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JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 6: Briefing Note
GEM 03:11:12

 Theology and the “Enlightenment”



1. The Liberal/Liberationist "Mainstream"

2. Its Roots and Fruits

3. The Evangelical/Traditionalist Alternative

4. Towards a Way Forward

For Discussion or Reflection

References & Readings


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INTRODUCTION: In the 1600’s and 1700’s – after the bloody wars over religion that dominated the previous 150 years -- the intellectual initiative in Western Theology quite understandably passed from the Reformers to the skeptical, rationalist, empiricist, idealist, existentialist and now post-modern philosophers.[1] As a result, by the time we come to Schleiermacher, father of Modernist/Liberal Theology, in the early 1800s, theology had largely become an echo of philosophical trends rather than a vigorous prophetic voice in the academy, the culture and community. It is therefore now appropriate for us to examine the claims of much of current theology in light of philosophical foundations.

1.         The Liberal/Liberationist Theological “Mainstream”

Today, the state of the liberal/liberationist, modernist and/or post-/hyper- modernist mainstream of theology has been aptly but acidly summed up by Eta Linnemann, a former theology professor in the Bultmannian school[2] (and a member of the prestigious Society for New Testament Studies), who -- after a personal experience of conversion -- became an iconoclastic evangelical thinker:

Theology as it is taught in universities all over the world . . . is based on the historical-critical method . . . . [which] is not just the foundation for the exegetical disciplines. It also decides what the systematician can say . . . It determines procedure in Christian education, homiletics and ethics . . . . Research is conducted ut si Deus non daretur (“as if there were no God”). That means the reality of God is excluded from consideration from the start . . . Statements in Scripture regarding place, time, sequences of events and persons are accepted only insofar as they fit in with established assumptions and theories . . . .

Since other religions have their scriptures, one cannot assume the Bible is somehow unique and superior to them . . . . It is taken for granted that the words of the Bible and God’s word are not identical . . . the New Testament is pitted against the Old Testament, assuming that the God of the New Testament is different from that of the Old, since Jesus is said to have introduced a new concept of God . . . . Since the inspiration of Scripture is not accepted, neither can it be assumed that the individual books of Scripture complement each other. Using this procedure one finds in the Bible only a handful of unrelated literary creations . . . . Since the content of biblical writings is seen as merely the creation of theological writers, any given verse is nothing more than a non-binding, human theological utterance.

For historical-critical theology, critical reason decides what is reality in the Bible and what cannot be reality; and this decision is made on the basis of the everyday experience accessible to every person [i.e. the miraculous aspect of Scripture, and modern reports of miracles -- regardless of claimed attestation -- are dismissed as essentially impossible to verify and/or as merely “popular religious drivel”] . . . . . Due to the presuppositions that are adopted, critical reason loses sight of the fact that the Lord, our God, the Almighty, reigns.[3]

That this is no irrelevant, ivory tower exaggeration can be see from remarks by the current Moderator of the United Church of Jamaica and Grand Cayman, Rev’d. Dr. Roderick Hewitt, in a recent Gleaner article:

During the twentieth century in particular we have seen the rise of militant expression of [traditional] faiths by extreme conservatives who have sought to respond to what they identify as 'liberal' revisions that have weakened the fundamentals of their faith. The conservative apologists of these religions have sought to roll back the impact of the theories of evolution, rationalism and textual criticism that they claim seek to erode the divine authority and 'certainties' of their faiths. They opt for a belligerent, militant and separatist posture in their public discourse that can easily employ violence to achieve their goals.

There is an inherent contradiction that exists in religions in so far that they advocate divine election/selection between those who are the saved ones and the infidels/unbelievers . . . .

The worldview of the Fundamentalists is characterised by an overwhelming patriotism, a strong [US] military that must dominate the world and a deregulation of business in order that through globalisation, world trade may be effectively controlled by western multinational corporations.

