European Beginnings

Philosophy affects theology. Francis Schaeffer showed in his classic work, The God Who Is There, how philosophy "seeps" down to the common man. As it moves downward from intellectual "ivory towers," it is accepted, partially revised, integrated into, and utilized by theology and the church. In fact, Schaeffer argues that theology is the last to revise philosophical concepts before they move out into the work-a-day world.

The philosophical roots of the Restoration Movement are traceable to European trends predating the 1800s. This material discusses some of the typical thought prior to the launching of the Restoration Movement. As we look at this, I will also introduce some of the thinkers and their contributions.

I. The Enlightenment inaugurated a whole new way of thinking

The years between 1660 and 1789 witnessed important changes in European intellectual and cultural history between the Middle Ages and the present. Two phases within that period mark these changes: the scientific revolution which takes place in the second half of the seventeenth century and the age of "Enlightenment." As one writer put it, "Without any doubt the same intellectual winds that swept into Europe during the later seventeenth century prevailed for well over a hundred years."

Three major differences define "Enlightenment" thinking from that which preceded it. First, while medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation thinkers all assumed that past knowledge was the most reliable source of wisdom, the greatest thinkers from the seventeenth century on rejected dependence on prior authority (including Scripture) and relied on their own ability to see where inquiry would lead them. They stressed the "autonomy of science and the free play of the mind" in entirely new ways. Second, the new thinkers held knowledge without value if it could not be put to use. For earlier thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, or even a St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest knowledge was abstract. Third, the new approaches "demystified" the universe. Up to the mid-seventeenth century, most believed occult or spiritual forces inhabited and drove the universe. Around 1600, a mechanical worldview swept that away.

This speaks of a radical shift in epistemology, which is the study of how we come to know what we know. As supernaturalism eroded, the scholars dismissed "revelation" as a legitimate "way to know" since revelation supposedly originated in a supernatural Being -- God. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), for example, said science could not advance unless it departed entirely from the inherited errors of the past and established "progressive stages of certainty."

René Descartes (1696-1650) agreed that a true scholar should discard all past knowledge, and the worth of any idea depended on its usefulness. Descartes went farther than Bacon, however, in his belief that everything should be subjected to doubt. He would not accept anything he did not know to be such. Descartes argued that everything outside man operated solely in terms of physical laws. God created man, however, as dualistic -- an entity comprised of both "mind and matter." Descartes believed man was a machine, but a machine with a mind.

At the center of all these theories was the concept of tabula rasa -- man born with a "blank slate." This concept states that man owns no "innate" knowledge; all knowledge comes by sense perception. Philosophers argued about whether God placed all potential knowledge in each individual and then saw to it that knowledge came forth as a result of education and experience, or whether knowledge came from observation and experience. The argument usually resolved itself in a "half-way" position. The Enlightenment shift argued that knowledge comes only through sense perception. Induction, that process of observing, measuring, and experiencing phenomena, leads to accurate conclusions. In the process, the brain is irresistibly led to a categorization of knowledge.

John Locke (1632-1704) emphasized the idea that ideas, too, come through the senses. Such knowledge, he said, is never absolute or final, but is probable and reasonable. Locke maintained that Christianity's only firm foundation consisted of its reasonableness. He said the excellence of Christianity as a religion consists precisely in the fact it coincides with the findings of unaided reason. It is not necessary to corroborate it with revelation. He held out for a simple form of Christianity which called men to "believe and do." At the very least, he stated, men are Christian who accept Jesus as the Old Testament Messiah.

Other important philosophical influences of the period are Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Emmanuel Kant. While Bacon, Descartes, and Locke maintained nominal ties to Christianity, these three represent less Christian views.

Of the three, Kant's work is undoubtedly most destructive. He developed a dualistic approach to knowledge. Kant held there was a phenomenal world, the world of sense experience with which we can all work through reason. Anything which cannot be experienced by the senses, however, is not knowable. He argued that all knowledge came from sensory experience (empiricism) and then the mind structured it, or gave it form (rationalism). Kant also spoke of the noumenal world which lies beyond sense experience and can be known only by faith. That which rests in the realm of faith cannot be proven or disproven.

Enlightenment thought also launched one additional important trend. Confidence in human ability promoted the belief that man could "pull himself up by his own bootstraps." Human reason could interact with any problem and find solutions. Man could, therefore, by employing the scientific method, change his environment, eliminate poverty and suffering, and build an ideal society. In fact, for many, America seemed like the perfect place to accomplish this very goal. It was a New World where anything could happen. It was an open land where communities could, and did, attempt all sorts of experimentation.

