Rationalism and Evangelicalism

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Theological and philosophical views over time can usually be classified under either action or reaction.  Both rationalism and evangelicalism are reactions to certain prevalent thoughts of their time.  In this reflective paper I will be discussing the content of both of these ideologies, their formation, and what they reacted to.

A very important and established ethical worldview emerging into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was Christian Ethics.  Christian Ethics itself had been changing and evolving since the creation of Christianity and by the time of the eighteenth century it had started to have a worldview of “world denying” views of reality.  As such, it had an important impact on ethics and was the cause of strong reactions.  One such strong reaction was Rationalism.  Rationalism is the view that reason is the supreme human authority and it contributes to all facets of human knowledge, including morality.   In face of the seemingly pessimistic ethical view of Christian ethics, early rationalists attempted to ground an ethical view that was optimistic of what human beings could achieve in this world on the sole basis of reason.  Essentially, and most threateningly to Christian theologians, rationalism developed into an ideology where everything could be morally, socially, and politically explained without “reference to God, Christ, sin, redemption, grace, or any other theological idea” (CE 148).

These rationalists ideas in the 18th century tended to try and explain Christian ethics and theology in terms of natural reason.  Voltaire and Thomas Paine were especially important in this endeavor.  So, in response to these views, Christian ethicists started to respond in a way that tried to state that reason was a natural part of Christian Ethics but that was not the sole component and more needed to be experienced in order to fulfill the human purpose of life.  The ideology, then, that evolved as a response to these rationalist views and its sociological effects was Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism, in respect to the time of its formation, can be interpreted to be the Christian “religious reaction to rationalism” (Mitchell).   A couple of key players in this Evangelical response were John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards.

John Wesley attempted to counteract the social effects of rationalism by preaching about his doctrine of “Christian Perfection.”  In it he expresses that human beings must attain “perfection” in their lives and that it is possible to do, while his concept of perfection deviated from the notions of morality or rationalism.  He expressively maintained that the purpose of the human life is to attain perfection in love, in “becoming a wholly loving person, no longer enslaved to animosities or self-centeredness” (CE 153).   Though, when going through his argument, it tends to become convoluted and lose the idea of perfection, the important part to notice in a historical perspective is how he tries as an Evangelical to respond to the social troubles of his time, especially the extreme poverty.

John Edwards, on the other hand, responds more in a philosophical perspective.  He attempts to put into philosophical terms that which he thinks is the ideology emanating from the Bible.  His basic ethical ideas end up being that yes rationality does play an important role in theology, but “humanity is not solely a rational being,” rather human feelings and will “are the mainsprings” of human being (CE 158).  Here, John Edwards differentiates from the rationalists such that reason is not the supreme authority of moral decisions because affections play an important role.  Furthermore he states that a person must ground their life on a love of being in general, which he further clarifies into being a supreme love to God.  Here he completely distinguishes himself from the rationalists because for him then the glory of God becomes the “supreme, governing, and ultimate end” (CE 159).

Rationalism developed as a response to a certain worldview of Christian Ethics. Evangelicalism developed as a response to Rationalism and its social effects.  And so the development of action and reactions continued on into nineteenth century and onwards.   Christian Ethics continued to have to respond to the intellectual culture of different time periods, but going through the 19th century it loses its dominance on ethics.  Therefore, it seems that Evangelical revivals were in the long term unsuccessful because they were only successful in the economic and social crises of their time.  In the long run, rationalism deeply impacted ethical foundations and therefore the direction of Christian ethics.

 Work Cited

Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, J. Philip Wogaman.  Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville,
Kentucky, 1993.  (ISBN 0664251633)

Mitchell, Lynn E. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pd_Fe7bWvNk&feature=PlayList&p=88CE606C987E7DFC&index=8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *