There was a group of British philosophers known as the empiricists. They believed that what was most important was experience, figuring out the World through what could be seen, heard and touched, rather than by working things out rationally. The first was John Locke, who believed that we are borne with minds like blank slates, empty and ready to be filled in through the experiences of a lifetime. He still hung on to a belief in God, but he was followed by one who didn’t, a Scot called David Hume. He was also a sceptic and spent an awful lot of his time disproving the existence of God, philosophically. A life wasted, from God’s point of view. Another philosopher worthy of mention here was the German, Immanuel Kant, whose major contribution was to create a compromise between the empiricists and the rationalists.
These philosophers were at the beginning of a movement later termed the Enlightenment. Just consider these movements. First we had the Renaissance, the “new birth” and now we have the Enlightenment, the emerging into the light of a new dawn. It was as if history had been stood on its head and was running backwards. Out of a period of history ignited by the truth of the gospel, we end up entering a “Dark Age” of oppression, ignorance and hatred and consider it a relief that we emerge from this into the light. That’s what the gospel was meant to do! The new birth and the emerging from darkness into light is the Christian “thing”. It’s not meant to be a rescue from the gospel. That’s how low the Christian Church had sunk; it had departed so much from what it was meant to be, that mankind felt that it had to be rescued from it, using the very mindset, that of Plato in particular, that had doomed it in the first place!
At around the same time there were some philosophers who still held onto a belief in God … but only just! They were the Deists. They believed that God created everything – lit the fuse, so to speak – then shuffled off and left the World for humanity to do what it liked. God as absentee landlord, you could say.
It was a belief that made room for rationalism but which did away with all the important parts of Christianity, like faith in Jesus, prophecy and miracles. Two famous Deists were Rousseau and Voltaire as were, allegedly and controversially, many of the founding fathers of the USA.
This seems like a crutch, like safety wheels on a bike, an unwillingness to let go of the idea of God, though this is not the God as described in the Bible, as a living, loving, involved Divine Person, but rather a detached uninvolved figure with access to the “master switch”. It seems that this view just needed a slight nudge for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down.
Meanwhile, in the 18th Century, all was not going well in the mainstream Church. The Church of England was becoming fat, inactive and ineffectual. A quick kick in the rump was what was needed and John Wesley duly obliged. What the Methodists showed was that, despite all the over-intellectualising and emphasis on doctrine and division that had infiltrated the Church through the influences of Plato (with the Protestants) and Aristotle (with the Catholics), God was still alive.
God was fed up with the dross and, using the sincere desire of Wesley and George Whitfield to reform the Church of England, brought about a sovereign unleashing of power and grace. This was true revival. While it lasted it brought great fruit externally and internally. Thousands were brought into New Birth, justified by true faith in Jesus Christ and the hallmarks of this movement were relentless preaching, bible study groups and manifestations of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing Greek about all of this, it was a throwback to the Hebraic spirit of the very First Church of the Book of Acts.
The Lord God had squeezed into history at a time when His very existence was being doubted like never before. The people needed reminding what it was all about, what the purpose of their existence was. There had been too much chitter-chatter; what was needed was a demonstration of His power.
It’s just a shame that the revival took a name (Methodism), grew a structure, a hierarchy and became just another denomination, with annual budgets, an investment portfolio and a corporate website.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth)