Many factors gradually led to the end of the close church/state union of Christendom in the West. Several of these, ironically, actually came as a result of the dominance of Christianity. The fifteenth-century Renaissance, which emphasized classical learning rooted in original sources, flourished among Christian theologians, but also began to dismantle unilateral control of the Church. The quick impact of the Reformation, also, could have only happened because Christianity was such a central part of society; most people already believed in the reality of God and the Bible as his divine revelation, and once the Scripture were translated into the language of the people, these underlying assumptions provided the fertile ground for Protestant theologians to argue their reforms.
Likewise, even advancements in science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, beginning with the Copernican Revolution in 1543 and culminating with Isaac Newton’s discoveries, arose out of Christian curiosity to truly know God and what he had made. Each of these movements—the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution—were, for the most part, thoroughly Christian at their core, yet they each also contributed to the weakening of Christianity’s influence.
For example, the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution inevitably led to skepticism toward anything that could not be proven through human reason, including anything supernatural. Philosophers such as René Descartes (1596–1650), John Locke (1632–1704), and Voltaire (1694–1778) provided a philosophical framework for the natural sciences rooted in independent human reason, effectually divorcing reason from faith.
Descartes’s most famous maxim, Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” centered the foundation for knowledge in self rather than in divine revelation, beginning a shift in what constitutes the final authority for understanding the world from faith in God’s divine revelation to human reason. Whereas Augustine had said, Credo, ut intelligas, “Believe, so that you may understand,” Descartes made understanding primary. Locke, on the other hand, valued empirical perception through the senses as necessary for human understanding, and thus all truth must be established on the basis of something like the scientific method of observation and testing. Reason alone would become the basis for truth and morality.
This elevation of reason and science over faith—known as “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason”—was, in the words of Abraham Kuyper, “the expulsion of God from practical and theoretical life,” what Rod Dreher describes as “the decisive break with the Christian legacy of the West.” The position that the church had enjoyed as the dominant influence over all of culture in the West was over.
Reason was now in control, and a purely secular culture began to emerge for the first time in western civilization, leading to German philosophy Friedrich Nietzsche to proclaim in 1882, “God is dead.”
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.