|Why by the
1600s was the idea of "Truth" undergoing a profound change in European
Why by the
end of the 1600s can we speak of a Newtonian (or "modern") world-view (or
cosmology) that was beginning to replace the older Christian world-view?
For all Christians,
since the very founding of the church, the idea of "Truth" was whatever
God himself had made to be True by his own divine will. It was whatever
God's mind thought to be True. [In this way of thinking, Christians
were very close to the thinking of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato
(350 years BC).]
But what exactly
was "Truth"? The Christians [like the Greek philosophers Plato and
Aristotle--whom they studied closely] claimed that actually there were
two kinds of Truth.
First, there was
the obvious Truth of whatever was found simply in the physical world around
us. This was empirical Truth--which any clear mind could agree
upon in observing the world around us. Empirical Truth was contained
in what God had created and simply presented itself to any careful observer
of the actually workings of that physical world. [This empirical
truth was the truth that Plato's student Aristotle tended to focus on since
it was more "real" to him] People called "scientists" devoted themselves
to the study of this kind of Truth.
But another kind
of Truth also existed--a higher, or revealed Truth. This Truth
was more complicated and more difficult to get to for it was the Truth
found only in the thoughts or pure will of God. [This was the Truth
that Plato had first concentrated his efforts to discover]. To the
Christians, this higher Truth had been revealed to the world in and through
Jesus Christ. Of course such Truth could not be found without the
help of the Holy Spirit to open our minds to the will or design of God.
Christians remembered that the disciples who had walked side by side with
Jesus did not "get it" until after Jesus had left them to go to the Father
and the Holy Spirit finally came to reveal to them the inner meaning of
what Jesus had shown them. This was the kind of truth that "theologians"
devoted themselves to studying.
With the coming
of the Dark Ages, Truth underwent attack by hordes of German and Viking
barbarians who destroyed everything in sight. In the end Truth had
been kept alive through those horrible times by the great teachers of the
church--and the monks and priests who recorded their thinking on divine
matters. Truth was kept alive only by the church. For the next
1000 years (the Middle Ages) the "Truth" was therefore simply a matter
of whatever the church scholars and authorities told the people was true.
But as the 1500s
and 1600s moved along, two things happened to challenge that long-held
understanding of what Truth was.
With the settling
down of European life (no more attacks by barbarians!) and the return of
prosperity to European culture by the 1400s, the Europeans' interest in
the physical world around them began to grow in importance. Interest
in empirical Truth soon began to grow. By the 1500s and early
1600s, "scientists" such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler began
to study closely the physical universe around them, fascinated at how it
all seemed to work according to fairly fixed rules or scientific "laws."
Also by the 1500s
and early 1600s, many Christians had begun to protest (thus "Protestants")
the notion that only the teachers of the church were capable of understanding
the higher Truth of God (theological Truth). Protestants claimed
that the simple and direct reading of the Bible by any devout (Spirit-inspired)
Christian was sufficient to reveal the higher Truth of God's will.
You didn't need to be a church-trained priest in order to discover what
the Bible said to be true. You needed only to be literate (able to
read)--which the Protestant townsmen certainly all were.
authorities (Catholic popes, bishops and priests) all answered back with
the charge that turning the study of Truth over to common people was a
very dangerous thing. People might interpret the facts of the physical
world and the details of scripture in an incorrect fashion. You needed
first to be trained by the church, to become learned in the church's traditional
interpretations of the Truth, before you dared to study and declare what
was True and what was not. Thus scientific or empirical study (such
as Galileo's study of the sun, planets and stars) was considered highly
dangerous and to be restricted. So also was the reading of Scripture--especially
of texts that had been translated from the Latin into the common languages
of the people--as the Protestants were doing.
By the 1600s Truth
was clearly undergoing a major change: theological Truth as
the higher of the Truths was beginning to lose out to empirical
For one thing,
the bloody battle between Catholics and Protestants over whose understanding
of theological Truth was indeed "true" was wearying the people of such
discussions. To see fellow Christians slaughter each other over differing
theological issues started to undermine the respect people had for theology
and theological Truth.
Even among the
Protestants themselves there seemed to be no deep agreement over theological
issues. Lutherans and Calvinists argued constantly over issues such
as the real meaning of the Lord's supper--and even let the cruel religious
politics of the 1600s shape their loyalties, simply because of these theological
issues. And both Lutherans and Calvinists ganged up on the Protestant
Anabaptists and Unitarians, even to the point of having them put to death
because of their theological "errors."
Then there was
the horrible split within the Dutch Calvinists in the early 1600s between
the Remonstrants (followers of Arminius, also called "Arminianists") and
the anti-Remonstrants (sometimes called the hyper-Calvinists) over the
question of how a person becomes "saved."
Then there was
the Spanish Inquisition that tortured thousands of people on the rack to
get them to change their theological stands and put them to death by fire
or sword if they still refused to see things in the "true" light of the
All of these cruel
and inhuman theological discussions took place as thousands of people were
being slaughtered by wandering armies belonging to this king or that king,
fighting in the name of this religious position or that religious position.