To summarize what I've said so far, you can discern Enlightenment thought in three important keys: (1) The determination to use the mind, rejecting all notions of guidance. As an Enlightenment motto puts it, "Have the courage to use your own understanding." (2) A demand for freedom; freedom to use the mind. (3) The belief that human beings enjoy autonomy.

II. Critique of the European philosophical trends

Alexander Campbell and other Restoration fathers were men of their day. No one fully escapes their culture. Those who began the Restoration Movement rejected the overbearing authoritarianism of oppressive monarchies and theological systems. They believed in human ability, the ability to think and reason without dependence on supernatural illumination, authority, or tradition.

Some think the Enlightenment's greatest contribution to the Restoration Movement was the inductive method. Restorationists did not reject revelation or the supernatural, but they did apply the principles of the inductive method to biblical study. Rather than beginning with church traditions, the early Restoration fathers, particularly Alexander Campbell, went directly to Scripture. Only after digesting Scriptural "particulars" did they draw conclusions.

Alexander Campbell found himself drawn to Locke's thinking about the church's nature and its relation to the state. Locke saw the church as a voluntary society separate from the state. Campbell believed the American system offered religion its greatest hope since it permitted the existence of voluntary societies without restriction. According to the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." The United States made it possible for religious leaders to dismiss traditional interpretations, return to Scripture, and discover and apply God's truth for themselves.

None of the Restoration forefathers went as far as Hobbes, Spinoza, or Kant. Campbell believed firmly in the supernatural, although some of his notions lean toward an Enlightenment rationalism. In a lecture delivered to a philosophical club, he asserted the reality of a spirit world beyond our own. He argued that in this realm demons, the spirits of dead men, existed.

Campbell also believed in the ultimate usefulness of genuine Christianity. True Christianity, he taught, always leaves its mark on character.

Further, Campbell believed God intended to inaugurate an ideal society on this planet. In his debate with the skeptic, Robert Owen, he argued that

"the purpose of God in his dealings with men is to bring about a peaceful and just democracy in which they may dwell. The biblical story as a whole reveals spreading comprehensiveness of divine grace and illumination."

A major difference between Campbell and Enlightenment secular utopians was his belief that Christianity was the only belief system capable of making such an ideal society possible. He insisted that utopia can be reached only through radical changes in human nature. Only the power of love, working from without, could remake society. This power gives human beings the capacity and understanding to do what could not be done by their own resources. This change, Campbell said, would be done completely within history.

In this latter sense, Campbell represents a stream of thought existing within Protestant Christianity. Campbell joined men such as Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight and Lyman Beecher in believing that Protestantism, after shaking off the dust of Roman Catholic authoritarianism, could establish a genuinely Christian and utopian republic which would usher in the Millennium.

In that sense the secular Enlightenment emphasis on human ability, reason, and inquiry joined forces with a Christian concept of progress to become fertile soil for Restoration ideas. Ernest Lee Tuveson says of Alexander Campbell, "No other preacher more completely fused the religious and secular elements of the millennial utopia."

Campbell and others did not "buy into" Enlightenment thinking completely. We now call the secular stream of Enlightenment thought "humanism." Kant's emphasis on the phenomenal world led scholars to deny the supernatural. That remains the case in secularism today. Many moderns consider religious language meaningless because no one can empirically verify the world it describes. Therefore, they say, good thinking requires the dismissal of the Bible itself, which claims to be the self-disclosure of an unseen God.

Dr. Leroy Garrett quotes D.J. O'Conner who said of Locke, he "swept away a lot of metaphysical lumber." The study of metaphysics is the study of the true essence of things as they lie beyond (meta) the physical. Today's descendants of Locke, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Kant would dismiss such studies as sheer speculation.

Today's scientists are no longer as certain of the observability of all things as they were during the Enlightenment. Today scientists describe the workings of electrons, but no one has ever seen one. Scientists tell us that natural law describes what normally works and that it is but science's best current explanation of why things appear as they do.

Christianity knows the ultimate nature of things because it knows the Creator. God revealed himself to man and is knowable through revelation. Revelation remains a legitimate way to know. Campbell and others insisted that you must submit reason to the judgment of Scripture, not Scripture to reason! Those early leaders of the Restoration Movement recognized biblical authority. Whether or not this remains so remains to be seen.

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