During the cold war era fundamentalist religious ideology gave strong support to the anti-communism foreign policy of the USA. With the demise of communism, it has focused its energy in offering strong support for Israel thus preventing the USA government from becoming an honest broker in the Middle East.[4]

To this, Roman Catholic Deacon Peter Espeut, also trained through the UTCWI-St. Michael’s Seminary system, adds: “Theology is an attempt to come to terms with the truth of scripture in the light of human reason . . . . By promoting simple-minded approaches to the Bible, fundamentalists avoid coming to grips with God's deep and challenging message of liberation,”[5] Leading up to the later conclusion that:

One group of Christians called "Fundamentalists" ­. . . believe that the Bible is inspired by God in such a way that every word is literally, scientifically and historically true. Catholics and others believe the Bible is directly inspired by God and is 100 per cent true, but that not every word is intended to be historically or scientifically true: every word is theologically true. Theological truth is much more important and useful than bald history or science, so we should prefer to find timeless theological truths.

The Bible contradicts itself with respect to history and science in so many places, that a sensible person could not honestly continue with Fundamentalism [6]

In short, it is quite plain that the modern, liberal/liberationist pattern in theologizing, not only internationally, but also here in Jamaica, is strongly shaped by the impact of evolutionary materialist -- i.e. atheistic -- philosophical assumptions and arguments. 

It is therefore appropriate for us to first trace the roots of the thinking, and to assess the implications of the underlying philosophy, which controls the conclusions reached and action/ethical proposals advanced in light of such conclusions.  

2.         The Roots and Fruits of Liberal/Liberationist Theology

It is significant that Friederick Schleiermacher first rose to prominence through publishing what was intended as a work of Christian Apologetics: On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. For, as the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

This work sought to save religion in the eyes of its cultured despisers (prominent among them some of the romantics) by, inter alia, arguing that human immortality and even God are inessential to religion, diagnosing current religion's more off-putting features in terms of its corruption by worldly bourgeois culture and state-interference, and arguing that there are an endless multiplicity of valid forms of religion . . . .

Schleiermacher has a large measure of sympathy with the skeptics about religion whom he means to answer. But the early Schleiermacher's sympathy with them also goes far deeper than this. In On Religion he is skeptical about the ideas of God and human immortality altogether, arguing that the former is merely optional (to be included in one's religion or not depending on the nature of one's imagination), and that the latter is positively unacceptable. Moreover, he diagnoses the modern prevalence of such religious ideas in terms of the deadening influence exerted by modern bourgeois society and state-interference in religion. He reconciles this rather startling concession to the skeptics with his ultimate goal of defending religion by claiming that such ideas are inessential to religion. This stance strikingly anticipates such more recent radical religious positions as Mauthner's “godless mysticism.” (Schleiermacher's later religious thought tended to backtrack on this radicalism, however, restoring God and even human immortality to a central place in religion.)”[7]

In Schleiermacher’s thinking, the root of religion was the feeling/intuition of utter dependence that we experience. Thus, he sought a direct, non-cognitive access to God, bypassing the objections of Kant on the limitations of our ability to perceive and know things in themselves. Thus, the cognitive component of religious faith is downplayed, through his own skepticism, feeding further into the impact that Philosophy dominates theology; and though he later backtracked somewhat, the deed was done, and published.

Linnemann sets all of this in a broader context:

There is nothing in historical-critical theology that has not already made its appearance in philosophy. Bacon (1561 – 1626), Hobbes (1588 – 1679), Descartes (1596 – 1650), and Hume (1711 – 1776) laid the foundations: inductive thought as the only source of knowledge; denial of revelation; monistic worldview; separation of faith and reason; doubt as the foundation of knowledge. Hobbes and Hume established a thoroughgoing criticism of miracles; Spinoza (1632 – 1677) also helped lay the basis for biblical criticism of both Old and New Testaments. Lessing (1729 – 1781) invented the synoptic problem. Kant’s (1724 – 1804) critique of reason became the basic norm for historical-critical theology. Hegel (1770 – 1831) furnished the means for the process of demythologizing that Rudolph Bultmann (1884 – 1976) would effectively implement a century later – after the way had been prepared by Martin Kähler (1835 – 1912). 

Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) . . . reduced faith to a leap that left rationality behind. He cemented the separation of faith and reason and laid the groundwork for theology’s departure from biblical moorings . . . . by writing such criticism off as benign . . . . 

Heidegger (1889 – 1976) laid the groundwork for reducing Christian faith to a possibility of self-understanding; he also had considerable influence on Bultmann’s theology. From Karl Marx . . . came theology of hope, theology of revolution, theology of liberation.[8]

Edwin Yamauchi, a prominent biblical archaeologist, summarises how these philosophical trends led to historical-critical theological conclusions:

Higher” or literary criticism is the study which attempts to determine the questions of authorship, of the date, and of the composition of any literary texts on the basis of vocabulary, style, and consistency . . . . In biblical studies higher criticism received its classic exposition in 1878 in the work of Julius Wellhausen [through the Documentary/JEDP Hypothesis, which dated elements of the Pentateuch from the 9th to the 6th centuries, BC] . . . on the basis of Wellhausen’s concept of the evolution of Israel’s religion. According to this viewpoint, which was influenced by Darwin and Hegel, the religion of the Hebrews evolved at first into a national henotheism . . . and only much later in the time of the literary prophets and the Exile into an ethical monotheism . . . . Wellhausen, who was a great Arabic and Hebrew scholar, reconstructed Israelite life on the basis of Arabic poetry. He refused to believe that either Egyptian or Akkadian had been deciphered.[9]

In New Testament criticism the scholar who corresponds . . . to Julius Wellhausen . . . is F. C. Baur of Tubingen (1792 – 1860). . . . Baur seems to have been influenced by Hegel’s philosophy. The philosophic dialectic of Hegel assumed that history went through a pattern of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. According to Baur, Paul represented Gentile Christianity (thesis) advocating freedom from the law. Peter’s party representing Jewish Christianity (antithesis) and advocating adherence to the law was the group that reacted against Paul’s teaching. From this conflict emerged a synthesis of the second century church (as seen in Acts) . . . . Baur having established an evolutionary scheme of development believed he could date the New Testament documents according to their place in this pattern. On this basis he accepted only four of the epistles as genuinely Pauline . . . John’s Gospel was dated as late as the second half of the second century. The Acts of the Apostles was also assigned this late date . . . Baur’s views were quite dominant throughout the nineteenth century and have left a lasting legacy for the twentieth century , though many of his assumptions have been disproved . . . . . Johannes Munck . . . argues that the Tubingen concept of a struggle between Jewish-Christian nomism and Gentile-Christian antinomism has now been compressed by scholars into the thirty years between the death of Jesus and the death of Paul.[10]

Thus, in both cases, pre-Archeological hypotheses, driven by largely atheistic philosophical assumptions, have set the basic framework in which biblical scholarship is still carried out, 150 years later; despite the impact of archeological evidence, which although not without significant difficulties, is far more friendly to the traditional view of the Bible’s story than it is to the early critical theories, and even their current descendants.  Further, the negative response of the leading critics at the time when the archaeological evidence was emerging underscores the point that the issue is far more one of clashing philosophical frameworks than of the clash: science vs. “fundamentalist” obscurantism that is often claimed to be at work. 

3.         The Traditional/Evangelical Alternative

If the issue were simply a matter of the difficulties faced by a given theory or philosophy, one could simply indict modernist theology and walk away. But in philosophical matters, all alternatives bristle with difficulties. Accordingly, we should also assess the strengths and weaknesses of the traditionalist/evangelical viewpoint on the biblical plot-line:

 Few things are as controversial today as these traditional, Bible-based Christian claims! Basically, they have been challenged from four directions:

1.) Some feel that during the centuries of copying by hand from one text to another and due to "inevitable distortions" in the translation process, the original text "must" have been badly distorted or even totally lost.   Thus, such people believe that we can have no way of knowing that the Bible’s story line is authentic.

2.) Some argue that the Bible is factually inaccurate, that is, it does not square with what we know today about the world in the past — especially in Genesis, in its prophecies, and reports of miracles.  That is, they hold that (based on our ability to reconstruct the past through historical, archaeological and scientific investigations) we can discredit and dismiss the Bible’s claims.

