The Protestant Reformation partook so much of past and future theology that it may best be viewed as a transition between the medieval and modern periods in church history. As such, it was a significant break with the past. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Reformation's break with the past was its emphasis upon the Scriptures as the sole source of authority and rule of faith in the believer's life. This was a radical departure from the medieval attitude that tradition, as well as the Scriptures, as interpreted and promulgated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy is the rule of life. Although the early Reformation leaders did not fully appreciate or apply the implications of their principles, the effect of their movement was to unfetter man's mind and allow him to think for himself. No longer was it enough for man to simply obey what he was told God's word said; he had to understand God's word for himself. No longer was his faith to be in a hierarchy of men but in Jesus Christ and His written revelation of Himself.
The consequences of this new attitude were immediately evident in the proliferation of sects within Protestantism. Not realizing that freedom to interpret and follow the Scriptures involved religious freedom, early Reformation leaders worked almost as hard to suppress what they considered heretical sects as the Catholic Church had worked to suppress them. They failed to see that the only weapon given to Christians for the eradication of error is the word of God (Acts 17:2,3; II Cor. 10:3,4; Eph. 6:17). In any event, they had opened the door, and slowly but surely the idea and practice of religious freedom spread and in its wake increasing realization of the truth.
The broadening of man's horizons in science, philosophy, and geography also influenced, and was influenced by, Reformation thinking. With men's advances in exploration came an awareness of other cultures which Europeans had to fit into God's scheme for men. Likewise, scientific discoveries opened men's eyes to the fact that natural law ruled the workings of nature. Natural phenomena occurred because they were dictated by natural law. They were predictable, to a degree. Nature seemed to be edging God off his throne. A remarkable instance of men's reaction to new and threatening scientific discoveries was Galileo's enforced abjuration of his heliocentric theory. Medieval thought had tied man's importance to the belief that the earth was the center of the universe.
New scientific discoveries not only enhanced man's comfort in life but also his appreciation of human potential and reason. It was becoming increasingly evident that it was to man's benefit to reason and understand. With this realization came the need to determine the proper place of human reasoning in man's life. The philosophies of the early post-Reformation period dealt with this issue - how to relate and balance faith and reason. Gone was the blind, unquestioning faith of the medieval period. Men were now free to doubt and deny. Those who believed in Christ and His claims found themselves increasingly shifting to a defensive stance and trying to accommodate human reason.
Perhaps the strongest and most prominent attack upon orthodox religion from the philosophical community of this period was Deism. Deism took a variety of forms, some moderate and some extreme. Most Deists were theists and some even believed in continuing divine providence, while others approached atheism, to say the least. Deism's greatest impact was in the place it gave to human reason in religion as opposed to revelation. The central idea of Deism is that every man is born with a certain religious knowledge or may acquire it through the use of reason. This is sometimes called "natural religion." Written revelation and ecclesiastical instruction are unnecessary and may be misleading and hurtful. Hence, Deism essentially ejected revelation, God's word, from its place of supremacy and put human reason in its place. Revelation could still be important and helpful but because traditional religion and its Scriptures, including the Bible, had become corrupted with errors it was necessary for human reason to sit in judgment and sift through it and extract that which was worthy of acceptance. Religion had digressed far from its primitive purity. Religious leaders had added corruptions to benefit themselves, though from time to time certain religious leaders, such as Socrates, Buddha, Muhammad, and Christ, arose to call men back to simple, primitive religious faith. Some Deists viewed God as the "master clockwinder" of the universe who, having set His creation in order, left it running under its own energy and laws never to interfere again.
Deism began in England where it enjoyed its heyday from about 1689 through 1742. It soon spread to France, Germany, and America. In the latter place Deists counted among their number some prominent leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It no doubt opened the door to the severer criticism and rejection of the Bible known as Rationalism.
There are several fundamental problems and errors involved in Deism.
(1) Primarily, it exalts human reason over divine revelation (Prov. 3:5; Isa. 55:8,9; Jer. 10:23; I Cor. 1:18-31). Though men may be born with the natural capacity to understand something of God and His ways (Acts 14:17; 17:22-29; Rom. 1:18-20; 2:14,15) apart from revelation, this is not sufficient to inform them of everything they need to know to please their Creator. This is why the Bible is needed.
(2) Deism also asserts that the Bible is corrupted (Matt. 24:35; I Pet. 1:23-25). Why would God give men the Bible and then allow it to be corrupted? A God powerful enough to give the Bible is powerful enough to preserve it.
(3) Deism puts false teachers on a par with Jesus (Jn. 14:6).
(4) Finally, Deism asserts that God no longer involves Himself in human affairs, thus eliminating prayer and providence (Phil. 4:6; Heb. 13:5,6; I Pet. 5:6,7). Why would God create the world and its inhabitants and then abandon them?
III. Exercises(Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) All of God's word can be rationally understood by men.
(2) (T or F) None of God's word is contrary to human reason.
(3) (T or F) Natural law proves that the universe is not ruled by God.
(4) What was one of the basic contributions of the Reformation to religious thinking, and what was its effect?
(5) How did new scientific and geographic knowledge affect man's religious thinking?
(6) What was the basic premise of Deism? What is wrong with Deism?