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The Enlightenment?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 1 October 2007

I have been trying to discover the first person to describe the philosophical, theological and scientific movements in the 16th and 17th century as the “Enlightenment”. After all, the word carries so much freight. It implies that before this event, human beings existed in a time of darkness, ignorance and superstition.

The term “Middle Ages” is another freighted name that implies that these were the ages between the light of Greek philosophy and the aforementioned Enlightenment. I suspect that the first person, presumably a historian, who used these terms, was of a secular persuasion who identified the influence of the Church with darkness and ignorance and the new age of rationalism with light and knowledge. If any reader has insight into how these terms came about I would be glad to know.

An uncritical and positive view of the Enlightenment is orthodoxy at Australian secular universities to the extent that few have departments of theology even though the history of the West is unintelligible without such knowledge. Even so, history departments throughout the land teach Medieval history in the absence of any teaching that carries a sympathetic view of the central place of Christian theology in the societies studied.


The Enlightenment is a bit like the Christmas scene in which shepherds jostle with wise men in the manger. This scene is an amalgam of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the shepherds being derived from Luke and the wise men from Matthew - who does not mention how many there were. Without an examination of the separate gospels there is no reason to doubt the version reproduced in thousands of tableaus in shop windows and churches throughout the land. Likewise, our idea of the Enlightenment is a convenient gloss of the real thing. Giving it a name seduces us into thinking that it was one event.

For example, the Enlightenment is associated with the rise of natural science. Hitherto natural science was impossible because of the dominance of Aristotle who held that there was purpose in natural events. An apple fell to the ground because it was the nature of apples to do so. There was thus no reason to investigate further. In astronomy the orbits of the planets have to be perfect circles because they existed in the divine sphere and hence obeyed the dictates of perfection. It was Kepler who, in 1605 with the use of the astronomical data of Tycho Brahe deduced the elliptical orbits thus breaking with Aristotle. Francis Bacon dethroned Aristotelian teleology with his book Novum Orgranum in 1620. So the scientific revolution was already well underway before the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method in 1639.

Descartes is acknowledged as the person who stood at the beginning of the modern age because he produced a method of rational thinking that owed nothing to any authority except that of the thinking subject. The story goes that Descartes, a devout Catholic, was much worried by the theology of Ockham who said that if God were truly free He could have made any universe he wished and he could reverse any decision at will. The resultant uncertainty about life in general prompted Descartes to produce a method of knowing that was iron clad. He determined to put aside all of his knowledge and to accept no proposition or idea from any other person but to only rely on those ideas that seemed to him clear and distinct. The only ideas that were certain apart from these unitary concepts were the reality of the thinking self and the existence of God which he thought were innate.

The English philosopher John Locke took Descartes radical scepticism but gave it a more empirical twist, there were no innate ideas, the mind was a clean slate upon which experience wrote. Certainty, like for Descartes, was achievable for formal knowledge that was understood to be as near mathematical as possible. Knowledge of the essence of things could never be certain because we could only have sensible knowledge of them. However formal propositions like two plus two equals four were certain.

An example of the importation of this epistemology into theology may be found in Samuel Clarke’s first Boyle lecture given in 1705 at St Paul’s London. In this lecture Clarke attempted to prove the existence and the attributes of God using only formal ideas that did not depend upon evidence in the world. The result is a sterile set of syllogisms that produced a God who had nothing to do with the God of the Bible and who certainly was not know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Clarke thus earned himself a place in the backwaters of theology.

The irony is that all of the early Enlightenment philosophers and scientists (including Hooke, Boyle and Newton) in England were Christians who spent much time and effort arguing for the existence of God and the human soul against the atheists, the Deists and Spinozists. They saw themselves as the protectors of orthodox Christianity.


In retrospect the church could have well done without their efforts because they arrived at a God who existed only in their own minds, was difficult to integrate into the liturgy of the Church, was a stranger to one and a half thousand years of Christian theology and had little to do with the event of the cross. Such a view of God lies at the heart of modern atheism.

Clarke’s later work Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity in which he attempted to dismantle Trinitarian thought demonstrated the poverty of Locke’s epistemological theory. One result of this was that it atomised not only community into individuals but also ideas which were understood as corpuscles occupying the mind. Complex ideas could only be understood after they had been reduced to their component simple, clear and distinct ideas.

This reductive method is clear in Scripture Doctrine which consisted of lists of biblical quotations (1250 of them) arranged according to their relevance to the Trinity. Rich biblical narrative was reduced to points of data. We find a similar tendency in Newton’s published work, particularly in his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms that consists of little more than lists of dates and events devoid of unifying narrative.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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