Contra Mundum
No. 1 Fall 1991

At the Origins of English Rationalism

by T.E. Wilder

(c) 1991 Contra Mundum

Claims of Enlightenment influence on ideas and institutions generally rest on basic mistakes about the distinguishing traits of the Enlightenment. Popular ideas about deism and the origins of modern science and rationalistic theology are false.


  1. Rationalism

  2. Deism

  3. John Locke

  4. Newtonian Science

  5. Whence the Enlightenment

  6. Diesm and 'Christian America'

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" - that is the motto of enlightenment.
Kant -- What Is Enlightenment? 1784
Kant's ideal of the free use of reason - for each individual to regulate his belief and conduct by untrammeled rational speculation, is opposed by those who maintain a Christian orthodoxy. They recognize a need for special divine guidance in thought, word, and deed, not only for personal piety but to avoid the evil paths into which the Enlightenment has led the world. Because existing habits and ideas are so conditioned by the Enlightenment transformation of culture, Christians who seriously pursue a reformation of Church and society must assess what ideas and customs, inside and outside of church affairs, are incompatible with Christianity.

The resulting debate over the scope of Enlightenment influence brings into question our conceptions of justice, science, even of divine providence. Do they issue from Enlightenment sources? Are American political institutions based on biblical principles, as some claim, or only on superficially similar Enlightenment ones? Popular and influential writers say that the understanding held by most Evangelicals of the way God works in the world he created is strongly colored by deism. Others charge that the distinctive political institutions of the United States are wrongly credited with a Christian inspiration and instead reflect the modern Enlightenment mentality. Amid these claims we encounter remarkably ill informed characterizations of Enlightenment belief, generating doubts about the legitimacy of the criticisms. We must also ask whether the Enlightenment label, even when accurate, suffices to discredit a belief or practice; must we renounce the Enlightenment together with all its works?

The major question is not the origin of the ideas and institutions but whether they are good ones. If, however, we determine that the Enlightenment was built on thoroughly anti-Christian principles, than beliefs and institutions that are the product of the Enlightenment are suspect until it can be shown that they can also be based on acceptable principles. I will do some basic groundwork by removing several principal confusions that constantly recur in debates about Enlightenment influence, and by filling in some of the neglected background. I will look at major developments in religion and science in England leading up to the Enlightenment, examining four major areas, all of which are commonly misinterpreted: rationalism, deism, the political thought of John Locke, and Newtonian science.

1. Rationalism

Rationalism, including rationalistic theology, is not an indicator of Enlightenment influence. An explicit systematic doctrine of human reason as the basis of knowledge, ethics, and religion not only is far older than the Enlightenment, it was the basis of mainstream English theology for a century before the Enlightenment began. This rationalism also produced contractual theories of government based on popular consent.

Hooker's natural religion

In our search for the origins of English rationalism we are directed to the closing years of the 16th century by the quotations from "the judicious Hooker" we find sprinkled through the writings of freethinkers, deists, and philosophers of the following century, especially John Locke.[1] Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was not only the premier Anglican theologian and standard bearer against Reformed theology, he was a seminal modern thinker.

Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity provided Anglicanism with a systematic basis in the 1590s. Hooker was the champion of the Anglican cause against the Puritans who wished to replace episcopacy with presbyterian government, remove vestments, ceremonies, and rituals from worship, and impose a stricter discipline over the life of the church. Massive in scope and, for the time, unusually well written, Hooker's book pioneered a new way of repelling the Puritan attack on the Church establishment. While Hooker was careful to moderate his criticisms of Calvin, his rejection of the Genevan ideal of the Reformation went deep. He dismissed the Puritan idea of spirituality and church discipline as the result of a systematic misreading of the Bible based on wrong preconceptions, and sought to demolish the foundations of the Puritan case for ecclesiastical reform. Not content to fence over scriptural exegesis and historical arguments, though he did not neglect them, Hooker thought it best to begin with what he regarded as first principles.

What is most significant is the manner in which Hooker argued his case. The Divine Nature, its expression in creation in the laws of nature, human nature, the competence of human reason, the nature of social order and authority, and the competence of human beings to regulate their affairs receive systematic exposition. From this foundation he assails the radicalism and biblicism of the Puritans and upholds the discretion of human government, guided by reason, over wide areas of church organization and practice.[2]

Reason is central to Hooker's theory of the nature and function of man, individually and in society. In expounding human nature, the origin of government, and the character of legitimate authority, Hooker introduced the categories and language in which British moral philosophy was conducted until the 19th century. He understood the problem of moral theory as the description of the interaction of reason, will and desire in producing human action.[3] Thus Hooker created an enduring tradition of moral philosophy based on the analysis of human nature as a system of faculties. The key to moral science was to understand how this system worked.

Besides the sensory ability and intelligence shared with the beasts, man is "capable of a more divine perfection." For by "reason man attaineth unto the knowledge of the things that are and are not sensible." Reason is the guide of the will. Man naturally seeks happiness through the satisfaction of desire, but subject to regulation by the will.

All particular things which are subject unto action, the Will doth so far forth incline unto, as Reason judgeth them the better for us, and consequently the more available to our bliss. If Reason err, we fall into evil, and are so far forth deprived of the general perfection we seek.[4]

A practical good can be discerned either by "knowledge of the causes whereby it is made such" or by accompanying signs and tokens, "which being annexed always unto goodness, argue that where they are found, there also goodness is [T]he universal consent of men is the perfectest and strongest in this kind "[5]

Hooker assigns to reason a natural sovereignty over the other faculties of the human system. He explanation is also a good specimen of Natural Law thinking.

