June 9th, 2004
Psalm 19:1-6, Romans 1:20, Acts 17:28, Colossians 1:17
What in the world is this world thinking?
God the Clockmaker – Deism
Dr. Ligon Duncan
You may have noticed as you were coming in at the desk where you were paying for your meal tonight, that the brochures are out for the “World and Life View” Summer Series.
There are a number of books in the bookstore relating to “worldviews,” and before we get started tonight I want to bring your attention to someone of them. I’ve mentioned some of these in the information that you got last week, and some of them are listed, in fact, in the brochure that some of you have picked up. But Worldviews in Conflict is a book by Ron Nash, who used to teach at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. It’s a brief treatment of the issue of worldviews, about 150-160 pages. It’s a pretty easy read, short chapters, good basic introduction to worldviews. Then, I’ve mentioned the work, the work of Harry Blamires who studied under C.S. Lewis at Oxford, taught English, has written some excellent books that are unfortunately are out of print, such as The Christian Mind, a very helpful book for thinking about worldview. But this is his follow up to that, The Post Christian Mind, in which he addresses some of the trends that we’re experiencing in postmodernity today. This is another book about worldviews but it’s got a funny title. It’s called Whirled Views– W-H-I-R-L-E-D as opposed to W-O-R-L-D–Whirled Views: Tracking Today’s Culture Storms. And again, it’s written at a more popular level by Marvin Olasky and Joel Belz of World magazine. Ed Veith’s book, Postmodern Times, again is designed to be a Christian guide to sorting out the ends and outs of contemporary thought in culture, and I highly recommend it. If it’s been a long time since you studied philosophy and history and some of these names that we talk about over the next few weeks are literally whirling around in your mind, and you want something to reintroduce yourself to that history and philosophy without a maximal amount of pain, this book, Seven Men Who Rule the World From the Grave, is an interesting book. It touches on the thinking of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Julius Wellhausen, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes, and Soren Kierkegaard, and we’ll show you how their thinking still impacts people today. And then, some of you have read Peter Jones’s material on Spirit Wars and on The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back. Well, InterVarsity Press just this last year produced a book, of similar type of material called The Making of the New Spirituality, dealing with neo-paganism or what we used to call “new age,” and it gives an excellent treatment of that particular worldview. So these books and more are available in the bookstore, and we would encourage you this summer to take advantage of this opportunity for reading and look at that material.
Now here’s what we’re going to do tonight. We are going to look at Deism. If you look at your title on the outline, we’ve titled this: “What in the World is This World Thinking?” and the heading is “The way we were,” indicating that we’re going to go back and look at how we used to think about things and the subtitle is, “God the Clockmaker.” And that’s a reference to the philosophy of Deism, which sort of views the world as something that God built and started up. He wound it up, let it go and it’s still operating the way that He built it and started it up…but He has very little to do with it. He got things going and He’s out of the picture now. He’s like a divine Clockmaker who created a world and began a world but is very uninvolved in that world. And we’re going to talk about Deism tonight.
What is a worldview?
Now let me just remind you of a few things that we said last week. We said that a worldview is a set of fundamental assumptions about the most important issues of life. It’s a grid. It’s a conceptual scheme through which we view everything. Everything we believe and how we judge reality is related to this worldview.
And we also said that everybody has a worldview whether they know it or not. There’s no one who is neutral about this world. There’s no one who has no vantage point on this world. There’s no one who brings no assumptions to how she or he evaluates this world, this life, and reality. So everyone has a worldview whether they realize it or not.
And we mentioned that someone might say, ‘But I’ve never heard of a worldview before. How could I have one?’ And we noted last week that it’s kind of like the fifth-grade-kid who’s just found out what epidermis is and he’s telling all his friends, ‘Your epidermis is showing. Your epidermis is showing.’ And when you were in fifth grade you didn’t know that your epidermis was showing but it was showing, and, boy, today there’s a lot of epidermis showing, a lot more than there used to be. But even though you didn’t know it, you had epidermis and it was showing…So it’s the same way with a worldview. We all have a worldview whether we realize we have a worldview or not. And so that basic set of presuppositions that we call a worldview is what we hold about the basic makeup of the world.
What makes a worldview? Well, that’s hard to say. Sometimes a worldview is composed of a combination of those things that we know intuitively. God, in His word, tells us that there are certain things that we can’t not know. There are just certain things that God has built into us that we innately know about this world. There are other things that God teaches us through this world. On the other hand, there can be other components to a worldview as well. It might be formed by the dominant opinions of our culture. It might be formed by the Bible and Christian teaching. It may be something that you’ve thought long and hard about, or it may be something that you’ve not thought about at all. It may be right or it may be wrong, or it may be a little bit of a mixture of both. It may be a consistent way to think about the world; it may be an inconsistent way to think about the world…but everyone has a worldview.
