Monday, April 18, 2022

From Reformation to Benightenment

The two centuries inaugurated by the Peace of Westphalia on the continent (1648), the Stuart Restoration in Britain (1660), and the Halfway Covenant in New England (1662) witness the fundamental reorientation of Christendom.

The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland

The East, as seen in Russia in the last installment, began to Westernize and turn to secular humanism as the West had – suggesting that the paradisaical viewpoint held in the East did not protect it from modernism.  Christendom began everywhere to exchange paradise for utopia; displacement became replacement.

For a time, the beliefs and values of Christianity and humanism would coexist.  But the Wars of Religion, as Strickland refers to these (as this is how these wars have been framed) would change this.  And here, again and as I have done during my review of this book and others that cover these same events, I will insist that these were wars of state building, not wars of religion. 

That France and the Holy Roman Empire – both Catholic – would fight against ach other should be sufficient to dissuade the use of this label, but it is also sufficient to see the desires of the many princes and kings – whether Catholic or Lutheran – to relieve themselves of sharing authority with Rome.

Blame the wars on religion instead of on the reality that princes wanted to consolidate power.  It isn’t like we aren’t familiar with such deceptive labeling in our own time.  Our wars are for today’s religion of western-styled liberal democracy, we are told; but these, too, are wars for nothing more than control.

For one more bit of evidence:

So great was the disgrace of Christianity in its post-schism, reformational form that the elite ceased to hold to it.

Because the elite become elite by minimizing any authority to which they are beholden. 

In any case, during this period some would embrace a form of pietism, others a utopian Christianity.  Still others would abandon the faith altogether.  Eventually, secular humanism would come to replace the humanism that existed with Christianity.

The two centuries joining the wars of Western religion [sic] with the rise of revolutionary ideology therefore represent in the history of Christendom a period not only of reorientation but disorientation.

This would be from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, when the roots of radical socialism and communism would be formed.  For some reason, we refer to this period as the Enlightenment.

But something else strikes me: the words “reorientation” and “disorientation” each contain “orient,” east being the direction of the alter in traditional churches.  Hence, to disorient or reorient is to move away from this tradition, it seems – both symbolically as well as practically.

A sixteenth century Dominican friar, Giordano Bruno, is introduced.  He offered that the stars were each suns with their own solar systems and that the recently revealed Copernican model was the valid model of our solar system.  He also challenged many doctrines of traditional Christianity.  Not mentioned by Strickland, but these included the doctrines of eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation.  He was executed for this list of heretical views.

Next comes Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method; empirical observation, not theology or revelation, was to be the important means through which proper science would be conducted.  He would write a treatise to introduce his utopia, The New Atlantis.  One of its citizens would declare:

“The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, the secret motion of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human [dominion], to the effecting of all things possible.”

I don’t know if Bacon intended this to include the abolition of man, but, as CS Lewis offered, man is the last frontier of nature for other men to conquer.  We are, of course, living in precisely these times.

René Descartes.  The father of modern philosophy.  “I think, therefore I am.”  Having lived through the wars of state building (aka the Wars of Religion), he lost confidence in the truth claims of, in Strickland’s words, “the new Christendom.”  Knowing what I know of Descartes, I don’t know that he would have held to the truth claims of the old (Eastern) Christendom either.

Strickland bases his distinction of “the new” Christendom on the facts that in the West there was no agreement on the true nature of the Eucharist, or that “Scripture alone” failed to unite doctrine.  But would some of the mysteries of the Eastern Church, even if not more broadly accepted, not have failed to satisfy as well?  This point isn’t addressed by Strickland.

Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke, Isaac Newton. All are introduced as foundational thinkers of this time, and all were searching for something to quell the turmoil brought on by competing doctrinal disputes.  It is true enough that the search in most cases was to be made in the observable, believing that such “factual” and provable (objective) observations would be immune from challenge leading to wars and destruction.  We know well that this did not prove to be the case.

Then there was the reaction by the pietists.  Pietism over ecclesial or doctrinal matters.  Given the decadence, as he saw it, in even the reformational churches, Philipp Spencer would introduce the idea of “little churches within a church.”  Liturgy and sacraments would play a far lesser role, creating a quite individualistic practice.  Combined with sola scriptura, one could, it seems almost become a church to one’s self.

Pietism’s most famous musical advocate would be Johann Sebastian Bach.  His lyrics would focus on converting the individual’s heart as opposed to establishing the individual in a confessional church.  His music would focus on wonderful warm melodies and dazzling ornamentation.   (I also view him as the father of progressive rock!)

A further list of well-known eighteenth-century Protestant thinkers, theologians, and composers is offered, each compared and contrasted to the East – think, for example, of Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” 

The God that holds you over the pit of hell…he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else. …God will have no other use to put you to but only to suffer misery….

Really quite the opposite of the view held in the Eastern Church.

Out of all this came deism.  Yes, there is a god who set things in motion, but this god doesn’t care much or intervene much beyond that.  The main point against which all would stand is the concept of original sin.  Human misfortune is not to be blamed on man’s depravity, but on Christianity itself!

Enlightened by deism, Candide, born in Voltaire’s Edenic garden, would slowly fall from such a paradise.  By the end of the novel, Candide would declare, “Let is cultivate our garden.”  In other words, man should tend to his own condition, becoming the sole master of his destiny.


Strickland offers that the attacks on Christianity by men such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, were attacks on doctrines that were uniquely Western – Catholic and Protestant.  This isn’t surprising to me – it is the Christianity that they knew; it is the world in which they lived.  Had they understood Eastern doctrines and practices, would not such men – given the horrendous lives and views held by men such as these – found reason to rebel against any idea of objective ethical and social truths?

With this said, I continue to find Strickland a fair presenter of the history – to me, he continues to prove to be an example of one able to carry on a respectful dialogue that crosses the boundaries of Christian traditions.  The Church – in its broadest sense – could use many more men like Strickland.


  1. Descartes was the last Christian philosopher who based his ideas on reason. Those who followed him (Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegarrd) gave up on reason and based their ideas on non-reason. It is weird to me that the Enlightenment is the name for the era when philosophers rejected reason. At the same time they rejected reason in their field, reason was upheld in the physical sciences. The point is that those who followed Descartes were going to strip down whatever logical meaning of life they saw in their culture. Your point I think is correct. If they would have lived in the East they would have dismantled those beliefs instead.

    Many of the these names I have considered Christians. Descartes. Bacon. Pascal. Newton. Locke. Locke was secular in his teaching, but his ideas were still based on reason and biblical principles. Did Strickland claim they were part of the problem? I think Bacon for instance probably did call for scientific inquiry to be unconstrained by the Bible, but from my understanding he wasn't anti-Bible.

    My views on these modern Western scientist:

    Explanation of the reject of reason for non-reason:

    1. "Did Strickland claim they were part of the problem?"

      I think he presents them more like they were inevitable, which I think is correct once reason is divorced from God - which, even in the Christian thinkers of the time was the case (as they say, first slowly, then all at once).

    2. I guess that is where I am having a problem. Schaeffer presented Bacon, Newton, Pascal, and Descartes as all solidly Christian. In his telling they had a Christian base on which the other things sat upon.

      Locke was a little more complicated. He was more secular in his teaching but still Christian. I would have to see specifics to know which was correct, Schaeffer or Strickland.

    3. The dividing line, it seems to me, is in the transition to nominalism - led by good Christian men, no doubt.