We know things either as they are in themselves, or as they are in mutual relation one to another. The knowledge of that which man is in reference unto himself, and other things in relation unto man, I may justly term the mother of all those principles, which are as it were edicts, statues, and decrees, in that Law of Nature, whereby human actions are framed [W]e come to observe in ourselves, of what excellency our souls are in comparison of our bodies, and the diviner part in relation unto the baser of our souls; seeing that all these concur in producing human actions, it cannot be well unless the chiefest do command and direct the rest. The soul then ought to conduct the body, and the spirit of our minds the soul. This is therefore the first Law, whereby the highest power of the mind requireth general obedience at the hands of all the rest concurring with it unto action Wherefore the natural measure whereby to judge our doings, is the sentence of Reason, determining and setting down what is good to be done.[6]

Inherent in the way God created man is a priority of reason over other sources of knowledge. It is impossible for revelation to be the primary guide for a rational man.

The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain unto this, there what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline.[7]

To follow this Law of Reason is to take one's place in the great Natural Law order which God established, achieving the greatest good. Everything in nature must follow its proper course. And is it possible, that Man being not only the noblest creature in the world, but even a very world in himself, his transgressing the Law of his Nature should draw no manner of harm after it? Good doth follow unto all things by observing the course of their nature, and on the contrary side evil by not observing it..."[8]

We can summarize Hooker's moral philosophy in two principles: 1) understand your own nature, and 2) understand your place in the external world. From this will become evident the conduct proper to you.

So central a figure in the English rationalist tradition was Hooker that a century later rationalists of various stripes were combing his writings for statements to cite in support of their views. The accounts of Hooker written in this century by high church Episcopalians portray him as the savior of Christianity. In Hooker's theology is preserved the great heritage of patristic and medieval Christianity free from papistical corruptions. Hooker, in their view, is a conservative like Burke, who in fanatical and excessive times drew upon and defended the great traditions constructed over previous centuries. But while his theological admirers stress the influence of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and other scholastics, Hooker more typically quotes pagan philosophers. If in his view of reason Hooker is the first distinctly modern voice, he is also an echo of the ancient past.

Theory of government

To those familiar with the literature of British moralism the parallels in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to the Cambridge Platonists, and even to Hobbes are striking. Hooker formulated a volunterist, contractual theory of government in place of a concept of a divinely ordained authority. This theory included features often attributed to later writers or to the Enlightenment. (I will not attempt to trace influences from mediæval political theories, though they undoubtedly existed.)

There originally was no "government politic" he says. In the evil days before Noah's flood there was "no manner of public regiment established". To remove the mutually inflicted harm "there was no way but only by growing unto composition and agreement amongst themselves, ordaining some kind of government public, and by yielding themselves thereunto." Left to employ his right to self-defense, the tendency of each man is to be partial for his own interests, and "strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent all to be ordered by some whom they should agree upon: without which consent there were no reason that one man should take upon him to be lord or judge over another." The supreme power Nature gives to "fathers within their private families", as well as the father's priesthood, served as the model for the first governments by priest kings. Whatever virtues or natural right of noble character these kings may have exhibited, however, "the assent of them who are to be governed seemeth necessary."

As for the authority of law, that "which we spake before concerning the power of government must here be applied unto the power of making laws whereby to govern". By the natural law to which God has made his creation subject the "lawful power of making laws to command whole politic societies of men belongeth so properly unto the same entire societies, that for any prince or potentate of what kind soever upon earth to exercise the same of himself", other than by special "commission immediately and personally received from God, or else by authority derived at the first from their consent upon whose person they impose laws, it is no better than mere tyranny." The concession of an immediate appointment from God is to cover the biblical instances, not contemporary claims to authority.

The "inconveniences" of early forms of government led to the invention of new ones. "So that in a word all public regiment of what kind soever seemeth evidently to have risen from deliberate advice, consultation, and composition between men, judging it convenient and behoveful; there being no impossibility in nature considered by itself, but that men might have lived without any public regiment." It is in view of man's corruption that "the Law of Nature doth now of require of necessity some kind of regiment."[9]

There is no trace of the biblical idea of covenant, only the allowance for a divinely appointed ruler in an exceptional case. We see laid out the basis and the challenge for Thomas Hobbes's political theory - the war of all against all in the state of nature, and its solution by a mutual compact giving authority to a ruler. The problem posed to the defender of absolute monarchy is the continuing role of natural law, which requires consent as the ground of the legitimacy of the rule of one person over another. "Laws they are not therefore which public approbation hath not made so. But approbation not only they give who personally declare their assent by voice sign or act, but also when others do it in their names by right originally at the least derived from them." Hooker instances "parliaments, councils, and like assemblies" where delegates act as agents of those they represent.

What about "when an absolute monarch commandeth his subjects that which seemeth good in his own discretion"? Well, often "assent is given, they that give it not imagining they do so, because the manner of their assenting is not apparent." The "act of a public society of men done five hundred years sithence standeth as theirs who presently are of the same societies, because corporations are immortal; we were then alive in our predecessors, and they in their successors do live still. Laws therefore human, of what kind soever, are available by consent."[10] It fell to Hobbes (1588-1679) to make the theory of continuing royal authority by the original assent of the society more rigorous and persuasive, but the basic material is in Hooker.

Hooker subordinates Scripture to reason

How in Hooker's mind did the authority of reason harmonize with the authority of Scripture? Scripture cannot operate independently of the authority of human reason. "By a man's authority we here understand the force which his word has for the assurance of another's mind that buildeth upon it" and the "strength of man's authority is affirmatively such that the weightiest affairs in the world depend thereon."[11] This includes our knowledge of revelation. For whatsoever we believe concerning salvation by Christ, although the Scripture be therein the ground of our belief; yet the authority of man is, if we mark it, the key which openeth the door of entrance into the knowledge of the Scripture. The Scripture could not teach us the things that are of God, unless we did credit men who have taught us that the words of Scripture do signify those things."[12]

Usually Scripture does not plainly and obviously resolve doctrinal questions. How do we know that Scripture means what those who cite it say it means? "Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do?"[13] It is in any case impossible to live solely by the Bible as the myriad decisions of everyday life cannot be postponed until a Scriptural command is adduced for them. Scripture itself presumes a human intellectual competence founded upon natural law, and serves to confirm and supplement it.

