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Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought

The Early Modern Period

The medieval requirement of fides quaerens intellectum carried forward into the early modern period. Yet its legacy was complicated in three distinct ways. First, the Christian reform movements of the Reformation were often sharply critical of the use of philosophy in any discussion of God and his creation. This criticism varied in intensity from one reforming group to another and often coexisted with humanist learning and philosophical erudition. For example, both Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) frequently mocked Aristotle, and by implication much of the Scholastic tradition of philosophical theology. But more commonly, their criticisms of philosophy arose from claims about the opposition of philosophy to the Gospels, or from a vivid conviction of the impotence of "sinful" human reason, or from a confidence that God would teach what was needed in human affairs by "inspiration" and would do so not only for the prince, philosopher, and prelate but also for the common ploughboy. That said, it is telling that in the years immediately after the schism with Rome, the speculative theology of Lutheran and Reformed traditions is characterized by a return to the resources of the Aristotelian metaphysics and Scholastic argument in order to make sense of their distinctive theological claims. This can be observed in the writings of Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) and Théodore de Bèze (1519–1605).

The second complication in the relations of philosophy to theological issues arose from fierce disputes over the conclusions of the nova scientia, or "new science." The condemnation of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) is one well-known example. Opposition to the metaphysical implications of the new science in certain religious quarters made many philosophers cautious in expressing their views. It thus becomes tricky to construe the exact nature of their theological allegiances. On the surface, the work of René Descartes (1596–1650), for example, appears to display a scrupulous Catholic orthodoxy accompanied by frequent protestations of obedience to the magisterium (or "teaching authority") of the Roman Church. But Descartes was also extremely reticent and somewhat guarded about many of his cosmological views, and he continually did his very best to ensure that his publications would not provoke theological controversy. Likewise, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) littered his Tractatus theologico-politicus (anonymously published in 1670) with misdirections in order to increase the likelihood that the reader would miss his heterodox interpretation of Scripture.

The final complication arose from a more pronounced ambivalence concerning the status or even utility of advancing rational arguments for the existence of God. Thinkers such as Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) argued that the universe is characterized by a fundamental ambiguity and that arguments for the existence of God were inconclusive. On this basis, he argued that individuals ought instead to ground their religious practices in a volitional choice by which they would make themselves firmly assent to the teaching and doctrines of the church. Without such a decision, he argued, one's faith would be without foundation. This tendency, however, was opposed by a strong support for a posteriori arguments in support of "natural religion," the claim being that it is only by means of impartial human reason that the truths of revelation can be authenticated and defended. The consequence of this move was to usher in the view that religious belief was irrational unless buttressed by a prior philosophical justification. Of course, this left open the distinct possibility that reason might in the end disprove belief in God.

By themselves, these complications could not undo the ancient engagement of philosophy with speculation about divine matters, nor could they sever the ancient dependence of religious thought upon established modes of philosophical discourse. The overwhelming majority of early modern philosophers affirmed the existence and activity of a God, and most aligned themselves with one Christian denomination or another. John Locke (1632–1704) and George Berkeley (1685–1753) were both Anglicans. Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694), and Pascal all published works that reflected their own distinctive brands of Roman Catholicism. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716), while a Lutheran, distinguished himself in a period woefully characterized by religious conflict by advancing for ecumenicalism. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) forcefully expounded the Puritan notion of the utter dependence of all things on God. Of all the philosophers of the period, only Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) appears a heterodox theist.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPhilosophy and Religion in Western Thought - The Early Christian And Medieval Periods, The Early Modern Period, The Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries