{18}     Rationalism, spiritualism, pietism

ERA 6 << Modern Church (2): Revival & Missions (AD 1700-1900) >> SESSION 1

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 2, chapters 21-23

        18.1.1  Enlightenment

·         Definition: The word describes the period in Western philosophy and culture beginning in 17th-c when reason was advocated as the primary source and basis of authority. Rationalism was the representative philosophy, while deism was the representative religious expression. There was a reexamination of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Its political aspiration was nationalism and nation-creation, greater rights for people.

·         Rationalism: It was a philosophy characterized by: [1] an interest in the physical world, [2] an emphasis in human sensory perception, and [3] confidence in the powers of reason. It reached the apex in 18th-c and continued in 19th-c. It was partly a reaction against cold orthodoxy in 16th and 17th centuries.

        18.1.2  Descartes & Cartesianism

·         On universal doubt: Rene Descartes (1596–1650)—father of rationalism—He had a profound distrust of all that is not absolutely certain. Descartes felt that he ought to begin by an attitude of universal doubt. He could doubt everything but not that the doubting subject actually existed. “I think, therefore I am”—in Latin, cogito, ergo sum—became the starting point for his philosophy.

·         On God: He felt that he could prove the existence of God. He found in his mind the idea of a “more perfect being” and since his mind could not produce such an idea, which was above itself, it must have been placed there by God.

        18.1.3  Locke & Empiricism

·         On knowledge: John Locke (1632–1704) held that all knowledge is derived from experience. He asserted that the mind of a baby is a blank. Knowledge comes from reflection on sensations which come from his senses. True knowledge is based on 3 levels of experience: [1] our own selves; [2] outer realities; and [3] God. Apart from these, there is no certain knowledge. This is a materialistic approach to life.

        18.1.4  Hume & Skepticism

·         No real knowledge: David Hume (1711–1776) was very pessimistic about the powers of reason. He held that what was affirmed from observation and reason was simply the result of irrational mental habits. The mind takes for granted many things, such as substance, and cause and effect.

        18.1.5  Voltaire & Rationalism

·         Reason as common sense: Voltaire (1694–1778) believed in the use of reason as common sense. Although he considered himself a deist, he was often taken as an atheist because of his criticism on organized religion. He witnessed the persecution of the French Protestants so he devoted his wit and his literary ability to promote religious tolerance.

        18.1.6  Kant & Idealism or Kantianism

·         On knowledge: Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) believed that there is no such things as innate ideas; but only structures of the mind, such as sense of time and space. In knowledge, what we have are things as our mind is able to grasp them. Therefore, the pure rationality of rationalists is only an illusion. If Kant’s work is accepted as truth, many traditional arguments for Christianity will be no longer valid. As existence is not derived from reality, but only one of the categories of the mind, there is no way to prove the existence of God or of the soul.

        18.1.7  Deism

·         Dogmas of deism: Deism is the belief that there is a God, like a clockmaker who created the universe but then left it to be governed by natural laws. Virtue (ethical life) and piety are the most important worship that one could give to God.

·         Influence of deism: It helped to bring the French and the American Revolutions. It also helped to develop Liberalism—it believes man’s essential goodness and perfectibility so that continued human progress toward a more perfect order on earth would be a natural result.

        18.2.1  Background of Spiritualism

·         Reaction: Sometimes, explanations on correct doctrine proved too complicated for the common people. Some Christians sought refuge in a purely spiritual religion that emphasized prayer and contemplation.

        18.2.2  Jakob Boehme (1575–1624)

·         Teaching: Boehme believed that the church was like a “tower of Babel” so he determined to cultivate his inner life. His teachings appeared to be an odd mixture of traditionally Christian themes with non-Christian beliefs. It exalted the freedom of the spirit and the inner life.

        18.2.3  George Fox (1624–1691) & the Quakers

·         On inner light: Fox believed that formal worship hinders the Holy Spirit. He emphasized the “inner light” cab help believers to understand Scripture, and to communicate with God. Quakers’ service usually took place in silence. Any who felt called to speak or pray aloud were free to do so.

        18.2.4  Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772)

·         Vision: Swedenborg was a Swedish aristocrat. He had a vision about his presence in the spiritual world. He believed that there is a corresponding invisible spiritual world behind the visible physical world of nature. Communication between these two worlds is possible through conversation with spiritual beings.

        18.3.1  Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705)—father of Pietism

·         Emphasis: Pietism emphasizes that Christianity was more a way of life than intellectual knowledge. Spener insisted on the need to return constantly to the Bible, and to read it with a spirit of devotion and piety. Pietists also sought improved morality; moderation in food, drink, and dress.

        18.3.2  Spread of Pietism

·         Growth: Pietism had many followers in Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia. It was also a factor in the Great Awakening in North America. Pietists were active in founding schools and institutions to serve orphans, the poor, and others in need. They sent missionaries who preached the gospel in Africa, America, and Asia

        18.3.3  Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760)

·         Life: Zinzendorf was a nobility. He was known for his passionate, poetically expressed devotion to Christ. At Dresden, Zinzendorf met a group of persecuted Moravians. Zinzendorf offered them asylum in his lands. They founded the community of Herrnhutt which sent missionaries to every continent.

        18.4.1  John Wesley (1703–1791)—founder of Methodism

·         Holy club: John Wesley formed a religious society in Oxford seeking holy and sober life, being faithful in their private devotions and studying the Bible in groups. Wesley had to travel on horseback throughout British Isles preaching the gospel. Wesley emphasized the doctrine of Christian perfection or perfect love.

        18.4.2  The success of Methodism

·         Response to the urban masses: The success of Methodism was partly due to its response to new needs from the industrial revolution. The mass migration led people to lose their connection with the church.


[1] treasure our heritage

Spiritualism and Pietism led to today’s emphasis on devotions.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

Rationalism and deism could not defeat orthodox Christianity.

[3] avoid past errors

The excessive subjectivity of spiritualism could lead to erroneous beliefs.

[4] apply our knowledge

The Methodist emphasis on the assurance of salvation and the lifelong pursuit of holiness should be the goals of all Christians.

[5] follow past saints

The great zeal of Wesley in preaching the gospel is our model.