We have probably surveyed enough material to confound most claims of Enlightenment penetration of Christian thought on politics and science. Appeals to reason, to the normative character of the natural order, to the sovereignty of the people in constructing a political order, and the contractual basis of government are not evidence of deist or Enlightenment influence, for we found Hooker had integrated these ideas into the mainstream of Christian theology a century before the Enlightenment got underway. Of course, this in no way proves that such ideas are harmless. The debate, however, is converted from one between Christians and secularists to one between (early) Puritans and Anglicans.

We still need to account for the Enlightenment. What further developments led to it, and how did it differ from Christianity, even of Hooker's variety?

Growth of rationalism

Natural Law was once conceived of as the principles which a sovereign creator built into the world. Over time, however, Natural Law was interpreted in a more secular manner. The early 17th century saw rationalism grow in scope and materialism appear as a controlling assumption for influential thinkers. A decline in biblical authority is apparent. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the Dutch Arminian jurist, was actively seeking English support for his position, and was aware of English developments. The Dutch transition toward deism was rapid and undoubtedly there were influences that passed between it and England. English rationalism also grew. The influential Oxford theologian William Chillingworth (1602-1644) was a rationalist like Hooker, but increased somewhat the scope given to individual judgment.[14]

The first of the English deists, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648), published a work (in Paris where is was the English ambassador) in 1624. He influenced Hobbes, who knew him, and also Locke through his writings. Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and other works provided the foil for moral writers for the next century. A materialist, he was widely thought to be an atheist. Because his work was so widely known he greatly influenced those of a freethinking disposition, providing the starting point for criticizing Biblical history, divinely instituted ethics and the integrity of the Biblical texts themselves. It was through the materialism and presumed atheism of Hobbes that many Englishmen formed their evaluation of Descartes's mechanistic biology, thereafter seen as a threat to Christianity.

The situation of the Puritans is somewhat mixed. Covenant theology could be adapted to rationalize God's actions in a manner suited to scholastic theological tradition. The term 'covenant' itself did not enjoy its present contrast to contract and was prone to abuse in theology, and in danger of naturalization. Commenting on the growing Puritan "rationalization" of God's ethical demands in covenantal law, H. G. Reventlow observes:

There was an obvious further step, that of identifying the law based on the covenant with the law of nature.... [T]he Puritans came near to taking the last step but did not in fact take it. Some Puritans came close to it above all through the beginnings of a natural theology, in that they attributed an appropriate knowledge of God and the moral virtues to fallen man even before his redemption.[15]

Rationalist attacks on Scripture

In the last decades of the 17th century and the early 18th there was a continuous semi-covert theological controversy between the orthodox and several shades of freethinkers. It is characteristic of these opponents of orthodoxy to use as much cover as they can find, while insinuating criticisms of the established church.

Of this the self-styled freethinker (and friend of John Locke) Anthony Collins (1676-1729) is a clear case. In various books, beginning in 1707 he exalts the primacy of reason. The Bible does not teach philosophy, including philosophical truths about God, because these are plain from the "Light of nature". However: "Apologys for self-evident Truths can never have any effect on those who have so little Sense as to deny them. They are the Foundation of all Reasoning, and the only just Bottom on which Men can proceed in convincing one another of the Truth: and by consequence whoever is capable of denying them, is not in a condition to be informed." [16] He proceeds to argue that the Bible forces us to fall back on reason, but his approach is indirect.

The Bible contains a Collection of Tracts given us at divers times by God himself; and consequently every thing therein mentioned is handled with the utmost degree of Exactness: for it is impossible that God, when he condescends to teach Mankind by Writing or Books, should write as ill or worse than mortal Men, and act against the Rules of Art in writing, and express Error and Falsehood instead of Justness and Proportion.[17]

Collins then lists the various sciences whose matter appears in some way in Scripture, and argues that to understand these texts properly one has to be an expert in each science. Next he argues that the scattered specific commands of biblical ethics cannot be applied without the general principles drawn from the "Law of Nature". By the end of the book the pretended piety has been washed away in a flood of propaganda for unconstrained rationalism. In another work Collins cites Anglican clergy on the priority of natural religion over the revealed and argues for an admixture of uninspired material in the Bible, citing Heutius's (Pierre Daniel Huet 1630-1721) claim in 1679 that Esdras had reedited the Bible. What is contrary to reason must be considered an emendation to the text. [18] The method is parallel to that of Hooker, but the result at which Collins aims is more radical - the practical disregard of biblical authority altogether.

Earlier writers are more cautious but follow the same program. They canvass the works of orthodox authors for every tidbit that can be put to destructive use. They make a great show of siding with the Reformers against Roman superstition, which they denounce at length as inventions foisted upon the people by human authorities. Then they quote representative statements by every leading churchman exalting reason. There follows a catalog of theological controversies cited from orthodox writers to show that the Bible is an obscure guide and that reason must be invoked to attempt solutions. The picture of Christianity that emerges from these books is one of foolishness, confusion, and unsupported opinion.

