Monday, July 14, 2008

The Reformation, Biblical Study, Enlightenment, Orthodoxy and it’s effects on Christianity and the Founding of America.

At the risk of sounding as if I am trying to recreate some of those old prodigiously detailed titles of 18th Century literary productions; and at the risk of trying to cover too much detail in one insertion of thought, in which this sentence itself is coming precariously close to the length of some of Peter and Paul’s New Testament sentence structure as interpreted by King James, I wanted to try to provide some focus on the relationship between these events and thoughts.

There are many items of evidence that the Reformation had a profound effect and became a major source for Enlightenment thinking. If nothing else, the Reformation gave permission to individuals to think outside the religious box that had reigned in any intellectual thought that actually or was perceived to disagree with religious ideas and values. I agree with our colleague Jonathon Rowe who has proposed that the Reformation undermined Orthodoxy. In fact, if we remember just the rudimentary historical aspects, this was really the over riding purpose of the Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five thesis to that door in Wittenberg, he was claiming that the Orthodox Religion of that day was found wanting. The main outcome of his study was that the Bible taught, in its simplest form, that Salvation came by God’s Grace alone and that there was nothing any individual or corporate religious group could do that would add to that simple fact. The Reformation truly undermined any and all human religious authority to define, by its own rules, man’s relationship with God.

This did give rise to a new frame of thinking that allowed people not only to question religion and religious organizations but also to question the Bible itself. This was not a new occupation. It was as old as the scriptures themselves. It was however a new manifestation of thought that could and would actually survive (literally and physically) because the power of the prevailing religious organizations of that day were losing their political power to punish and restrain dissidents. While from our perspective, we may see Calvin as just as closed to religious dissidence as the Catholic Church, we must look at the historical perspective and see that the religious and intellectual freedom they were experiencing was a magnificent improvement in a very short period of time. It cannot be understated that the blow to the political power of the Catholic Church in Europe was a significant boon to the individual thought and scientific study that encouraged Enlightenment thinking.

So, can we conclude that the Reformation being a Christian religious movement, parented the Enlightenment and therefore was also the foundation of American Civil government? I think that is a bit of a stretch, but there is a thread or two that does preserve a strong connection of influence from both the Reformation and the Enlightenment in the formation of the unique American values that influenced our nation’s founding. I also propose that the formation of this country owes a debt to both the Reformation and the Enlightenment whose proportion cannot be quantified in such a way as to state unequivocally that America is a Christian (religious) Nation or that it is a Secular Nation.

This is where Christianity comes into play. First of all, when attempting to enter the argument about whether America is a Christian nation, we must differentiate between Christianity and Religion. In many minds these terms are synonymous, but the reformation itself is a great help in separating their meanings. Religion is any and sometimes collectively, all, of the human systems, political as well as personal, which define the human relationship to that of God. This would even include the actual definition and description of who God actually is and of what he consists. Christianity, is strictly the definition of the process of following the teachings the historical Jesus Christ. When looking at these definitions, there is probably more empirical evidence to suggest America is a “Religious Nation” more than it is a “Christian Nation”. I say this because, there is a wealth and diversity of “religious” thought and expression by many of the founders. I say this also because if one wants to prove that America is a Christian Nation they must first wade through all of the different “iterations” of “Christianity” that present themselves whether real, imagined or by rather tortured historical analysis and argument. This would include Puritans, Congregational, Unitarian, Deism, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptists, and even Catholicism. BUT … what we see here is that we have reverted back to “religion” rather than purely the following of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

This is where Bible Study enters the picture. It was individual Bible Study that was the impetus of the reformation itself. As Martin Luther studied the scripture, casting of the confinement of the teaching and interpretation of the institutional church, he found a freedom of relationship to his creator that was streamlined because a major middle man was removed. The truth of his conclusions brought folks to the point where their salvation was provided by God alone through “One mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:3-6) This newly rediscovered way of relating to God encouraged individual thinking. It began to erode and abolish the tyrannical and absolute human authority of religious corporation and institution. This was a socially huge step in the process of giving humanity the permission and freedom to question, erode and abolish political tyranny and authority as well.

We must begin to apply a system of understanding when studying history that has been co-opted by Seminaries and applied to Biblical Study. Almost any Seminary today has one or more courses titled “Hermeneutics”. This has been defined as the ability to understand things from other points of view, including cultural and social pressures that influence these others perspective. This specifically includes process of applying this new perspective to interpreting the meaning of written text and symbolic artifacts whether they are historical or contemporary in nature. The lack of this understanding is, for example, is what leads folks to make blanket statements such as “all of the founding fathers are Deists” or “most of the founders were Unitarian” or even that “All of the Fathers of our country were Christian.”

