The developments of the early twentieth century were actually the result of a long process of secularization that has been taking place in Western civilization since the seventeenth century. Of course, there have been infidels in all ages of history, but the focus here is upon the state of the culture as a whole at any given point in time. One excellent barometer of the state of a culture is the readiness with which most of the people will seize upon the expression of any given idea and run with it. Books become best-sellers because the ideas within them strike a resonating chord within the hearts and minds of the public at a particular time. This was the case, for example, for the writings of Voltaire in the eighteenth century and of Darwin's works in the nineteenth. The ideas of these men had found expression at earlier times, but the world was not yet ready to accept them.
This readiness to accept ideas is not the result of intellectual sophistication, as many secular historians assert. Rather, it is the result of the spiritual climate of the age, which, unfortunately, has been steadily deteriorating for the past three hundred years. In the midst of this, there have always been those who have maintained a clear conscience before God and a sincere faith in the Bible as it presents itself. The testimony of these people has been precious, but the wider culture in which they have lived has been declining slowly.
The path of Western intellectual history is fairly self- evident to any competent historian: simple Christian faith gave way in the seventeenth century to a subtle epistemological shift. Descartes, with his dictum, "I think, therefore I am," had shifted the basis of authority from revelation to man's reason. Although Descartes was a dedicated Christian who was attempting to defend the faith against skepticism, he helped to set into motion a rationalistic approach that eventually ended in atheism three centuries later.
This rejection of revelation as the absolute authority for the determination of truth led to the rejection of the complete infallibility of the Bible, which in turn led to the rejection of the Bible's authority on some points. In the mid-eighteenth century, there was a secularization of science, such that teleological explanations for natural phenomena, such as those used by Sir Isaac Newton, were no longer considered acceptable. A rejection of absolutes soon followed, along with a rejection of divine purpose of any kind. During the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a rejection of a universal flood during the time of Noah, and a much more widespread rejection of the possibility of miracles. With the publication of Darwin's works in the late nineteenth century, the historicity of Adam and Eve was rejected, and an explanation apart from that given in the Bible was found for the origin of life. With these developments, the rejection of Christianity, and of God's existence, soon followed.
Descartes is not to blame for this downward spiral. Each step of the way could have been checked if the culture as a whole were not in rebellion against God. In fact, Descartes was attempting to defend the faith against skepticism. The "new pyrrhonism," beginning with the Jesuit theologian, Juan Maldonat in the 1560s, was a movement among Roman Catholics who were seeking to undermine Protestantism. They hoped to demonstrate that Protestants were hopelessly at a loss for any understanding of the Bible apart from the interpretive powers of the Popes and the rest of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. They sought to show that reliance upon the witness of the Holy Spirit or upon regenerated reason was insufficient for a correct interpretation of the Scriptures.
The efforts of these apologists for Roman Catholicism had the effect of raising a cloud of skepticism among Catholics and Protestants alike. People began to have doubts about being able to know anything at all, let alone the doctrines of the Bible. Then, in 1628 and 1629, Descartes believed that he had bit upon the answer. He knew that he was thinking beyond all reasonable doubt. And he therefore knew something, namely, that he existed. And if he existed, then his creator must also exist. From this chain of reasoning, he was able to demonstrate the existence of all things. He wrote about his discovery of a method of rebutting the arguments of the skeptics in his Discourse on Method (1637) and Meditations (1641).
Descartes was thinking and writing in an era of crisis of authority. The Roman Catholics were saying that the Roman Church and the Pope were the authority, while the Protestants were saying that the Bible was the authority. The "new pyrrhonism" was saying that the Protestants, without the Roman Church, were left with no way of determining what was authoritative, because each person`s view of the Bible was different. In fact, nothing could be determined with certainty. Descartes turned around and said, "but I know that I think; therefore I know with certainty that at least I exist. And from this I can derive everything else."
Descartes did not intend to make man the measure of all things, but his argument, unfortunately, made the individual the source for epistemological authority rather than God himself. His starting place was man rather than God, and Western culture took this methodology and ran with it.
