This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.
Before the Protestant Reformation, a Christian in the West could generally feel comfortable that his or her church was the right one, because it was the only one, and that what that church taught was true. Authority and orthodoxy were united in the only show in town. But the late Middle Ages witnessed the increase of longstanding tensions within the church that developed into a crisis of authority. The Protestant Reformation not only magnified the crisis of authority, but it also spawned a crisis of orthodoxy. Four confessional streams emerged out of the Reformation—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical (subdivided into the Rationalist type and the Anabaptist type). If you count renewed contact between the West and Eastern Orthodoxy, it makes five. Each of these streams (and their spinoffs, especially among the Reformed) spent the 17th century carefully defining who they were and who they weren’t, what they believed and what they didn’t. Despite areas of agreement (especially between Lutheran and Reformed), each stream essentially said, “If you want to know what right belief is, here it is—we’ve got it.”
So if five different (general) groups claim to have right belief, how would one know who had it? If there is more than one claimant to authority, which authority does one trust? Pelikan sketches these 17th-century questions within the overall question of “Who is orthodox?” as follows.
The crisis of church: Who is in the church (all the believers, the clergy, or the spiritually alive)? Is the contemporary church truly a continuation of the primitive church? Are any of the visible churches truly churches or are they irredeemably corrupt? Could the Protestant churches unite? Could anyone win the war (or make lasting peace) over doctrinal divisions between Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy?
The crisis of doctrine: What is faith? What is dogma? How is new dogma explained if “new dogma” as such is not allowed? Is doctrinal uniformity even necessary or important? What are the doctrines that must be believed for salvation versus the ones that must be believed only because they are true? Is heresy everything that one’s church disagrees with? How do we know which controversies are simply arguments about language and which are arguments over substance?
The crisis of grace: What are the appropriate terms and categories by which to distinguish the different approaches to grace, law, predestination, and free will within each of the three wings of the faith (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox)? Which approach is correct? What are the proper ways (via word and sacrament) that grace is received?
The crisis of life: Does practice of the external forms of religion (sacrament or doctrinal confession) have any spiritual value without an inward devotion to God? How may the clergy be spiritually and morally reformed? What are appropriate boundaries for polemical activity so that charity is not ruined and the church be worse off as a result?
Even to the extent that all participants in the debate agreed on the questions, there was no agreement on the answers, and with fractured churches wedded to rival states, there was no sufficient common authority by which to arrive at answers. Efforts to reassert a single authority that would yield a single orthodoxy sometimes turned horribly violent (as in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and in waves of retaliatory persecution in England).
From the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th, two opposite answers addressed the crisis of orthodoxy, with its attendant anxious relativism and religious violence, that gripped Europe. Interestingly for this deeply riven time, both answers spanned all confessions (and even Judaism) although both answers were expressed more strongly in the Protestant churches than in Catholic or Orthodox.
The first answer was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment solution to the relativism of competing orthodoxies was to hunt for the few absolutes of “universal religion” and dismiss the rest as unnecessary nonsense. Enlightenment thinkers excised miracle and mystery from religious dogma as incredible and left off looking for authority for belief in a religious institution. They believed that truth could be found in critical historical research. Such research demonstrated that many supposedly ancient dogmas had in fact been more recent developments, and it also yielded (they believed) a portrait of a non-divine Jesus. In the end, the universal religion the Enlightenment proposed was the existence of a God who created infinitely valuable, immortal, essentially good human beings, and whose sole and lofty command was to love one’s neighbor. This was the “essence of true religion” that cut the knot of competing confessional claims about everything from ecclesial authority to the Eucharist by rendering them moot.
The second answer was the Evangelical/Pietist Revival. Its proponents were staunchly confessional, which inevitably limited how closely they cooperated with each other. But they all agreed that confessing the objective truths about God and his works was useless unless they were confessed subjectively as well—that is, not just that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again,” but that he does so for me. Truth is not merely to be assented to, but felt; the feeling comes from the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work of divine grace to transform the individual soul toward the goal of sanctified perfection. Thus, despite confessional differences that still mattered (in fact, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox who were all coming to similar conclusions still wouldn’t talk to each other for a long time to come), someone who had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit in this way found more in common with a confessional opponent who could testify to the same experience than he could with an unregenerate member of his own church.
