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The Enlightenment’s Splintering of Faith

The Reformation restored the holistic nature of faith to include both knowledge and trust in keeping with the organic unity of the whole person and our union with the whole Christ as taught in Scripture. These two elements, however, were again pulled apart more and more under the stress of Enlightenment thinking and criticisms. Faith was positioned on the chopping block of human autonomy which rushed down upon it like a guillotine. Despite attempts to save it, its lifeblood was emptied. True restoration would again be found only in reformation, in renouncing the absolute freedom of man and returning to God’s revelation in Scripture.

A New Dualism: Cold Orthodoxy and Pietism

Herman Bavinck provides a helpful summary of the dichotomy that resulted,

On the one hand, a cold orthodoxy emerged that interpreted faith only in terms of doctrine, and on the other hand, a Pietism that valued devoutness above truth. This dualism in religion, church, and theology was strengthened by a twofold orientation of the newer philosophy, that, after Descartes and Bacon, eventually ended up in dogmatism and empiricism (“Philosophy of Religion (Faith),” 26).

This new dualism sat uncomfortably with many—but was a new reconciliation even possible within the system of Enlightenment thinking? The attempted solution by Immanuel Kant would argue, No.

Kant’s epistemology was especially influenced by the criticism of David Hume, so that “he turned his back on dogmatism and became convinced that rationalism in theology and metaphysics was untenable” (27). In turn, he divided reality into two worlds, the noumena and the phenomena. The noumena consisted of things as they are in themselves, while the phenomena, in distinction, included things as they are knowable by the senses. Kant argued that genuine scholarship and science was only possible in the world of the phenomena since it alone is accessible to the human mind. The transcendental and supernatural world of the noumena was inaccessible and all proofs adduced for it end up in an antinomy.

Kant’s (Unsuccessful) Attempt to Save Faith

But Kant did not want to surrender the supernatural, nor the concept of faith, yet he knew neither could rest on cogent reasons and proofs of rationalism. He needed another, firmer foundation, which he discovered in the writings of Rousseau, the father of Romanticism. Rousseau, conscious of the sharp contrast between nature and culture of his time, “became the enthusiastic preacher of the gospel of nature.” Bavinck goes on,

In [Rousseau’s] teaching about society and state, education and religion, he turned from the corrupt culture of his time to the truth and simplicity of nature. In all areas, the historical had to make room for what was originally given, [abandoning] society for innocent nature, positive Christianity for natural religion, the false reasons of the mind for the impulse of feeling. Certainty about the truths of religion was also to be found in feeling. … For him the final certainty of these truths of the faith [including the existence of God] are not to be found in the theoretical but in the practical sphere, in the original and immediate witness of feeling that is deeper and much more reliable than the reasoning mind. Each person is assured in his heart about a supersensory world (27).

This idea would have a tremendous influence on the philosophy of Kant (and the theology of feeling of Schleiermacher among others). Specifically what Kant learned from Rousseau was that “religious truths possess a different certainty for people than truths of the mind or reason, of science or philosophy.” Religion and morality contain their own kind of certainty, that is, a certainty that is distinct from the certainty of natural phenomena. With this being the case, “metaphysics does not need to provide all kinds of proofs for God’s existence, the freedom of the will, and the immortality of the soul. Moreover, science could then freely go its own way and be bound only by its own character and laws” (28). In short, the certainty of the noumena (religion) rests on a different foundation than the certainty of the phenomena (science). Herein is the dualism of Kant’s philosophy: there are two, separate foundations of a two-story reality constructed of the noumena and the phenomena.

Kant, however, does not adopt Rousseau’s idea that the foundation of the noumena is feeling; instead, he posits the foundation as “practical reason, the moral nature of man. In his conscience, man feels himself bound to a categorical, unconditional, absolute imperative” (28). The certainty of the world of the noumena rests on the foundation of man’s morality as he finds in himself the “thou shalt” of the moral law, which transcends all other powers in nature. From here, Kant argues, man can find certainty of other noumena realities: the freedom of his will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God.