When we do our best to study the historical writings of the founders and look at it from their perspective, we find that their overwhelming world view when synthesized (which carries its own dangers) was that people had a responsibility to conform to a set of values that prized human life and liberty. These values were based, primarily, on a Judeo-Christian ethic that had a moral source in “Orthodox Christianity” including Catholicism and the new concepts of freedom and individual expression that came from the Reformation. By the time of the Revolution, there was also a significant influence from the relatively new thought produced by the enlightenment. The influence of these concepts which have be termed as religious or Christian in nature are the basis for calling America a Christian Nation, when, in fact, religious freedom, as a cornerstone of the Constitution, would disallow it. However, even though we have no established religion, we cannot deny the roots of morality and freedom that have come to us primarily from a, while certainly didactic, Christian point of reference. This nation surely would not be claimed by the forefathers as an unchristian or even irreligious country by description. No other form of worship or theory of the existence or person of God had more influence on the founding of this nation. However, no other nation has EVER been more tolerant or more protective of the rights of individuals to express and hold to other forms of worship or theories of the existence or nonexistence of the person of God.

This is why, as long as we can have this discussion, the greatness of America will not diminish!

12 comments:

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

The Reformation was the OPPOSITE of the Enlightenment, the central teaching of the latter being that we can be good without God, without "religion," or any other such "superstitions" --- hardly the view of the Reformers who very much believed staying INSIDE the box, that box being the Bible. Of course, when you abstractionize things like you do, and mush them up into "principles," and ignore specifics, then every thing is sorta like everything else, in that all things are things and therein lies the similarity, blah, blah, blah.

John Lofton, Editor

TheAmericanView.com

Recovering Republican

JLof@aol.com

Brad Hart said...

A very thorough post, Roger. Well done. I must disagree with a little of what John Lofton has stated above. The Enlightenment cannot be COMPLETELY separated from one another. Yes, the Enlightenment was a more secular movement, but this does not mean it was not influenced by the Reformation.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"...INSIDE the box, that box being the Bible."

I get the point. However, it was also noted in the post the way Sola-Scriptura has been used (by some pretty notable and influential historical figures) to deny orthodoxy and come to the same conclusions on original sin, the Trinity and eternal damnation, etc., that the Enlightenment Rationalists would.

"Unitarianism" and "rationalism" are movements within the Protestant reform traditional. They are theologically liberal movements, but are movements within that tradition nonetheless.

Likewise Mormonism is a movement within the reformed Protestant tradition.

Mr. Lofton may not like these things, but that's just history.

Our Founding Truth said...

The main outcome of his study was that the Bible taught, in its simplest form, that Salvation came by God’s Grace alone and that there was nothing any individual or corporate religious group could do that would add to that simple fact. The Reformation truly undermined any and all human religious authority to define, by its own rules, man’s relationship with God.>

This is an incorrect statement. Luther made it clear: Salvation by Grace through faith was irrelevant if the Bible was not Supreme. Inerrancy is supreme, which teaches Grace through faith.

Yes, the Enlightenment was a more secular movement, but this does not mean it was not influenced by the Reformation.>

If the Bible is supreme in everything, it is IMPOSSIBLE for enlightenment rationalism to have ANY influence on the reformation.

I get the point. However, it was also noted in the post the way Sola-Scriptura has been used (by some pretty notable and influential historical figures) to deny orthodoxy and come to the same conclusions on original sin, the Trinity and eternal damnation, etc., that the Enlightenment Rationalists would.>

This is definitely false, a child could find many quotes on the fundamentals of Christianity in theh Bible.

"Unitarianism" and "rationalism" are movements within the Protestant reform traditional. They are theologically liberal movements, but are movements within that tradition nonetheless.>

This is another falsehood. Another denial of the fundamentals of Christianity. I could post many quotes by Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli hammering unitarianism, but you get the point.

Likewise Mormonism is a movement within the reformed Protestant tradition.>

How Blasphemus! That God the Father had sex with Mary and formed the spirit being Jesus. Please, do me a favor, stop embarrasing yourself! Read the Bible!

Mr. Lofton may not like these things, but that's just history.>

They are lies!

Cinnamon said...

In religion there is no such thing as OUTSIDE THE BOX, when that BOX is the Bible. Faith and science can never marry.

SEO said...

To claim that religion is a field where someone can claim expertise, is something that will no unquestioned - this idea alone makes religion entirely different from science.

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I totally agree to what SEO said. It is a fancy why everyone claim to be an expert to something..nobody can prove.

teacher said...

Irreducible complexities or intelligence. This blog is a good read.

Seo Service said...

It is a well known fact that without the help from France, America would not have been able to get its independence from England. France helped with money, weapons and ammunition, soldiers and ships to the American colonies. Many famous French men like Marquis de Lafayette became an officer for the American military force. He was also one of the closest friends of George Washington. The friendship of America and France was bounded by respect for the same beliefs.

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We must begin to apply a system of understanding when studying history that has been co-opted.. with this point i agree with that..

Benjamin Bush Jr. said...

It must be remembered that one of the tenets of Luther's Reformation was Salvation by Faith alone, that "faith" included faith in Baptism. His doctrine was not new, just a stripped down version of his Catholic faith. This included the doctrine of salvation. While his words seemed to imply one thing, the remainder of his words, as well as his deeds revealed another.
This is a facet of the Reformation which doesn't receive its due attention. This is the core of inheritance passed on to and inherited by America.

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