The Church & the Enlightenment (part 1)

This is the manuscript from the first sermon preached in a new series on the Enlightenment – January 9th, 2011.

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). 

By the 5th century A.D. the once-great Greek civilization had settled and was ruled by others; the vast Roman Empire was collapsing from a combination of natural disasters, political incompetence, and cultural corruption.  The pagan brutality and moral bankruptcy of the Greeks and Romans finally reached its inevitable conclusion – collapse.

In the settling dust of that collapse stood the Christian Church, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy and outcasts, sharing the good news of Christ with even those barbarians who conquered Rome by the same brute force they once used against others.  Gradually, the Europe once ruled by Rome was tamed and Christianized; not perfect, but better. 

Christian historians refer to this period of time as Christendom; secular historians often refer to it as the Dark Ages.  Woe to those who call darkness light.

But, it gets worse.  About 1200 years later, following the Renaissance and the Reformation, we encounter a period which modern historians refer to as the “Enlightenment.”  This period was defined, by Immanuel Kant (an Enlightenment thinker), as “man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity” and using “one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.”

The Enlightenment is coupled with the Scientific Revolution when man was encouraged to see his own reason as the source of all knowledge.  As historian Jackson Spielvogel summarized, “All institutions and all systems of thought were subject to the rational, scientific way of thinking if people would only free themselves from the shackles of past, worthless traditions, especially religious ones.”

The end result is that the Enlightenment has created a massive revolt, a culture of revolution that rejects real authority in all its forms, tradition, absolute truth, gender distinctions, true education, science, art, beauty, and love.  In other words, the Enlightenment has thrown mankind headlong into darkness and has called it light, into evil and called it good, into disorder and called it freedom.  Modern government, Church, education, family, marriage, business; indeed, every area of life is saturated with Enlightenment thought – that man is ultimately sovereign.    

Over the course of the next several weeks, I will be preaching a series of sermons on the impact of the Enlightenment on the horrifying effect of the Enlightenment (the real Dark Age) on our culture at large and the Church in particular.  And, while I want to be as accurate as I can, I do not want this sermon series to become a lecture series; and, as a result, we will look back to our starting point, the book of Genesis, because Enlightenment thought begins here as well.  We are to begin here in faith, but Enlightenment thinking begins here in rejection.

I.                    The Starting Point – “In the beginning God…” (v. 1)

Verse 1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  We have, as Christians, what no other people have – a glimpse into the beginning.  In our study of history, we are taken to the beginning, the origin of all things.  And, without that starting point, man is left to, essentially, determine on his own some of life’s most important questions – where did I come from?  Why am I here?  Why does anything matter?  Is there any meaning to life?  Of course, the thinkers of the Enlightenment would simply say, “Well, good!  Man should be answering these things on his own.  Man’s reason is all that is needed to decide these things.  We don’t need God or religion, when we have reason and science.”

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement and that is why it continues to change people with such power.  Francis Schaeffer, as I have said before, noted that messages get into a culture in generally the same way.  They begin in philosophy, in thoughts, books, and classrooms.  Then those thoughts are demonstrated and worked out in the art world, the fine arts first and then into music which affects a far greater number of people.  Once an idea has reached the music world, it then becomes part of our general culture.  Finally, the culture begins to influence theology and the Church; so the Church goes the way of the culture.

This is precisely what has happened with the Enlightenment.  It began with philosophers saying things that the general public largely ignored or never heard.  But their ideas have taken root in all of Western Civilization.  Listen as I give you a brief view of the men and ideas of the Enlightenment.  We will come back to each of these in detail in the course of the series. 

