Modern Views of God I
in God remained scarcely more plausible than disbelief in gravity. Even
radical thinkers almost universally regarded an afterlife in which God
punished the wicked as a necessary sanction for morality”
Show me dear Christ, thy
spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robb'd and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she'is embrac'd and open to most men.
--John Donne, Holy Sonnet XVIII
Donne's poem explores one
man's search for the true church (Christ's spouse), whether it be
"richly painted" as in Catholic ceremony or torn and mourning as
in England or Germany. Does the true church appear on the "one
hill" of Canterbury (Anglican), the seven of Rome or the "no
hill" of Calvin's Geneva. He wonders whether the spouse of Christ is
open to all who would love her or only a few in limited places.
As our readings show, the period struggled with a number of questions
relating to the nature of religion, especially Christianity:
- What role should civil government have in
upholding and/or respecting religion?
- Should there be a state-approved religion?
- What role does reason have in ascertaining divine
- What place do emotions have in the spiritual
- Can divine revelation take place?
- Can one put one's trust in religion tradition
- What does correct worship entail?
- Does God answer prayer?
- Do miracles happen? Did they happen in the past?
- What shape should an admirable life take? a
- What makes us acceptable to God?
- How do we know that God exists?
- How do we know what God is like?
- What does the creation reveal about God? What
does the moral law?
Even a complete overview of the possible religious
positions would be quite lengthy. The following is meant to provide the
most general of overviews, and therefore, it focuses on in each case only
a few of the distinguishing characteristics:
I. Roman Catholicism (after Trent)
Gallicanism: National Catholic movement that
stressed local regional control over against papal (and Italian) control.
They stressed conciliiar authority as exceeding that of the pope. Popes,
therefore, were not above reform. They tended to stress more activism and
involvement of bishops and national authorities over French church
administration and belief.
Ultramontanism: Those Catholics who wanted
strong papal control of the Church in all regions. In the 17th century,
ultramontanes were associated with the Jesuits and stood opposed to both
the Gallicanists and the Jansenists.
Jansenism: Condemned by the papacy in 1713,
for a time, Jansenist beliefs held to a strong Calvinist understanding of
Catholic doctrine, stressing predestination, infrequent reception of the
Eucharist, original sin, and strict holiness of life. Its more famous
adherents included Blaise Pascal, Racine, and the covenant of Port-Royal.
Quietism: Key figures included Miguel de
Molinos, Madame Guyon, and Bishop Francois Fenelon. The Quietists were
most popular in Catholic Spain and France. As a movement they stressed
total passivity before God and discounted any spiritual activism.
II. Lutheranism (1648-1789)
"Protestant Scholasticism": Not
necessarily a self-designated term, those strict Lutherans who stressed
minutely defined beliefs and engaged in an often arid and technical
theology practiced a kind of "Protestant Scholasticism." Tended
to lead to a pronounced emphasis on carefully defined doctrine in order to
be counted as a true Christian in confession.
Pietism: A reform movement within German
Lutheranism, lead by Philip Jakob Spener and August Herman Francke, that
stressed small group discipleship, personal holiness, the priesthood of
all Christians, and the importance of missions. They had an impact on
Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian Brethren.
Presbyterianism: A form of Calvinism growing
out of the Church of Scotland under John Knox (1505-1572), Presbyterians
in this period typically stressed the Westminister Confession, a form of
church order organized around local synods and elders (presbyters), as
well as close attention to the study of scripture. Presbyterians also
established themselves in England, Ulster, Ireland and in the U.S. (See
Congregationalism: The more liberal branch of
Calvinism in the period tended to embrace view of church polity in which
each congregation is independent. In other respects, Congregationalists
shared typical Calvinist belief, though by the late-18th century many were
lapsing into Unitarianism. They were well-established in the Northeastern
IV. Church of England (Post-Reformation
Loyalist: The more conservative
form of Anglican practice in the period tended to stress loyalty to the
king, was more sympathetic to "Catholic" ideas like apostolic
succession and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Puritans: The more Calvinistic and radical
wing of the Anglican church during the 17th century worked to
"purify" the Church of England, eventually coming to power in
the English Civil War and imposed Presbyterian polity and worship during
the Interregnum. Once the king returned after 1660, the Puritan party
continued to function as Non-Conformists.
Methodism: Lead by John and Charles Wesley,
the "Methodists" were an 18th-century reform movement within the
Anglican Church which stressed the importance of the "new
birth," personal discipleship, missionary involvement, concern for
the poor, as well as small group meetings. Eventually, the movement broke
with the Church of England.
