When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg it heralded a paradigm shift in the Church (and at that time therefore the culture) of Western Europe. Once there was widespread rejection of the assumption that the ultimate arbiter both of salvation and state power was the Roman Church, everything changed.
The first thing to consider is that, within the Reformation, the conscious aim was the abandonment of Catholic Christendom’s fundamental assumptions, and a return to something that, it was perceived, had gone before. In practice, of course, it is easy to see that Protestantism was not simply a return to primitive Biblical Christianity – it was influenced by all that had gone before, by the Renaissance and, particularly in the case of Calvinism, by the Humanists. Nevertheless, a return to the Bible was its aim and that is what it achieved, for all the aberrations. It affected everything, including even the Catholic Church’s attempt at self-reformation at the Council of Trent.
If I may begin to draw parallels, like me you may remember statements like, “The world can never be the same again after the Enlightenment.” It is true, as Aslan said, that things never happen the same way twice, but the Reformation shows that it is, in fact, perfectly possible for the world to reject an entire episode in its thought not to reach forward in some new revolution, but to recapture something that was lost.
The main thing, however, that I wish to emphasise is the heady, productive but also dangerous freedom that paradigm shifts inevitably bring. In Luther’s case this was an early trend. He started simply by criticising the abuse of plenary indulgences and calling people to simple Christianity. But as the Establishment reacted against him, he began to question the entire edifice, concluding famously that the whole Church was in “Babylonish captivity.” Once the central edifice of Rome’s authority was replaced with sola scriptura, everything had to be questioned, because it began to be clear that many central beliefs had depended not on Scripture, but on Catholic tradition.
This led (as far as I am concerned!) to the wonderful fruits of writings like Calvin’s Institutes and the corpus of Puritan divines like John Owen or Richard Baxter. But inevitably it also led to disorder. Even in Luther’s time, his less-than-wise colleague Carlstadt opened the door to the ultra-charismatic Zwickau prophets, who rejected the Bible in favour of the direct witness of the Spirit. What goes around comes around! Luther was able to return to Wittenberg and restore order, if not persuade the prophets of their error, though I have always loved the the story that when the Zwickau people prophesied, wrongly, what was in his mind, and at his rebuke cried in horror, “The Spirit!
The Spirit!”, he simply replied, “I slap your spirit on the snout!”
Nevertheless disorder increasingly characterised the Reformation, and reading the documents of the English Civil War, when there was maximal opportunity for the ignorant to speculate and organise, the bewildering range of heretical and extreme groups like the Fifth Monarchy Men, the Levellers, the Diggers and so on, as well as the more orthodox but not-always companionable denominations, helps explain why many were heartily sick of enthusiastic religion come the Restoration. Yet theologically, there was a net gain that has lasted the centuries, despite the pressures from post-Enlightenment skepticism.
It is the Enlightenment, and its apotheosis, Darwinian evolution, on which I want to concentrate now. For reasons that are fairly clear, the condensation of the Enlightenment project into materialism and atheism has depended heavily on Darwinism. Dawkins and intellectual respectability come to mind. But if, as I have argued, the heart of Darwin’s variation and natural selection is essentially no more than a mental back-flip, a plausible way of conceiving creation without God, then its rejection does much more than demand a modification to evolutionary theory. If Darwinianism is at heart metaphysical, then its rejection (whether at an individual or societal level) leads to the questioning of everything that depends on it, just as Protestantism did in its time.
How much biological science, for example, relies on the Darwinian perspective rather than the evidence itself? Reading William Dembski’s interview, for instance , he self-describes as an
Old-Earth creationist, and would appear to do so not from any theological conviction but because he doesn’t see the evidence for common descent as convincing. And that despite his colleague Michael Behe’s disagreement. I find the same questions arising in my own mind – if one takes away Darwinian presuppositions, how much of the evidence for anything else is found to depend on it?
The answer is, “Some.” The fact is that a paradigm shift calls into question everything associated with the old order – though it doesn’t necessarily overturn it. Once teleology, even at the level of the organism, is accepted into science, then a re-exmination not only of biology, but of all the sciences that have embraced “blind evolution” will be mandatory. And I have little doubt that would lead to as much of an appearance of anarchy as the Reformation did, until the new paradigm became fully established.
I have to say that one field in which this might be as radical as any would be theology. It is difficult to underestimate how much of contemporary theology is dependent on Enlightenment interpretations of both Scripture and history, from the evolutionary view of religion that underpins most Old Testament studies to the whole quasi-scientific approach that is an unspoken assumption in higher criticism. Just as the Reformation could not but be affected by a millennium of Catholic thinking, yet found it necessary to reject great swathes of it, so the rejection of the Darwinian metaphysic would transform Christian thinking. That would often be for the worse, and definitely would not lead to a general consensus. But in the end, in my humble opinion, it would be for the good of everyone.