3.) It is claimed, often by learned Theologians (such as Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, or Bishop John Shelby Spong of New Jersey, and many others) that much of the Bible is simply a collection of pre-scientific myths and pious forgeries, which has to be "demythologized" and "reconstructed" before use.  In particular, such thinkers are suspicious of the idea that History, under the Lordship of Christ, is moving along a path from Creation and fall, through redemption and witness to all nations, towards a culmination at the Second Coming. 

4.) More broadly, postmoderns tend to challenge the traditional biblical plot-line as a “totalising metanarrative” -- fundamentally an oppressive device that marginalises other perspectives and imposes a backward socio-cultural, ethical and political agenda on the wider community.

The first objection is fairly easy to deal with, as there has long been sufficient textual evidence to support the general reliability of the text and major translations; though of course there are specific texts that remain in question. It is generally conceded that no major Christian teaching is affected by the quite small fraction of texts currently challenged by the textual critics.

The second and third challenges are linked, and have several points where the balance of academic opinion is by no means in the traditional view’s favour. These hinge on the clash between the apparent timeline of the literalists’ biblical chronology and modern cosmology, including cosmological, chemical, biological and cultural evolution.  Further to this -- though in a postmodern age there is more openness to the idea of spirituality, including the miraculous – the concept of a God who intervenes in the affairs of men is sharply contested. And, given the dominance of historical critical methods in professional biblical studies, significant challenges face to those who claim the traditional timeline of the Bible is substantially accurate – in some quarters, to hold to this position is to immediately disqualify oneself from serious consideration in academic dialogue.

In the case of biblical archaeology, there has been a recent trend to the post-modern hermeneutics of suspicion[11]:

If Albright had been able to convince a generation of scholars that the Bible's account of Israel's origin could be matched in general terms to the evidence from the digs, it was because the Bible was still considered "innocent until found guilty." The undoing of the Albright antidote to Wellhausen skepticism came when people like Lemche and Thompson began insisting that the Bible stories should be viewed as fables until indisputable evidence proved them to be historical. The accounts were now seen as fictional until proven factual, guilty until proven innocent.

This virulent neoskepticism has proven exceptionally resistant to anything smacking of a "fundamentalist" interpretation, and its proponents have set about revising what they believe was the Albright school's overeager attempts to identify discoveries as biblical events when other events in Near Eastern history could account for them just as well or better. For the minimalists, the paradigm shift has left the Bible largely irrelevant and the fight over the Bible's historical value passé.

Again, we see the underlying theme: a philosophical stance backed up by the institutional power of the academy plays a central role in evaluating evidence, thus determining what is called “knowledge.” So, even though it would be appropriate to point out the inherent unreasonableness of the neoskeptics’ expectation – just reflect on how little of the textual, inscriptional and material evidence can reasonably be expected to survive 4,000 years in a turbulent part of the world; much less the tiny fraction of what has survived that has been investigated in the field much less published in the professional literature[12] – the spirit of radical doubt is again rampant.    

The postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion goes beyond just suspicion of fact-claims, to suspicion of motive. For, such thinkers often claim that the text is a reflection of power agendas, selecting and highlighting what serves the interests of those who sponsor or create it. So, the observation that the biblical plot-line outlines a global worldview, with a framework for human history from creation and fall to redemption and consummation is turned against the Bible and those who support it: the motives and agenda are suspect, especially since they cut across the proclivities and preferences of many who wish to pursue secularist and/or neo-pagan agendas in the community.

Therein lies the rub: for the hermeneutics of suspicion is itself self-referential and inconsistent. We could just as easily challenge the post-moderns that they are creating texts that imply their own “totalizing metanarratives,” which then work to push their agendas in the wider community. Deconstructing the “deconstructers,” in short.

