Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wesley, Arminius, and the Enlightenment

Continuing my series on whether American Christianity is in decline:
1. I'm sure that there is a body of research arguing that Wesleyan-Arminian thought reflects some Enlightenment influence... and so probably also some literature denying it. I'd be glad for references.

For me, I think there were positives to the Enlightenment, so I have no problem with the suggestion. The Enlightenment was, at its foundation, about the legitimate role that logic (reason) and observation (experience) should play in human knowing.

Indeed, I would say that we cannot escape reason and experience in our thought processes, even when it comes to matters of God and the Bible. Religion cannot escape them. Even van Til used reason--he just started with huge presuppositions. When we process the content of the Bible, we inevitably use reason. When we assume the theology of the creeds, we are assuming a theology that was reasoned out and debated in the flow of history 1600-1700 years ago.

The importance of will and freedom for Arminian and Wesleyan theology is surely related to Enlightenment individualism. Wesleyans like to think of it as biblical, but the Calvinists and Lutherans are just as convinced. Calvinism and Lutheranism too have shifted the playing field to the individual making an individual decision--just for them it is God leading you to make the individual decision you make.

The hint in this direction does indeed have its roots in Paul and was more extensively taken up by Augustine. Whenever external membership in a parent body (Judaism, Roman Catholic Church) becomes an inadequate indication of true membership, some element of individual decision inevitably comes into play.

2. Among some Wesleyan post-liberals (e.g, Billie Abraham), there is a tendency to want to downplay the idea of a Wesleyan "quadrilateral." Even Albert Outler regreted the term because of what was done with it in his circles. But for Wesleyan post-fundamentalists like me, the quadrilateral is a key sign out of a certain pre-modernism. The post-liberals are seeking a way back. The post-conservatives are seeking a way forward.

Wesley's comfort with reason and experience directly reflected his context, situated as he was in between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. These have to be balanced with Scripture as the starting point, and the tradition as the Spirit's working out of the basic principles of Scripture. But they are unavoidable elements that we do best to acknowledge openly rather than pretend aren't there.

5. Is Wesleyan theology biblical? Or more to the point, are the Enlightenment elements in Wesleyan theology biblical? I would say that Wesleyan theology is the optimal translation of the Bible into the categories of modern world. Remember in my last post that I think it is not only foolish but impossible to return to the time before modernism. It is only possible if you have never really entered the modern era in the first place.

In the same way, could it be that what we think of as the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western society are to a large part the translation of Christianity into the modern world that took place in Europe in the Enlightenment? In that sense, the loss of modernism could entail some loss of what we think of as Judeo-Christian foundations. It would be one thing if that loss of modernism was a return to Platonic Christianity or a mindless drift back into a form of premodern Christianity. But could it be rather than we are simply drifting back into "barbarism"?

What were those Enlightenment filtered Judeo-Christian foundations?
  • The importance of individual rights--the ends don't justify the means
  • The drive to egalitarianism--king is no better than servant
  • The existence of truth, under which all people stand equally, available to all equally
  • The order of the universe--created by God and inherent in all things
  • The centrality of human freedom and human will--morality is a matter of choice rather than act, and humans are responsible because they are free (or should be free)
  • An optimism about history--things will get better, over time; history is headed to a good destination
  • Emotions need to be kept in control--they are a basic source of irrationality; passions need to be controlled.
Can you think of any others?

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