Two revolutions rocked the world in late 18th century. The first was in the British colonies of the New World. The colonists had grown tired of the abuses of power by the English king and after many attempts to have their grievances heard they finally voted to declare their independence from the crown. They would form a new nation without a king. Decisions would be made by the people or those elected by the people to represent them. It was a radical idea because for over a dozen centuries the countries of Europe had been ruled by kings.
Underneath this idea of a country without a king was another more radical idea: freedom of religion. Since the time of Rome, the kings had ruled by “divine right” and a single religion was the religion of the state. The church affirmed the power of the ruler. The rulers supported the church. In the colonies of the New World, there were both Catholics and varieties of Protestants that held majorities in each colony. Rather than declaring one new national church, the American decided that each person would continue to be free to worship (or not worship) according to the dictates of their conscience. It was a revolutionary concept driven by both historical forces and expediency.
Several years later in France, inspired by the Americans, the French revolted. In France, however, the situation was different and the revolution went in a different direction. The French king and the church had created an unholy alliance that made its leaders incredibly wealthy while the average French person lived in poverty. Local bishops made millions of dollars a year but spent all of their time stroking the ego of the king in Versailles while the average person was forced to pay taxes and mandatory offerings to the church. They were mired in poverty. In the French Revolution the people threw off not only the king, but the church. Church properties were confiscated and many were set up as “temples of reason”. In the period of the revolution, many believers were killed. In Vendee, France, historians estimate that over 100,000 Christians were killed (5,000 in mass drownings). Needless to say, French evangelicals are not as prone to celebrate Bastille Day as we are July 4th. Bastille Day is a day when the French celebrate their independence from both God and king. Evangelicals remember Vendée.
While the freedoms that we celebrate as Americans are important and the idea of democracy has spread around the world, we must also be aware of one of the ideas that fueled both revolutions: humanism. Humanism is a broad term, but in general it is a philosophy that puts humans in the place of authority (individually and collectively) and stresses critical thinking and evidence rather than submission to outside authority.
In modern evangelical circles the word humanism is often used with derision. But in European history humanism came to be a force several centuries before the revolutions in America and France. The Renaissance brought a breath of fresh air to the scholarly world. Academia had become stale with scholars writing endless tomes about what other scholars had written. With the Renaissance there was a renewed interest in going back to the original sources of ideas and studying them firsthand. The Renaissance brought with it the idea that each scholar was to go back to read the original works for themselves to see what they said rather than relying on what the experts had said through the centuries. This effort to examine the originals led to exciting new discoveries as old ways of thinking were challenged and sometimes discarded. It was rooted in the idea that each person could think for themselves and that by doing so humanity was progressing. This is one of the hallmarks of humanism.
This drive back to the originals and allowing each person to think for themselves rather than relying on historic beliefs is what led Luther, Calvin, and other reformers to challenge the dogma of the Catholic church. Martin Luther was a humanist when he boldly said that he would not submit to the pope or councils. He needed to be convinced based on the Bible and “cogent reasons” that he was error or he would not recant his teachings. The 16th century Protestant Reformers valued critical thinking about the text of the Bible. Applying logic and common sense to the study of Scriptures was the right of everyone and not just the Councils of the church. They valued education and translated the Bible into the common language of the people so that everyone could read it for themselves.
Humanistic thinking gave the colonists the boldness to reject the authority of the king. The authority to govern should come from the people rather than being based on the divine right of kingship. Dictatorships and monarchies were seen as inherently wrong because they violated the idea that each person is equal and should have a voice in the government. In France, humanism was carried to another level. They discarded not only the monarchy but they rejected the authority of the church and the Scriptures. Many of the key French revolutionaries rejected theism altogether and chose to place their faith in science and reason. This has had a lasting impact on France. Atheism and an anti-Christian attitude are rampant in France.
Most of America’s founders were members of Christian churches. Churches were often the hub of social life in the community as well as being houses of worship. Some of the founders were orthodox Christians. For example, John Jay was President of the American Bible Society and Patrick Henry distributed gospel tracts during his travels. Without a doubt these men were Bible-believing followers of Christ. They were humanists who believed that each person had the right to think and decide for themselves and rejected the idea of the monarchy as an absolute authority.
But many of America’s founders were impacted by a popular religious idea: deism. Deism holds that there is a god who created the world according to certain principles, but that god was not interested in humanity and had left us to figure things out for ourselves. Deists rejected the authority of the Bible. Thomas Paine called Christianity a fable, Benjamin Franklin denied that god had ever communicated anything to man, and Thomas Jefferson rejected the miracles of the Bible. Their deism allowed them to refer to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and to the Creator endowing men with rights, but just what those laws and rights were was left to humans to figure out.
These humanistic forces are still at work in our country. Our individualism is one indicator of it. Americans have a strong independent streak compared to many other cultures. We still have many who hold to an orthodox view of the faith and the Bible and stress the humanistic idea that each person is to study the Bible for themselves. American Christians tend to gather in like-minded churches and bristle at the thought of submitting to church authority if they disagree with it. At the same time, an increasing number of Americans are like the French revolutionaries or the deists of the American revolution. These humanists reject all authority except “science and logic.” They reject the authority of the church and the Bible. They reject any outside standard of morality except what makes sense to them.
Because many in America are rejecting God and the Scriptures as having ultimate authority, the culture will slowly spiral downward in the manner outlined in Romans 1. Bible believing Christians will face increasing headwinds and the belief in accountability to God and his Word will be assaulted from every angle. The temptation will be to accommodate to the ideas and “moral causes” of the day rather than to be faithful to the Bible.
We must remember that the Bible is the Word of God and not the invention of man. We are not to sit in judgment of it, but must all it to be our judge and guide. Jesus told us that we must continue in his word if we were to truly be his disciples. We must not allow the extreme form of humanism that is increasing in our culture to lead us away from the salvation that God has provided in Christ.
Word of Life Staff
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