer that Rousseau gave obviously was that is the result of government. Man is born with a basic virtuous sense of self-love, which is not evil, but self-love degenerates into selfishness in community.

When governments come and form established institutions that sort of codify and place in concrete the worst impulses of human nature. For example, one of the insights that Rousseau had about this is the interdependency of human beings on each other. The whole world functions on the basis of a division of labor.

No man is truly an island. No man is ever really self-sufficient. The farmer needs the cattleman for his meat, and the cattleman needs the farmer for his wheat, and so on. And we all are interdependent in a global village on each other's contributions to the human enterprise. But as soon as I enter into a contract with you, or as soon as I enter into a cooperative venture with you, I become to some degree dependent upon you. And the more dependent I am upon you, the more I expose myself to your impulse to tyrannize me, so that the mutual relationships tend toward tyranny. And the more institutionalized these things become, the more government you have, then the more you are exploited and you become alienated from your basic human nature.

We call it the rat race. Most of us spend little time thinking about how our lives are made complicated by the structures and the systems of civilization and of society as we know it. I mean, we've sort of dropped into the society in which we live, and everybody's expected to have a car.

If you don't have a car, there's something wrong with you, or you can't compete, and you're expected to do this and you're expected to do this and you're expected to do that. And all the while, Big Brother's watching you and hurting you and hurting H-E-R-D, not hurting, although they may do that too. And so, Rousseau came to the conclusion that every person becomes whatever the government makes it, so that it is organized government that corrupts individuals.

Now, you would think on the basis of this that he would then appeal to a complete withdrawal from society, but that's not the case. Instead, what he said is what we need is a whole new understanding of government, where the government is based on a social contract that is not based on a covenant between those who are ruled and those who are the rulers. And that covenant is spelled out in terms of just laws. And the just laws reflect the general will or the general welfare, and everybody then, by pulling for the general good and for the general welfare, advancing their own human interests. And it's that kind of thinking that brought about the French Revolution, that kind of thinking that had an enormous impact on the establishment of America. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to the idea of a social contract, but I think it's naive and extreme to think that government is going to cure the problems of mankind. The obvious question you ask, Rousseau, is if man is all basically virtuous and it's civilization that corrupts him, how did the civilization get corrupt in the first place? Because the civilization is simply, society is simply made up of individuals. And so he's got the cart before the horse, I think.

It doesn't really ever answer the problem of the universality of human sin, except in a very naive way. But the upshot of all of this is a brand new sense of, all right, we have a new illumination. We're enlightened. We can now create our own destiny, get out from under the tyranny of the church and the tyranny of monarchs, and form a government that is based upon mutual agreement, the consent of the governed, where there are checks and balances in place. And that will bring about a just society. Well, we can look back at that and smile because we still struggle with the problems of decadence and moral corruption and so on, but now we do it so-called as enlightened people. Well, not all the philosophers of that day agreed with this somewhat optimistic view of what natural reason would be able to bring about, or natural religion or natural law, but rather became more and more skeptical and more and more pessimistic as they entered into the 19th century.

That was R.C. Sproul, and you're listening to the Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind. As Christians, we answer life's most fundamental questions from God's revealed Word, the Bible.

Others have tried to answer these ultimate questions without the Bible, and their thinking has shaped the world that you and I live in. Dr. Sproul's series, The Consequences of Ideas, traces the development of philosophical thought and helps us see where we may have been influenced more by the world than God's Word. Request your copy of the special edition DVD with your donation of any amount at You'll receive digital access to the series and study guide as well, so give your gift before midnight at Be sure to join us next Saturday as R.C. Sproul continues this study and introduces us to Immanuel Kant here on Renewing Your Mind. you
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-13 03:27:29 / 2024-01-13 03:35:40 / 8

Get The Truth Mobile App and Listen to your Favorite Station Anytime