Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Enlightenment, the Reformation and Atheism

It is commonly thought that atheism is totally independent of Christianity, however the relationship between the protestant reformation & enlightenment, with the new atheism movement and its line of argumentation is strikingly close. 

Pre-reformation, the Holy Scriptures were always seen in four main senses 1) Literal 2) Allegorical 3) Tropological 4) Anagogical

The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, had always been structured by the Tradition of the Church. The texts would have been experienced and understood in the context of worship, prayer, preaching, as well as holy writings and teachings. However, the reformation introduced the mentality that Scripture is a self-contained entity, which we can understand individualistically. This means that the Scriptures can be picked up, read, and understood without any insight, relationship with God, or commentary. 

For example, the 'days' of Genesis had always been interpreted allegorically, theologically and not literally. The reformation created a fundamentally different method of reading and understanding Scripture, which was literal, rather than theological, metaphorical or allegorical. 

Sola Scriptura, and Sola Fide
The two central aspects of the Protestant reformation, are 'Sola Scriptura' (the Bible as the only authority) and 'Sola Fide' ( justification by faith alone)

William Tyndale (1490-1536) argues that ‘Sola Scriptura’ brings out the true meaning of Scripture, enabling any individual to read the Bible and come to their own conclusions. He argues that the Church and its tradition is not needed, and simply takes away humanity's ability to read the word of God. Furthermore, William, like all early reformers, claims that Scripture exhausts all of revelation.

This has never been the practice of Christianity and the Early Church. Of course every individual can read the Holy Scriptures, but within the community and communion of Christ. This mentality, introduced by the reformation, wipes out the notion of community, and the strength and understanding gained from one another. 

Richard Hooker soon took a closer step back to the original Christian teaching, claiming that tradition and reason are in fact important, but after the authority of Scripture.The basis of Protestantism was the idea that the Bible is the only thing needed, but it would seem Hooker realised the issues at hand with this reformed theory. Many followed 'Sola Scriptura' in order to challenge existing theological and political fields, as well as following 'Sola fide' to ignore Church and Scripture altogether, and follow their ‘inner light.’ These were known as ‘protestant enthusiasts - in other words fanatics. John Locke (regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the enlightenment) created a new theory of revelation, that it must be compatible with reason. He set reason as the judge of revelation and divorced Scripture from commentaries and the confessions of the Church. However, the reformation's consequences clearly went further - with anti-Christian thinkers like John Toland and Anthony Collins, not only arguing against institutional Christianity, but also arguing that Christians change their Scriptures in order for them to be in line with prophecies, claiming they are being fulfilled. These anti-Christian arguments are protestant arguments, taken to logical conclusions. The same thinking that was needed for the reformation, is taken a step further in order to come to atheistic conclusions and ideas. One of the central aspects of this connection, is the idea of Scripture being literal - which created a strong conflict between Christianity and Science & rationality. It is this literal, 'rational' reading and understanding of the Scriptures that led to new atheism. If one is to understand Genesis in literal terms, then of course there will be a clear conflict between this belief, and rationality. If however, one is to examine the text theologically, just like the original Church's writers have been doing for centuries, then there is no contradiction. The individualistic, anti-institutional, and anti-traditional movement of the reformation, led to a catastrophically misconstrued understanding of Christianity - with the denial of the Church's apostolic Tradition at its centre. 

Protestant reformers argued throughout the reformation that Christians who do not take the Bible literally are not true followers - which is the exact same argument Richard Dawkins, as well as other new atheists argue today. Christians who read and understand them in the original manner, are deemed to be 'cherry pickers' and untrue to their faith. 


In the early 1800’s there was an illusory gladiatorial contest between the supporters of the enlightenment and churchmen , who defended their faith. 

Religion was deemed irrational, a bid for power, fuelled by deceit, and the enlightenment was promoted as the voice of freedom and democracy. Those who defended faith , spoke of the inner conscience of the individual, who develops a personal and loving relationship with the Creator God.

Interestingly, these two groups were both anti-institutional. The enlightenment strived to emphasise that the individual can rationalise, and can understand the truth for himself even when it is confiscated. This was to be contrasted with blind faith, even though the defenders of faith also emphasised the importance of individually and freely coming to divine truth and knowledge (of God). Christianity highlighted the importance of freedom, just as did the enlightenment.

Followers of the enlightenment would emphasise the importance of daring to think for themselves and realising personal courage. It promoted the ability to decide things for themselves, with education being a spur to your own independent enquiries. The enlightenment’s goal was to teach and encourage individual strength, undermining institutions that oppress, and reforming education so that every individual’s judgement can be used in its fullness. 

The minority groups undermined the institutional, oppressive churches (in England for example), as they wanted to purify themselves , and free themselves. The enlightenment is a development of this, and the enlightenment does not have any limits in what it can criticise. It can critique all traditions and beliefs, rather than a select few traditions. 

This purity for which the new atheists argue, is the same purity that the oppressed (mainly protestant, now evangelical) groups were striving for, against institution, for the literal reading of the Bible, and the rationality of every human being.

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