The Rise of Neo-Enlightenment Theology

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Rise of Neo-Enlightenment Theology

Is it just me, or is Evangelical Christianity falling into a theology that is based more on individual reason than revelation?  For example, theological reflections and pronouncements offered in books and blogs seem to increasingly intimate:

*that personal feelings and relationships should dictate theological conclusions (“I have a gay friend who feels…”)

*that whether Jesus “said it” is the only definitive word on whether there is a true “word” from God to consider (as if the rest of the New Testament, much less the Old Testament, is a second-tier level of inspiration from the Holy Spirit)

*that how many times something is mandated or mentioned in scripture is the determinant of whether it really matters biblically (as in “do you know how few times it’s even mentioned in Scripture?”)

*that overarching theological themes, such as “God is love,” are isolated to become the overarching hermeneutic over every other didactic statement made in Scripture (as in “Yes, it says that, but God IS love, after all”, and then whatever you don’t like is swept away with God’s “love” hand)

I could give other examples, but the move is always the same:  pull out the Enlightenment card.

The bitter irony is that they don’t know they are pulling it out, much less that the Evangelical movement largely began in reaction to the Enlightenment.

Game for a quick review?

Those who lived in the eighteenth century had little doubt that they were living in an enlightened age, one that had emerged from a time of twilight.  “An increasing number of European intellectuals used new ideas about the natural world, society and the nature of things to attack the established churches,” writes historian Mark Noll, as well as “to question traditional views of divine revelation.”

Henry May captures the message of the Enlightenment as the belief in two propositions:  first, that the present age is more enlightened than the past; and second, that we understand nature and humanity best through the use of our natural faculties.  The Enlightenment “project” was the rejection of revelation, tradition or divine illumination as the surest guide for human beings.  Instead, autonomous human reason reigned supreme.  The motto of Immanuel Kant, one of the most significant thinkers of the time, was Sapere aude! - “Dare to use your own reason” (or simply, “Dare to know”).  In fact, this was his personal definition of the Enlightenment.

There are several words worth noting in Kant’s challenge:  First, the word dare, meaning that if one did use reason, they would inevitably come up against traditional authorities, namely the church.  But that was the point.  There could be no authority over the exercise, or conclusion, of reason.  This idea of authority is critical, for the Enlightenment was a rebellion against one source of authority – that of the church and its appeal to God and His revelation – and the enthronement of another authority, that of human reason.  For someone like the French philosopher Voltaire, the Enlightenment offered emancipation from “prone submission to the heavenly will.”

That the reason we use be our own also highlights the independence of human intellect, answerable to none and best able to function separate of anything thought to come from God.

And then there is Kant’s use of the word reason, which for most Enlightenment thinkers, such as the Scottish philosopher David Hume, meant some form of empiricism.  Empiricism elevated sense experience above all other sources for the gaining of knowledge.  Sense experience means that which could be seen, tasted, touched, heard or smelled.  Introduced through the scientific method of experimentation of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), what could not be observed, or at least replicated, was met with skepticism.  The fundamental idea was that we could begin with ourselves and gain the means by which to judge all things.

And not only that we could, but should.

The challenge this brought to Christian faith was profound.  Alister McGrath charts the development concisely, noting that it was first sympathetically argued that the beliefs of Christianity were rational, and thus able to stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny.  It was then argued that the basic ideas of Christianity, being rational, could be derived from reason itself, independent of divine revelation.  Then came the final step; the idea that reason was able to stand over revelation as judge.  If reason was omnicompetent, as Enlightenment thinkers believed, it was supremely qualified to judge Christian beliefs and practices.  If reason could not produce a particular tenet of Christian faith, then that particular tenet was suspect.  Only what human reason could demonstrate became enshrined.

So while the early writers of the Enlightenment, including Rene Descartes and even John Locke, attempted to put their “enlightened” reflections within a Christian framework, the way had been cleared for others who would follow in their footsteps and embark on an increasingly secular assessment of the world.  Their increasingly radical pronouncements fell like seed on fertile soil, watered by the headlines of the day.  A foundational shift had taken place:  from “faith seeking understanding” to “faith requiring justification.”  No longer did reason exist to serve faith; faith existed, if at all, on the basis of whether human reason deemed it acceptable.

Which brings us back full circle.

Evangelicals are increasingly embracing an Enlightenment maneuver.  The original Enlightenment maneuver elevated reason over revelation in order to discount the mystical and miraculous.  Neo-Enlightenment thinking, at least among Evangelicals, demonstrates the same action.

Only instead of using reason to overturn the miraculous, it is being used to overturn the ethical.

The authority of the Christian faith is the triune God, as revealed in Scripture, as conveyed in a heritage, as made real in experience, both corporate and personal.

And in that order.

Did you notice what was last?

The personal.

James Emery White



James Emery White, Serious Times.

Mark Noll, Turning Points.

Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America.

On Kant’s thinking, see Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment.

Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789, The Pelican History of the Church, Vol. 4.

John Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity.

Alister E. McGrath, “Enlightenment,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought

Neil B. MacDonald, “Enlightenment,” The Dictionary of Historical Theology

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Rise of Neo-Enlightenment Theology