If this moral world order is to be true reality and not an illusion, and if it is to triumph one day over all that is great and strong and mighty in this world, then man must be free in his actions and his soul must be immortal to receive his reward in the hereafter, and God must exist in order to reconcile in eternal harmony the terrible opposites between virtue and luck that exist on earth. These are not conclusions legitimately deduced from preceding scientific premises, but they are postulates put forth by man according to his moral nature. He cannot prove, he cannot demonstrate, that it is all true, but he is subjectively certain of it; he believes and acts as if it were true; he does not know, but he believes, and he has moral grounds for his belief” (28).

The Destruction of Faith in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel

At this point, we have come far afield from the Reformation and biblical view of faith as including both knowledge and trust in an organic unity. Kant sought a safer place for faith by relinquishing all elements of knowledge about divine truth and relocating it solely to a supernatural order, but, ironically, in so doing he destroyed it.

Schleiermacher will move in a similar direction in theology, having basically the same epistemological commitments as Kant, but instead of a moral/ethical direction, he will move toward the mystical sense of absolute feeling. In distinction from Kant, Schleiermacher “held that willing and acting and knowing do not disclose the supersensible world, because this willing also moves in opposites and never reaches unity. This unity, enjoyed only in feeling, which precedes thinking and willing and is completely independent of absolute power” (29).

In the opposite direction of both Kant (ethical) and Schleiermacher (mystical) was the German Idealist, Hegel (speculative/rationalism). He elevated reason to a cosmic principle with the progress of history being the absolute Spirit or Mind realizing itself. Religion, then, is merely a developmental stage in the movement of absolute thought in history.

Van Til’s Critique of Kant

Cornelius Van Til wrote, “If Kant’s position were to be retained, both knowledge and faith would be destroyed.” That is, not only does Kant fail to arrive at any true knowledge in the realm of the noumena by way of practical reason and faith, but equally so he fails to arrive at any true knowledge in the realm of the phenomena by way of theoretical reason. Despite his desire to salvage God, morality, and all else that belongs to the noumena, he makes wreckage of the noumena along with the phenomena. After totaling both realms on the speedway of human autonomy, Kant is left with an irreparable theory of knowledge.

The reason for this totalizing failure is his starting point in man, rather than in God’s revelation. Kant imprisoned God to the noumena and made the link between the noumena and phenomena not God’s self-revelation but man’s sense of morality. Accordingly, God is ignorant of the phenomena and man is enthroned over the natural world as an autonomous interpreter of the facts of the phenomena. Both God and the world are man-contained, dependent on him and relative to him. Man does not think God’s thoughts after him, that is, in accordance with and submission to the comprehensive knowledge of God, but comes to the natural world as if it was comprised of uninterpreted, brute facts. Man has therefore replaced God in Kant’s theory as the world’s primary interpreter and definer. Van Til writes,

Knowledge and faith are not contradictories but complementaries. Kant did not make room for faith, because he destroyed the God on whom alone faith is to be fixed. It is true of course, that Kant spoke of a God as possibly existing. This God, however, could not be more than a finite God, since he at least did not have, or did not need to have, original knowledge of the phenomenal world. Kant thought that man could get along without God in the matter of scientific knowledge. It is thus that the representational principle which we saw to be the heart of the Christian theistic theory of knowledge is set aside. If man knows certain facts whether or not God knows these facts, as would be the case if the Kantian position were true, man’s knowledge would be done away with. Whatever sort of God may remain, on Kant’s view, he is not the supreme interpretive category of human experience (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 109; see esp. pp. 106-13 for his full critique).

No One Can Serve Two Masters

On the basis of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, Bavinck counters the dualism of Kantian philosophy by returning to the central unity in man. He argues that Kant’s ethicisim, Schleiermacher’s mysticism and Hegel’s rationalism suffer from “a significant one-sidedness” and “diminish man’s universal character.” These anti-theistic systems divide man in two and separate what belongs together. The result is that true religion is lost since it is reduced to either moral duty or aesthetic emotion or a philosophic view. “But according to the Christian, confession [sic] religion is other than and higher than all those views; religion must not just be something in one’s life, but everything. Jesus demands that we love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. In our thinking and living, there can be no division between God and the world, between religion and culture; no one can serve two masters” (29).


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