By the mid 1600s, people were growing sick and tired of the whole lot of
At the same time,
scientists who quietly went about the business of merely looking at empirical
questions, such as how the body works, why chemical react the way they
do, how the laws of mechanics (physics) can improve the efficiency of the
way that we do our work, etc--these scientists were beginning to make a
deep impact on life--without all the bloodshed.
It was the Protestants
who took the lead in this--because Catholics still felt that such research
was dangerous. In Protestant England scholars such as Robert Boyle
(chemistry), Isaac Newton (physics and astronomy), and John Locke (anatomy
and psychology) took the lead in developing empirical science and in the
Protestant Netherlands such scientists as Christian Huygens (physics and
astronomy) and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (microscopic life) took the lead.
Where did the
Newtonian "revolution" leave us in our thinking about God?
Certainly by the
end of the 1600s a new way of looking at the world, at life itself, was
beginning to reshape the thinking of Europeans (and American colonists).
Sir Isaac Newton had a lot to do with it. And thus it eventually
came to be called "Newtonian." But Newton did not invent this new
way of looking at life. He simply made the issue very clear:
the modern way of understanding the universe, the cosmos, was not like
the older Christian world-view or cosmology.
But there was
an earlier philosopher (1630s-1640s) who really got the Newtonian world-view
up and running. This was a very brilliant but odd Frenchman by the
name of René Descartes. It was Descartes who began
to wonder if all Truth couldn't have some firm foundation that the
human mind, without all the theological stuff, could rest on. The
endless debates about the higher will of God seemed to him unanswerable--and
dangerous. Couldn't we find a base for Truth that didn't need theology
to get there.
In thinking on
this matter it finally came to him that human reason itself was a wonderfully
firm foundation for Truth. The fact that we were able to think at
all was the one foundational Truth that other truths could be logically
built upon. As he put it, the foundational Truth of all truths could
be summed up in the simple statement, "I think therefore I am" (cogito
ergo sum)!!! You didn't need to start Truth from the fact of
God's existence (as all Christians had done for centuries) but from the
fact of our own existence. Once you accepted the absolute Truth of
our own existence, of the fundamental fact that we see and know what we
do, you have the key to all knowledge.
Of course that
left remaining the question of "what about God?" Descartes "logically"
demonstrated that God could be proven through our own logical thoughts
about God. Of course this meant that God could be understood only
in terms of what we were able to understand about God. And that understanding
was likely to differ from person to person, from religious group to religious
group. But to Descartes the facts about God were likely to
be beyond our reach--even though the fact of God could not be disputed.
What Descartes was doing was inviting the Christian world to stop arguing
God and simply begin to accept the fact of God--and focus our energies
on exploring the more real world of what our senses could actually see,
hear, touch and taste.
Thus It was Descartes'
thoughts that got modern thinking up and running.
(1660s-1680s) however took Descartes' strong beginning and turned it into
an absolute rule of all modern thinking by his mathematical proofs of how
all things in the universe work according to fixed mathematical
laws which a skilled human mind (such as his own) is fully able to grasp.
The universe is
not a great mystery--but is instead a precise product of a very logical
divine mind we know as God. All creation is made up of very real
physical materials which work with each other in accordance to very real
laws of physical behavior. Reality has an absolute existence "out
there" beyond the human mind--which the human mind is able to come to an
understanding of through the use of scientific reason.
That reality and
its factual laws seem fixed forever. Long ago God, as a "Divine Architect,"
set all of creation into place and got it up and running in accordance
to permanent physical laws.
Thus we don't
need to bother ourselves with the study of God's mind. Who could
ever know that anyway? Instead, if we just focus our thoughts on
the empirical "facts" of God's universe, we will have all the knowledge
we need to live perfectly.
in the last years of Newton's life he gave up his study of mathematics
and physics and became an ardent mystic, focusing on the mysteries of God!!!!)
After Newton another
key figure in the shaping of the modern mind and world-view or cosmology
needs to be mentioned: John Locke (1680s-1690s). Locke focused
more on the question of "why do we know what do know?" "How is it
that we have knowledge of anything at all?" Locke is not only the
"Father" of modern psychology, but also one of the key shapers of the modern
Locke took Newton's
view that the world "out there" is made up of a number of hard realities
and hard facts. Things just simply "exist" out there. We come
to know about this world of hard facts out there because we have sensory
devices (eyes, ears, nose, fingers, tongue) that have "receptors" to receive
the bits of reality that these hard facts out there give off. We
are being constantly bombarded by such hard "facts." What our minds
or brains do is sort these facts out logically into patterns called thoughts
or ideas. These thoughts or ideas then become for us the pictures
of that wonderfully made outside reality that we hold in our minds.
On the basis of these thoughts or ideas we then can respond to the world
with understanding, with creativity of our own, with human brilliance.
of human understanding was so powerful--that ever since then it has been
the totally accepted view of the universe and how we know and understand
that universe. [But these views are coming to be challenged today.
I'll have more to say about that in later lessons!]
Where did such
"Deism" leave the church?