For instance, observe how the smear-word “fundamentalist” is used to cut off even academic discourse – NB: those on both sides of the debate are qualified professionals in relevant fields, publishing in the peer-reviewed literature -- by attacking those one disagrees with; rather than actually discussing the merits of fact claims and arguments. But, this implies that the current the breakdown of civility and objectivity is rapidly reducing even academic discourse to power-games. Which, in turn, is just what the hyper-modernists who now dominate the academy’s power structures would want, for they feel they can now win the rhetorical/propaganda contest for headlines, textbook contents, hearts and minds.[13] So, does it come down to: never mind what is true (or even simply reasonable and/or fair-minded), it’s who holds power that counts?

If that is so, the academy as we have come to know and respect it, is finished.     

4.         Towards a Way Forward: the Scripture Principle

Clearly, the theological debate that has wracked the church over the past 2 - 300 years reveals the strong impact of philosophical assumptions on theological conclusions: the universe has been closed, and the God who intervenes supernaturally in creation, revelation, redemption and judgement is viewed as a fairy-tale. So, the controlling beliefs that underlie modernity and now post modernity have shaken the confidence of many church leaders and members in the Scriptures and the traditional Christian worldview. However, it is equally clear that the philosophical frame of modernity and post-/hyper- modernity also bristles with difficulties – including several key self-referential inconsistencies that manifest intellectual incoherence and even moral inconsistency.

Thus, again, Pascal’s Wager arises as a key decision rule: given the balance of probabilities and potential consequences, which option is most prudent?

 As we consider this, we should also reflect on Clark Pinnock’s observation, and its implications for the proposed project of informed, prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership[14]:

Why, in the last analysis, do Christian people believe the Bible is God’s Word? Not because they have studied up on Christian evidences and apologetics, however useful these may prove to some. Christians believe the Bible because it has been able to do for them exactly as Paul promised it would [i.e. in 2 Tim 3:13 – 17]: introduce them to a saving and transforming knowledge of Christ. Reasons for faith and answers to perplexing difficulties in the text, therefore, are supportive but not constitutive of faith in God and his Word. Faith rests ultimately, not on in human wisdom, but in a demonstration of the Spirit and power.

CONCLUSIONS: Over the past three centuries, successive philosophies have closed the Heaven off from man, progressively excluding God from the domain of “knowledge.” Thus, theology has been on the defensive, and has often been reformulated in humanistic terms, but with quite unsatisfactory results. But, in turn, the underlying philosophical assumptions  in a post-/hyper- modern world, have also been shaken. In particular, the role power agendas often play in belief systems and their associated institutions now stands exposed. But, this opens the door for positive dialogue, where courageous informed prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership become possible.

Points to ponder . . .

  1. Does the postmodern ferment provide an opening for a renewed dialogue on the credibility and relevance of biblically based theology? Why/why not?
  1. Given the Acts 17 account, what are some possible strategies that may help open the door to such a dialogue?
  1. What would be the long term prospects for such a dialogue?
  1. How could we initiate such a dialogue in the Caribbean context, bearing in mind the influence of secularists, neopagans, and Islamists?

References & Readings

Stanford online Enc. of Phil: . Cf. articles on major figures.

Linnemann, Eta. Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993.

Linnemann, Eta. Biblical Criticism on Trial. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2001.

Yamauchi, Edwin. The Stones and the Scriptures. Grand Rapids, MI: 1981.

Miller, Kevin D. “Did the Exodus never happen?” Christianity Today, Sept 7, 1998, pp. 44 – 51. Also, cf. URL: .

[1] As pivotal figures, we could list Rene Descartes [(1) skepticism and rationalism], John Locke [(2) empiricism], David Hume [(2) skepticism and empiricism], Immanuel Kant [(3) post-Hume rationalism and idealism], and Soren Kierkegaard [(4) existentialism].  Through these schools of thought, (1) radical doubt was enthroned as the start-point for knowledge, which was to be articulated based on (2) reason, observation and experience, constrained by the limitations of our ability to perceive and measure the external world. Soon, however, (3) the world became divided into that of things in themselves and as perceived by us, leading to (4) the need to find synthesis or overall meaning by a leap of faith rather than rational inquiry. In short, the Descartes project has failed.

[2] She studied under Bultmann, Fuchs, Gogarten, and Ebeling. Cf. “Translator’s Introduction” by Robert Yarbrough,  Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), p. 7.