John Wesley addressing Methodist preachers
Latitudinarianism: Growing out
of 17th-century Cambridge Platonism, Latitudinarianism was more a mindset
than a movement; it tended to stress the importance of reason and
downplayed the differences in confession of faith, liturgy, and practice
as unimportant. Latitudinarianism in its broadest forms paved the way for
theistic beliefs, such as deism, that discounted revelation or Christian
V. Other Christian Groups
Baptists: In the 17th and 18th centuries,
Baptists arose out of the Anabaptist movements and the Separatist wing of
the Puritans, dividing into General Baptist, who were more Armenian in
theology, and Particular Baptists who were more Calvinistic. Most stressed
congregational polity, adult believer's baptism, a memorial view of the
Lord's Supper, and personal conversion. Baptists also stressed the
importance of church-state separation, and were influential in shaping the
Bill of Rights in the U.S. regarding this matter.
Mennonites: Mennonites look back to Menno
Simmons (1496–1561, the Anabaptist reformer. In the seventeenth century,
those who united with the Swiss state church became Mennonites, while
those who maintained their distance became Amish. Mennonites, like most
Anabaptist groups, stress believer's baptism, a memorial view of the
Lord's Supper, individual conversion, congregational church polity, and
church discipline. They also are historically pacifists and concerned with
limiting technology's impact of the Christian.
Amish: Following Jacob Amman, the Amish began
as a reform movement within the Mennonite churches. In particular they
stressed a strict practice of church discipline of "shunning,"
as well as distance form any state church. Like many of the Mennonites,
they migrated to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Society of Friends (Quakers): Begun by George
Fox (1624-1691), the Society of Friends first began as a prophetic
rejection of other Christian groups. "Quakers" stressed a
rejection of human institutions, practiced silent worship, were pacifists,
and held that all persons have some measure of the "inner light"
communicated from God. Many Quakers believed that God's continuing
revelation could even contradict Christian scripture, though others
cautioned against this.
VI. Theistic &
Deism: A theistic position first made popular
by Edward Herbert, Baron Herbert of Cherbury, deism was most wide-spread
in the 17th and 18th centuries and held to the sufficiency of reason in
understanding the existence of God. Deists stressed the importance of the
natural world, ethical living, and in some versions, the belief in an
afterlife and a works-based judgment before God.
Unitarianism: As a belief system,
Unitarianism as practiced in the 18th century rejected the Trinitarian
beliefs of Christianity. Some held that the Bible does not teach the deity
of Christ and therefore affirmed alternately the authority and centrality
of Christ as a prophet, while others held a more rationalistic rejection
of scriptural authority, nonetheless ascribing to the moral example of
Jesus. This position often came after the person moved through various
forms of Arianism (the belief that Jesus is a semi-divine creation of the
A salon of philosophes
Free Thinkers: A
position of the 18th century first made famous by Anthony Collins, A
Discourse of Freethinking (1713), Free Thinkers stressed being
beholden to no religious tradition, dogma, or revelation, but rather being
ruled by reason and empirical observation. Most were deists or broad
theists and defined themselves as much by their assault on priestcraft as
anything positive. Some even considered themselves still broadly
Sabbatian mysticism: Sabbatai
Zevi (1626-1676), a self-proclaimed Kabbalic messiah, lead a large number
to expect his Messianic return to Israel. he converted to Islam leaving
many deeply disappointed, though some continued to venerate him.
Rabbi Vilna Gaon
Begun by Jacob Frank (1726-1791) who proclaimed himself the successor of
Zevi, the followers of frank declared themselves the progenitors of the
coming Messiah; they combined elements of Christianity & Judaism,
including belief in the New Testament. They accepted Catholic baptism in
Poland, but continued to revere Frank as one aspect of the Godhead.
Eventually, Frank was excommunicated by both Jews and Catholics, and his
followers were absorbed into Catholicism.
period): During the 18th century, medieval Kabbalah grew in popularity
in several parts of Central and Eastern Europe, stressing mystical
readings of the Hebrew Scriptures, secret wisdom, and a strong
panentheistic view of God.
reform movement in Central Europe begun by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer
(1698-1760) that stress personal piety, prayer, and joy over against the
perceived pessimism that had begun to surround Jewish life. The Hasidim
stressed joyous worship, pious outward dress, additions to the kosher
laws, mysticism, prophecy, and miracles, as well as a belief in God's
Those who opposed the Hasidic reforms lead by Rabbi Vilna Gaon. They
stressed Talmudic study and accused the Hasidism of pantheism. Gaon also
stressed asceticism and suffering as a
by the philosopher and thinker Moses Mendelssohn
(1729-1786), the Haskalah stressed assimilation into Enlightenment society
in Germany, a revival of the study of Hebrew, of Jewish history, of the
translation of Jewish works, and familiarity with secular society.