Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 5

The Reformation and the Enlightenment

In this lesson, you will gain an understanding of the historical contexts of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as well as the key figures and events that shaped these periods. You will explore the theological and philosophical implications of these movements, and how they contributed to the loss of transcendence in Western society. You will also examine the effects of this loss on society and religion, including the rise of secularization, moral relativism, and the devaluation of religious beliefs. Finally, you will learn about the ongoing efforts of theologians and philosophers to reclaim transcendence and engage with the modern world.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 5
Watching Now
The Reformation and the Enlightenment

TH730-05: The Reformation and the Enlightenment

I. The Reformation: Background and Context

A. Introduction

B. Key Figures and Events

1. Martin Luther

2. John Calvin

C. Theological Impact

II. The Enlightenment: Background and Context

A. Introduction

B. Key Figures and Events

1. Immanuel Kant

2. David Hume

C. Philosophical Impact

III. Loss of Transcendence: Effects on Society and Religion

A. Secularization

B. Moral Relativism

C. Devaluation of Religion

IV. Theological and Philosophical Responses

A. Reclaiming Transcendence

B. Engaging with the Modern World

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

Now we want to make another suggestion and that is our understanding of immanence and transcendence as Christians is always contextual. We always have a context in which to see things. And so there’s a remarkable contrast in the context of Luther and Calvin.

Luther spoke with a lone voice, adrift, we might say, in the whole Germanic seas: that is to say, vast territories with their conflicting leaderships of Catholic and Protestant princes and the compromises of that territorial area he was seeking to see transformed by the Reformation. It was a compromise politically all the time. That’s why it’s Martin Luther who speaks about the two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom that is to come. And so he creates a kind of schizophrenia about transcendence and immanence and we have to look at what the consequences of that were.

In contrast, Calvin was privileged to live in a small city-state that only had 14,000 people. And it was totally cut off from the rest of Europe. And so as I’m preparing now for lectures in Singapore next month, I’m going to remind our fellow Christians, as I’ve done before, in Singapore you have a unique voice for Christianity in the 21st century. You’re a city-state. You have an opportunity with the trading potentials to realise that the future reformation of Christianity is going to lie in the hands of senior executives who are in the business world and Singapore will be in the leadership of that movement. Something to think about.

Like compromises of 16th century Germany, America today is likewise a compromise that arises on a continent. In some ways, reading about the issues in Germany and the issues in America today are comparable. And so the sovereignty of God that Calvin established in a small city-state was a very different geopolitical reality from the compromises that Luther made among the princes in this dichotomy of the doctrine of the two kingdoms, that you render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. The problem is how much do you render to Caesar? And so it was out of this Lutheran schizophrenia that the Enlightenment had its most devastating and, critical impact on later German theology.


It’s German academic theology that has been, in a sense, the most atheistic. It’s because the door, knowingly by Luther, was opened in the first place. Certainly, it was not his intent that this should ever happen. And, of course, he didn’t have the foresight of the next three or four centuries to see what was going to happen. But that’s why there’s a huge difference between the Christianity of a small unit of God’s people and of large denominations. It’s the same problem. When you think of, for example, English Anglicanism, English Anglicanism is simply a political policy that was established by Queen Elizabeth. She was fighting the French. She was fighting the Spaniards. And she wanted therefore to divide and rule. And she created the balance of power as a diplomatic ideology that Britain has followed ever since. It’s now following it with Brexit. No different. And the Anglican Church is the heir of Elizabethan policy. You have high church, like the Catholic, and you have low church, like the Calvinists of Holland; and then you have a middle church which is nothing. And it’s the middle church that is destroying Anglicanism into atheism at the present moment. So you see how important history is and how geopolitics are so important for understanding the dynamics of what’s going on around us.

