How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 3 of 7: The Enlightenment

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

The Enlightenment (Age of Reason)

18th Century

Attacks Against the Roman Catholic Church in France

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment forced the Christian Church underground. The extremely conservative Puritan Revolution in England introduced a strict moralism on religious beliefs while the extremely radical French Revolution banned the Roman Catholic Church and removed statues and monuments. This was the Age of Reason, not the Age of Faith or Grace. Although many people identify with the liberal democratic principles and values of this era, it was not a productive period for the Christian faith.

While many Americans celebrate the political ideas of Thomas Paine in Common Sense and the Rights of Man, his book, The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, exposed the corruption of the Christian Church and celebrated the laws of nature (Newton) as superior to the laws of God. The world accepted Deism, removed the miracles from the Bible, and deemphasized worship.

Actually, Thomas Paine’s ideas were conservative, although 21st century Christians would view them as extreme. He argued for religious toleration and the freedom of worship. Paine had the acceptance of the educated in Europe.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

For centuries, Martin Luther’s explanation of the authority of the divine right of authority in the Fourth Commandment was challenged as democratic ideals in the name of popular sovereignty changed this deterministic view of God’s role in history.

In America, the voices of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the missionary work of John and Charles Wesley opposed the worldly views of the Age of Reason and called people to the theological ideas of John Calvin and Martin Luther. This was not an awakening of God’s love but one of fear of an angry God calling sinners to repentance. Predestination was a popular belief as was the truth of God’s Word in the Holy Bible. The Great Awakening occurred in the middle of 18th century colonial America. It was theologically powerful, supported by the new universities of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton and popular with the people.

How should the Christian Church have responded to the philosophy of the Enlightenment?

How did the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin provide different answers to the spiritual needs of people?

Are there lessons to be learned from the Great Awakening that might apply to the 21st century?


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