Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment generally refers to the 18th century intellectual and philosophical developments in Europe. This movement advocated rationality as the sole criteria for establishing an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as courageous and elite, and viewed their purpose as leading the world towards progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny (which they saw resulting from the "Dark Ages").


During the Enlightenment, people came to assume that through a judicious use of reason, an unending progress would be possible — progress in knowledge, in technical achievement, and even in moral values. Following the philosophy of Locke, the 18th-century writers believed that knowledge is not innate, but comes only from experience and observation guided by reason. Through proper education, humanity itself could be altered, its nature changed for the better.^[1]^


Although they saw the church — especially the Roman Catholic Church — as the principal force that had enslaved the human mind in the past, most Enlightenment thinkers did not renounce religion altogether. They opted rather for a form of Deism, accepting the existence of God and of a hereafter, but rejecting the intricacies of Christian theology. Human aspirations, they believed, should not be centered on the next life, but rather on the means of improving this life. Worldly happiness was placed before religious salvation. Nothing was attacked with more intensity and ferocity than the church, with all its wealth, political power, and suppression of the free exercise of reason.^[2]^


Bernard Ramm writes that "the approved concepts were reason, freedom, nature, utility, happiness, rights, tolerance, deism, rational Christianity, natural religion, social contract, science, autonomy, harmony, and optimism. The disapproved concepts were authority, antiquity, tradition, church, revelation, the supernatural, and theological explanations." ^ [3]^

Result of Enlightenment thinking

The Enlightenment produced a revolution in the way humans thought about God, the Bible, and themselves. Since theology deals with something no one can weigh, measure, experiment upon, test, or prove, it must be thrown back into the inner self. Subjective experience becomes the source of "God thought." As one writer put it, "Man, in the condition of his soul, not God in his work becomes the center." Christian doctrine makes no statement about God; it only speaks of man's feelings about God.^[4]^

Notable figures

The more notable figures in the Enlightenment were French thinkers known as philosophes:

  • Voltaire, pen-name for François-Marie Arouet, the preeminent member of this group was a writer, historian, and poet. He emerged as the Enlightenment's chief critic of contemporary culture and religion.
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose writings greatly influenced the political thinking of the time.
  • Charles, Baron de Montesquieu challenged the idea of rule by a monarch and championed individual freedom.
  • The philosopher Denis Diderot, in collaboration with Jean D'Alembert, founded the multivolume Encyclopédie designed to include all realms of knowledge. Many of the entries were written by other philosophes.

In German-speaking countries:

  • Philosophers Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn championed the ideas of the Enlightenment.
  • Immanuel Kant, Philosopher and physicist, wrote on ethics and morals and prescribed a politics of Enlightenment.
  • Johann Gottfried von Herder, Theologian and Linguist, proposed that language determines thought.

Several monarchs during this period, including Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria, were known as enlightened despots because they supported many ideas of the Enlightenment.

Notable Enlightenment figures in Britain included:

  • Adam Smith, philosopher and economist
  • David Hume, philosopher and historian
  • Jeremy Bentham, philosopher

Enlightenment figures in North America included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, all Deists.


  1. ? "Age of Enlightenment", Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008.
  2. ? "Age of Enlightenment", Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008.
  3. ? After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology (Harper & Row, 1983), 3.
  4. ? Michael Hines, The Enlightenment at Christian Chronicler.


  • Meic Pearse, The Age of Reason: From the Wars of Religion to the French Revolution, 1570-1789. The Baker History of the Church, vol. . Baker, 2006.
  • Jonathan Hill, Faith in the Age of Reason: The Enlightenment from Galileo to Kant. IVP Histories. IVP, 2004.
  • Colin Gunton, Enlightenment and Alienation: An Essay Towards a Trinitarian Theology. Wipf & Stock, 2006.
  • Roy S. Porter and Mikulás Teich, eds. The Enlightenment in National Context. Cambridge, 1981.

See also