Thomson on Bulman and Ingram, 'God in the Enlightenment'

William J. Bulman, Robert G. Ingram, eds.
Ann Thomson

William J. Bulman, Robert G. Ingram, eds. God in the Enlightenment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xi + 322 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-026708-7.

Reviewed by Ann Thomson (European University Institute) Published on H-Albion (March, 2017) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth

The Enlightenment has become, as is well known, a contested field. Historians provide different definitions, characterizations, and chronological limits; they disagree on whether there is one Enlightenment or different Enlightenments and, if the latter, the criteria for classifying them. After studies emphasizing national Enlightenments, J. G. A. Pocock’s variety of Enlightenments, or Jonathan Israel’s sharp opposition between the “Radical” and “moderate” Enlightenments (the latter objectively on the side of reaction), John Robertson defended The Case for the Enlightenment (2005). His is much more circumscribed in chronological terms and emphasizes the Scottish version of social and economic reform. At the same time, the triumphant account of secularization and the victory of reason over superstition, as in Peter Gay’s classic volumes, which had been increasingly undermined, has recently made a comeback in Antony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (2013). Jonathan Israel’s works defend a similar viewpoint, although the true secularizing and modernizing Enlightenment is, in his account, represented solely by his Radical Enlightenment.

William J. Bulman’s introduction, “Enlightenment for the Culture Wars,” reviews these debates, beginning with the “liberal, secularist, and philosophical Enlightenment” (p. 4) and its place in the contemporary (mainly American) political landscape, before discussing reassessments of it. Bulman claims that today’s debates about public religion come from a distorted historical view of the Enlightenment as representing “secular liberalism” and, in particular, a misunderstanding of the period 1650-1680. This volume, therefore, with its heavy emphasis on the early eighteenth century, seeks to provide a “new synthesis” which underlines the continuity with the Reformation and the attempt to think about the compatibility of divine truths with the pursuit of human betterment. The aim is to produce a more diverse understanding of the Enlightenment, one in which God was very present and the question of civil religion was fundamental, but also to think about “the contemporary nature and relevance of the Enlightenment project” (p. 32).

The different chapters of this volume present different approaches to this question, and not all of them constitute a radical rethinking of the question of God or of our understanding of the Enlightenment. The first two chapters adopt a view of the Enlightenment as characterized broadly by irreligion. Justin Champion recruits Thomas Hobbes for this Enlightenment, even for the “Radical Enlightenment,” although it might have been useful to provide more discussion of the scope of these terms. Nevertheless, Champion’s review of the significance of Hobbes’s exclusion of religion from the public sphere and of its use by certain eighteenth-century thinkers is useful. The next chapter, by Anton Matytsin, dealing with the writings of the French religious apologists, opposing them to atheistic and materialistic philosophes. This was of course their characterization but, like the chronological division Matytsin perceives in eighteenth-century French religious apologetics and his emphasis on the specificity of the French case, it would have benefited from being put in a wider perspective. The next two chapters introduce a refreshingly less Eurocentric Enlightenment. Claudia Brosseder studies a seventeenth-century Creole intellectual in colonial Peru called Bernabé Cobo and his unpublished work, Historia del Nuovo Mundo. Her aim is to show that his study of American religion using the techniques of Renaissance humanism and antiquarianism constitutes an “early Enlightenment,” one that is not anti-Christian. We discover a more complex Enlightenment with American roots based on a detailed description of American culture. Joan-Pau Rubies’s chapter analyzes the study of Indian civilization, arguing that the late eighteenth century marked a shift from antiquarianism to “libertinism” (a term which might have benefited from definition). This argument is based on an analysis of Jean Frederic Bernard and Bernard Picart’s Cérémonies (1723-43), especially the preliminary “Dissertation” by Bernard; according to Rubies, the discussion of superstition puts all the religions on the same level, condemning superstition and defending a simplified recognition of a supreme being or deity.

There follow several chapters on different aspects of theological debate. Paul C. H. Lim’s “The Platonic Captivity of Primitive Christianity and the Enlightening of Augustine” centers on the London Huguenot pastor Jacques Souverain’s Le Platonisme dévoilé (1700), and the writings of the English clergyman Stephen Nye, generally seen as anti-Trinitarian. Lim analyzes in detail the theological arguments, showing their greater complexity. He focuses on the use of Augustinianism to show the extent to which these writers, rather than furthering irreligion, wanted to return to primitive Christianity. Jetze Touber’s study of biblical criticism in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic criticizes the existing historiography’s too-exclusive emphasis on Cartesian philosophy, instead demonstrating how the theologians’ biblical scholarship contributed to the “desacralization of scripture” (p. 157). His analyses of theological disagreements and the theologians’ reactions to Baruch Spinoza’s history of scripture provide a more complex understanding of the Dutch Republic’s “early Enlightenment.” Jonathan Sheehan then investigates the relationship of Enlightenment to religion through a case study of the Book of Job and its importance for moral reflection in the period, which led to a large number of translations, paraphrases, and commentaries. Sheehan evokes amongst others Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Education of the Human Race (1780), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s Theodicy (1710), and William Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses (1737-41), in order to open up an alternative history of God in the Enlightenment and thinking about human conduct in a world of uncertainty. Brad S. Gregory returns to the question of the legacy of the Reformation in what he calls “the Enlightenment discourse about God” (p. 201), claiming that it was the theological controversies of that period that both forced this discourse in a rationalist and natural-theological direction and led to philosophical disagreements about reason. Gregory also identifies three philosophical assumptions inherited from the later Middle Ages which he claims influenced all the different varieties of Enlightenment discourse about God and underlie today’s discussions about the relationship between science and religion.

The three final chapters are more diverse. J. C. D. Clark’s discussion of British discourse about divine attributes aims at criticizing the theory of secularization based on an opposition between God and Enlightenment or science and religion. The chapter, which concentrates on the so-called deists, is marred by an apparent ignorance of much recent scholarship on the subject and does not really contribute much that is new. H. C. Erik Midelfort, on the contrary, provides an account of German Pietist ecstatics and the problem they posed, centered on the attempts made by Dr Friedrich Hoffmann to explain their behavior. This detailed analysis, which also discusses the strange theory of the “Quaker powder,” brings out well how difficult it was, even for those who sought natural causes, to dismiss supernatural explanations. Finally, Sarah Ellenzweig looks at Richard Bentley’s 1732 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in order to show that his corrections to Milton’s text support the theory of Milton’s closeness to Spinoza, an interpretation also supported by John Toland’s comment in his Life of Milton (1698). The analysis of the passages which Bentley saw as dangerous is clear, but Ellenzweig’s argument is essentially directed towards proving that by the late seventeenth century “vitalism” was inseparable from Spinozism, while ignoring the wider context.

One problematic aspect of this volume, which is attempting a new definition of the “Enlightenment,” is precisely the way many of the contributors use the term. It is often used as if its meaning were obvious, which is also the case for attempts to include seventeenth-century authors as part of an “early Enlightenment.” This obscures at times the interesting historical analysis which usefully complexifies our understanding of the period. Without necessarily abandoning the category, it might be preferable to concentrate on what the writers discussed were trying to do and what role religion (or God) played in their projects, without the interference of this label, which often cries out to be defined or seems an anachronism. This question is tackled in Dale Van Kley’s conclusion, which discusses the concept of the Enlightenment in the historiography and surveys the varieties of Enlightenment that have been identified, together with recent attempts at a metanarrative. Encompassing such a broad sweep is obviously a difficult enterprise, but it is a pity that this chapter (which curiously and confusingly insists on translating lumières as “lights”), while mentioning the diversity of the French Enlightenment, disappointingly sticks to a view of an “encyclopedic Enlightenment” dominated by atheism and materialism. The conclusion, that “God survived the Enlightenment” (p. 310) but not in an unaltered form, seems somewhat of an anticlimax to this interesting volume which investigates several new paths for trying to understand the multifaceted role of religion in this period.

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Citation: Ann Thomson. Review of Bulman, William J.; Ingram, Robert G., eds., God in the Enlightenment. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL:

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