The rise of Biblical Criticism during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century contrasts the rise of the Evangelical movement.


The eighteenth century is sometimes called the “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason” and described as a secular era. However, research of the last half century has demonstrated that more vital Christianity flourished within that century than commonly supposed. Nonetheless, the rise of biblical criticism did contribute a secular strand of thinking impacting the religious beliefs of many contemporaries.

The “Enlightenment” (1680-1799)

In European history the period from 1680—1799 is frequently designated the “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason.” Eighteenth century contemporaries often used a derivative of the word light from their respective languages to describe the era. For example, the French employed the expression Siècle des lumières and the Germans Aufklârung.

The Philosophes

Partisans of “enlightenment” were sometimes called philosophes (French word for philosophers). They appreciated the writings of classical pagan authors like Cicero as well as the empirical perspectives of Francis Bacon and John Locke. They advocated the free use of “reason” as the guiding authority for discerning truth and understanding humankind and the world. They often rejected the teachings of Christianity. The philosophe Cesar Chesneau Dumarsais put the matter this way: “Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher.”

The “philosophers” claimed that the advance of “philosophie [using reason]would promote an “enlightened” day of happiness, toleration and progress. Many sharply criticized traditional Christian beliefs such as our sinful nature due to Adam’s Fall, the reality of miracles, the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and the divinity of Christ. They questioned Scripture’s infallibility and endorsed biblical criticism. In general, they trumpeted the motif that orthodox Christianity promoted not light but darkness, not truth but superstition and not peace and civility but fanaticism.

The “philosophers” often acted as propagandists, social activists and reformers. In France they included Voltaire, Denis Diderot, D’Alembert and the Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau {1712-1778; until he became an arch critic of Voltaire); in Germany, the biblical critics Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) and philosophers Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804); in England, deists like Anthony Collins (1676-1729) and the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776); and in the United States deistic leaning political figures and writers such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1797), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Advocates of “Enlightenment” called for reforms in South America.

Both in France and in Germany the strength of “philosophic” movements intensified towards the middle of the eighteenth century. By contrast, in England an ”Enlightenment” movement associated with Deism had crested in strength towards 1750.

The Staying Authority of the Bible at the Onset of the “Enlightenment”

Tears of gratitude welled up in the eyes of the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France. His Majesty thanked a spiritual advisor, Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) for explaining that Jesus’ words “Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23) justified biblically his revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This revocation (1685) took away the rights of French Calvinists or Huguenots to exist in his Kingdom. It re-iterated that the King’s religion, Roman Catholicism, constituted the only permissible faith for his subjects. Louis XIV ordered that the Huguenots be compelled to convert to Roman Catholicism or face cruel punishments. Some Huguenot pastors who resisted the royal order were martyred. Many Huguenot lay persons like Marie Durand in the eighteenth century resisted and were imprisoned. Others were forced to serve on the King’s galleys. Thousands felt obliged to become “new converts” to Roman Catholicism. Toleration for French Protestants was finally granted in 1787.

Despite Bossuet’s misreading of Luke 14:23, the incident reveals the significant staying power of the Bible in the political life of France as late as the 1680s. In fact, Bossuet had written a book entitled, Politics drawn from the very words of Scripture (first manuscript draft 1679). Bossuet viewed the Bible as the infallible Word of God not only for faith and practice but for politics and other matters. Describing his book’s purpose Bossuet wrote: “We shall uncover the secrets of politics, the maxims of government, and the source of law, in the doctrines and in the examples of Holy Scripture….”

At the same time stiff challenges to biblical authority were emerging among contemporaries. In 1685, the French Roman Catholic Richard Simon (1638-1712), often hailed as the “Father of Biblical Criticism,” entered a no-holds barred debate with Jean Le Clerc (1657-1737). Le Clerc was a Genevan man of letters who taught at the Arminian Remonstrant seminary in Amsterdam. In a volume entitled Sentimens de quelques theologiens de Hollande,,, [Sentiments of some theologians of Holland…] (1685), Le Clerc had harshly attacked Simon’s 1685 edition of the Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (Critical History of the Old Testament).

Bossuet had earlier criticized the first edition (1678) of the same work. Bossuet was appalled that in the early pages of the volume Simon had denied Moses wrote all the Pentateuch. Bossuet persuaded the government to burn the book. To deny the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch in the 1670s could destine your volume to the licking flames of a French bonfire.

In their multi-volume debate (1685-1687) both Simon and Le Clerc denied the contemporary orthodox view of clerics like Bossuet that the Bible was the infallible Word of God. The debate carried on in French was widely reviewed in journals. It was closely scrutinized by leading members of the Republic of Letters like John Locke and Pierre Bayle.

The Simon-Le Clerc debate shocked some contemporaries. It suggested that the Bible, allegedly marred by errors, need not be heeded in reflections about politics, natural philosophy (“science”), views of human nature, ethics and the like. In the 1740s, Jean Astruc, himself a biblical critic, looked back on the Simon-Le Clerc debate as a decisive turning point in the history of biblical criticism.