Orthodox churchmen were not deceived. The published refutations usually accused these freethinkers of Socinianism at best, but sometimes outright atheism. The atheist tag was so freely used that it became necessary to disclaim the usual carelessness and state that in the particular case at hand the writer really had reason to apply it. This largely Socinian literature we have been surveying contained deist themes, and its Anglican rebuttals allow us some sense of its distance and difference from mainstream theology. They also make clear that the orthodox were not fooled by the camouflage that freethinkers employed.[19]

The year 1690 brought The Naked Gospel by a "True Son of the Church of England", actually one Arthur Bury. He begins with the stress on reason to prove "that Faith in God is a duty of Natural Religion, a moral Virtue, and to be valued for its intrinsick worth, as a participation of the Divine Nature, in one of God's Attributes, his Justice".[20]

It is easier for a rich man to sacrifice whole Hecatombs, when he hath wealth enough to purchase them, than to pull out his eyes, yet can any man easier pull out the eye of his Body than his Reason, which is not only the eye, but the heart; for it is his very Definition, without which he cannot be a Man: It is God's Image, and the Apostle exhorteth us to put on the new Man, which is renewed in knowledge of the image of him that created him.[21]

Bury then makes the typically deist argument that Natural Religion preceded "Positive" religion in history. In this case Bury argues that revelation began with Moses, but that the New Testament commends to us Abraham's faith in Natural Religion as an example.

Immediately William Nicholls of Merton College published a lengthy point by point rebuttal. "The Author, in the beginning of the Chapter, gives an account of the excellence of the Christian Religion, and that it was propagated by our Savior, to deliver us from the discipline of the Ceremonial Law, and to exalt natural Religion to its utmost perfection: and so far right..."[22] For Nicholls, though, "Faith is more than natural Religion. It is an inspired virtue."

Running through this literature is the pattern found in Hooker. There is an exposition of the virtues of reason, the necessity for employing it in the topic at hand, followed by a detailed exposé of the errors of those who, in the opinion of the writer, refused to do so, using whatever evidence and arguments the writer is able to bring to bear on the topic. The orthodox responses were not directed against this use of reason, but to the particular Socinian arguments, skeptical attacks on Scripture, and attacks on the ecclesiastical establishment. Where the late 17th century theologians stop to reflect on reason their views resemble those of Hooker.

An explicit, systematic rationalism dominated Anglican theology, beginning from the end of the 16th century. This rationalism was placed in the service of orthodox theology as expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles. The freethinkers, who were the precursors to the Enlightenment philosophes, shared this rationalism, differing from orthodox writers by their rejection of Christian doctrine or espousal of materialistic principles. Rationalism, therefore, is not a marker of Enlightenment ideas or influence.

2. Deism

The best known variety of freethinking in the 17th and 18th centuries is deism. The deist had greater prominence than his skeptical or atheist contemporaries due to his claim to be a highly moral, principled theist. [23] Deism goes beyond the more common free thinking of the late 17th century. Not limited to Socinian heresies, much more of Christianity is stripped away. But a historical understanding of deism requires attention to the character of that period. The middle and late 17th century was a time of transition and great conflict. For example, from 1640 to 1660 some thirty thousand pamphlets appeared on the topic of civil and ecclesiastical government. Three times the government was overthrown by movements with a considerable ideological component. Thousands of clergy were expelled from their churches for refusing to conform to the current establishment. This formed the backdrop of the appearance of deist literature. One cannot leave aside this turmoil with its continuous attacks on ecclesiastical establishments and merely trace the activities of individuals. The deists were rejecting what seemed to source of all this trouble.

The deists are now widely misunderstood, and their views commonly misrepresented. The caricature of deism is of a belief in a 'clockwork' making God who sets up the world and then retires to allow it to run unattended. While this interpretation is not found in the better historians it is common enough in popular writers. What did characterize the deists was rejection of divine revelation in Scripture, salvation through blood atonement, and the role of the Church and its rites and offices in true worship. They taught instead a natural religion of worship and good works which was made evident by reason.[24] Some view both Locke and the deists as part of a wider 'progressive' movement starting from Richard Hooker's moral theology that tended to place revelation under the authority of reason.

It is the deism of the caricature that is said to have infected Evangelicals, and it is against the charge of holding such a deism that certain American Christian conservatives defend their favored founding fathers. Historians have vainly tried to counter these misinterpretations. Here is one historian's (S. G. Hefelbower) attempt in 1918.

There is a widespread conviction that the Deists denied divine Providence; that they so reduced the supernatural that the doctrine of the immanence of God in the world of our impressions disappears. The God of the Deists is often made to appear as the apex of an abstract world-system, a creative being that started the world-process and then withdrew and is now separated and isolated from it; this is the "absentee God" of literature. It is a tradition that is not well founded; the Deists who have survived in history did not hold such views... If there were Deists who held such views, they were not among the leaders of the movement and leave no mark on it.[25]

The source of the mistake may be a definition of deism given by the theologian Samuel Clark (1675-1729) which lists four classes of deists, the first of which is our present popular notion.[26]

We have noticed that the deists believed in Providence. What view of it did they hold? In his survey of deists Hefelbower found that the deists did not focus on the topic.

Strange as it may seem, Chubb, the least educated of the Deists, is the only one who has given a systematic statement of the doctrine of Providence. There is a general Providence, by which God at the creation put the world under such laws as result in making proper provision for the needs of the animal part of creation. Then there is a special Providence, which is a special interposition of God outside of the normal order, hence miraculous. For instance, a man passes a loose wall and it falls after he has reached a point of safety; such a conception of Providence "is controverted among Christians." It is inconceivable that God should be almost perpetually interfering, that there should be a sort of "perpetual patchwork." But he asserts without hesitation his conviction that God, for certain great ends, does interfere in the ongoing of the world.[27]

The views of the deists on the nature of Providence do indeed resemble the views of many modern Evangelicals! But we cannot state that it was deism that is responsible for the similarity, because idea of Providence was not a deist distinctive. We hope to hear from critics of the modern Evangelical view an exposition of a better view with a demonstration that it is more biblical. (I am not suggesting that such a criticism isn't needed!)

To summarize: the deists articulated a religion whose basic elements were widely shared in 17th century England.