So what followed in the 17th century was an increasing intensification of scepticism. And maybe, of course, we could distinguish, but one of the most obvious is Descartes, who lived between 1596 and 1650. He’s echoing the scepticism of the Greek mind. He’s really asserting the impossibility of any knowledge being produced by historical enquiry. Even the most accurate historical accounts, contends Descartes, while neither changing, nor amplifying the value of things in order to make them more worth reading is basically a task, but it doesn’t give us what really happened. He’s seeing what we might say is the subjectivity in history, that we’re dealing with a contingency, with an uncertainty about knowledge and truth; and that the more we probe into human motive and human conditions, the more we see the contingent realm of history. And it doesn’t give us the certainty that the mathematical mind, which is what he had, wants to have. You see, as a mathematician and as a sceptic, what Descartes was forgetting is Divine Providence. For him, Providence is a kind of ghost in the machine. Providence is lost when nature rules. And so the rise of Nature in Western thought was the demise of Divine Providence in Western thought. And that’s why to this day the goddess nature is worshipped as much in the West as it’s worshipped by Buddhism in the East. It’s more extravagant in its mythological character in Japan, but it’s no different from the worship that environmentalists have of nature in the West.


Another more radical sceptic was the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, 1632–1677, who goes on to categorically state that history is not a science; it’s simply a practical surmisal that is useful for political ends. Now, one of the problems that I know myself is I will never write the history of the origins of Regent. Why not? Because its only my perspective. I need others with more detachment not to politicalise what is a personal history. All of us cannot write our own history. We need the Archangel Gabriel to do it instead. But sometimes, the Archangel does delegate to humans to write a more objective history than we may have. Well, Spinoza was right on in agreeing about that. So people who want to know the history of something are people who want to know the vindication of that institution.

And I remember when I was on the board of Fuller Seminary laughing to think how Fuller was wanting to write a vindication of its history and getting a historian, who’s a very reputable guy, but basically it was political history. There wasn’t the remoteness of going past. So an appropriate history is always written from a period of separation between the contemporary. And that’s why autobiography, again, is pretty wacky because it doesn’t really tell other people who you really are. It’s telling other people who you think you are and that’s not the same thing. So I’m against writing contemporary history about an institution and I’m against about writing autobiography because, again, its usually pretty egotistical.

In other words, it’s so easy to write select history. It’s history that is selected for the upping of the institution or the person. And so he was right to be cynical about that, Spinoza. And abandoning his own Jewish heritage, he follows the logic of the Greeks that what is eternal cannot change, so to speak of divine purpose is really to speak of a compromise of God’s eternal perfection. So his view of God is, of course, totally false. Truth is not found in claims that are historically mediated, is what he was arguing. And so in some ways Spinoza was trying to be most religious by being most anticlerical and in being most anticlerical he became more sceptical. It was a kind of chasing your tail like a dog. But he had a hidden agenda and that hidden agenda was really to destroy religious leadership—that’s what he was really doing. Fundamentally, Spinoza was being absolutely radical in this disengagement with the past as giving any justification for truth. In that sense, Spinoza is a spokesman of what it is to be modern, to be of today, and cut your roots from the past totally as he was doing.


There are lots of other people we could talk about. We can also select Hermann Reimarus, who lived between 1694 and 1768. And he takes issue, not from the old Testament, but with the New Testament. For now he’s that new ilk that is so common in our scholarship today and that is to deny the historicity of Jesus—the Jesus Myth. So long before what some of us have been involved in in the last few decades, the Jesus Seminar, which some of you are still discussing, is who was Jesus. Did he really exist? Did Jesus have messianic delusions? How ethical are his claims? How dubious are those historical claims?

G.E. Lessing, one of the great German Enlightenment thinkers in theology, 1729–1781, doesn’t say that the Gospels are a wilful fabrication, as Reimerus does, but he professes he’s agnostic about the New Testament claims to the historicity of Jesus. He’s sceptical about the reliability of any historical testimony. And of course, as he sees it, there’s a great gulf, a great ditch, between the scientific perusal of things which are valid and things which are traditional. There are many, many others that have followed which we can’t hope to ever cover in this series, but that’s what the situation is now.