Paul Hazard and “The Crisis of the European Mind (1680-1715)”

In The Crisis of the European Mind (1935), Paul Hazard famously portrayed the period in which the Simon-Le Clerc debate took place as an era in which some intellectuals thought Europe essentially came off its Christian hinges. An “Enlightenment” began to dawn. With a flair for exaggeration Hazard postulated that at the time of Louis XIV’s death in 1715, the French abandoned believing religiously like Bossuet and began thinking rationally like Voltaire, an iconic Enlightenment figure. Hazard called this alleged shift in loyalties a “revolution.” For Hazard, the rise -of biblical criticism contributed directly to the emergence of a secular strand of the European Enlightenment.

Revisionary Perspectives on the Enlightenment Era

Within the last fifty years or so, a bevy of historians have challenged the view of the Enlightenment as an overwhelmingly secular age. The standard view frequently had portrayed the “Enlightenment” as an “Age of Reason” in which religion largely succumbed to the forces of rationalism.

Kant’s perspective had helped shape this interpretation. In his answer to the question “What is the Enlightenment?” (1784), Kant responded: “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Kant continued: “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! This Is the motto of enlightenment.” We are to do this without depending on external authorities such as church teaching. Some historians converted Kant’s counsel into a paradigmatic maxim to sum up European intellectual life as characterized by an all-encompassing rationalism. In consequence they tended to downplay signs of religious vitality in the “Enlightenment.” A good number also focused their attention on a quest to discover the “economic” and “intellectual” origins of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

By the 1970s, however, fresh research revealed that in various countries the terms used for “Enlightenment” did not all bear exactly the same connotations and that “religion” had much more vitality in Europe than previously thought. Hazard’s description of figures like Pierre Bayle, John Locke, Richard Simon and others was criticized for rendering them too secularly minded and minimizing their Christian commitments. Moreover, there were varieties of emphasis in the “enlightenments.” The French Siècle des lumières in which Voltaire starred, was much more anti-Christian than the Scottish Enlightenment or the German Aufklârung. Religious controversies such as disputes between Jansenists and Jesuits in France (the Refusal of Sacraments Controversy) often stirred passions more than the writings of the philosophes, proponents of the “enlightenment.” Marxist claims that the French Revolution was orchestrated by the economically motivated Bourgeoisie no longer seemed as persuasive given the writings of François Furet. In fact, Dale Van Kley published a well-received volume with the provocative title The Religious Origins of the French Revolution.

What’s more, the Bible was the most read book of the “Enlightenment” era. More Bibles were printed in France during the eighteenth century than in any other previous centuries. The eighteenth century even had its Christian martyrs. French Huguenot pastors in the “Church of the Desert” were put to death in the mid-eighteenth century because they continued their clandestine ministries. Many Christians like Thomas Reid (1710-1796) did not see any affront to their faith in using reason in their apologetic efforts. The “First Great Awakening” associated with the evangelists George Whitefield (see his journals), John Wesley (see his journals) and Jonathan Edwards (see his A Surprising Work of the Spirit of God…) coursed through England, Scotland and Wales and the English American colonies.

Sources of Biblical Criticism

Various rivulets of thought flowed together to feed the emergence of biblical criticism. 1. The Socinian doctrine of accommodation according to which the biblical writers inadvertently accommodated their writings to errors, myths and misconceptions of their own day and culture and thus created a fallible text of Scripture; 2. Rene Descartes’s emphasis upon reason as the essential criterion for determining truth. 3. The arguments of several Jewish commentators like Ibn Ezra who raised questions about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; 4.The writings of Grotius and Episcopius who discerned levels of truth in Scripture; 5. “Scientific” and geographical discoveries that seemed to raise questions about biblical statements.

A Select List of Notable Biblical Critics

The historian Anthony Grafton points out that in 1650 Henri de Valois, a pioneer of “criticism”, called upon scholars to read ancient texts with an intention not to accept automatically all an ancient writer claimed. However, Valois carved out an exception to his principle regarding Scripture: “Only the divine books can demand that we read them with our minds if enslaved, and renouncing freedom of judgment. We must acquire the habit of pronouncing judgment on all other books as we read them.”

