How the Enlightenment Messed Up the Church


September 24, 2012 by cbbeard

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The Declaration of Independence. The Bill of Rights; bearing arms, free speech, religious freedom.  These are the things that have set the tone in the United States for over 200 years. These are some of the details of freedom that are proclaimed and celebrated.  It is those freedoms that have fertilized over two centuries of creativity and innovation.

Of course, this nation did not spring forth from nothing; rather it was birthed out of the ideological revolution known as the Enlightenment. Philosophers such as Locke, Voltaire, Descartes, and Newton ushered in a new environment from which democracy emerged.  Indeed, without the Enlightenment, there very well might have never been an American Revolution.  So, for Americans like me, the Enlightenment is something to be thankful for.

But, unfortunately what was good for the development of democracy and the advancement of creativity and innovation in the United States has become the poison which has brought a certain sickness to the Western church.  I would suggest that the very principles and philosophies that enabled people to first come to America in search of religious freedom, have ultimately resulted in a church universal that is far removed from the church God intended.

And so I propose to you:

Seven Ways the Enlightenment Messed Up the Church

# 1 – Human reason superseded God’s Wisdom

With the rise of scientific thought and reason, the world appeared to be more explainable.  Observation and analysis were heralded as the new way to see the world, and in some cases this was proven quite valuable.  The use of observation and logic would bring forth discoveries and innovations in virtually every area of science and technology.

But unfortunately, mankind became very impressed with themselves.  They decided there was nothing they couldn’t figure out on their own, nothing that couldn’t be solved with logic and reasoning.  Some came to the conclusion that “God is dead,” but even those with faith in God began to depend more on their own logic and less on the wisdom of God.

The result is a church in which the followers of Christ first depend on their own logic, while using the Bible as a secondary resource.  Most believers don’t even do this consciously; in fact, that suggestion may make you bristle.  But an honest assessment of our thinking process might reveal that our first source is our own logic and reason, and that’s a problem.  Because as Isaiah 55:8 says, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.”

#2 The “Natural” was separated from the “Supernatural”

With reason reigning, the world would now be divided into two categories: what could be explained by reason (natural), and what could not (supernatural).  To some, this division was taken to the extreme and anything that could not be explained by reason (viz. a viz. the supernatural) was dismissed as myth.  For most, this simply meant that there were now two worlds: the natural world and the spiritual world.  The chasm between the two, however, grew wider.

This is a problem for the church, in that fundamental to the Christian faith is the colliding and intersecting of the supernatural and natural.  As John 1:14 says, the Word (Jesus, God himself, the supernatural) became flesh (man, on earth, the natural).  The Enlightenment declared that reason ruled the natural and God ruled the supernatural (if it really exists).  In the Bible, God declares that he is ruler over all; there is no chasm between the natural and the supernatural.

This shift pushed God out of everyday life.  Hiebert (2008) wrote “It is not that scientists disproved the existence of God or that most modern people have consciously rejected him. Rather they have relegated him to the “super” sphere-to churches, sacred rituals, miracles, and things science cannot explain, and gradually he has faded from view in everyday life” (Chapter 7, Human Centered/God Centered, para. 3).

#3 – Man became the center of the universe

As mentioned earlier, advancements of reason led mankind to be very impressed with themselves.  Suddenly there was a shift of thought.  As Hiebert (2008) wrote about mankind, “It is what they think about God and the world that matters, not what God thinks about them” (Chapter 7, Human Centered/God Centered, para. 3).

Essentially, man became the expert.  God was once the expert on man, but now man was the expert; not only on man, but on God as well.  That is not to dismiss the desire and ability to understand God and man in the context of the Scripture, it is simply a heart-order issue.  Man, at least in practice, switched jobs (and often-times, roles) with God.

#4 – Faith became private

With the separation of supernatural and natural also came the separation of the “secular” and the “religious.”  Faith became a lifestyle choice that was between you and God, “what you do in the church is your business.”

This separation led to compartmentalization for followers of Christ.  Church became a part of life, just like jobs, hobbies, and kid’s activities. Faith was sentenced to house arrest; certainly a person of faith could and should be moral, but explicit practice of that faith was relegated to the church building. 

#5 – Community was exchanged for individualism

At the heart of the Enlightenment are the rights and abilities of the individual.  Identification and validation was now found at the individual level rather than in a community.  One of the primary roles of democracy is to ensure that the rights of individuals are not only protected from encroachment by the government, but also other individuals.

For the church, the combination of a “private” faith and the rise of individualism has been a cocktail that has proven deadly to a vital aspect of God’s intended church: true community.

