Deism, Revolution and Evolution
Prior to 18th century, the old worldview and the reality of special revelation had never been seriously questioned. It was Deism springing up from England, which “emancipated the world from God, reason from revelation, and will from grace” (p. 7). Bavinck mentions deists such as Herbert, Locke, Toland, Collins, Kant, Fichte, and Lessing were the ones who subjected traditional revelation to the critical test of reason. The doctrine of creation is still accepted but with a twist. In their view, the world stands independently from God.
This principle of autonomy transferred to France and was exemplified through the French Revolution of 1789. This Revolution according to Bavinck was not due to the influence of Reformation but from deistic point of view attached to the so-called social contract theory. The aim was to establish the sovereignty of the people. This autonomic experiment was hailed everywhere but its triumph lasted for a brief period of time and ended in disillusionment among its followers.
Due to the failure of the idea of revolution, this principle of autonomy assumed another form. And this time it was in the name of evolution. The 18th century autonomy was not abandoned but changed a different method of application.
Bavinck argues that this idea of evolution is not something new but rooted in Greek philosophy. It was Aristotle who “raised it to the rank of the leading principle of his entire system” (p. 9). But the new kind of evolution is an evolution with a definite purpose. And so this idea of evolution was received favorably in Christian theology and philosophy. An attempt was even made to connect this idea of evolution to theism. Bavinck claims that it appears in modern philosophy, in thinkers like Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel and numerous historians of distinction.
Some of these thinkers disconnected the idea of evolution from Christian Theism and returned to the ancient pre-Christian naturalism. Bavincks picks Hegel as its representative and from then on the world is perceived as “one mighty process of thought…” (p.10). It is believed that “Whatever exists is therefore pure becoming, not being; it exists for no other purpose but to pass away…the old continually gives way to the new” (p.10). Therefore, violent revolution is no longer considered acceptable for “the eternal spirit itself is unceasingly occupied in breaking down while building up, and in building up while breaking down” (p.11). This Hegelian system is governed by “process, evolution, endless and restless becoming” to a much higher degree, and much more one-sidedly, than those of Aristotle and Leibnitz” (p.11).
Charles Darwin and Karl Marx
However, for the natural sciences, this idea of evolution was too ideal. It cannot accept an evolution with a definite purpose. And so Darwin entered into the scene and removed the idea of purpose from evolution. In the eyes of Darwin, purpose is absurd in a world filled with so much pain. He confirmed this in his scientific investigation. There was no providence, no predetermined plan, no omniscience, no omnipotence, and no goodness of God.
As Darwin saw the misery in nature, Karl Marx witnessed the misery in society. It is interesting to note that in the same year, 1859, two influential books were published that shaped the future of humanity – the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels at the grave of Marx in March 17, 1883 “declared that, as Darwin had found the law of the development of organic nature, so Marx had discovered that of the development of human society” (p.12).
Darwin believed that his ideas in the natural sciences have removed the clutches of purpose and supranaturalism once and for all. Karl Marx, on the other hand, was convinced that he had liberated “Socialism from all utopianism and established it on a firm scientific foundation” (ibid.). Both of these men believed “in the promise of a better world, a better race, and a better society” (ibid.) without resorting to supranaturalism or belief in divine purpose in creation and in human society. Marx believed that religion, which he termed as the “ ‘opiate of the people,’ was destined to die a natural death in the perfect society of the future” (ibid.).
This trend of thought signaled an end to the old worldview with its supranaturalistic foundation and its idea of revelation. “The belief that modern natural science with its idea of evolution had made an end to medieval dualism” (p.13) was widely accepted. At last, “the principle of naturalism had permanently triumphed” and the idea of revelation was considered dead. Haeckel declares “all revelations to which religions appeal are pure pigments of human phantasy; the one true revelation is nature itself” (ibid.). Strauss agrees, “The last enemy to be conquered is the conception of another world” (ibid.).
Bavinck appreciates the term evolution as something harmless in itself. However, “the trend of thought by which it has been monopolized, and the system built on it” has given these thinkers “a way to explain the entire world, including man, religion, and morality without the aid of any supranatural” (ibid.) force. The world is free at last from the chain of Medievalism and reason from the falsehood of revelation.
Reference: Bavinck, Herman. The Philosophy of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953.