  1. As historian Richard Popkin observed, Isaac de la Peyrère (1596-1676) was the first scholar to pit science against religion, not Galileo as is sometimes asserted. Galileo believed in the infallibility of Scripture properly interpreted. By contrast Isaac de la Peyère, argued that the Bible only gave an account of the history of the Jews but not the history of pre-adamites who existed in a distant past before Adam. He later renounced his view before the Inquisition.
  2. Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), a lens grinder, has often been hailed as the “Father of Biblical Criticism” (along with Richard Simon). Spinoza lived in Amsterdam, the United Provinces. As a youth, he had been expelled from his synagogue. He appreciated the writings of Jewish exegetes, the reflections of Isaac de la Peyrère, and Descartes’s emphasis upon reason. In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), Spinoza attacked the doctrine of biblical infallibility. He argued it bolstered the authority of unworthy political figures who cited Romans 13 as a warrant to forbide disobedience to their authority. Spinoza propounded reason as the judge of whether a matter was true or false. He denied Moses wrote all the Pentateuch. He indicated that Scripture and the Word of God were not one in the same and that philosophy was helpful in assessing Scripture’s merits. Spinoza claimed that miracles do not take place because the laws of nature are inviolable. He was widely condemned by many Christians and Jews.
  3. Richard Simon (1638-1712) proposed that his Critical History of the Old Testament answered Spinoza’s objections to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and to an orthodox understanding of biblical authority. Simon indicated Israel had “Public scribes” who kept the biblical scrolls. These scribes were inspired of God and wrote passages in the Pentateuch not penned by Moses. The “public scribes” sometimes did not keep the scrolls in a proper order and they introduced “errors” into tiexts. He denied that the Bible afforded sufficient details from which to establish an infallible historical chronology. Simon moved beyond “Critica Sacra”, the initiative to establish the original texts of Scripture, to the advocacy of several principles identified later with “Higher Criticism.”
  4. Jean Le Clerc roundly criticized Simon’s 1685 book. He charged there was no such institution of “public scribes” in Israel, that the author of the Pentateuch lived at a much later date than Moses, that the inspired sections of Scripture were limited to passages written by the prophets and to those relating the discourse of Jesus Christ and that Simon was a poor student of Hebrew. Pierre Bayle warned Le Clerc that his volume could sow a thousand seeds of atheism. The Simon-Le Clerc debate broadcast “biblical criticism” through the Republic of Letters and was noted by Voltaire and other philosophes of the eighteenth century.
  5. Anthony Collins (1676-1729) was one of the most controversial deists of his day. He dismissed the orthodox view of biblical authority, citing the biblical criticism of Richard Simon and others as compelling him to do so. Deists were rationalists who championed “Natural Religion” supposedly underlying all religions, Deists indicated that God created the world and then let it function following the inviolable laws of nature. This view precluded God’s involvement in our world. It dismissed out of hand Christ’s Incarnation, the reality of miracles, and particular providence. Collins advocated the use of reason and “Free Thinking” as the way to find truth.
  6. François-Marie Arouet, name changed to Voltaire (1694-1778), a witty and acerbic man of letters, was the most famous philosophe of France. He penned possibly fifteen millions words. In 1762, he wrote to Helvetius, another philosophe, that the “Age of Lights” was spreading. Voltaire’s attacks against Christianity were quite pervasive in his works. He mocked the orthodox doctrine of biblical authority in multiple works including the Sermon to the Fifty (1749), the Philosophical Dictionary (1764) and the Bible finally explained. (1778). In the latter work he cited the arguments of Richard Simon and Jean Le Clerc among others.
  7. Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791) taught at the Lutheran University of Halle from 1753-1791. The University had been founded by the Pietist Jacob Spener. Until the 1740s professors taught the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture [even the infallibility of the Masoretic pointing of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament]. In his diary Semler indicated that it was his reading of the writings of Simon and Le Clerc that lead him to become a biblical critic. He published some of Simon’s works in German. Semler advocated the free investigation to find an authentic canon within a canon of Scripture. Apparently espousing a Socinian view of Scripture he believed it necessary to remove the dross of Scripture including a belief in angels and the like. Semler criticized a work by an unknown writer (later identified as Reimarus)) which denied that Jesus Christ was divine. it purported the disciples had stolen Christ’s body from his grave. Lessing in turn criticized Semler for holding to a belief in the resurrection of Christ and Christ’s divinity despite his use of biblical critical principles.

An Afterword

Just before his death in 1791, Semler bemoaned the fact that fewer German students were studying theology in universities. He acknowledged that his own work in biblical criticism challenging the orthodox understanding of biblical authority was quite possibly one cause of this. The American Charles Hodge observed later that the widespread embrace by many German theologians of a Socinian doctrine of accommodation explained in part their departure from evangelical orthodoxy.

By contrast the apologetic success of English anti-deist writers largely accounts for the remarkable claim made by some observers in the 1790s that no-one had been reading works by deists for the last fifty years. This was probably an exaggeration. Nonetheless in England the Evangelical movement did flourish in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Some of its members began to promote foreign missions. Likewise, In the 1790s many British read their Bibles with the goal of trying to understand how the French Revolution fit into Biblical prophesy.

Further Reading

  • Hazard, Paul. The Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715 (New York: New York Review of Books, 1981).
  • Kramnick, Isaac, ed. The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1995).
  • Sorkin, David. The Religious Enlightenment (Jews, Christians and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
  • Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution From Calvin to the Civil Constitution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

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