A quick look at church history in America will allow any student to see that the Reformation and the Enlightenment have both left distinguishing marks on contemporary Christianity in the United States. The foundation of American Christianity has for its roots people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and John Wesley. However, just a few years into the American Experiment, the teachings of people like Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and even Voltaire were permeating the shores of this new and young nation. Today we can see the teachings of all of these men (from Calvin to Kant) all across these great lands. To understand contemporary American Christianity one must understand the influence these two movements in church history have had on this nation. This will be a two part blog. The first one will give a little background on how were got to where we are. The second will explain why I have hope in the American Church. Let’s take a moment to look at our history and how we got to where we are today.
Modern America owes its life to the Reformation. “The story of America is literally the story of the Reformation,” says Peter Lillback. The Pilgrims desired to be able to worship freely. This desire was derived from their understanding of Christianity based upon Reformation teachings. The Puritans desired to have a society that was ruled solely by Scripture. America quickly became a Protestant wonderland. This is one of the reasons that we have so many different Protestant churches in America today. A quick survey of Protestantism in the U.S. in the 21st century would find more than 200 different denominations. We see hundreds of Bible Colleges and Seminaries today because of the strong push for Christian education that was brought about because of the Reformation. We see many of our early laws in America founded on Biblical principles (“All men are created equal”, “The Church protected from state control”, warnings against kings but in favor of Godly rulers). These were all Reformation ideas. This is because the Bible was important to the Reformation and to American society. This is due to the Reformation’s teaching of Sola Scriptura and the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Without the Reformation America would be completely different than it is today. The Reformation’s influence was great, and it still lives on today.
Secondly, we find the importance of the Enlightenment on American culture. Karl Barth characterized this movement as “a system founded upon the presupposition of faith in the omnipotence of human ability.” This is a very good description of the Enlightenment. It was a movement with its deepest tenant being the rational mind. It based everything on reason. Most often it rejected both supernatural revelation and man’s sinfulness. This way of thinking greatly influenced much of society (especially those of higher education) in America. It influenced several of our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is seen by some as an embodiment or culmination of Enlightenment ideas such as liberty, democracy, republicanism, and religious tolerance. There are some good things (democracy, religious tolerance) that came into the political arena because of the Enlightenment; however, it did much damage to the church as well. This period was riddled with skepticism about the reliability of the Bible, the church, and many important doctrines. It gave rise to many liberal denominations and sects of Christianity that have done much harm to the body of Christ. There is no doubt that the Enlightenment has had a major influence on modern American culture. Politically, there have been some good things; religiously, you would be hard pressed to find anything positive to say about this period for the church.
There is no doubt that these two movements have had more influence than any other in American history. In the early stages of America, the Reformation was more important when looking at its influence on the forming of our country. However, in modern day America, I believe the ideas of the Enlightenment have had a bigger influence than that of the Reformation. It seems that much of America has become more humanistic in their thinking and way of life. This is a direct influence of Enlightenment thinking. This may not have been the intention of some of our early American fathers, but when taken to its logical conclusion it is easy to see why we now have legalized abortion on demand and the Supreme Court deliberating the idea of legal gay “marriage” nationwide. Reason from a fallen mind and fallen heart is incomplete. Mental reason is one of the good things that was brought to light during the Enlightenment, but when it is separated from an omnipotent God who has given us a supreme authority to go by (the Bible), a person’s reason is limited and will eventually fail because of its fallen nature. Enlightenment thinking is ruining our country, and it is ruining our church. When God’s Word is not considered authoritative, anything can go. It is time that we return to what made us a great country. What made us a great country was the Source of our reasoning (i.e. a creator God who was intimately involved with His people). The Reformation redirected our minds to God and His Word. This is what our country was built on. This is why, I believe, the Lord blessed our nation for so long. While the Enlightenment may be the ruler of today in contemporary American culture, I pray one day soon the heart of the Reformation will rise again within the Church, the Lord will bless the prayers of His people, and make us a great country again for His glory.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Adam B. Burrell