The Enlightenment & Eighteenth-Century Rationalist Critics of the Bible: A Supplementary Summary.

For Calvinists at the time, as for many other conservative theologians since Spinoza, his role has been seen as purely destructive, as that of one who undermined the authority and inspiration of the biblical text and laid the foundation for Enlightenment scepticism about the Bible – the scepticism of the French philosophers, Voltaire (1694-1778) Rousseau (1712-1778) and Diderot (1713-84) as well as that of British ‘Deist’, David Hulme (1711-1776). It is even possible to view his endorsement of the central teaching of Scripture as no more than a cynical way of trying to avoid censure for his views – an aim, which if it was indeed his aim, he certainly failed. But John Barton (2019) concludes that Spinoza’s motivation in questioning the authorship of biblical books was ultimately political. He quotes Nadler’s view in A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age:

By showing that the Bible is not, in fact, the work of a supernatural God, “a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven”, as Spinoza mockingly puts it, but a perfectly natural human document; … naturalising the Torah and the other books of the Bible and reducing them to ordinary (though morally valuable) works of literature, Spinoza hopes to undercut ecclesiastic influence in politics … and weaken the sectarian dangers facing his beloved Republic.

At the same time, as John Barton also argues, it is possible to see him as both a pioneer of biblical criticism and as one who kept a firm hold on the essentials of biblical faith, while stripping away the whole scaffolding of interpretative subtlety that had tried to bring every last word of the Bible into an orthodox structure and, in the process, had lost the heart of the matter. In the eighteenth century, it was the negative side of Spinoza’s work seemed to come to the fore. Especially in Great Britain, rationalism generally prevailed, and the biblical text was much depreciated as crude and bloody, with the nobler sentiments of some of the New Testament seen as overlaid with inconsistency and falsehood: these denunciations reached a peak in Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794), but they can also be found in the works of many writers of the earlier part of the century such as David Hume and Edward Gibbon (1737-94).

An extreme example was Thomas Woolston’s six Discourses on the Miracles of our Saviour (between 1727 and 1729), in which he argued that we need to allegorise the miracle stories in the Gospels since, taken as literal history, they are so incredible that no sane reader would believe them. Yet he made such outrageous claims about the stories, including those of the resurrection appearances, that even by today’s liberal ‘standards’ that it is hard to accept his overall claim to be an orthodox Christian. Few rationalist writers went as far as Woolston, but his extreme case does still highlight a certain prevalent school of thought. He became something of a martyr for his beliefs. He was tried for blasphemy, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of a hundred pounds. Unable to pay, he spent the rest of his days in prison. But there were less savage ways of replying to Deism. Thomas Sherlock, a bishop and best-selling Christian author, took his cue from Woolston’s trial and wrote a book called The Trial and Witnesses of the Resurrection in 1729 in which he put the resurrection witnesses into the dock. It went on to be reprinted into the nineteenth century. Another opponent of Deism was Bishop Joseph Butler whose Analogy of Religion (1736) argued that the evidence of nature and the testimony of Christian faith both pointed in the direction of supernatural religion. Among the rationalists, however, there were many staunch defenders of biblical orthodoxies, such as William Whiston and Anthony Collins. But the deist Matthew Tindal (1657-1733) saw the essential circularity of many defences of the authority of Scripture, as we still do today when he wrote:

It’s an odd jumble, to prove the Truth of a Book by the Truth of the Doctrines it contains, and at the same Time conclude those Doctrines to be true because contained in that Book.

In 1678, Richard Simon, a French Oratorian priest (1638-1712) published his Critical History History of the Old Testament, followed in the next few years by works on the text of the New Testament. By showing, like Spinoza had done eight years previously, that the biblical books had not been written by their supposed authors, Simon argued that Protestants were in error in thinking that they could rely on the Bible alone as the foundation of the Christian faith. The Bible was unreliable, and so the Church’s traditional and magisterial authority were needed if faith was to be securely grounded. Cardinal Richelieu, however, saw that this dangerously demoted the Bible below what was tolerable, resulting in Simon being suspended from his Oratory. Nevertheless, Simon’s arguments were, in themselves, sound enough, and his position alongside Spinoza as one of the founders of modern biblical criticism is a reminder that this was not, in origin, a purely Protestant movement, even though it would be Protestants, especially in Germany, who subsequently developed the rational study of the Bible to become a major industry.

The methods employed in such studies were, however, essentially the same as those used in secular criticism, which led many to believe that they were part of an anti-religious agenda. Major eighteenth-century contributions to textual criticism were made by J. A. Bengel (1687-1752), who published a critical edition of the New Testament in 1734, and J. J. Wettstein (1693-1754), whose two-volume edition of the New Testament appeared in Amsterdam in 1751-52. One of the first writers to try to rebut the accusation of blasphemy against those who claimed that Moses did not write the Pentateuch was Salamo Semler (1725-91), whose Free Research on the Canon, published in four volumes (between 1771 and ’76) sought to distinguish the essential supernatural message of the Bible from the detail of biblical exegesis, which belonged to the sphere of normal secular literary enquiry and on which no issue of faith turned. Semler argued that this distinction could be traced back to Luther. What was essential to faith, as Luther had asserted, was the assurance to believers that God accepted them by his free grace; who wrote this or that book was a matter of, at best, secondary importance, on which faith had nothing to say. This was challenging for many orthodox Christians, but it laid the basis of biblical enquiry in Germany for the next two centuries.

Yet Semler’s position about separating faith from criticism is arguably overly optimistic, and for many ‘fundamentalists’, then as now, the suggestion of even the smallest discrepancy in the Bible was and is, the ‘thin end of a wedge,’ because the very possibility of it calls into question the foundation of their faith. This may be an exaggeration, but there is an underlying point to it. It is doubtful whether Semler’s approach is compatible with the Reformed tradition after Luther, and it clearly clashes with the modern conservative evangelical stance on the centrality of Biblical authority to faith. Despite Luther’s relatively ‘relaxed’ attitude to biblical criticism, most ordinary Protestants reacted as though these issues were being brought forward for the first time. H. S. Reimarus (1694-1768) is remembered as the father of the ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ and was the first to show that Jesus’ message was thoroughly eschatological, inaugurating the ‘last days.’ But he also went beyond this to claim, like Spinoza and Thomas Woolston, in claiming that the biblical narratives were susceptible of a naturalistic explanation. Reimarus was a deist, and could not believe that God had intervened in the world following its creation. In the case of the resurrection, he argued that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body to make it appear that he had risen. Then the later evangelists invented his predictions of the resurrection:

Having stolen the body they then proclaimed that this had indeed happened, as he had foretold. They reinforced their claims by twisting some Old Testament texts into supporting the case, giving it bite by adding that the world would shortly end and that anyone who had not accepted their message would burn in hell.

Robert Morgan with John Barton (1988), Biblical Interpretation. The Oxford Bible Series (OUP), p 55.

Rationalism and empiricism were not the only intellectual movements of the period. In its own day, Deism was proked a great deal of discussion. Like both of the former movements, Deism became increasingly hostile to the Christian faith in the eighteenth century. But the original Deism of the previous century in England was an attempt to demonstrate the rationality of belief in a divine creator without appealing to the special revelation of God in Christ. Matthew Tindal’s (1730) work Christianity as Old as the Creation argued that Christianity was really the religion of nature. Of course, the Christian faith holds certain central beliefs that go far beyond natural religion, such as the incarnation, but these were explained away as the work of superstitious priestcraft. The deists also attacked the arguments based on fulfilled prophecy and miracles. Like Reimarus, Anthony Collins claimed that the Old Testament prophecies did not really fit Jesus, and Thomas Woolston attacked the resurrection stories as, at best, myth and at worst as a fraud perpetrated by the disciples who had in fact stolen the body of Jesus.

But the natural theologians neglected the teaching of the Bible so much that in time some came to argue that its distinctive doctrines were either superfluous or false. They claimed that the parts of the Bible that agree with natural theology are simply unnecessary; the parts that contradict natural theology – the myths, miracles and priestly prattling – are simply untrue. The Christian religion consists solely of what nature and reason teach unaided: the belief in and worship of God, the repentance of sin, the practice of virtue, and the expectation of punishment and rewards after death. The number of deists greatly increased both in England and continental Europe during the first half of the eighteenth century, and the two branches of the movement had some common roots. For example, John Toland, the author of Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), was patronised by the German nobility. The work of the English deists was also known and discussed in Germany, where the effect was a demand for an enlightened re-evaluation of the church and its teaching, and of culture and philosophy. One of the leading ‘enlightened’ thinkers was the dramatist and amateur theologian, G. E. Lessing (1729-81). In his plays, Lessing shifted from the themes of classical tragedy and tales of kings and nobles to the dilemmas of middle-class life. Parts of Reimarus’ writing on Jesus were published posthumously by Lessing, thus lengthening and broadening their impact. He took up the deists’ view of Jesus, claiming that the resurrection was a fraud invented by the disciples, who merely wanted to continue their ‘easy’ way of life.

Orthodox Christians responded to the deists in various ways. Many continued with ever more detailed elaborations of natural theology, particularly in using the argument concerning ‘design’. In England, John Ray’s (1691) publication, Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation passed through numerous editions. Other Christians chose to defend the Bible by showing that its authors were reliable and honest. They then used the evidence of miracles and prophecies to show that orthodox beliefs were reasonable. The classic literature on ‘Christian evidence’ grew and remained popular until the mid-nineteenth century The deists were best combated by writers who questioned and reinterpreted the role of ‘Reason’. In The Case of Reason (1731), William Law showed that it was false to suppose that God always behaves according to strictly human rationality. George Berkeley, in Alciphron (1732), argued that God’s ideas are what really exists, not matter. Therefore, all beliefs that separate the human reality from the divine are faulty. In fact, the sceptical philosopher David Hume had a limited effect on his own century, His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion appeared only posthumously, in 1777, influencing more the following century. Writers of natural theology continued to follow the laws laid down in the deistic controversy. Their work culminated in the most popular apologetic texts ever written: William Paley’s (1794) View of the Evidences of Christianity and Natural Theology (1802).


John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. London: Allen Lane (Penguin Books).

Tim Dowley (ed.), et. al. (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing

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