God has always intended faith to be expressed and nurtured in the context of community.  When God entered into the covenant with the Israelites through Moses, the conditions of that covenant were not only dealing with the relationship of people with God, but were also (and almost equally) concerned with the relationship of people with each other.   When we read about the church in the Book of Acts, we see that the body of believers was fundamentally a community with true, koinonia fellowship.

Unfortunately, the Western church has generally abandoned this edifying koinonia fellowship that not only builds up the church, but also grows the church.  Instead, the church has been reduced to a gathering of individual believers rather than a community.  As Hiebert (2008) explained, “This stress on individualism has also led to a weak understanding of the church as a family of families of faith. Because salvation has become a personal matter between the self and God, there is little emphasis on the formulation of a new community of shalom in Christ…There are attempts at building deeper fellowship through small groups and church dinners, but few members are willing to pay the price of real community: involvement in members’ daily lives and willingness to bear one another’s burdens through sharing and financial assistance. (Chapter 7, Impact on Christianity, para. 2-3).

#6 – Faith was less experience and more knowledge

The way people learned shifted dramatically during the Enlightenment.  Because logic and reason was king, people must learn how to use these tools.  Additionally, the printed word became a primary learning method and literacy became a must.  Previous to the Enlightenment, learning was oral, visual, an experiential in nature, but less so now.

The church adopted these new ways of learning and applied them to the Bible.  Bible study resembled the study of math and history in the secular arena and spiritual formation was often equated with knowledge.

However, what example are we given in the New Testament about the multiplying church that God desires?  Certainly knowledge was important, Acts 2:42 tells us that they devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching.  But how did they mature as disciples if most of the people weren’t literate, let alone had access to a print copy of Scripture?  Quite simply, their faith was more than just knowledge, it was experience. They put their faith in action and others learned from their example.  They experienced the full life that Jesus promised in John 10:10 and grew as they worked to spread the good news of the gospel and as they loved one another as Jesus commanded.   One thing is certain; faith in the first-century church was most definitely not just a head trip, it was an experience.

#7 – Faith became a checklist

Hiebert wrote, “In modernity, the identity of people is not primarily given by birth, by ascription, but by what they make of themselves, by achievement” (Chapter 7, Work/Leisure, para. 1).  “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and the “Protestant work ethic” became the story of success.  Heroic tales of people coming from meager beginnings to accomplish great personal gain became prototypical of the “American dream.”  Kids were given the promise “you can do whatever you set your mind to!”

Unfortunately, this attitude crept into the lives of the faithful, and instead of depending fully on God for our faith and salvation, we started depending on ourselves.  Surely we believed that Christ is the author of our faith, and that his death and resurrection reconciled us to God.  But we took maturity and spiritual growth largely into our own hands.  We started to think, “If I only work hard enough at my faith, I’ll be the best Christian I can be.”  And so our faith practices became items on a checklist, a way to keep track of how we were doing in becoming a better Christian.  And if we weren’t growing in our faith, we just needed to work harder.


These seven things have caused the church (both individually and corporately) to exhibit characteristics God never intended:

  • Instead of viewing everything through the lens of God’s Word, we have only turned to the Bible when we can’t find the answer somewhere else.
  • Instead of lives that are examples of God’s desire to intersect with humanity, we have relegated God to the “supernatural,” pushing him out of our daily lives.
  • Instead of caring about what God thinks of us, we focus more on what we think about God.
  • Instead of faith being our life, it’s become part of our life.
  • Instead of flourishing in the context of community, the church is floundering as a gathering of individuals.
  • Instead of a faith that is an experience, we’ve settled for faith that is largely a head trip.
  • And instead of depending on God to transform us, we’ve decided that we can handle our own spiritual formation.

This is how the Enlightenment has messed up the church, but there is a solution.  It’s called repentance.


What do you think?  Are these principles really in contradiction with God’s desires?  Are there any other areas in which the Western worldview has negatively affected the church?  Have there been any positive influences of the Western worldview upon the church?

Hiebert, P. G. (2008). Transforming worldviews: An anthropological understanding of how people change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

5 thoughts on “How the Enlightenment Messed Up the Church

  1. Dan Ledwith says:

    Great insights! I think you are right on.

  2. Tom McLeod says:

    Three slightly random thoughts:
    Like God’s people of old we too have have our Golden Calf and fallen down to worship it…..its name is ‘Logic’

    We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.

    Western enlightenment is a very poor container for biblical Christianity, but we don’t seem to have any other container that accepted by most western people. (maybe this the attraction for the eastern religions by some)

  3. […] We live in a clearly secular world.  From the time of the Enlightenment, Western society has systematically and effectively removed faith from the public sphere and has placed it within the closet of individuality and privacy. (Read seven ways the Enlightenment messed up the church here.) […]

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