If epistemology has man as its point of departure, then man is at liberty to choose whether to believe that the Bible is really infallible. The door was opened for apostasy, and Western culture began to take advantage of it.
Until about 1680 or 1685, it was commonly accepted in the West that the Bible was infallible. But during the period 1680- 1715, a dramatic change took place in Western thought. Paul Hazard has referred to this period as that of "The Crisis of the European Mind." Suddenly, it was possible to entertain some doubts about Biblical infallibility. Although Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza had already gone much further than this, Western culture as a whole was not yet ready for as blatant a form of apostasy as these two men had advocated.
But debates at this time between Jean LeClerc and Richard Simon shook the confidence of the intellectual leaders of civilization in the complete infallibility of the Bible. Among these leaders was John Locke. In 1661, Locke had written a defense of Biblical infallibility. But by the 1690s, his confidence had been shaken. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) demonstrate this subtle shift in his thinking. John Woodbridge wrote:
In one sense a Rubicon was traversed during the prelude to the European Enlightenment (1680-1715). Savants such as John Lock, Isaac Newton, and Pierre Bayle participated in that last generation in which notable European shapers of culture, who were not churchmen, seriously entertained the premise of complete biblical infallibility, at least for a time. The Voltaires, the Humes, the Rousseaus, the Diderots, the Lessings, and the Kants who followed them and who tended the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century no longer found that doctrine credible.1
With the rejection of the Bible's complete infallibility, the door was opened for the rejection of the Bible's authority. One by one, various Biblical doctrines came into question and were ultimately rejected. For example, the idea that Christ is the only way to salvation and that all of mankind is subject to original sin came into question when, in 1703, Lahontan launched the conception of the bon savage (noble savage) leading a moral life by the light of "natural religion," i.e., apart from the Bible ("revealed religion").
The eighteenth century was known as the period of the "Enlightenment," a serious misnomer by Biblical standards. It was a period of darkness in which Biblical authority was progressively whittled away in favor of the authority of man's autonomous reason. The works of infidels became increasingly popular, and, to a greater and greater extent, belief in the Bible came to be ridiculed as intellectually unsophisticated.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, there was a rejection of teleology in science. That is, it became meaningless to ask why natural phenomena are as they are. Suddenly, any references to divine agency or divine purpose in the explanation of natural phenomena was considered unscientific. This was a serious departure from the methodology of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who believed that it was by the continual intervention of God that celestial bodies were able to keep in orbit without falling, and that it was by God's design that the orbits of all the planets are on the same plane.
D'Alembert asserted that the conservation of motion could be explained without resorting to the invocation of divine intervention. Buffon pointed out that the formation of the solar system by the collision of a comet with the sun was the kind of natural occurrence that could account for the orbits of the planets being in the same plane. A self-regulating universal order had no need in it for any divine intervention.
The mid-eighteenth century was also a time of the rejection of absolutes. In 1754, Condillac's Trait‚ des Sensations stated that "the good and the beautiful are by no means absolutes; they are relative to the character of the man who judges and to the way in which he is organized."2 Along with this was a rejection of divine purpose. In his SystŠme de la nature (1770), d'Holbach wrote:
The whole cannot have an object, for outside itself there is nothing towards which it can tend.3
It is important to note that these sentiments were not yet universal; they were on the "cutting edge" of intellectual "progress." Large numbers of people still believed in divine intervention and divine purpose, but these things were no longer part of the intellectual consensus. It should also be noted that the existence of God had not yet been rejected. These people still considered atheism to be unthinkable. Most of those who rejected teleology in Science, absolutes, and divine purpose, were Deists who still believed that God exists, that it is our duty to worship Him; that the proper way to do so is to practice virtue, that people ought to repent of their sins, and that rewards and punishments will follow death.
Increasingly during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a rejection of miracles. Then, with the publication in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species, there was a fast waning of belief in the historicity of Adam and Eve and of the creation story, and the process of secularization was almost complete. Within a few generations, the existence of God Himself had become an unnecessary "hypothesis."
1 John Woodbridge, Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 99.
2 Quoted by Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 113.
3 Quoted by Ibid., p. 94.