Distinguishing the deists from their Christian contemporaries was the Christian insistence on added supernatural elements:

The basic pattern of deism remained remarkably stable throughout the period of its development and propagation. This deism maintained a powerful hold on the casually churched or unchurched English speaking population from some time in the 18th century until now. Perhaps in the 19th century the stereotypical freethinker changed from deist to village atheist, but from the frontier to the working class neighborhoods deism held sway where the influence of the institutional church ended.

3. John Locke

Morton White in Philosophy, The Federalist, and the Constitution[28] finds the influence of Locke (1632-1704) and Hume (1711-1776) throughout the political writings of the American immediate post-revolutionary era. Those who follow this interpretation, and also see the two as Enlightenment figures, will tend to consider the Enlightenment influence on the framers to be supreme. (I will simply record my doubts about White's thesis. Those who are only familiar with the canonical philosophical writers of the surveys of the history of philosophy tend to credit them with all the ideas and expressions found in their books, even when they are simply writing as men of their times.) While Hume is generally regarded as an Enlightenment figure, the status of Locke is disputed. For example, he is sometimes regarded (in my experience by his fellow theological liberals) as a Christian with an excessive if naïve enthusiasm for the possibilities of reason and new departures in philosophy.

Calling Locke a proto-Enlightenment figure, Nicholas Wolterstorff designates Locke as the one who introduced a characteristic Enlightenment attitude - that one's religious faith must be based on good evidence or given up. He thinks that Locke "first articulately issued the evidentialist challenge to the religious believer, doing so as one who was himself a Christian who thought that he could meet the challenge." [29] The impression, then, is of a well-meaning but misguided Christian.

In a strong reaction against such a view of Locke, Peter J. Stanlis claims that "despite his membership in the Church of England, Locke in his religious beliefs is practically indistinguishable from Voltaire." After noting the use deists made of Locke's works (but omitting the fact that this disgusted Locke) he levels his main charge:

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke's most radical and polemical work, he wrote as a "minimalist" and pleaded in good conscience as a believing Christian, a rational defender of revelation, and a loyal Anglican that the Church of England should reform itself in order to attract members from the Dissenters. How? Locke advocated that it should reject its hierarchical structure and the authority of its bishops, abandon its cannon law and theology, its creed and sacraments, its liturgy, all belief in mysteries and miracles, all external discipline, the Thirty-nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer, all its religious customs and traditions - in short, its entire historical inheritance - as so many superstitions and "prejudices," in favor of one requirement for membership and salvation - to acknowledge that Christ is the Messiah. In the last section of his Essay, Locke stated the central principle of deism: "Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything."[30]

Stanlis is defending Burke and distancing him from Locke and the Enlightenment. Burke is the defender of tradition. In what way is Locke its enemy?

Several points must be born in mind. First the Anglican 'tradition' originally was that God had left much of Church order to the discretion of reason, and thus to the judgement of the king. It was the Dissenters who claimed otherwise. If much of the division between them and the Anglicans was over the arbitrary organization of Church government, why not set aside these obstacles? Is not union the more important consideration? With his personal and family connections to Puritanism Locke knew very well that Anglican ecclesiology rested on pragmatism and that its theoretical justification was in the Anglican (not Enlightenment) principle that "Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything." If the deists quoted Locke, both he and they quoted "the judicious Hooker". Further, there are plenty of non-Enlightenment grounds for rejecting Anglican distinctives, as the history of the 17th century makes obvious.

Locke is separated from the deists by his attitude toward revelation. He took it very seriously, writing commentaries on the Pauline epistles. The case of his friend Isaac Newton can help us understand this approach to revelation better. Newton diligently studied the Scripture for information which he thought as divine revelation it should contain. He examined the description of the temple for symbolic clues to the universe. He made an extensive study of biblical chronology and elaborated a chronology of the world that posited the reliability of the Bible, not the pagan sources which his contemporary chronologists made primary. Convinced that the Trinitarian proof texts were Athanasian forgeries he began collecting manuscript sources for a project of textual criticism by which he hoped to establish the original text.[31]

Locke had great respect for Newton as an exegete and submitted his commentaries to Newton for review. In all this Locke showed not the mentality of the Enlightenment but of something closer to a Jehovah's Witness. Certain doctrines are rejected on rationalistic grounds, but then there is a great effort to bring the biblical exegesis into line with the minimalized doctrine in a way in which today's mainline liberal simply wouldn't bother to do. Perhaps a closer analogy to Locke is the modern Evangelical feminist who will not formally break with the authority of the Bible, but will go to great lengths of special pleading and textual tampering to make it come out his way.[32]

Stanlis is right that Locke was strongly denounced by several writers and even called an atheist, notably by John Edwards, but such charges were commonplace against every departure from Orthodoxy.[33] Edwards had to argue that Locke had a hidden agenda. Edwards is important in that he recognizes there is something more deeply wrong with the intellectual climate of his time. He is suspicious of the direction of science, noting that Descartes's Mechanical Philosophy, which saw animals as biological robots, could be extended to human beings.

In any case, the import of citing Lock's influence as a sign of Enlightenment thinking is far from perspicuous. His rationalism is more developed and clearly stated than Hooker's, but so far as I can see, not different in kind from either Hooker's or that of Locke's ecclesiastical contemporaries. His political philosophy is important and influential, but is it Enlightenment politics? It is not the unicameral absolutism of the French revolution, nor the military dictatorship (destined to wither away as Enlightenment progresses) which Kant endorsed in the article from which our opening quotation is drawn.

The distinction between a right-wing Enlightenment, influential in English whiggery and in America, and a left-wing Enlightenment on the continent, is also weakened when we consider the ubiquity in the 17th century of supposed Enlightenment characteristics. How much of the right-wing 'Enlightenment' was just a continuation of already settled characteristics, no longer overshadowed by the Anglican-Puritan conflict?

The great unexplored area in Locke studies, to my mind, is the influence on him of dissenting political theory. If Locke was not Burke's sort of traditionalist, neither was Cromwell a traditionalist, yet Burke is certainly more of an Enlightenment thinker than Cromwell. The great shortcoming of popular writers on the American Revolution is that most seen never to have heard of the English Revolution. Thus pre-Enlightenment influences which American political thought shared with Locke are discounted. We are told that because the American revolution, or at least the political rebuilding that followed it, showed the influence of Locke it was an Enlightenment movement, and therefore anti-Christian. There seems to be little clear thinking in this argument.

4. Newtonian Science

Another supposed distinctive of Enlightenment thought was the introduction of a new science with a mechanistic view of the world which did not require divine activity to guide or maintain it. The frequent references to Newtonian mechanism in writings about 18th century science are apt to mislead the reader into supposing that Newton was the inventor of a mechanism of this type. In fact some such notion of Newton's role is widespread. Edward Davis, who has masterfully refuted the claim, reports it this way: "Indeed the typical textbook for a course in Western civilization - supposing that there is such a thing - presents Isaac Newton as the grand synthesizer of terrestrial and celestial motion whose reduction of the physical universe to a concise set of mathematical laws set the stage for Enlightenment philosophes to remove God wholly out of the present order of things." [34] Newton did consider himself a mechanist in the sense that he rejected scholasticism as an unilluminating account of the natural world and used precise mathematical descriptions of movements. He rejected, however, the Cartesian mechanical philosophy as well.

Newton's rejection of mechanism

For Descartes (1596-1650) the world consisted of atoms that interacted in a purely mechanical, billiard ball fashion through direct contact. God had created the world with a certain amount of motion, and now conserves it together with this fixed quantity of motion. Objects in the world can exchange motion. Descartes keeps an element of the Scholastic world-view. Matter, as contingent being, requires the activity of God to initiate and maintain its existence (which includes upholding is properties).

On the other hand there is a strong mind/matter dualism, in which the explanatory role of material properties (extension, a few laws of motion, etc.) has grown significantly. Animals are material automata, as are human bodies. The celestial system itself is a vortex of material æther that carries the planets in its currents. Into the system, the soul of man, which somehow controls his body, and the occasional miracle are allowed to intrude.

Late 17th century observers, including John Edwards in England, saw in this Mechanical Philosophy a dangerous potential for atheism. The role of the supernatural is easily minimized or excluded, eventuating in something like our contemporary naturalistic outlook. In the phrase of Francis Schaeffer, nature eats up grace. Pascal noted "I cannot forgive Descartes. He would have liked, in the whole of his philosophy, to be able to by-pass God. But he could not help making Him give a shove to set the world in motion; after that he has nothing further to do with God."[35]

In the Queries at the end of his Opticks, Newton argued the impossibility of such a system. Newton thought the solar system would deteriorate without added energy and a periodic reformation of the movements. The mechanical interactions are imperfect and lead to loss of momentum and order in the vortices that are supposed to carry the planets in their orbits. The universe requires active principles acting on it. As Davis explains it, "Without active principles...the quantity of motion in the world would decrease. What he had in mind here - that collisions are rarely elastic and that rotating vortices quickly slow down - fails to distinguish between what we now call momentum and energy. But it would not be misleading to suggest that his insight, despite serious difficulties, captured the essential thrust of the law of entropy: the universe is running down."[36]

Occult (non-mechanical) forces

Newton believed in forces operating between bodies, as in gravitation, but also between elementary particles, the object of his alchemical investigations. Newton believed that a science based on occult qualities, such as action at a distance by forces, as opposed to observable mechanical interactions, was possible without returning to the dead end of Aristotelian scholasticism. He aimed at recovering the true knowledge of the world, once known, but corrupted through apostasy and idolatry.

In recent years Newton's unpublished papers have been studied, yielding a much better understanding of the religious underpinnings of his world view.

In 1683, he began writing a work which he called the Philosophical origins of gentile philosophy. Here he explicitly associated popery, idolatry, and the worship of false kings with a corrupt geocentric natural philosophy. These were corruptions of a pristine truth revealed by God to man through Noah and his sons. It seems that Newton now regarded Cartesian mechanics, with its theory of interplanetary vortices, as an integral part of this gentile, popish tradition. In contrast, his own heliocentric vacuist system could be recognized as a recovery of the true natural philosophy and theology.[37]

But such a science has an affinity to the tradition of natural magic, which was partly based on Biblical material such as Genesis 30:14-16,37-43.

There are three main methods of learning about the occult powers of things in the magical tradition. First, you could summon a demon, an angel, or even a dead magus, and ask or command him to tell you how to achieve the desired outcome. Needless to say, this method was fraught with dangers to your immortal soul. Alternatively, you could scrutinize the natural world and hope to discover the signatures of things - the signs which God incorporated into his creatures to indicate the connections between them: the mandrake root, which looked like a little man, seemed to indicate a cure for impotence, whereas the walnut, which looked like the brain, seemed to suggest a power of curing headaches. The drawback of this method was its inherent subjectivity, which made it prone to uncertainty and error. The safest and most successful way to discover the secret powers of nature was empirically, by careful observation of the effects of one thing on another, where possible by experimental trial.[38]

Newton applied his commitment to meticulous experiments to alchemy as much as to his more famous work in optics. It was out of his deep involvement with alchemy that both Newton's chemistry and his theory of gravitation emerged.

Alchemy was not as strange as it may seem. We must first bear in mind the influence of Aristotle whose doctrine of the four elements dominated mediæval thinking on physics. The four simple elements of earth, air, fire and water, in various mixtures determine the particular qualities of the materials in the world. Something like this idea dominated alchemy, in that it saw a primary substance with a pure quality as the cause of similar qualities in a variety of secondary substances. If various metals, when melted, behave like quicksilver, it is because they have the mercurial principle, which quicksilver has to a higher degree. If pure mercury could be refined, it would exemplify the metallic qualities to a superlative degree. Moreover, because it is responsible for the metallic qualities of mixed substances, it can be seen to have the power to transform matter from one form to another.

