Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The principle of rationalism by which man, by his own reason and thought can come to a knowledge of the truth without divine revelation, led, as we have seen, to the making of an idol, of a philosophical god, after man’s own imagination. Thus it led to the worship of the creature and not the Creator. It is not surprising therefore that it would also lead to the resurrection of old heresies rooted in pre-Christian paganism. This tendency manifested itself in the philosophy of Leibnitz. In Leibnitz the difference between God and the creature is one of degree. It is not an essential difference. Leibnitz’s god is an infinite spirit or mind which is at the same time a force or first cause of all that exists. From this first cause everything else is generated by a series of sparks struck from the divine being which in turn generate other lesser beings or monads. In reality this was nothing more than a warmed-over version of first century Gnostic heresies which had plagued the early church.
With such speculative rationalistic thinking as that of Leibnitz, Rationalism reached a certain limit. It had fundamentally been no more able than the philosophies of the heathen before it to search out God unto perfection, or to find Him and arrive at truth. Rationalism had set aside faith in Gods self-revelation to us in His Word, to place its trust in the unaided reason of man. But man’s reason is both finite and fallible. The result in the latter part of the 1600’s and 1700’s was the appearance of a certain skepticism concerning the power of man’s unaided reason alone. This did not lead to a development in the truth, however. Instead, to man’s reason was added man’s world and man’s experience. Descartes had begun by finding in man’s conscious reason alone a basis for truth. The skeptics argued that man’s reason was shaped by his experiences, perceptions, and impressions of the world outside of himself, whatever the nature of that world might be. It was in the interplay of experience and reason, perception and interpretation, that truth and certainty were to be found. By this approach man’s reason was not cast from the throne, but turned from abstract speculation toward the practical realm of everyday life and experience.
As with Descartes, there was at first on the part of some an attempt to include within the realm of experience and reason also the existence of divine revelation, and to make room for faith. This was the approach of those who sought to defend the Christian faith by rationalistic means, among whom may be numbered the English philosophers Locke (1632-1704) and Berkeley (1685-1753). This attempt to defend divine revelation on the basis of man’s perception, however, could not stand. Others such as Hume (1711-1775) reversed the argument and denied any consistent experience by which God’s existence or attributes could be determined. Instead, they traced the origin of religion itself to man’s imagination and fancy. Religion to Hume was the result of man’s imagination reacting upon his experience out of fear and ignorance. Hume’s arguments proceeded from an evolutionary theory of the development of religion from primitive nature worship and belief in spirits to the belief in one God.
The effects of Rationalism and the reaction of skepticism, with its emphasis upon man’s mind in man’s world as the arbiter of truth, were felt throughout the 1700’s. Rationalism had severed the truth of God from its basis in divine revelation and the Word of God. Their philosophical god served not only to undermine the truth of God revealed in His Word, but also became the means to attack that truth. The God of the Bible and the god of philosophy were identified as one; the assault upon the one became an assault upon the other. Philosophy was free to play with the god of its own imagination and to banish him from man’s world altogether. Thus the fundamental fruit of rationalism, under the more practical turn of mind which manifested itself in the 1700’s, was Deism.
Under the philosophy of Deism, God or a god was principally banished from the world, and with Him also His self-revelation. The philosophy of deism conceived of a god, if it acknowledged that there was a god at all, as merely a being like a watchmaker who had brought the world into existence, wound it up like a watch, and set it to run on its own. The world of man’s experience, then, was totally governed only by natural laws which were discernible by science and philosophy. Man’s life was bounded by his life in this world, with the watch, and had nothing to do with a god, the watchmaker. The result of Deism .was rampant agnosticism and practical atheism, and man turned his mind to the discussion of politics, and economics, to history, and sociology. He did so seeking to bring all things before the bar of his own reason, the light of his own experience, intuition and perception. For the same reason this period of the eighteenth century is also sometimes called the age of enlightenment, for it was thus-that man regarded himself; though spiritually it was an age of decline and darkness. It was a period of corruption within the church, of spiritual indifference and worldly-mindedness, a time of war, the rising of nation against nation, and of revolution and strife which would flow over into the nineteenth century. War also was made upon the doctrine and existence of the Christian church and the Word of God in particular.
Deists such as Collins (1676-1729) in England, Holback (1723-1789) in France, and atheists such as Thomas Paine in the American colonies, sought to pull the Bible apart and tear it to pieces. The miracles of Scripture were ridiculed as contrary to man’s experience and reason, the result of credulity and ignorance upon the part of those who reported them. Men sought to discredit the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of Christ, to explain them away or give them another meaning, that they might deny the reality of prophecy in the Word of God. The supposed inconsistencies of the Biblical narratives in the gospels were set against one another to discredit the New Testament. God’s righteousness and His love and mercy were set in opposition to one another to discredit the Old Testament. Jesus was made a mere man, a good teacher of morality, followed by a group of credulous and superstitious disciples who intruded their own superstitions into the gospels. The Deist Thomas Jefferson went so far as to cut out of his Bible every passage which he did not regard as consistent with human reason, decimating the gospels, stripping them of the miracles of Christ. Thus Jefferson has not only the distinction of being one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence but also of one of the first condensed versions of the Bible, a version according to the wisdom and criticism of man who presumes to sit in judgment upon the Word of God.
On the continent of Europe the situation was essentially the same. Men such as Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778) ridiculed the Christian church, its doctrines, and foundation. In Germany also the rationalism of Leibnitz spread its influence upon theology, and was followed by skepticism and Deism. The poet and dramatist Lessing (1729-1781) spread the views of the enlightenment by denying the possibility of revelation and teaching that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all true religions because they produced noble men, reducing religion to a mere common denominator of natural belief in a deity and morality.
It was with great difficulty that the church kept and preserved the light of the Word of God, and the preaching of that Word. For Deism also entered the churches and corrupted them from within. Men sought to defend Christianity with the methods of Deism. Among them were men like Paley (1743-1805), who argued from the existence of the watch to the watchmaker, but who was willing to compromise when it came to the chronology of the Bible, or to the days of creation, and who were content if only the truth that God created was confessed. In France, the French revolution prevailed, with its proud rebellion and open hatred of the Christian religion. In England, toleration of unbelief within the church prevailed. In Holland, the government prevented the church from exercising discipline and sheltered those who promoted error. In Germany likewise the influences of both Rationalism and Deism made their presence felt as the church declined.