And we also said that every worldview has questions that it tries to ask and answer. And there are certain basic questions that every worldview tries to answer, questions like this: What is really real? When it gets down to it, what is fundamentally real about this life and in this world? Secondly, what is the nature of this world around us? What can we say about it that is true of its essence? Thirdly, what’s a human being? When it all boils down, what are we? How should we account for ourselves? What do we think about ourselves? What happens at death? is another question that every worldview has to ask or answer. Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know what’s right and wrong? What’s the goal of history? What’s the meaning and purpose of life? These are the kinds of questions that every worldview has to ask and answer, and every worldview has questions that it appears unable to answer satisfactorily.
And so one task of the Christian, then, is to be able to understand the Christian worldview and to know enough about other worldviews so that, first of all, we can engage in intelligent conversation with people that don’t believe a Christian worldview; and that we can know basically where they’re coming from so that we can engage in a useful conversation and not be intimidated by it, but be able to engage with them intelligently and to show them the places where their worldview is unable to supply satisfactory answers to the most basic questions of life; whereas only a Christian worldview is capable of giving those satisfactory answers. And so that’s going to be part of our goal.
Now tonight, we are going to be looking at a worldview that was very, very popular in the 17th century. Now you may say to me, ‘Why in the world? What do we need talking about a worldview that was very popular in the 17th century?’ Because, the thought in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in the Western world has set the stage for all the thinking that is going on in the world today. You can’t understand now if you don’t understand the thinking then, and we’ll draw some illustrations of that.
What are we going to try and do tonight? Well, here are our purposes: Tonight we want to comment on Deism as one of the basic worldviews that underlies the way we, in the Western world, think about ourselves and other people and the natural world and God or ultimate reality. So we want to look at Deism because Deism has contributed to the way we think today. Secondly we want to show, or at least suggest, some reasons why Deism developed. I mean, if Christian theism, which was dominant when Deism came onto the scene…if Christian Theism has all the right answers to all the right questions, why would somebody have come up with Deism? What would have been the attraction? Why would somebody have come up with a new set of answers to the great questions if Christianity had given satisfying, useful, helpful, true answers to that? Why would there have been this development at all? And we’ll also comment on how Deism set the stage for the next step that (I’ll already give you a hint) was called Naturalism. I also want to encourage you to think worldviewishly. That is, conscious not only of your own way of thought but also that of other people.
Now before we do that, I want to go to the Scriptures, because Deism is a view that believes that there’s some sort of a God, there’s some sort of a Creator and He is somehow involved in the bringing into being of the world that we are in, but He simply started things up and He is now uninvolved. He doesn’t reveal himself anymore. He doesn’t intervene in miracles. He is not involved in this creation.
And so before we begin to look at that wrong worldview, I want to look at four Bible statements that outline for us a glorious presentation and put in stark contrast the Christian view of the Creator-God. Turn with me, first, to the 19th Psalm and just the first half of that Psalm. This Psalm, as you know, celebrates God’s revelation of Himself in both creation and in the Bible. And in Psalm 19, beginning in verse 1–and, by the way, you just sang this Psalm. You may want to keep your hymn sheet out in front of you and look at #117, because you pretty much just sang this Psalm when you sang Joseph Addison’s beautiful words In the Spacious Firmament on High. Here’s how it goes…
1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God;And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. 4 Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, 5 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. 6 Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
Now the point of the Psalmist is, even though this creation that God has made can’t speak, you and I can speak to one another. It can’t speak words, yet it is speaking into the ears and hearts of every human being that occupies this planet this message, ‘There is a God. He made this world. He ought to be worshiped.’ And the point of Psalm 19:1-6 is that that message is constantly pounding every human being in this world. You know, we often talk about the native in Africa who doesn’t know anything from the Bible. Well, Paul, Paul in Romans 1:19 says there’s nobody in the world that doesn’t know the message that God is sending through His general revelation, His universal revelation in nature. Constantly that revelation is saying, ‘There is a God. He made this world. You owe Him your worship.’
Now turn with me to Paul’s application of this truth in Romans chapter 1. In Romans 1:20, Paul says this,
“For since the creation of the world–” Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Now you hear people say, ‘But what about those who don’t know?’ And Paul is saying, ‘There isn’t anybody who doesn’t know.’ The message is not hidden. Notice Paul doesn’t just say that God’s revelation is revealed in nature but unfortunately men are blind and they don’t see it. What does he say? “[It’s] clearly seen, being understood.”
