The rise of rationalism

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A point of major importance here concerns the political situation in Europe, especially Germany, in the later sixteenth century. In the 1550s, Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism were well established in different regions of Germany. A religious stalemate had developed, in which further expansion into Roman Catholic regions by Lutheranism was no longer possible. Lutheran writers therefore concentrated upon defending Lutheranism at the academic level, by demonstrating its internal consistency and faithfulness to Scripture.

If Lutheranism could be shown to be intellectually respectable, it was believed that it might well prove attractive to Roman Catholics, disillusioned with their own system of beliefs. But this was not to be the case. Roman Catholic writers responded with increasingly sophisticated works of systematic theology, drawing on the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Johannes Capreolus established the Spanish city of Salamanca as a centre of Thomist studies, and established the now widely accepted principle of basing an understanding of Thomism upon the Summa Theologica, rather than the earlier Commentary on the Sentences. The Society of Jesus (founded in 1534) rapidly established itself as a leading intellectual force within the Roman Catholic Church. Its leading writers, such as Roberto Bellarmine and Francisco de Suarez, made major contributions to the intellectual defence of Roman Catholicism.

The situation in Germany became even more complicated during the 1560s and 1570s, as Calvinism began to make major inroads into previously Lutheran territory. Three major Christian denominations were now firmly established, often in the same geographical area—Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Roman Catholicism. All three were under major pressure to identify themselves. Lutherans were obliged to explain how they differed from Calvinists on the one hand, and Roman Catholics on the other. And doctrine proved the most reliable way of identifying and explaining these differences: 'we believe this, but they believe that'. The period 1559-1622, characterized by its new emphasis upon doctrine, is generally referred to as the 'Period of Orthodoxy'. A new form of scholasticism began to develop within both Protestant and Roman Catholic theological circles, as both sought to demonstrate the rationality and sophistication of their systems.

The result was, perhaps inevitably, the gradual rise of rationalism in Western European theology; in that agreement could not be reached on the identity and priority of theological sources, the debate shifted to the rationality of the resulting doctrines (Fox 1987). From the late 1500s onwards, reason came to play an increasingly prominent role in both Protestant Orthodoxy and its Roman Catholic counterpart. This approach can be seen at its zenith in the works of leading seventeenth-century Lutheran and Reformed dogmaticians.

However, this trend served to foster the view that reason was a resource, independent of the particularities of religious tradition, which could serve as an adequate foundation for a mediating theology. The Thirty Years War, ended by the Peace of Westphalia (1648), was initiated and sustained by religious issues; by its end, there was a certain weariness in Western Europe over matters of religion, which received a further impetus through a reaction against the religious excesses of the Puritan Commonwealth in England.

A general appreciation of the virtues of religious toleration gave momentum to the rise of Latitudinarian ideals. The rise of rationalism is observable, initially in its Lockean forms, in England, and subsequently in more pronounced forms within the movement loosely known as 'Deism'. By the end of the period surveyed in this chapter, the transition to modernity is unmistakeable. Wars of religion seemed to many to be little more than the military counterpart of an underlying theological argument. A new orientation seemed eminently in order. The new emphasis on reason seemed to offer the only way ahead. A cultural climate thus emerged, sympathetic to the rationalist world-view which would be characteristic of the Enlightenment.

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