Thursday, January 13, 2011

Law and Gospel: What do they teach? -- Part 3.2, What Happened to the Events of the Gospel? (The Impact of the Enlightenment)

An Interlude: What Happened to History, Anyway?

The historical events of Christ's life are a significant and necessary aspect of His Gospel. We are expected to be witnesses of them alongside His teaching (Lk. 24:46-48). Prior to the Enlightenment, that these events occurred in history was not disputed by anyone in the Church, whether Roman, Protestant, or otherwise. That they occurred was taken as true history, the facts of which demonstrate to any rational person, then and now, that the man, Jesus, is who He claimed to be: God in the flesh – the Christ, the Promised One of God. Of course, merely recognizing this converts no one: even the Sanhedrin knew that Jesus was no ordinary man, understood the veracity of His miracles, knew that He had risen from the grave, and thus had every reason to take these events as demonstrative of His deity – Dr. Luke even calls them "infallible proofs" in Acts 1. But they rejected Him just the same. Rather, knowledge of the events recorded in Scripture provides for the hearer of them a basis for listening to and hearing the message which attends them, through which the Holy Spirit produces and strengthens faith and provides the assurance and conviction of all that Scripture records. Just as importantly, they establish the reality of Christ’s atoning work and the forgiveness of sins. These are the events through which the Atonement was accomplished. Apart from them, apart from the actual and physical Resurrection of Jesus in human history, there is no validation of the Scriptures as God’s Word – neither the Old Testament testimony concerning the Christ, nor the message of Jesus who is the Christ; there is no forgiveness of sins; there is no Atonement; and thus faith becomes delusion and we are again without hope: for without the Resurrection, God is still real and is still angry with sinners – the Natural Law tells us this much.

Regarding the theory of history and its study, Christians of the Mediæval and Reformation era essentially followed St Augustin’s “linear, though [christo-centric]” perspective (which guided historians into broad non-nationalistic narration)10, and, given that history served to testify of Him and that through its unfolding served Him and His Bride as the tool by which the salvation of individuals is accomplished, regarded God Himself as the Author and Subject of history11:
    To the Reformers, God’s sovereignty over history and His great act of mercy in entering history for man’s salvation provided the only bases for hope and the only remedies for meaninglessness in historical interpretation12.

The Impact of the Enlightenment on the historicity of the Gospels
The effect of the Enlightenment upon Christianity has been just this: to strip historical basis from the witnesses of Christ. From it has issued serious and unrelenting challenges, which in the past two-and-a-half centuries have worked to empty the Christian message of its authority, to deprive the world of the notion that events serve transcendent purposes and that they have done so throughout history, and thus to empty Christianity of any compelling voice in Western Society – other than what may have already been consistent with the Enlightenment notion of Natural Law, as discussed in Part Two – along with any meaningful response to alternative religious claims.

Already leading into the Enlightenment, eminent French mathematician-philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) had issued serious criticisms of the study of history:
    [W]hen one employs too much time in traveling, one becomes a stranger in one’s own country, and when one is too curious about things which were practised in past centuries, one is ususally very ignorant about those which are practised in our own time. Besides, fables make one imagine many events possible which in reality are not so, and even the most accurate of histories, if they do not exactly misrepresent or exaggerate the value of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, at least omit in them all the circumstances which are basest and least notable; and from this fact it follows that what is retained is not portrayed as it really is, and that those who regulate their conduct by examples which they derive from such a source, are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance13.
His was known as Cartesian Philosophy, the essence of which was investigation of truth through doubt. According to Descartes, there were two distinct spheres in which one could doubt: the sphere of reason, and the sphere of experience14. This distinction came to be known as Cartesian Dualism, which holds that reason and experience, or mind and matter, though distinct, also interact. Exploring this interaction, Descartes conducted an experiment – of questioning everything he knew – and discovered that while he could successfully question every aspect of his experience, he could not question his reason: I think, therefore I am15. Thus reason, he discovered, is the seat of existence – not experience. As a consequence, when reason and experience interact, human liberty results only when reason directs experience – that is, when reason is the cause of human action. On the other hand, human slavery results when experience is the cause of reason, when people are prompted to the exercise of reason on the basis of what happens to them or around them. Interestingly, Cartesian reasoning is what made it possible for Descartes to acknowledge the existence of a real God, and in human liberty to also acknowledge His authority – not by human experience, not by revelation in history, but by reasoning from the concept of perfection, or of the ideal. Since the ideal is not any part of human experience, and yet the concept exists in his reason, then, according to Descartes, the source of this concept must be transcendent16.
    What caused him to couple history with fable and to argue that accounts of the past omit vital information and “lead us to imagine the possibility of many events that are impossible?” The answer lies in Descartes’ conviction that if certainty is to be found, it will be discovered not in the variegated realm of human experience, but in the absolute realm of mathematics and philosophy. Descartes was the true father of the eighteenth-century “Age of Reason,” in which pure rationality was elevated above the flux of human life and the alleged superstitions of revealed religion17.
By the time of the Enlightenment, though the impact of pure rationality remained, Cartesian Philosophy itself had drawn objection from and was eventually dominated by a competing philosophical perspective known as Empiricism, a perspective which also issued several serious objections to the use of history in establishing truth. Chief among the Empiricists was Sir David Hume (1711-1776). Considered the father of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, he reasoned from a position of inductive skepticism18 that “the universal experience of mankind is that miracles do not happen,” and that no event can be accepted as having happened if it is inconsistent with common human experience19. This prompted him to characterize the Reformation, in early editions of his widely acclaimed History of England, as a clash between the superstitious and the fanatical. In the forward to the Liberty Classics edition of his History, we find these sections reprinted for the reader’s curiosity, from which the following analysis is excerpted:
    The first reformers, who made such furious and successful attacks on the Romish SUPERSTITION, and shook it to its lowest foundations, may safely be pronounced to have been universally inflamed with the highest ENTHUSIASM. These two species of religion, the superstitious and fanatical, stand in diametrical opposition to each other; and a large portion of the latter must necessarily fall to his share, who is so couragious as to control authority, and so assuming as to obtrude his own innovations upon the world20.
Such commentary drew harsh criticism from religious quarters among the nobility (and others who would endorse and/or purchase his six-volume history), enough so that he withdrew these sections from the final revisions of his work21. The implications of Hume’s regard for extraordinary historical claims is simply this: the extent of history is the extent of common human experience, and that there is no reliable meaning from extraordinary events one has not personally experienced.

Fellow Empiricist, Voltaire (1694-1778), consistent with the deism of his time, rejected the notion of faith itself and mocked any religious claim which was not immediately measurable via the tools of laboratory science. Rising through his career as historian, poet, and philosopher, to “achieve a reputation among his contemporaries as the greatest living historian”22, he saw history merely as a tool to create a more rational social order in the present, a view which led him to “a continual vilification of the part played by religion in history ...[using] its numerous instances of human superstition and irrationality to teach men how to act in accord with reason”23. As a result of this thinking, for example, contemporary Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), author of the eminent work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “[seeing] in the Fall of Rome the triumph of Christian superstition and barbarism over the rational civilization of Classical times,” lamented his work as “little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” 24. Many shared Gibbons’ negative view of history, repelling their interest and regard for it and, as a practical consequence, drawing concern more and more toward matters of the present25.

It was the mathematician turned philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), however, who mounted a throne at the center of the Enlightenment, and through whom emanated its influence into following generations, in numerous schools of thought: idealism, realism, pragmatism, existentialism, and even analytic philosophy26. Kant taught that all which can be known is determined solely in the mind of the knower (the phenomenal sphere), and is separate and independent from the world of things, events, or ideas outside of the knower (or, the noumenal sphere)27 – meaning that, according to Kant, all that can be known comes from the realities to which the mind is exposed, which activate the intellect and become experience, or, phenomena. Moreover, these spheres not only proceed autonomously, but this autonomy extends to their meaning28. Since all reasoning proceeds from pre-suppositions which descend from the phenomenal world of the knower, and since the phenomenal and noumenal spheres are autonomous, no conclusions regarding the noumenal can be reached with certainty in the mind of the knower. The only absolutes that can be reached by the knower, are those governing his own moral action. If human action is thus moral action, the record of human action reveals nothing other than patterns in the independent will of man as they cyclically move within nature’s plan of universal history, a study of which may suggest what that plan might be29. But, according to Kant, God does not reveal Himself in history. According to Kant, God exists only as a necessary idea descending from the absolute moral force present and operating in every person, from which proceeds the categorical imperative of all men30,31,32. That is to say, the idea of God proceeds from a priori moral qualities found within the nature of man, not from God to man through events outside of him and beyond his experience. Thus, under Kant, God became merely an ideological extension of anthropological existence.

Following Kant into the 19th Century, the well-known and very influential philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) taught that events themselves are nothing other than the unfolding of thoughts in the Absolute Mind, that history represents the unfolding of macrocosmic progress, as, through the "strife of opposites," the truth of one moment is exhausted and successively replaced by the “superior truth” of the next33,34,35. According to Hegel, “Theses” (or today's truth) meets its opposite, “Anti-Thesis,” the result of which a new, “Synthesis,” or “superior truth,” emerges. In other words, from Hegel we would learn that history is nothing other than the leavings of inferior and failed truth. Interesting as a curiosity, perhaps, but irrelevant to the present or future given the cosmic reality of universal progress. Indeed, it is from Hegel that the idea “future equals progress” has, even to this day, become a defining characteristic of popular American culture: the quality of optimism. The idea is called “progressivism” – and it has had no small amount of influence in science, law, politics, business and education.

