Modernity’s Challenges to Traditional Theology

Modernity’s Challenges to Traditional Theology August 29, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 2.25.45 PMModern theology arises from the challenges, some of them successful of course, to traditional theology. In Roger Olson’s splendid volume, The Journey to Modern Theology, one can find a rapid, clear, and insightful sketch of the challenges to traditional theology (pp. 31-124). I can provide but a sketch of his sketch, but this is just the kind of book intelligent pastors not only put on the shelf but also read slowly in order to digest. Someone once said there is nothing new under the sun. Well this sketches these nothing-new-challenges. Except in their day they may well have been new.

He begins with the famous question Napoleon asked of the astronomer Laplace, asking where God fit in his scheme. Laplace is reported to have said, “Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.” That is modernity’s challenge to traditional faith. Natural theology, the belief that God was needed to explain empirical and experiential realities, handed its goods over to the scientists who explained them without God.

Here are Olson’s major points, and if you read this slowly (with your own knowledge or memory kicking in), you will get a refresher on how we got from the Enlightenment to modernity.

1. Science revised the heavens when (1) Copernicus proposed a revolution and Galileo made it happen; (2) Newton depicted the world as a great machine; (3) and the scientific revolution set out its challenges to the Christian faith (e.g., William Jennings Bryan, whose ghost is still kicking in Dayton Tenn).

2. Philosophers lay new foundations for knowledge when (1) people begin to think more and more for themselves (a Kantian proposal); (2) Descartes established a Copernican revolution in philosophical method in creating indubitable foundations of knowledge; (3) John Locke argues for a “reasonable Christianity” rooted in the foundation of empiricism or sense-experience (e.g., Thomas Jefferson); (4) these Enlightenment thinkers reconstructed philosophy and religion but others pushed back.

3. Deists create a new natural natural religion. (1) Lord Herbert of Cherbury anticipated deism but it was (2) John Toland who effectively articulated it by making Christianity entirely rationalistic and nothing “revealed” was outside of reason, while (3) Matthew Tindal rejected special revelation. Yes, (4) traditionalists pushed back, including Joseph Butler and William Paley.

4. Critical philosophers limited religion to reason. The general belief in God of deism was invaded by a more severe and radical kind of empirical thinking. We are looking now at (1) David Hume, who used reason against both science and religion in a mode of skepticism, (2) Immanuel Kant, who rescued science from Hume’s skepticism but who reduced religion to practical reason (moral life, ethics) and (3) G.W.F. Hegel, who returned religion to reason with his idealism.

5. Realists, Romanticists, and Existentialists strike back against the critical philosophers. (1) Common sense realism, e.g., Thomas Reid, challenges Hume’s skepticism and called philosophy back to common sense; (2) Samuel Taylor Coleridge emphasized experience in religion, and (3) Kierkegaard [spell it according to Danish pronunciation if you can] challenged religious rationalism.


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