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Trinity and Covenant

The Christian Worldview

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith


Covenantal Opportunity

The modern worldview that James Orr and Abraham Kuyper saw as the great opponent of Christianity was grounded in the 18th century movement called the Enlightenment, labeled by Peter Gay as "modern paganism." Enlightenment philosophers[1] used the writings of classical antiquity "to free themselves from their Christian heritage,"[2] but they were not returning to ancient paganism. For the Enlightenment philosophers, the study of pagan antiquity was a "road to independence"[3] which "gave shape to their rebelliousness; it justified their radicalism" and, above all, "it offered them an alternative to Christianity."[4] As another scholar puts it, "The Enlightenment is pretty exclusively definable in terms of a set of rebellions and resistances, the chief expression of which is, of course, the anti-Christian polemic."[5]

However, once the Enlightenment philosophers dispensed with the Christian religion, they also set aside the ancients and "turned their face toward a modern world view."[6] The main pillar of that worldview and the core confession of their modernism was the centrality of man. Moreover, they self-consciously sought to inculcate their new worldview into the minds of others, as Diderot stated with "splendid conciseness" in his Encyclop仕ie, their aim was "to change the general way of thinking."[7] "They did not merely want to entertain or beautify the world; they wanted to change it."[8] And the way to change the world was to change the way that men think about the fundamental issues of life.

The Enlightenment philosophers and their heirs succeeded to a large degree in changing the way men think; they also succeeded in changing the world. But those changes brought with them more evil than good. And now, after dominating the Western world for over two centuries, the Enlightenment project has ended -- with both a bang and a whimper. Two world wars, countless other local wars, revolutions, mass murder, and concentration camps were the loud and bloody heritage of the Enlightenment. At the end of a century of death, the quiet collapse of communism in Russia and the postmodern whine in the West bring the Enlightenment's philosophical presuppositions to their conclusion. The 21st century promises to be a century of religion, computers, international trade, and perhaps inter-civilizational conflict -- not the age of Aquarius, perhaps, but the dawning of a new age all the same.

At the end of the old age and the beginning of the new, it is important for us to ask: What was the appeal of the Enlightenment? Why did anyone take it seriously to begin with? What was it all about? The answer is that the Enlightenment was an attempt to secularize Christian goals and then accomplish them by non-Christian means.

However different, the modern projects are all premised on a finalistic vision of universal history, and in this sense Christianity (as the story of humanity's final redemption from the original Adamic sin) is constitutively modern. All the major "stories of emancipation" of modernity are essentially secularized variations on the Christian paradigm: the Enlightenment metanarrative of progress through knowledge, by which humanity will be emancipated from evil ignorance; the speculative Hegelian story of the emancipation of mind or "Geist" from self-alienation through dialectics, the Marxist story of man's emancipation through the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat; and the capitalist story of humanity's emancipation from poverty through the market, that is, through the intervention of the Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand," which creates a universal harmony from countless conflicting self-interests. But such modern (ideological) metanarratives have lost their credibility.[9]

In other words, the appeal of the Enlightenment and its intellectual children was the appeal of a Christian heresy. For all its opposition to Christianity, the modern worldview was influential only because of what it stole from the Christian worldview -- the vision of a rational universe, the vision of man's nobility and eternal meaning, and the vision of the victory of good over evil in history. The failure of the modern worldview also follows one of the patterns of the failure of a heresy -- self-destruction through success.[10] Though it will be some time before the remnants of this heresy have entirely disappeared, God has protected His Church and given her victory in the battle.

The war ahead is less difficult than the battle that has just ended because heresies are more powerful opponents than outright false religions. The enemies the Church faces now, such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, are older, but weaker foes. To defeat them, all that Christians need is a confident and comprehensive statement of their faith, and a living testimony to confirm it. That statement of the Christian worldview must confront the world with the profound implications of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Christian worldview must be presented in its fullness, with the Biblical doctrines of creation and revelation fully integrated with every branch of knowledge through the application of the doctrine of the covenant. This means a worldview approach to all knowledge through the personal, covenantal, Trinitarian revelation of the Bible.

One of the most important aspects of that worldview -- and a truth that is often forgotten by people like us, who have been so much influenced by the Enlightenment's view of the primacy of man's reason -- is that man was created to worship and serve the Covenant Lord of the world. Our prayers and praise to Him are the most important applications of the Christian worldview. When the Church is restored to passionate devotion to her God-created aim -- to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever -- she will also see the victory of the Gospel and the growth of God's kingdom.

The Enlightenment faith that knowledge is power was not altogether wrong, but there is power greater than theoretical physics. That is the wisdom of the covenant -- the heart of true and godly "power," in a world ruled not by natural laws, but by a Personal God:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:

Fear God, and keep his commandments:

for this is the whole duty of man.

For God shall bring every work into judgment,

with every secret thing,

whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

(Ec. 12:13-14)


1. Strictly speaking the leaders of the Enlightenment were not called "philosophers," but "philosophes," though they included some who were certainly also "philosophers" in the narrow sense of the word.

2. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol. 1 The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 8.

3. Ibid., p. 69.

4. Ibid., p. 44.

5. Eva T. H. Brann, "The Roots of the Enlightenment" in William A. Rusher, ed., The Ambiguous Legacy of the Enlightenment (New York: University Press of America, 1995), p. 6-7.

6. Gay, The Enlightenment, p. 8.

7. Ibid., p. 71.

8. Ibid., p. 98.

9. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), pp. 274-275.

10. In a sense, nothing more perfectly symbolizes the Enlightenment than communism, which was -- and is -- successful as an ideology only so long as it was confined to the "sacred halls of learning." Once it was actually put into practice, it served as its own greatest refutation.

[ Trinity and Covenant | Introduction ]
[ Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Conclusion ]

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