Darwin, Nietsche, Freud, Marx and Dewey are notoriously representative of countless others who followed, rejecting the relevance of God and His Special Revelation to the understanding of nature, man, or the ordering of society. As a result, entering the 20th Century, Materialistic Rationalism governed the academic, scientific and cultural landscape, and held the Church firmly under its boot, while by the Century’s close, in a (hopefully) final dissipating act of intellectual rebellion, Postmodernism has ultimately rejected the specific utility of language itself, other than as one of innumerable means of delivering external narrative to individuals in a way that creates subjective personal encounters with the people and events of that narrative. Truth, while being admitted at least in theory by Postmodernism, cannot be known, since language is insufficient to articulate it. Therefore, "truth" is not the point of offering an historical account. Rather, being ambivalent toward truth in this way, narrative is the means through which ones relativistic worldview is socially constructed, and by means of shared narrative the community’s social order is normalized. This is the function of “social networking” in our day, the reason for the prolific use of emoticon’s, text glyphics, and emphasis on other modes of non-verbal communication, and the source of idealistic goals like “global community.”

Not only has the World fought vigorously to deprive the Church of the historicity of the Gospel accounts, of the veritable life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, and to set Christianity on equal footing with all other religions, which, unlike Christianity, have no basis in verifiable fact, today it appears that the World is proceeding yet beyond this, by depriving the Church of the very language that is required to communicate those facts to begin with, along with the saving message attending them.

More to come...


  1. Montgomery, J. (1975). The Shape of the Past. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pp. 45-48.
  2. Ibid. pg. 51
  3. Ibid. pg. 52
  4. Descartes, R. (1981). Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences. In E. Haldane and G. Ross (Trans.) René Descartes: Philosophical Works. (English translation revised 1931, original work published in French 1637). Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library. pp. 80-81.
  5. Descartes, R. (1981). Meditations on the First Philosophy in which the Existence of God and the Distinctions between Mind and Body are Demonstrated: Book III. In E. Haldane and G. Ross (Trans.) René Descartes: Philosophical Works. (English translation revised 1931, original work published in Latin 1641). Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library. pp. 193-208
  6. Descartes, R. (1981). Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences. In E. Haldane and G. Ross (Trans.) René Descartes: Philosophical Works. (English translation revised 1931, original work published in French 1637). Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library. pp. 83-84,98-99
  7. Descartes, R. (1981). Meditations on the First Philosophy in which the Existence of God and the Distinctions between Mind and Body are Demonstrated: Book III. In E. Haldane and G. Ross (Trans.) René Descartes: Philosophical Works. (English translation revised 1931, original work published in Latin 1641). Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library. pp. 163-178.
  8. Montgomery, J. (1975). The Shape of the Past. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pg. 66
  9. Stove, D. (2001). Scientifc Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. pp. 95-97, 100-101, 106.
  10. Sir David Hume. (1748). Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Article X: “Of Miracles”
  11. Hume, D. (1983). The History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Ceasar to The Revolution in 1688 Vol. 1. (Original work published 1778). Indianapolis: Liberty Classics. (Quote taken from the Forward of this volume, authored by William B. Todd, 1982). pg. XIV.
  12. Ibid. pp. XIII-XIV.
  13. Montgomery, J. (1975). The Shape of the Past. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pg. 66.
  14. Ibid. pg. 67
  15. Ibid. pg. 68
  16. Ibid.
  17. Stoops, J. (1971). Philosophy and Education in Western Civilization. Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers. pg. 194.
  18. Ibid. pg. 195
  19. Johnson, T. (2005). Natural Law Ethics: An Evangelical Proposal. Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft. pg. 26.
  20. Kant, I. (1949). Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent. In C. Friedrich (Ed.), The Philosophy of Kant (pp. 116-131). New York: Modern Library.
  21. Kant, I. (1949). Critique of Pure Practical Reason. In C. Friedrich (Ed.), The Philosophy of Kant (pp. 209-264). New York: Modern Library. pp. 225-234,238-240
  22. Kant, I. (1949). Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. In C. Friedrich (Ed.), The Philosophy of Kant (pp. 365-411). New York: Modern Library.
  23. Stoops, J. (1971). Philosophy and Education in Western Civilization. Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers. pg. 198.
      The categorical imperative was expressed in two ways:
      1. Act so that the maxim of your will can always hold good as a principle of universal legislation.
      2. So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other as an end, never as a means
      pg. 198
  24. Ibid. pp. 199-206.
  25. Hegel, G. (1953). The Phenomonology of the Spirit. In C. Friedrich (Ed.), The Philosophy of Hegel (pp. 399-519). New York: Modern Library.
  26. Hegel, G. (1953). The Science of Logic. In C. Friedrich (Ed.), The Philosophy of Hegel (pp. 177-217). New York: Modern Library.

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