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Theology in the Enlightenment Age


Enlightenment was an intellectual movement. It is commonly held that the influence of enlightenment was paramount in the 18th century (Adorno, 2002). Some literary sources, however, indicate that it began way back in the 13th century. Generally, the enlightenment age started gaining momentum in the 13th when Thomas Aquinas recovered the Aristotelian logic that was primarily used in defending Christianity (Escobar, 2003).

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The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the emergence of humanists who believed the appropriate ways to worship God involved appreciation of God’s creation. These centuries were characterized by the Renaissance Humanists. Their goal was to redeem the creativity, pride, and spirit of the Romans and Greeks, to emulate their achievements and to supersede their abilities (Hordern, 1992). What followed was a prolonged history of enlightenment. Its broadest scope is not to be addressed here. This essay basically focuses on how enlightenment became a threat to orthodoxy. It seeks to discuss how the mindset of fundamentalism led to the defense of Orthodoxy and how the mindset of liberalism led to the remaking of Orthodoxy.

The Mindset of Fundamentalism in Defense of Orthodoxy

The fundamentalist movement emerged at the turn of the 20th century. It was a result of a series of publications titled the fundamentals dominating the 19th century (Escobar, 2003). The movement was meant to counter neo-orthodoxy and liberalism, with the sole purpose of preserving conservative biblical Christian faith. It was a battle between fundamentalists and the neo-orthodoxy (Grenz, & Olson, 1992).

The General Assembly of the Northern Protestant Church played a fundamental role in influencing the struggle for liberal Protestantism. Fundamentalists established a doctrine that declared truthfulness in the beliefs of infallibility, the virgin birth of Christ, Christs death and crucifixion on the Calvary, His miracles, resurrection, and love (Grenz, & Olson, 1992). Orthodoxy was influenced by Gresham Machen of Princeton, who struggled to defend its truthfulness.

Gresham was one of the finding fathers of Westminster Seminary, “a conservative alternative to liberal education.” His incessant endorsement of liberalism led to his expulsion from the Presbyterian Church in 1936, after which the Orthodoxy Presbyterian Church was established (Hordern, 1955).

The Baptist church was also affected by liberalism. This began with the formation of the Worlds Christian Fundamentalists Association in 1919 in Philadelphia. General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) was found in 1932, and its goals include “association of churches; separation from liberal Northern Baptist activities; conformity to the New Hampshire Confessions of faith; fostering of pastors missions and supporting churches in search for authoritative pastors” (Escobar, 2003).

Also featuring in this category of anti-liberal theologians were the Grace Brethren (1937); the American Baptist Association created (1925); the American Council of Christian Churches (1941); the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (1930); and the American Council of Christian Churches established in 1941 (Adorno, 2002).

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Generally, the mindset of fundamentalism was to continue isolating its doctrine from the prevailing religious culture. A detachment of religions culminated in a shift from the dominant culture and led to the caricaturing of objections such as smoking, drinking lodging, just to mentions a few. In the theological context, fundamentalism advocated for the biblical infallibility and inerrancy, the deity of Christ, “the substitutionary atonement of Christ,” His physical resurrection and return (Escobar, 2003).

The mindset of fundamentalism was deeply rooted in the orthodoxy and the 1800s biblical Christian faith. The 19th century marked the peak of evangelical doctrines and principles. Actually, this century was named “the Evangelical Century in America.” Fundamentalism was geared towards the abolition of slavery, eradication of alcoholism, and encouragement of higher learning. Some scholars hold that fundamentalism was the 20th-century movement, which countered the truthfulness of the bible Christianity. As a result, the conservative Christian believers started defending the truth of the bible and the teaching of Christ. Their reactions were characterized by the publication of a series of articles named “The Fundamentals,” which sought to defend orthodox Christianity.

As William (2001) notes, “fundamentalism became more of a mindset rather than a framework of belief” (p.39). The entire doctrine was taking a negative turn, as the divergence of spirits continued among the bible-believing Christians of the 19th Century. The people that had worked together, worshiped together, and attended the same denomination were now working separately and attending not the same denomination. Those who pulled out of the league perceived those they left behind as apostates (William, 2001). Some of the key figures in this movement included Bob Jones, Frank Norris, and Mclntire Carl. These individuals were against modernism, or what would otherwise be termed as enlightenment. They indefatigably defended the orthodox doctrines (Adorno, 2002).

The mindset of Liberalism in Remaking of Orthodoxy

While the Christian Orthodox continued to defend the truthfulness of the biblical scriptures, liberal theologians resorted to challenging the basis of the scriptures as perceived by humankind. Conservative bible Christians such as Methodists, Pentecostals, and Holiness movement sought to have an ardent personal connection with God based on biblical teachings. In contrast, the doctrine of liberalism, precisely that of the 19th century, perceived the biblical scriptures “as a book that contained divine principles inspired much like other great literary books of philosophy and poetry” (William, 2001).

Liberalists hold that the scripture is predominated by the human elements. To them, the biblical scripture is not infallible as viewed by orthodox Christianity, but full of human errors which need to be rectified. The liberal mindset conveys the scripture not as a direct revelation of God to humankind but as “a reflection of the human thinking about God” (Hordern, 1955). In a liberalist’s mindset, the scriptural texts are not the authoritative words of God. Instead, the scriptural texts are descriptions of the efforts put by humankind to find the ultimate truth (Escobar, 2003).

Liberal theologians do not concur with the supposed truthfulness of the Miracles performed by Christ, inerrancy, and deity of the Christ, His death and resurrection, talk less of His promised return. Adolf von Harnack and Walter Rausbenbusch were some of the most prominent liberal theologians of the 19th Century in the United States (Escobar, 2003). According to Walter Rausbenbusch, the goal of Christianity was not in the accomplishment of the spiritual salvation of individual souls from sin and hell, but rather the transformation of the society of humankind on earth (William, 2001).


Even though the Christian conservatives are largely against fundamentalism, it has at least a few acceptable practices. Just like the Christian conservative, its main goal is to uplift the truthfulness of the Christian faith. For instance, the two bodies of faith have strong agreements on how issues such as abortion and homosexuality are to be dealt with. They both present a scriptural stance against homosexuality and abortion. Their most conspicuous point of divergence is observed in their perception of the truth in Christianity. Fundamentalists rely heavily on education and research to help further the truth in faith, where as the Christian conservatives stick to the biblical scriptures as laid down without questioning its integrity.

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Adorno, T. W., & Max, H. (2002). The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Escobar, S. (2003). The new global mission: The gospel from everywhere to everyone. Downers Grove (IL). Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN-13: 9780830833016.

Grenz, S., & Olson, R. (1992). The 20th Century Theology: God and the world in a Transitional Age. Downers Grove (IL). Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN-13: 0-8308-1525-2.

Hordern, W. (1955). A layman’s guide to Protestant theology: Revised Edition. Wipf & Stock Publishers. ISBN-13: 1-57910-925-X.

William, B. (2001). Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival Anthropology for the Real World. University of Chicago Press.

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