Before jumping into the finer details of this long century, a few general comments. The Enlightenment “became a general descriptor identifying the eighteenth century as a progressive social epoch, promoting secular intellectual freedom and representative government against the forces of tradition.” (Vanhoozer, ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Sandberg, 2005). This was the “century of philosophy par excellence. It was a period that sought to overturn every intellectual assumption, every dogma, every prejudice (a favorite term) that had previously exercised any hold over the minds of men.” (Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, 2013, p. 11). One thing quickly becomes clear when studying the Enlightenment, it is not an easy time period or concept to get one’s head around. It was one-hundred-plus years of voluminous, complicated, philosophic, theological, revolutionary, and often contradictory thought. “Not all the ideas were new, but the volume was.” (Stearns, 2014)
THREE HISTORICAL CONTEXTS
Now we are ready to begin our journey into “the finer details of this long century” by briefly surveying three major historical contexts that led Europe into these tumultuous times.
(A BIRD’S EYE VIEW)
Leading Up to the Enlightenment
Within the Enlightenment
Emerging Out of the Enlightenment
THREE HISTORICAL CONTEXTS
Figure 2 – Enlightenment/Three Historical Contexts
Reformation and the Nature of Man (The Pendulum Swings)
On a world history chart, the Enlightenment comes immediately on the heels of the Reformation. And one of the major tenets of the Reformation was the fact of man’s fall and the resulting sentence and seriousness of the depravity inflicted on all mankind. It should come as no surprise that the human audience does not commonly receive this particular doctrine with applause. It often leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Quite the opposite, as a general rule humans tend to see themselves in a rather positive light. Our first context issue is that the pendulum was, at the beginning of this era, beginning to swing the traditional Reformational view of man’s depravity to a much more positive assessment of the nature of man. As the Enlightenment proceeded, it
stressed the overall goodness of people. While acknowledging that people could act wickedly, old views concerning original sin and the depravity of man were replaced with an optimistic perspective concerning the nature of man. Man could overcome evil on his own effort through reason and education. (Michael Vlach, Enlightenment, Theologicalstudies.org)
This first historical context is one in which a particular doctrine of the Church concerning man, which had filtered to a significant degree into society at large, was on the wane. There are, a number of reasons for the decline. One of them is our next historical context.
War and the Power of the Church (Beware the Man of Cloth)
Immediately prior to the Enlightenment (early to mid 1600’s) marked a time of considerable upheaval both on the European mainland and in Britain. On the mainland the Thirty Years War raged. In Britain the English Civil War was on. These were not minor skirmishes. The Thirty Years War, fought mainly on what is now German soil, saw over seven million people killed. Many people were put on the rack, burned at the stake, and tortured for their faith. Across the channel it is estimated that 100,000 died from war-related disease while 85,000 died in battle. Add to this war motif the fact that both Catholics and Protestants were hardly uninvolved in the conflicts and not always the bastions of good will, charity, and humility. The wars on both sides of the Channel were fueled by the ongoing Catholic/Protestant disagreement. As De Jong writes,
For some decades before 1650, much of Europe had been embroiled in warfare. The nations were fighting for the control of Europe – and of world-wide commerce. The powerful Habsburg rulers of Austria and Spain, usually backed by the pope, had been pitted against the kings and princesses of north-west Europe, most of whom were Protestants.
Abuse of power by civil as well as church leaders was rampant during this time. By the mid 1600’s it was evident that much of the population was beginning to look upon organized religion with less than blind approval and allegiance. The Church was losing its grip on large segments of society. While this was true, and certainly “too much intensity in religious life was discouraged, even by the clergy...None of this meant that Christianity had lost its role as a cultural and intellectual force during this period, even if its place in society was changing...in many countries reform movements pushed toward a deeper experience of Christian faith” (Sunshine, 2009, p. 144-149).
Science and the Order of the Universe (The Stars Align – Finally)
In the years immediately prior to the Enlightenment there were more than political and religious upheavals. Alongside the political and religious fallout from the Reformation, a scientific revolution was in full tilt.
Let us begin with the Copernican Revolution. In the middle of the 1500’s, Nicholas Copernicus published his De revolutionibus. In this work Copernicus claimed the solar system revolved around the sun rather than the earth. This was revolutionary. We might be left to wonder, “So what? What does this have to do with anything outside the realm of astronomy and the dusty, mothball-smelling halls of some higher institution of learning?” Why is this “obscure and recondite minutiae of astronomical research instrumental in proclaiming an epochal turning point in the intellectual development of man?” Kuhn provided the answer:
Copernicus lived and worked during a period when rapid changes in political, economic, and intellectual life were preparing the bases of modern European and American civilization. His planetary theory and his associated conception of a sun-centered universe were instrumental in the transition from medieval to modern Western society, because they seemed to affect man’s relation to the universe and to God...the Copernican theory became one focus for the tremendous controversies n religion, in philosophy, and in social theory...Men who believed that their terrestrial home was only a planet circulating blindly about one of an infinity of stars evaluated their place in the cosmic scheme quite differently than had their predecessors who saw the earth as the unique and focal center of God’s creation. [Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957) 2.]
The musty-smelling intellectual planetary mathematics, takes on a whole new perspective. And then along came Michelangelo’s brother, Galileo, who
has always played a key role in any history of science and, in many histories of philosophy; he is a, if not the, central figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. His work in physics or natural philosophy, astronomy, and the methodology of science still evoke debate after over 360 years. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
In 1609, Galileo built his first telescope. After a year of observing the moon and planets, he published his Siderius nuncius or Starry Messenger. Once again, in Copernican fashion, one of the great moments in the history of science (and beyond) was at play. And once again, the centrality of the earth was challenged. Galileo demonstrated through his telescopic observations what Copernicus theorized with his mathematics. For his work, Galileo has been labeled the father of modern science. Also for his work, he was jailed. Since the Copernican/Galilian findings were at odds with doctrines the Roman Catholic Church, Galileo was eventually tried by the Church, found guilty, and spent the last years of his life under house arrest. In place of looking through a telescope he was hardly allowed the license of looking out a window.
The scientific revolution that began under the watch of Copernicus and Galileo was a crucial lead-up to the Enlightenment. It set the stage for the forthcoming hefty emphasis on science.
 Shelley lists these three “roots of the Enlightenment” with almost no comment. Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995) 313.
 For further information regarding the relationship between the scientific revolution and religion, see, Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, James R. Moore “The Rise of Modern Science” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 48 –50.
 For an excellent biography of Galileo, see John L Heibron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2010).