  • Rene Descartes, whose radical skepticism caused him to, for many years, question his own existence (cogito ergo sum), taught that man cannot and should not trust his own senses.  He was a pure rationalist – only deductive truth should be believed; man always begins with doubt. 
  • Baruch Spinoza argued that morality had nothing to do with God, the Bible, or real right and wrong; morality could be figured out by mathematical equations – you could calculate what should be done in a given situation.
  • Thomas Hobbes was a political philosopher who argued that the rights of man are not given by God, but by the government and can be taken by the government.  He is the “father of modern political pragmatism” and his thought is the basis for nearly all of Western politics.
  • David Hume is probably most well-known for his attacks on all things supernatural, but he also argued for Utilitarianism, the idea that right and wrong is determined by whether or not something works.  If it accomplished what we wanted, then it is right; the greatest good for the greatest number.  This, of course, would help father socialism and communism.
  • Voltaire was a French writer who also took the position of atheism, claiming that “God is a convenience of those in power” to manipulate the masses.  His most influential work was in the field of history and he is the father of revisionist history – “If you let me write your histories, I don’t care who writes your laws.”
  • And finally, there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that man was good by nature (a “noble savage”) but corrupted by society and kept enslaved by the Church.  Man needed to return to his most natural state, relying only upon his own free will and desires.  Man must realize that morality only exists within his own heart and desires.

So, if you wonder, “Why a whole series of sermons on the Enlightenment?”  The answer is quite simple.  The Enlightenment and its’ fruit is, hands-down, the single greatest enemy to biblical thinking in our world.  And, because this is our enemy, we must meet him head on. 

From the Enlightenment, our culture has been given skepticism, radical doubt, the idol of science (which is not science at all), the god of the State, socialism, communism, and all other forms of destructive “isms” that stem from man making a god of himself.     

Our starting point, as the people of God, however, is spelled out for us in these 10 words (5 in Hebrew) – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  From that starting point, we find the answers to life’s most important questions – Where did I come from?  I and all things are made by God.  Why am I here?  I am here because God has chosen to make me.  I am here by His will.  Why does anything matter?  Is there any meaning to life?  Yes, there is meaning and significance to life because we are, by no means, an accident; but we were specifically created by God.

However, if that starting point is taken out of the picture, how can those questions be answered?  We are left to uncover the mystery of our beginnings, uncertain of whether there is any higher or honorable meaning to it at all. 

By beginning with human reason, doubt, or science, Enlightenment thinkers neglect to notice that this is simply the cause of the problem trying to solve the problem.  They deny the fallen nature of man, however, and claim that man only needs to be freed from the restraints of religion in order to find all he needs.  But, this is simply admitting the problem in another way.  What they have to admit, then, is that some men are the problem (preachers, believers, etc.) and that leaves us asking where they got their problem.  After all, Enlightenment thinking doesn’t allow for the existence of a God who is involved with the world, so ultimately the problem came from men and there goes the “innocence of man,” naturalism, and relativism because someone would have to be wrong.  It is self-defeating, self-contradictory.

We, however, begin with God not man.  The existence of God is assumed in the text, not proven.  Nowhere in Scripture is there an attempt to prove God’s existence and it would be highly ineffective to do so.  There must be a beginning point and the only two options are man or a God outside of man.  Those are, ultimately, the only two foundations on which we may stand.  It is difficult for man to stand upon himself, literally and spiritually, since he is the one with all the questions.  Psalm 14:1 & 53:1 both say, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”  The psalmist makes it clear that the one who rejects God is not suffering from an intellectual or head problem, but from foolishness.  Without the correct starting point, without a solid foundation on which to building one’s thinking, man is left to any and all devices.  Man is left to his own wisdom, his own thoughts and the end result is always foolishness.

II.                  Concluding Applications

1.      History matters – Voltaire was right; learn true history; these things are not irrelevant, indeed, they are significant enough for the pulpit.  Study these things, read.

2.      Ideas have consequences – do not belittle the power of ideas and philosophy, realize that we are likely far more influenced by the ideas of our culture than we know.  Guard and examine your thoughts – why do I think this way, on what do I base this?  Let us learn to stand upon the foundation of Scripture and not upon our own understanding; let us begin with God.

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