Not only did our (U.S.) evangelical predecessors deeply embrace modern science along Bacon’s lines, they also embraced the broader Enlightenment confidence in human reason, which also was felt in Europe. Kant expressed that motto well: “‘have the courage to use your own intelligence!’- [this] is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”¹ In the states, however, Thomas Reid’s “common sense” philosophy enjoyed great influence. As a response to Hume’s skepticism, Reid emphasized our intuition to know universal truths objectively. Historian George Marsden comments that our objective common sense could discern the “careful observation and classification of facts,” which was applied as a general methodology.² The utter perspicuity of truth was clearly seen and easy to understand.  All people needed to do was gather facts, catalog, and properly organize them by Bacon’s method.

People in the U.S. had embraced widely the truths of Christianity as a matter of common sense. So strong was confidence that many evangelicals thought it was just “common sense” that science’s findings will square with the Bible. So, they felt little need to integrate science’s findings with Scripture. 

However, don’t we need to interpret these facts? If so, how, and why? The “common sense” answer was that right reason would be able to discern clearly objective truth. Applying this to the Bible, there wasn’t a deeply felt-need to defend it. Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield displayed this attitude:

It is the distinction of Christianity that it has come into the world clothed with the mission to reason its way to its dominion. … Christianity makes its appeal to right reason, and stands out among all religions, therefore, as distinctively “the Apologetic religion.” It is solely by reasoning that it has come thus far on its way to its kingship. And it is solely by reasoning that it will put all its enemies under its feet.³

Thus, “common sense” fostered an attitude that there was no problem with our being “objective” (unbiased).  It’s as though people did not need to consider how the many shaping influences (e.g., the philosophies behind, and prestige of, modern science; the high confidence in human reason; Christianity’s strength in the U.S.; etc.) might affect how they interpreted reality.

Notice, though, that while “common sense” had some strengths (e.g., we can know some truths  directly), still our predecessors underestimated the extent of the fall on our minds – and even on our hearts. Now, evangelicals still doctrinally held to depravity. But, it’s as though John 15:5 (that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing) either was ignored or wasn’t seen as a problem. This was a radical underestimation. Not only is our ability to have knowledge limited as creatures, we also have blind spots due to our sinfulness. Unless deeply united with the Lord, we will tend, even subtly, to want to elevate their minds and hearts above the Lord.

This mindset is naturalistic in the sense that Nietzsche meant when he claimed God is dead. He did not mean that God used to exist, but no longer does. Rather, he meant the concept of God is no longer relevant for modern life. Now, this implies we can go beyond any limitations on our authority and freedom, just as the serpent claimed in Gen 3:5: “you will be like God, knowing [or, defining] good and evil” (NASB), and even reality itself. 

This over-optimism in our reason’s abilities was another step in making God seem distant, for if our reason is so good, why would we need to depend utterly upon Him to know truth? However, more factors have tended to undermine our expectations that God wants to be intimate. I’ll explore more in the next post.

1 From his “What is Enlightenment?” trans. and ed. by Carl J. Friedrich, The Philosophy of Kant: Immanuel Kant’s Moral and Political Writings (New York: The Modern Library, 1993), 145 (bracketed insert mine).

2 George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 14.

3 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Introduction,” in Francis R. Beattie, Apologetics, or The Rational Vindication of Christianity, vol. 1 (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903), 26.