An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

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Enlightenment, The

An intellectual and cultural development which emphasized the ability of human reason to grasp the ultimate meaning of life and creation in terms of self-evident truths. It was widespread in western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Enlightenment upheld the autonomy of human reason and reason's adequacy to grasp and shape the world by its own power. In Enlightenment terms, truth was self-authenticating by virtue of its inherent reasonableness. This differed from orthodox Christian theology, which held that truth came from beyond reason by revelation. 

 
The Enlightenment understanding of reason was based in the natural sciences, and it was characterized by skepticism concerning the NT miracles. This skepticism concerning the miracles was expressed in David Hume's Essay on Miracles(1748), which noted the absence of contemporary analogs of miracles, and concluded that no human testimony could establish the reality of such events without analogs. The Enlightenment was critical of the idea of supernatural revelation, and viewed the contingent truths of history as much less significant than the necessary truths of reason. The Bible was not distinguished from other literary forms on the basis of divine revelation, and it was considered in light of the same forms of textual analysis as other works of literature. Jesus was understood as merely different in degree from other human beings relative to certain qualities. He was understood to be a great moral teacher of enlightened truths, not a supernatural redeemer. Jesus' death was understood as a supreme moral example of self-giving. His death and resurrection were minimized in importance relative to his teaching and example. The Enlightenment understanding of Jesus inspired the "quest" for the historical Jesus who was believed to be concealed behind the NT accounts. The Enlightenment also rejected the doctrine of original sin, and the Christian doctrine of redemption. 
 
The inductive method of Francis Bacon, the empiricism of John Locke, and the mathematical cosmology of Isaac Newton were formative for the English Enlightenment. The purest example of Enlightenment theology in England is afforded by the Deists, who were hostile to revealed religion. Deism was opposed by, among others, Locke and Joseph Butler. Locke understood Christianity as a reasonable supplement to natural religion, which maintained a place for divine revelation. Butler's elaborate work The Analogy of Reason (1736) argued for both natural and revealed religion on the basis of ingenious analogies from nature itself. The Enlightenment ideal of a universal rationality proved elusive to discover as many perspectives appeared concerning the meaning of self-evident truths and principles. See Deism. 
 

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from "An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians," Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.