Theology

Fundamentalism and the Enlightenment

It is often said that fundamentalist religion is at odds with Enlightenment rationalism. It is also often asserted that fundamentalism emerged in the early 20th century during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that rocked American Protestantism and higher education. Both are deeply misleading. In fact, historians of religion and theology know that fundamentalism is actually deeply intertwined with Enlightenment rationalism.

Christianity, prior to the Enlightenment, was a mystical religion centered on union with God through contemplative prayer and the sacramental life of the church. This is preserved, today, in Catholicism and higher forms of Protestantism like High Church Anglicanism and Lutheranism. Notwithstanding Eastern Orthodoxy.

The movement toward a logic of theology begins with Reformed Calvinism. But it reaches its climax during the Anglo-American Religious Enlightenment in the 18th century. While it is true that one strand of Enlightenment rationalism, skepticism, led to critiques of organized religion, another strand of Enlightenment rationalism, Newtonianism, influenced the codification of theological systems within the low church movements. Anyone who has read, for instance, the American Puritans, know that they were deeply learned men and embedded in the science and philosophy of their day. Cotton Mather wrote that men can find God through the “Book of Revelation” (the Bible) and through studying “the book of nature” (science).

Jonathan Edwards, of “Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God” fame, considered Isaac Newton and his scientific discoveries the most important intellectual to have ever existed and that his deterministic theory of science confirmed the determinism of Edwardsian Calvinism. Edwards also routinely cites Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Hugo Grotius in his many philosophical and theological works. In his biography of Edwards, George Marsden writes that Edwards was “profoundly influenced by Isaac Newton.”

What emerged in “fundamentalist” religion in the Anglo-American Enlightenment was an attempt to synthesize their theologies with the logical determinism of Enlightenment rationalism and science. While rejecting the reductionist materialist tendencies among the philosophes, these theologians began constructing coherent systems of theology to mirror the coherent systems of science emerging in the Enlightenment. Rather than seeing the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment contradicting Christian religion, these men and theologians saw the discoveries of the Enlightenment affirming Christian religion and helping to “fill the gaps” of theological mysteries which they now believed could be understood through scientific advancements.

This is what led to the de-mystification of various strands of “evangelical” religion in the Anglo-American world. Out with the pseudo-scientific mysticism and in with the logical systems of theology which mirrored the logical systems of science. It is during the Enlightenment, as an influence of it, not rejection of it, that the elaborate systems that many in fundamentalist religion are familiar with: the orders of God’s decrees relating to the Fall of Man and Salvation, the determinism of human action and the unfreedom of the human will (in line with deterministic theories of science), the precise creation of the cosmos (in line with the prevailing theories of the universe at the time in their specific movement of the stars and planets, etc.). Some historians have gone as far as to assert that the systemization of Reformed evangelical theology in this period amounted to “physics divined.”

As the Enlightenment wore on, the elaborations of these systems of theology took hold. Eventually, as the Enlightenment slid into irrelevance with the rise of Romanticism, the attempts to synthesize religious beliefs with science equally faded as the religion of sentimentality imported from German pietism (via Friedrich Schleiermacher) took hold in America and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. The residue of fundamentalism and science in Anglo-American evangelical theology is subsequently found in the intellectual ascent to systems of theology which fundamentalist religion is built on. You must belief X, Y, Z, etc. in order to be a “true Christian” in conformity with a system of theological belief instead of a mystical and contemplative spiritual life.

While contemporary fundamentalism is often jeered, rightly and wrongly, as anti-science, the origins of fundamentalistic systematic theology isn’t actually rooted in the Bible (as often claimed) but in the attempt to synthesize biblical confessional theologies with the discoveries of Enlightenment science during the late 17th and early and mid-18th centuries. Their attempt to unite science and religion in evangelicalism ended with their established systems of theology mirroring the science of their time. Because there haven’t been any attempts at congruency and continuity since then (except in a few circles), this has given unlearned and unread contemporaries the impression that fundamentalist Protestantism is anti-science when, in actuality, as all historians know, the two were once deeply intertwined.[1] When American Protestants, especially of a Calvinist disposition, controlled most of America’s cultural institutions (from 1620-ca.1920), there was a strong sense of comfort with religion and science. Only after science continued in its advancements and American evangelical religion ceased its attempt at synthesis with science did the rupture between religion and science in the Protestant mind commence to produce the either/or zero-sum dialectic we have today.

[1] The best history of the relationship between American Protestantism and Enlightenment science is Theodore Bozeman’s Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (1977).

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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