As stated above,
God came to be understood mostly in terms being of a Grand Architect, who
long ago put the universe into place and cranked it up and got it running
according to a number of eternal or unchanging mathematical laws.
The world (and ourselves as well) was seen as being some kind of "machine,"
running along very precise and unchanging lines. True, the world
(and we ourselves) will "wind down" and die some day. This too is
built into the mechanical laws of the universe (Newton's laws of Thermodynamics).
But until then, all life works according to these fixed physical laws.
Does God "intervene"
in his own creation to make things happen? According to Newtonian
thinking, why would God need to do so? Everything is up and running
already in accordance with these laws. Even for God to intervene
would be to upset the perfect mathematical balance of his own creation.
So to the new
modern or scientific minds the answer to that question had to be a very
strong "NO"! God does not intervene! That is to say,
God does not perform miracles. Everything has a natural or mathematical
explanation and does not need the excuse of being a "miracle" in order
to happen. People who believe in miracles are people who have not
yet really used their mind to understand things. They are "superstitious."
They certainly are not "modern" in their thinking--but by their thinking
belong to an age that we are finally escaping from, an age of superstition
and silly (if not dangerous) thinking. So went (and still goes) the
thinking of the new, modern scientific minds.
So why bother
with God at all if everything is already perfectly in place and does not
need, or even want, God to get involved? This was a question that
immediately (of course!) began to trouble Christians once they began to
understand the meaning of the modern cosmological revolution of Newton
By the early 1700s
the church everywhere was wrestling with just this issue. Books were
being published by prominent clergymen calling on the faithful to begin
to give reverence to God not as a miracle-worker, but as the Great Creator
to whom we owe our great thanks for building such a perfect universe.
These people invited us to leave our theological disputes behind and stop
thinking of God as "Theos" (a God who manipulates all life) and instead
as "Deus" (a God who created a perfect, unchanging order). We thus
call such Christians, "Deists."
Why was the
Great Awakening (1740s) so important to Christianity?
Of course Deism
didn't have much appeal to people who wanted to look in faith to a God
who heard and answered prayers concerning difficulties in their lives:
sickness, death, loss of jobs or homes, troubles with spouses, friends
and neighbors, etc.
to their problems went something like: "Work it out yourself, baby.
You've got a good mind. Use it. Don't waste your time on your
knees in prayer. Life is made up of hard facts. Deal with them.
Use facts, not prayers, to come up with your answers."
Of course Deism
left the church spiritless. By the early 1700s, churches were emptying
out (much like they are doing today). This was true in colonial America
as much as it was true in Europe. Pastors were complaining about
how the churches were deserted on a Sunday morning, or filled only with
those for whom church-going was more a habit than a true conviction.
Many were even coming to church drunk on America's favorite drink, rum.
almost without warning, something miraculous happened to the church beginning
in the 1740s. Just as Christianity seemed to be dying out, a powerful
Spirit of revival suddenly began to sweep through the church. In
America we call that massive revival, "The Great Awakening."
and his brother Charles, founders of Methodism, came to America in the
early 1700s to start up a mission in Georgia among English prisoners who
had been sent to that colony as punishment for various crimes. But
nothing came of that venture. The religious situation in America
seemed hopeless. Up in New England the Puritans had lost the original
deep spiritual convictions of their grandparents and a had become a group
of up-tight, legalistic do-gooders. A huge number of them had become
But in the 1740s
when the Wesleys returned to America, with Calvinist friend George Whitfield
accompanying them, something was new about the situation. Now when
they preached, hundreds, then thousands would turn out to hear their fervent
gospel preaching. Finally the crowds became so huge that they had
to meet in fields. Tens and twenties of thousands of people would
turn out to hear them preach.
throughout the colonies. Jonathan Edwards found himself in
New England producing the same kinds of crowds with his preaching.
It was amazing. No one had an explanation for it. Prayer certainly
had been a huge part of it, as far as the revivalist preachers themselves
understood the event. But the regular pastors, a huge number of whom
were Deists, consider this all a bunch of humbug. They really didn't
believe in prayer. And they were really put off by the spectacle
of huge crowds gathering out in the open fields when they themselves couldn't
get but a handful to show up for church. Many of the old-line clergy
even came out loudly denouncing this revival as just pure hysteria.
out of control about it all. People would swoon, or begin to talk
in gibberish languages. They would fling up their arms and sing and
sway--for hours on end. They would quake and shake (Quakers and Shakers).
It was all very "unmodern."
American Pentecostalism was thus born--and infused the Christian faith
with a new fervency, a new resolve to worship God and Jesus Christ.
In the end, the
Great Awakening rescued Christianity from the death that seemed to be approaching
it--and gave American Christianity a new power, a new life, that was key
to the resolve of the American colonists to direct their lives in accordance
with the will of God rather than the will of men, no matter how wise or
powerful these men might be.
In the end, the
Great Awakening prepared the Americans to resist the move of the English
King and Parliament to return the colonists to the status of dependent
Englishmen rather than free men. The Great Awakening was the great
spiritual preparation that God made for America as the War of American
Independence (the Revolutionary War) loomed into being in the later 1700s.