NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.
As the Age of Enlightenment continued, our secular growth curve continued, as well. If the theories and science proposed and proved by men like Copernicus and Galileo rocked the very foundations of our assumptions about the universe, it was only just setting the stage for what we call today modernity (or the “modern era”).
This growth curve would continue through the contributions of men like Isaac Newton and John Locke. Famous for his “laws of motion,” Newton is considered the modern father of mechanics and all of my engineering students have Newton to thank for so much of the field they enjoy. While this was not his only major contribution (for instance, Newton did incredible work in the field of color and the light spectrum, among other things), Newton changed the way we think about physics — therefore setting the stage for technological advancement like never before.
Locke is often referred to as the “Father of Liberalism.” While many in my circles in the rural northwest see the word liberal as something close to a swear word (I jest, I jest), it would be foolhardy to make assumptions about Locke. In its most basic and earliest forms, liberalism referred to a line of political philosophy that believes in liberty and equality. Locke’s influence, for instance, on the Declaration of Independence is unmistakable, and one of the reasons American democracy even works (on its good days) is because of the tension and balance held between liberalism and conservatism — one philosophy bent toward complete freedom and the other philosophy bent toward maintaining a constant ethic. Outside of our modern American context, Locke greatly impacted other major thinkers and players in the next century.
This secular growth curve should not convince us there was a lack in the theological department, by any means. The Protestant Reformation was finally cooling down. The Edict of Nantes (signed in 1598) had determined Protestants were granted civil liberty and equality, meaning they no longer had to run around as heretics under the oppression of the Holy Roman Empire. This freedom of thought had two results.
On the positive side, this newfound freedom allowed people to think for themselves, study, publish, and teach others their theological beliefs, theories, and systems. The negative side would be that Protestantism no longer had a central system holding it together. As Europe became more and more splintered and migration went on the rise, we would see mass division and splitting of Christian thought that seemed to increase exponentially for the next 200 years. Not that such diversity is a bad thing, but it has its struggles, as does anything else.
One of those new movements was led by John Wesley. While certainly not the first to do so, Wesley argued adamantly against the premises of Calvinism. Having broken away from the Anglican faith, Wesley became the father of what we know today as Methodism and the Methodist Church. Wesley preached vehemently about personal repentance, confession, and the power of our personal will to be transformed and to pursue the holiness of God. Christianity has been unbelievably impacted by his influence on Christian thought and practical applications of theology.
But we can’t forget all of this progress is happening in a world that is quickly changing. The writings of John Locke influenced another major secular voice in the eighteenth century: Voltaire, a French writer and philosopher who was widely praised for his satirical attacks on the Catholic Church (and some would say on established religion in general). Using his wit and cutting sense of humor, he argued for the freedom of religion and speech. His thoughts and writings shaped tremendously the ideas we know as the separation of church and state. Voltaire was quick to point out (accurately, I might add) the danger of religion when mixed with the power of the state.
Much of this had a major impact on public and educated opinion, and much of this opinion ended up changing culture in a way that radically affected history. The movement in France would ultimately lead to the French Revolution and ushered in what we now call the “post-Christian” era. The Church would continue to see a decline in its influence, both politically and culturally, as well as a loss of privilege over the centuries to come (something much of the Church is still in denial about to this day).
As far as my American context (as most of my readers are such), it would behoove us to realize that the great migration to America has been happening during this period. The cultural tenor has certainly set the stage for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. With thinkers like Locke and Voltaire, the pump had been primed for the ideals that led to European revolution, and the independence on our shores, as well.