Bebbington on the Enlightenment

The following is a point-form summary from my reading of David Bebbington’s chapter “The Legacy of the Enlightenment” from his book The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody The History of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 117-147. Here he discusses the relationship evangelicals had with the philosophical period of the so-called “age of reason.” I’m putting these summary-statements on the blog mostly for personal use, but if someone finds them helpful, well…I’m glad. Unless you’re a nerd like me, though, you’ll be bored with this:

– Bebbington begins by noting that the ideas of evangelicals in the late nineteenth-century were molded by the earlier phase of Western thought called the Enlightenment

– It is worth nothing at this early point that Bebbington does not get into the debate over how to define the Englightenment (think for instance of the recent revision by Gertrude Himmelfarb)

– The Enlightenment “method” was a “single-minded” quest for knowledge about how the world operated

– Seeking an end to metaphysical debates, empirical techniques were developed: “There was a premium on science, on exploration, on wisdom from new sources” (117; see also 122)

– Citing thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, Latitudinarians and Arians, the Enlightenment seemed to encourage disbelief (118)

– Many see the eighteenth-century revival (Wesley and Whitefield) as a protest against the “intellectual restrictions” of that period, emphasising the “heart” over the “head”

– However, if one probes deeper historically, Bebbington claims that “the antagonism between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment has been over-drawn” (118)

– Evangelicals were not opposed to the whole of the age of reason

– For example, Wesley did not care for the metaphysical speculations of the past (note: no source provided) and encouraged his followers to explore “electrotherapy” (note: this was invented by Guillaume Duchenne)

– Further, Wesley commended “‘a religion founded upon reason, and every way agreeable thereto'” (118)

– Bebbington references Thomas Chalmers who “married evangelical and Enlightenment themes in his social theory as much as in his theology” (118)

– In America, evangelical and Enlightenment ideals meshed–Bebbington cites Thomas Dick, who wrote of the “enlightened Christian” as an example (119)

– For these evangelicals, “There was no possibility of a divorce between faith and reason” (119)

– The “formidable intellectual foe” at this time was “rationalism,” seen in the work of the “higher critics” that modified the teaching of the bible (note: Bebbington does not link to the Cartesian pedigree of rationalism)

– Lord Shaftesbury was a major opponent of rationalism

– T. R. Birks who taught at Cambridge defined rationalism this way in 1879: “Rationalism may be defined as the abuse and perversion of human reason, in dealing with the claims of Divine Revelation” (119)–Birks rejected the abuse of reason, but not its use (120)–Birks advocated the use of “Baconian inductivism”

– William Cunningham is also cited as an example of one who used reason as “an impartial arbiter between those who accepted revelation and those who did not”

– Rationality was viewed as that element that separated humans from animals

– Evangelicals believed in “free enquiry” (121; cites Finney as example)

– “The Enlightenment bequeathed to evangelicals the conviction that reason should be deployed to roll back the borders of ignorance” (121)

– Evangelicals believed in “hard facts”

– “The Bible was the supreme source of information about ultimate issues, but it could never contradict new information about the natural world” (122)

– In terms of their view of the past, evangelicals often saw it as obscurantist

– Even Spurgeon “held that Christian thinking must avoid ‘the cloudland of METAPHYSICS'” (122)

– Common sense philosophy of Reid was the “specific inheritance” of the Enlightenment (123; note: A. Carson makes many references to Reid)–especially the notion of “intuitive beliefs, the acceptance of the reality of the external world (note: contra Berkeley), and belief in God

– Cites Robert Burns of Knox College, Toronto as one who extolled the virtues of Reid

– Common sense realism was seen as a “preservative against German rationalism” (123)

– Another key figure at this time was Bishop Joseph Butler of Durham whose work Analogy of Religion (1736) was influential (124)–“Bishop Butler provided an apologetic that seemed to possess enduring value because evangelicals retained a worldview whose main outlines had been drawn in the previous century” (125)

– Chalmers was one who honed what were called “Christian evidences”

– “In a substantially rational spirit, apologists would meet freethinkers on their own ground, confident that they could gain the victory in the intellectual debate” (125)

– The so-called “argument from design” was developed at this time by William Paley in his 1794 work Evidences of Christianity

In the next section Bebbington deals with the “consequences of an enlightened approach”

– Evangelicals regularly praised Bacon and Newton

– Evangelicals sought to reconcile the latest scientific discoveries with the opening chapters of Genesis (126)

– Chalmers held to the “gap theory”; Hugh Miller developed “day age” view

– Enlightenment impacted evangelical spirituality–doctrine of assurance (127-130)

– Enlightenment effected evangelical doctrine

– Bebbington deals with how it impacted Calvinism and Arminianism

– He notes the moderating change in Calvinism, in particular the New England theology that had Jonathan Edwards at its head–Bebbington argues that Edwards’ distinction between “natural” and “moral inability” was a mediating view between Calvinism and Arminianism (131-132)

– Andrew Fuller was deeply influenced by Edwards–he recast Calvinism “in idioms of enlightened thought” (132)

– A key area where Calvinism was recast was in the doctrine of the atonement where the “governmental view” was developed (132-133)

– Calvinism fell into decay throughout the middle years of the nineteenth-century (133-134)

– John Angell James, a Calvinist, had R.W. Dale, one more moderate, as his assistant

– In my opinion, Bebbington misunderstands what Spurgeon means when he the preacher says, “If I were asked my creed, I should go in for the Calvinistic, but I should be very sorry to say that all the truth was there; I believe a great deal of what Arminians believe” (135)–Spurgeon does not mean in terms of soteriology

– Princeton Seminary was a means of maintaining Calvinist orthodoxy throughout this period (137)

– Arminianism persisted as a result of the legacy of Wesley (137-139)

– Enlightenment optimism gave rise to postmillennialism–“The content of postmillennialism, furthermore, rendered it particularly liable to erosion” (141)

– The Enlightenment gave rise to missions as Christians took the gospel to the “uncivilized” (141)

– Deals with missions (141-144)

– There was a pragmatic influence from the Enlightenment on evangelicalism (144)

– The non-denominational spirit arose at this time

– Pragmatism especially evident among Baptists (145)–low ecclesiology even in Spurgeon


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