The Reformation and the Enlightenment: From Revolt to Paganism

Jeremiah R. Grosse
Reproduced with Permission

The period of philosophical history known as the Enlightenment lead to a return to the paganism of a much earlier generation. One major event which preceded the Enlightenment and had an enormous impact on the future of Christianity was the Protestant Reformation. In order to see the connection between the Reformation and the Enlightenment it is essential that we spend a few minutes reviewing the history of the Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany, duchy of Saxony, and entered the Augustinian friary at Erfurt in July of 1505. He entered the order during the period of the observance movement which was a response to a call to reform existing religious orders. It was believed that religious, at that time, were not following their rule of life properly so an observant branch was created to strictly follow the Rule of St. Augustine. He entered the strictest friary and was a rather zealous member of the community. One of his major difficulties in religious life stemmed from the fact that Luther doubted the justice of God.

In 1515, he had, what came to be known later, as his “Tower Experience”. Luther had been struggling to understand the righteousness of God and after reading Romans 1:17, and meditating day and night, finally the breakthrough came when Luther gave heed to the words at the end of 1:17, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Then he realized that the verse was not talking about the active righteousness that God demands, but the passive righteousness that He freely gives to those who believe the Gospel. The sinner is justified (declared righteous) by God through faith in the work and death of Jesus, not by our work or keeping of the Law. Put another way, the sinner is justified by receiving (faith) rather than achieving (works). Later Luther would say that we are saved by the alien righteousness of Christ, not by a righteousness of our own doing.1 The principle of justification had been a major stumbling block for Luther and he had frequently doubted his own salvation. From this point on he considered all of his previous works to be pointless and based his beliefs on a personal interpretation of Scripture which he wanted to use to restore the Church. This was the beginning of the sola scriptura (Scripture alone) doctrine which became quite prominent among the leaders of the Protestant movement. His challenges regarding the issue of justification lead to the sola fides (faith alone) doctrine which is still common among many Protestants.

The issue which brought Luther’s theology to the foreground was his controversy over indulgences. Indulgences are understood to be the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. They were not meant to take place of the Sacrament of Reconciliation nor were they understood to be an automatic removal of the temporal punishment of any future sins which had not yet been forgiven. Luther became convinced that not all of the money from indulgence contributions had reached Rome and was concerned that the hierarchy was attempting to build the Church on the backs of the poor. While there may be evidence that some of the people who collected contributions had kept the money for themselves, there is no evidence that the Catholic Church was extorting money for the poor in an effort to build churches in Rome.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, a series of condemnation of Church practices, to the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg. He questioned the efficacy of indulgences and this was seen as an attack on the Church as a whole. His ideas were declared to be heretical by Cardinal Albert, archbishop of Mainz. Pope Leo X (1513-1521) ordered the Augustinians to discipline Luther and Archbishop Thomas Cajetan, papal legate to Wittenberg, ordered that Luther recant his statements, but Luther refused.

In a public debate at Leipzig in 1519 with Johann von Eck, a prominent German theologian, Luther admitted that he did not believe in papal supremacy. The issue of papal supremacy had become one of Luther’s principle targets of attack against the Church beginning in 1518. The Vicar of Christ was referred to as the “anti-Christ” and the “Whore of Babylon”. In 1521, Pope Leo X formally excommunicated Martin Luther.

Through embracing both reason and experience, the followers of the Enlightenment were attempting to get rid of superstition and oppression through the unrestricted dissemination of knowledge. Using the printing press, this was new at the time of Martin Luther, the leaders of the Protestant movement printed up tracts which were disseminated on an unrestricted basis to show the errors of the Catholic Church.

Whether or not the information that was disseminated was true is highly questionable.

Martin Luther actually doubted his own salvation and had serious difficulties with the idea that he could do anything to “earn” God’s love. In fact, the Church has never taught that one can “earn” his or her way into Heaven. Good works are an outward sign of one’s faith. The Letter of St. James states, “So faith also, if it has not works, is dead in itself. Some will say: You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without works and I will show you, by works, my faith.” (James 2:17-18) Martin Luther had so many problems with this passage that he left the Letter of St. James out of the translation of the Bible that was rendered in German. The “superstition” that the Enlightenment chose to do away with was many of the Traditions and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

The fruit of rebellion is that eventually the people who lead a rebellion will eventually be rebelled against themselves. While Martin Luther challenged and separated himself from the Catholic Church, he fully accepted the role of Jesus Christ in his life as his “personal savior”.

The followers of the Enlightenment did not simply limit the role of God in one’s life, but denied that God has any direct involvement in our lives. God was understood as the “Divine Watchmaker” who set the universe in motion, just as a watchmaker would wind a watch, and then left everything else up to us.

The climate of opinion at the time of the Enlightenment was that man is but a foundling in the cosmos, abandoned by the forces that created him. Without parents, unassisted, and undirected by omniscient or benevolent authority, he must fend for himself and with the aid of his own limited intelligence find his way about in an indifferent universe.2 Religious thought during the Enlightenment attempted to destroy traditional religion, Christianity, and build a new religion based upon an earthly foundation.