[3] Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), pp. 83 – 88 as excerpted. Emphases in original; parenthetical notes in square brackets: [ ].

[4] “Religious Fundamentalism and the Scourge of Violence,” Gleaner, Sept 26, 2001.  . Emphases added. Note that this article was written within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks in the USA, and seeks to infer that the terroristic mindset is as characteristic of a great many evangelicals [whom Mr Hewitt here insists on calling “Fundamentalists,” but his context makes the equivalence plain] as it is of Wahabbist extremist Islam.  Hewitt speaks approvingly, not only of the liberationist/ socialist scheme for global development [cf. “The Religious Dimension of Violence in our Culture,” Gleaner, Jan 1, 2003:] but also of (1) the theory of evolution and (2) RATIONALISM – i.e. not rationality – which epistemological stance specifically uses radical doubt to exclude revelation as a possible legitimate source of knowledge. Thus, he stands in the tradition of methodological naturalism, the methodological form of the typical academician’s assumption that evolutionary materialism is the basic explanation of everything from hydrogen to humans. (It is possible for one to think and work professionally on this implicitly atheistic or at least deistic assumption and not oneself be an atheist or a deist; but the resulting intellectual incongruities and even logical conflicts should be obvious.)

[5]“An attack upon Fundamentalism,” Gleaner, Jan. 13, 2001. The subtlety in this definition is brought out in the next citation.

[6] “The Religion of a Book,” Gleaner, Jan 29, 2003. (Cf. my online rebuttal to his chief example, the resurrection narratives: and the discussion of the antifundamentalism arguments and issues, at Emphases added. Here, too, we see Ms Linnemann’s point about atheistic controlling assumptions being brought out with great force.  For, of course, scientific and historical truth claims, in light of methodological naturalism, are ONLY accepted if they exclude the supernatural. So, BY DEFINITION, one who accepts the supernatural as a possibility cannot be “scientific.” In an age where Science is the paragon of knowledge and logical thinking, that is tantamount to Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins’ remarks on the mentality those who reject evolutionary materialism: they are ignorant, stupid, insane or utterly wicked. And this sentiment is exactly what Mr Espeut and Mr Hewitt echo. The circular reasoning [assuming of what should be proved] and strawman fallacies [caricatured arguments that are dismissed as if they were the real issue] involved should be readily apparent.


[8] Biblical Criticism on Trial (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2001), pp. 178 – 9.

[9] The Stones and the Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1972), pp. 27 – 30. Yamauchi also comments: “One of the striking characteristics of the scholars who have approached the Bible primarily through literary analysis is the non-use or at best the grudging use they have made of archaeological evidence . . .  [Wellhausen] refused to believe that either Egyptian or Akkadian had been deciphered. On the other hand, Assyriologists since the 1890’s and field archaeologists since the 1920’s have discovered that their evidence accorded better with the biblical traditions than they did with Wellhausen’s reconstructions. A few scholars . . . such as A. H. Sayce, reversed their position because of the impact of the early archeological discoveries, but most higher critics chose not to make use of the new data.” [p. 30. Current neoskeptical developments in Archaeology will be discussed below, under Section 3.]      

[10] IBID, pp. 92 – 93. A similar strategy is the use of the assumption that actual prophecy is impossible to force a date after the “prophesied” event, e.g. the Olivet Discourse on the desolation of Jerusalem meant to some scholars, that Mark was clearly written after 70 AD. This is the basis for dating Daniel to 165 BC as well.

[11] Cf. Kevin D. Miller, “Did the Exodus Never Happen?” Christianity Today, Sept 7, 1998, pp. 44 – 51. Also . Emphasis added. The article provides a survey of evidence that challenges the minimalists. NB: gives a survey on the related question of dating the Exodus and Conquest.

[12] Cf. Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures, pp. 144 – 166, for a more detailed discussion, including cases, of why the presumption of innocence is inherently more reasonable than that of radical doubt.

[13] Cf. the current agenda to redefine homosexuality as “normal,” and to characterize those who object as intolerant bigots who are prone to violence.  

[14] The Scripture Principle, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), p. xix.