The weirdness of alchemy appears especially in its fixation on ancient esoteric writings. The middle ages venerated the ancient past, and these writings were known to be highly valued by the ancients. They must hold, the mediævals supposed, encrypted knowledge of the universe, hidden from the vulgar. Great efforts were made to decode them, not least by Newton. That secrets that give power to transform matter are dangerous and must be kept hidden from the unphilosophical is made plausible again in our century by the atom bomb.

What Newton failed to grasp was the large number of basic elements whose properties repeat regularly when they are arranged by atomic weight in a periodic table. He attempted directly to isolate the simple principles, which he apparently thought were mercury and sulphur. Thus he failed to achieve the unified science at which he aimed. Of course, contemporary physics reduces the elements to basic particles that operate in combination with each other through mysterious forces. Modern physics is alchemy, magic that works.

Newton was not alone in his interest in Alchemy. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was also an avid experimenter. Newton was skeptical of Boyle's ability in that area, and cautioned his friend John Locke, with whom he also corresponded about alchemy, not to waste his time attempting to duplicate Boyle's experiments. Nevertheless the aspect of Newton's work that impressed his contemporaries was the same thing that impresses contemporary science. It was because his laws of planetary motion, based on the supposition of universal gravitation, could be rigorously described by mathematics, that they rose above mere hypothesis, and deserved the name of mechanics. It was possible to extend the theory by applying its implications to new cases and testing them. Saturn's orbit should be affected in a definite way by the gravitation of Jupiter, a movement which the Cartesian theory of vortexes does not predict.

Descartes, it must be remembered, was also a mathematician and his science was of a rigorously mathematical mechanics. What Newton achieved, however, was not the rigorous codification of already accepted principles of cosmology, but their overthrow. That he could force a revolution in science made him an especially impressive figure to his contemporaries.

The role of God in Newton's science

Newton also worked out of a unified theological and scientific vision. John Brooke points out that it is possible to see a growing fusion of science and religion in the seventeenth century rather than a separation. Thus Newton took into account theology's implications for science.

A God who had been active in history, and who had communicated with mankind through the prophets, also might be expected to be active in nature. When Newton was in a more speculative frame of mind, he often seemed to be exploring strategies which would heighten that sense of divine dominion and control. It would seem reasonable to suppose that this was one reason why he was reluctant to make the gravitational force an innate property of matter... Newton wrote: "There exits an infinite and omnipresent spirit in which matter is moved according to mathematical laws."[39]

Newton's universe needed to be tinkered with from time to time. He thought that the gravitational attraction of the planets would cause their orbits to accumulate deviations, and the constant radiation of matter from the solar system would have to be made up. (The degeneration of the cosmos is not merely the result of friction in the interplanetary æther.[40]) As much as possible he introduced natural agencies, such as the passage of comets through the solar system, as the means by which God made corrections and restored mass.

This does not mean, however, that he was not trying to heighten a sense of God's involvement with his creation. With that as his objective, the parameters of his natural philosophy were affected - especially what he wished to say about the conservation of motion. It may have been an unfortunate strategy, since it gave Leibniz that glorious opportunity for caricature which he seized with the remark that Newton's God resembled a second-rate watchmaker who had to keep cleaning and rewinding the mechanism. In the celebrated dispute between Leibniz and Newton's spokesman, Samuel Clarke, the political overtones were such that each party would accuse the other of deistic, anti-Christian tendencies... Nevertheless, because Newton's God ruled and discerned everything, He was the very antithesis of a god-of-the-gaps.[41]

The continentals were offended by a science that posited a system lacking self-sufficiency. But when the Cartesian system was found unable to compete with the Newtonian in explanation of natural phenomena Newtonianism was adopted and then naturalized.

We must linger on this point. Amid much other misinformation on Newton, Gary North has written: "The god of Newton was not the God of the Bible; it was the god of the Deists. It was the cosmic clockmaker rather then the Sovereign Judge of all men, in history and in eternity. It was this concept of God which swept Europe in the eighteenth century."[42] Because of the contentiousness of this point, I will quote from Davis's summary of the Clark-Leibniz debate over Newtonian mechanics.

Leibniz opened his attack on Newton's views by questioning Newton's belief that the world is running down. If God had "to wind up his Watch from Time to Time", Leibniz claimed, then he lacked "sufficient Foresight to make it a perpetual Motion." The Newtonians, on the other hand, obliged God "to clean it now and then by an extraordinary Concourse, and even to mend it, as a Clockmaker mends his Work..." Against this, Leibniz held that God worked miracles not "in order to supply the Wants of Nature, but those of Grace. Whoever thinks otherwise, must have a very mean Notion of the Wisdom and Power of God." Clarke (and Newton) did not agree. God was not a watchmaker, for the world was not a watch: it was utterly incapable of running on its own. God was rather "himself the Author and continual Preserver" of the forces in the world, so that "nothing is done without his continual Government and Inspection." What follows then is a remarkable passage - remarkable, that is, because in it Clarke (on behalf of Newton) explicitly rejects the clockwork metaphor that is so often associated with Newtonian science:

"The Notion of the World's being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; is the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends, (under pretence of making God a Supra-mundane Intelligence,) to exclude Providence and God's Government in reality out of the World."

...Implicit to Clark's (and Newton's) view of the constant divine governance of the world is a blurring - or perhaps even the outright elimination - of the distinction between natural and supernatural events. Indeed Clark took precisely this step, arguing that "Natural and Supernatural are nothing at all different with regard to God, but distinctions merely in Our Conceptions of things." ...With regard to God, no possible thing was more miraculous than any other. Miracles were simply unusual acts of God, but no more or less acts of God than ordinary events.[43]

One final note on Newton's cosmology: Late in life he produced a new edition of the Opticks in which he reintroduced the idea of æther as a medium of gravitation, apparently in the interest of unifying science. Very different from Descartes's æther, this æther served to unify the explanation of the forces operating in electrical phenomena, the optical properties of thin films, and gravity. The æther was very thin and elastic with a strong repulsive force between the particles. Such a force seemed to have been demonstrated in electrical experiments. While this æther embodied the very physical principle of action at a distance it was supposed to explain, it did seem to bring the expanding fields of experimental science under one common type of physical explanation.[44]

The Enlightenment was not brought on by a secularizing progress of science that displaced Christian faith. If anything, the move was in the opposite direction, with the decline at the end of the 17th century of the Cartesian philosophy that was a direct threat to Christian faith in a way Newtonian science was not. For this reason Newtonianism was welcomed as an ally by Christian apologists. Newtonianism was resisted by the partisans of Cartesian mechanics, precisely because Newton made God a constant active presence in the universe, something from which they thought Descartes had freed them. The task that faced the Enlightenment scientist was to revise Newton's system in order to remove God. The Dutch educated deist John Toland (1670-1722) suggested in his Letters to Serena (1704) that gravity was an innate, essential attribute of matter, and Denis Diderot integrated this idea into his vitalist, evolutionary theory of matter.[45] There was some other much more basic factor at work in the souls of these men than science and mathematics. Those apologists who really expected that arguments from science would repel the rising infidelity were therefore greatly misled.

5. Whence the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is generally associated with the 18th century, and we have seen that a vigorous rationalism preceded it by at least a century. Robust scientific theorizing and even startling progress also preceded the Enlightenment by many decades, and few of the Enlightenment leaders were associated with major scientific work (though plenty were involved in humbug). What does seem to emerge is a rationalism that is no longer restrained by revelation or by respect for ecclesiastical tradition. There is now a supreme confidence in novel projects which man can carry through with his present intellectual and social powers.

Let is not despise the testimony of contemporaries on the causes of this rise in unbelief. That such tendencies were widespread and increasing was apparent to churchmen in the late 17th century. They repeatedly claim that the popular atheism that they found around them had its rise in Italy. It is was in Italy that the superstitions, idolatry, exploitation and abuses of the Roman church were most blatant and unchecked. The more cultured members of society came to see the church as a means whereby persons without moral character swindled the simple.

This attitude was communicated to gentlemanly visitors to Italy, who were readily able to make the analogy to their own ecclesiastical establishments. In France there was the vicious suppression of the Huguenots, which gave many thoughtful individuals cause to doubt the moral standing of the established church. England had not only an opulent religious establishment, but plenty of dissenters to disseminate their criticisms of it. Germany had the Thirty Years War.

In short, there is ample reason to point to a failure in the church, producing a great loss of confidence in the public. This made the authority of the church and faith it proclaimed easy to cast off. Without these restraints the remaining elements of the age, the rationalism, the confidence in human progress, etc., became the salient ones. But these are not the markers of the Enlightenment faith as distinct from contemporary Christian expressions. To find the Enlightenment man we must seek the call to exercise reason free of Christian restraint, free of tutelage, to sapere aude!

6. Deism and 'Christian America'

Very little of the complex history of rationalism in theistic thought is appreciated in the current controversies over the 'Christian America' Thesis that America was founded by colonizers who sought to create a Christian society, and that the Republic was founded on Christian social principles. The enemies of this historical thesis point to the evidence of rationalism, appeals to natural law, contractual theories of government, etc. in American political writings to show that American origins were dominated by the Enlightenment, tainted by deism, etc. (The underlying program, of course, is to insinuate that because the American social and legal order in not based on Christianity, Evangelicals have no principled basis for their opposition to the dismantling of American traditions by the liberals.) Viewed in the light of the common rationalism, political contractualism, and ideas about nature of both the orthodox Christians and radicals in the 17th and 18th centuries, this type of evidence for a secular ideology and against the 'Christian America' thesis fades away. Similarly, the defenders of the thesis (here we can think of John Eidsmoe or Gary Amos) argue that the legal and political ideas of the founding documents of the United States government reflect the ideas of Christian thought, not of 'deism', but they have in view the 'clockwork' deism invented by later historians, not the deism that the people of the day might have held. In short the 'Christian America' debate needs to be fundamentally rethought.

There is another way to look at the influence of deism in America. Religious opinion polls suggest most Americans think there is a God, that he intervenes in the world enough to make petitionary prayer worthwhile, and that he gives some final reward to the good. It is also clear from the daily reality in this country that most Americans are not Christians. If the typical American is a deist - as it is deism that veiws in the polls resemble - this can be attributed to the shadow of the church. The concepts of a personal God, of answered prayer, and of rewards and punishments were upheld by their place in the teachings of the churches, which rendered them norminative and respectable. Deism as such has lost its intellectual defenders in the 20th century, and the status of the church has declined to where it can no longer maintain the prestege of its doctrines among the general population. Deistic ideas seem about to be swept away by New Age and occult replacements. (In fact such teachings are infiltrating the squishier Evangelical denominations.) The strongest remaining element of deism is moralism, which the popular faith shares with the reigning political ideology of liberalism.

The last decade has seen a serious erosion of the standing of both. Here is one measure of the change: Your local bookstore probably has a Science Fiction section. This classification is already an anachronism as most of the titles are now about magic, dragons, and psychic powers because popular taste in fantasy have undergone a revolution, reflecting a major cultural shift. The 300 year old deist paradigm is now gone from the entertainment media, but remains powerful in politics. Once the politicians find it no longer useful, we could see a radical shifting of policies in favor of an open, raw paganism. The demise of the common principles shared by Christians and by the 'right-wing Enlightenment' figures means the end of the social establishment that they both supported. CM

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