While Martin Luther challenged the value of good works to “earn” God’s love, those who supported the Enlightenment bought into the Pelagian heresy and went to the other extreme. The Pelagian heresy, which was condemned by the Church in 418 and its condemnation was reaffirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, taught that man is able to save himself based solely upon his own efforts. The idea of man’s perfectibility, which was taught during the Enlightenment, is an example of this heresy.

The undermining of authority during the Enlightenment caused more problems than it solved. Perhaps the most important consequence of this revolution is that we look about in vain for any semblance of old authority, the old absolute, for any stable foothold from which to get a running start.3 The same is true of the Protestant movement, by turning its back on the Catholic Church it cut itself off from the authority which guaranteed that it would continue to preach the fullness of Truth.

Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines a pagan as ‘a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)’ or ‘one who has little of no religion and delights in sensual pleasures and material goods; an irreligious or hedonistic person.’ Clearly paganism stands in opposition to Judeo-Christian tradition and faith; without this qualification the definition loses any real meaning.4

This paganism of the Enlightenment has had a profound impact on both our culture and Christianity. In the West, it did unseat the Church from its primary position in civilization and broke its hold by installing a new Weltanschauung (worldview) that stood in opposition to Christianity, and that brought the West under the control of the new Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) that was secular and anti-Christian.5

For nearly sixteen hundred years of Church history it was taught that one’s salvation was the direct result of one acceptance of the teachings of Jesus Christ which influenced the way that one lives his or her life. The Enlightenment taught that salvation was a future stage of human development. The Church teaches that eternal life with God is the reward for accepting Jesus and living one’s life in according with His teachings. The Enlightenment taught that immortality is the ultimate perfection of the human race which can take place in this life. This attempt to imminantize the eschaton (create Heaven on earth) is not only unchristian, but anti-Christian.

Grace, according to Christianity, is understood as God working through our human weakness. The Catholic Church teaches that its members are instruments through which the Lord Jesus positively effects the lives of our brothers and sisters. Grace is defined, according to the Enlightenment, as the classical Greek notion of virtue. The Enlightenment explanation of virtue is articulated best by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) when he states, Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”--that is the motto of enlightenment.6 According to this definition, there is no need for Divine assistance to act virtuously, one simply needs to tap into an inner resource.

While Christians and Jews accept the fact that the Bible is Divinely inspired, the rebellion of the Enlightenment denied even this. According to the Enlightenment, God reveals Himself not through the Book of Revelation, but the Book of Nature. The Enlightenment wished to expand natural science beyond the realm of machinery and into the area of morality and politics.

The Enlightenment taught that mankind is not totally corrupt (which is completely contrary to Martin Luther’s notion of mankind as a ‘manure pile covered with snow’ who can do nothing worthwhile without the grace of God).

This viewpoint rejects Original Sin (an essential tenant of Christian faith) and thereby opens the door to future perfection in this life through human effort. The goal of life is life itself, and mankind is perfectible guided solely by reason and experience (rejecting authority), freeing the mind of ignorance and superstition (Christianity) and freeing the body of social authority.

Dealing with this in his Dialogues Concerning Human Nature, David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher, writes, “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but unwilling? Then he is malevolent. Is he able and willing? Whence then is evil?”7

Hume manages to place Christian mystics and atheists in the same camp, since they obviously agree on the main point, that reason is totally incompetent to answer ultimate questions. This statement can be compared to Martin Luther’s own doubts regarding the justice of God.

While the Enlightenment turned to the Greeks for their classical notion of virtue, the Church also returned to the Greeks for their philosophical thought. Men such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) were indebted to Plato and Aristotle, respectively, for helping them to systematize the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Christian writers gave an added glamour to the golden age by pushing it back to the beginning of things, to the creation of man and his world; they made it seem real, more authentic, by placing it historically---in the Garden of Eden; and they endowed it with perfection and authority by transforming the inspired Legislator into the one true, omniscient, and benevolent God.8

The old axiom that “one reaps what one sows” is still as true as ever. The impact of the Enlightenment can still be felt in the twenty-first century, which can be described as a post-Christian era in religious history. The seeds of rebellion, which were sown in the sixteenth century, were reaped in the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century in the form of the Enlightenment and we are still feeling the effects of that “harvest” today.

N.B. The issue of the Catholic Church’s “sale” of indulgences has been addressed in The Penitents’ Treasury by Robert W. Shaffern Ph.D., professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton. Published by the University of Scranton Press in 2007, this book serves to debunk the myth that the Catholic Church had sold any indulgences during the High Middle Ages.

End Notes

1 . (Accessed 3/27/09) [Back]

2  Becker, Carl L. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosopher (CT: Yale University Press, 1932), p. 15. [Back]

3  Becker, p. 15[Back].

4 Lindsell, Harold The New Paganism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 1 [Back].

5  Lindsell, p. 45 [Back].

6  Immanuel Kant: (Accessed 3/27/09) [Back].

7 David Hume: [198] Accessed (3/27/09) [Back].

8 Becker, p. 123 [Back].