Contours of the Enlightenment Paradigm

In his chapter entitled, Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment, Bosch outlines seven major characteristics of the Enlightenment paradigm of thought. Just before these broad strokes, Bosch leads us through the disintegration of the medieval worldview and the rise of Enlightenment thought. This mainly consisted of the crumbling of medieval cosmology, from God to church, to kings and nobles, to people, and ultimately to animals, plants, and objects. Through this rigid hierarchy of relations man derived validity and significance, from God on down.

God -> church -> kings and nobles -> people -> nature

A whole complex series of events toppled this well-ordered structure of reality:

  • The Renaissance and the Reformation removed the church as a divinely ordained legitimizer of society.
  • The Revolutions removed the kings and nobles and liberated the people as agents of self-authentication answerable only to God.
  • However, science ultimately eliminated even the need for God as One who confers validity and meaning.
  • People found themselves with nowhere to look but below them, to nature, for validity and meaning.

The unshaken massive and collective certitude of the Middle Ages has indeed vanished entirely.

–David J Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 268

Contours of the Enlightenment Paradigm

These next seven points come directly from Bosch (pp. 264-267). The whole discussion is really worth reading if you want to understand the “wake of the Enlightenment” that we are still swimming in.

1) “The Enlightenment was, preeminently, the Age of Reason… The human mind was viewed as the indubitable point of departure for all knowing.”

2) “The Enlightenment operated with a subject-object scheme. This meant that it separated humans from their environment and enabled them to examine the animal and mineral world from the vantage-point of scientific objectivity… Nature ceased to be ‘creation’ and was no longer people’s teacher, but the object of their analysis.” Now the physical world could be occupied, subdued, manipulated, and exploited in the name of science.

3) “Linked with the above is the elimination of purpose from science and the introduction of direct causality as the clue to the understanding of reality… From the seventeenth century on science has been avowedly non-teleological. It cannot answer the question by whom and for what purpose the universe came into being; it is not even interested in the question. Instead, it operates on the assumption of a simple, mechanistic, billiard-ball-type causality. The cause determines the effect… The human mind becomes the master and initiator which meticulously plans ahead for every eventuality and all processes can be fully comprehended and controlled.”

4) “This manifests itself especially in a fourth element of the Enlightenment: its belief in progress… An intractable confidence filled them as they prepared for their tomorrow. They were masters of their fate… They were convinced that they had both the ability and the will to remake the world in their own image.”

5) “It was contended that scientific knowledge was factual, value-free and neutral… Over and against facts there are values, based not on knowledge, but on opinion, on belief… Religion was assigned to this realm of values since it rested on subjective notions and could not be proved correct. It was relegated to the world of opinion and divorced from the public world of facts.”

6) “In the Enlightenment paradigm all problems were in principle solvable… No gaps or mysteries would permanently resist the emancipated and probing human mind. The horizon was limitless. Science was regarded as cumulative and all-encompassing. Its growth was continuous, ever onward and upward, as the fund of observational data was increased.”

7) “Lastly, the Enlightenment regarded people as emancipated, autonomous individuals A central creed of the Enlightenment, therefore, was faith in humankind. Its progress was assured by the free competition of individuals pursuing their happiness… There was a tendency in the direction indiscriminate freedom. The insatiable appetite for freedom to live as one pleases developed into a virtually inviolable right… The corollary of this view was that each individual should also allow all other individuals to think and act as they please. According to this philosophy, ‘the true believer is the real danger’; there is ‘no enemy other than the man who is not open to anything.’ So indiscriminateness was elevated to the level of a moral imperative, because its opposite was discrimination.”

These seven points are extremely helpful in identifying what was really happening during this time period. They are anchor points to Bosch’s LONG discussion of Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment. Twice (pp. 269-273, 342-345) Bosch measures the influence of the Enlightenment on Christianity by mapping these seven points in the missionary domain. Then, in another chapter, Bosch uses these seven points to map the response of the postmodern paradigm as the challenge to the Enlightenment (pp. 352-362). In all the discussion, the bolded phrases above represent a whole constellation of beliefs that are either affirmed or negated in different paradigms.

3 thoughts on “Contours of the Enlightenment Paradigm

  1. Very interesting, helpful, and somewhat scary points. It is good to see how we got to where we are today, in terms of the majority view of society, and consider how the gospel can reach those of this generation.


    • Agreed. While I agree that this is still the lingering basic attitude of our society, in a real sense postmodernism has toppled this paradigm too. Although I don’t think postmodernism has fully trickled down or been processed yet, so most people have a latent Enlightenment (modern) worldview. Narrative theology and the emergent church (and others) are trying to recognize that theologically.

      Also, FYI, posts like this are fun for me to write because it makes me think about things and process a lot of reading. In fact, I do a lot of re-reading and flipping through stuff with these type posts. They end up being somewhat dense and academic, and I know they won’t get that much traffic, but nonetheless, it’s valuable to me to go through the process of writing in response to what I’m reading and thinking about. Plus, now I have it online, processed, and accessible. If I ever want to revisit it, I can read my own post on it and get the gist of it, rather than finding the book and looking back over 20 pages.


  2. Pingback: The Giver- A Christian Interpretation | life and building

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