Once both these answers, the Enlightenment and evangelicalism, emerged, their rivalry became fierce. Proponents of the Enlightenment disdained evangelicals for remaining mired in confessional superstition but even more for prioritizing the passions as the indicators of a different sort of “enlightenment.” In short, for Enlightenment rationalists, evangelicals were emotionally out of control, embarrassingly zealous, even deranged.
Of course, evangelicals were aghast at Enlightenment blasphemy in all its forms, but one that rankled them in particular was the Enlightenment view of human nature. Enlightenment thinkers saw humans as good people who do bad things because of their enslavement to irrational traditions, and thus education of the mind is the means to inculcating true virtue. But evangelicals insisted that humans are fundamentally broken and that no amount of learning could make them truly good. Only a supernatural, transformational work of God associated with utter, personal reliance on Christ—how they defined “faith”—would accomplish that goal.
Another huge and fundamental difference between Enlightenment thought and evangelicalism—in fact, probably the most important—was their different answers to the question, “Does God reveal himself, and if so, how?” (Interestingly, both sides extended, even radicalized, the rival positions in the medieval debate on the same subject.) For the Enlightenment, the world itself, and no more than the world itself, is God’s revelation. Scientific, historical, and rational philosophical inquiry are the means to discovering God and his ways. The initiative, then, is on the side of humans to find God by enlightened investigation and speculation.
Evangelicals concurred that God did reveal himself in his creation—in fact, those with Puritan rootage like Jonathan Edwards could be obsessed with cataloguing lessons God teaches through natural phenomena. But they believed that the created world isn’t sufficient to enable someone to know God truly; it certainly isn’t sufficient to be transformed, and it isn’t sufficient to indicate how a person could move from being an object of God’s righteous anger to an object of his mercy. Evangelicals insisted that God had revealed himself in the very person, not just teachings, of Jesus Christ, that that revelation was inscripturated in the Bible, and perhaps most importantly that God still actively reveals himself and his ways to individuals by the Holy Spirit. For evangelicals, especially about the knowledge that ultimately matters, the initiative is firmly on God’s side.
As time passed members of the two camps learned to adopt certain features of the other. Some heirs of the Enlightenment started to prioritize emotion and intuition in their systems of thought (as in Romantic theology and New England transcendentalism). Scholarly evangelicals came to appreciate some of the method and fruit of modern historical inquiry for the study of doctrine and Scripture. Moreover, on rare but crucial occasions they found they could work together. The American Revolution was driven by Enlightenment types (Franklin, Jefferson, and Thomas Paine being the most extreme examples), but as heirs of its English strain, most Founding Fathers had a more skeptical view of the tendencies of human nature than the thinkers on the Continent who would later birth the French Revolution. Their belief in limited, balanced government to restrain sinister features of human nature found ready support among most of their evangelical contemporaries (like Continental Congress delegate, clergyman, and college president John Witherspoon). An even stronger example of Enlightenment-evangelical alliance was the movement to abolish slavery by a coalition of enlightened Unitarians and evangelicals (both blacks and Northern whites). This alliance made a comeback in the Civil Rights Movement a century later when blacks (heavily centered in the evangelical strain but without that label) partnered with Enlightenment-descended liberals. Martin Luther King, Jr., reared in the evangelical black church but intellectually formed by an Enlightenment-infused theological education, personifies the alliance.
These examples of Enlightenment-evangelical cooperation are all American. That’s not only because that’s the history I know best, but it’s also because the United States is probably the only country in the world in which neither side can overwhelm the other. Not that they don’t try, which in fact is appropriate, because even if they can at times arrive at the same social conclusions from different bases, their ultimate programs diverge as sharply as they did three centuries ago. Committed heirs of the Enlightenment today believe that the way to end religious violence is to convince everyone to adopt sensible “universal religion” by affirming the equality (even equivalence) of all religions or to give up religion altogether. Committed evangelicals, by stark contrast, believe that the way to end sectarian violence is to spread to everyone the experience of becoming an evangelical Christian by convincing proclamation of the Christian message.
The basic questions are the same as they were three centuries ago. Does all that a person can know of God (if he exists) come through reasonable inquiry according to the judgment of each individual? Or has God actively revealed himself publicly in the divine-human Jesus and still uses the Bible to impress that truth on particular persons’ psyches in a way that they can’t deny it? Are human beings decent but unlearned, and what they most need is education to cast off the superstitions that bind them? Or are human beings intractably morally deformed and most need a miraculous spiritual renovation? Finally, does how one answers these questions determine one’s destiny beyond the limit of this mortal life?