Do you hear what Paul’s saying? Paul is saying that the revelation that God makes in nature gets through to every human being, so that on the last day when somebody stands up and says, ‘But, God, I didn’t know,’ God’s response is going to be, ‘Oh, yes, you did.’ There’s going to be nobody in the world who’s going to be able to say, ‘I didn’t know.’ God is going to say, ‘Yes, you did and the reason that you didn’t worship Me is not because you didn’t know enough; it’s because you chose to worship the creature rather than the Creator.’ It was a moral defect; it was a moral rebellion. It wasn’t that you didn’t know enough stuff. It was that, though God had revealed Himself clearly and it was understood, you chose to suppress that truth and to go your own way. That’s what Paul says. God has revealed Himself that clearly.
Now notice what he says in Acts chapter 17. We’re back to the same passage from which we quoted last week, although I’m going to quote a different verse tonight. And notice how Paul here stresses that the God who is the Creator God worshiped by Christians is not an uninvolved, detached deity who wound things up and left it to run. ‘No,’ he says, ‘Look, even your own poets say this. Acts 17:28, “For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” You see how Paul stresses the active involvement of the Creator in upholding even the being of us humans, His creatures?
And there’s never been a more beautiful expression of His upholding of us and of the whole creation than the one that Paul states in Colossians chapter 1. Turn with me there. In Colossians 1:17 he says, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him.”
And He wound em’ up and let em’ go? No. “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” He’s actively involved, providentially holding everything together.
Now in just those four verses you see this dramatically different Christian view of the world, of God, of creation and things, how different it is from the view of Deism. And so I hope that holding that in the back of your mind, it will help you to appreciate what we’re going to see in Deism. Deism shifted the attention from God’s special revelation in the Bible and reason in the service of understanding truth about God in the Bible and in creation…Deism shifted attention from special revelation and from reason in the service of understanding the Bible to the light of reason. That is, Deism thought that the universe itself and our inherent capacity to understand that universe is the source of true knowledge in this world. Reason wasn’t a gift from God so that we could understand Him speak to us in His word and understand what He was saying to us in His creation. Reason suddenly became the source. God is no longer viewed as the source of truth; reason is seen not as an instrument, a tool, but as the source of truth.
And so, whereas the Reformers in the 16th century would have stressed the necessity of right thinking, the important of right reason, the Deist said, ‘No, no, reason is totally sufficient. Reason doesn’t need the Bible. Reason doesn’t need God’s special revelation. Reason doesn’t need a revelation of God in nature because there is no revelation of God in nature other than the witness that there was a Creator who made things and wound things up and let them go. But reason itself is sufficient to understand everything.’
In fact, the Deist would argue that we understand what little we know about God by looking at nature and inferring from nature what there is to be known about God. So reason goes from being an instrument to help us to hear and understand God speak to us, to being the source of knowledge.
Now what happened? The Protestant Reformation happened in the 16th century. Europe had been liberated from the forced darkness of hundreds of years through that Protestant Reformation, and only one hundred years later Deism comes in. What’s going on?
Well, there are some interesting answers to that. Let me just suggest two. One is this: Remember, that once the Reformation had obtained the freedom for many Protestant churches throughout Europe, the theological debate amongst Christians was not over. In fact, it was more rigorous than every before because there was now not just one Pope and one church; there were multiple churches and there were vigorous theological debates and even religious wars–hundreds and thousands of people died. And this was a source of great consternation to many and may well have turned people to look for some other solution. Surely all this fussing and fighting can’t be because truth has been found. Surely truth will bring peace, was the rationale of many. And so people began to look for something that would give them relief from the religious strife and war that had begun in the 16th century.
Secondly, Protestants, because of what they taught about the world, had engendered a new life in the sciences. In the Middle Ages, the only science worth studying was theology. “Why would you want to study anything else?” was the rationale of the Medieval Catholic Church. But Protestants had emphasized that this whole world is God’s. “This Is My Father’s World,” we sang tonight. And, therefore, studying that world is inherently a worthy project, and so there were astounding scientific advances that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries.
But what happened was this: As men saw new things about the creation that they had never seen before…they saw patterns and principles and laws that they had never seen in all their study of the world, and those patterns and principles and laws woven into the creation were so impressive to them, some men decided that those things were self-explanatory. You didn’t need God to explain this or that anymore. No, you had the laws of nature. You had these principles that had been woven into reality and, therefore, what did these men do? They set God on the shelf and they tried to separate the laws which God, the Creator had woven into nature from God Himself. To put it in Paul’s language, “They worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.” Now that’s a simplistic explanation, I know; but I want to suggest to you that those are at least two reasons why people turned to Deism.
Deism was a fundamentally English phenomenon, attributed to Herbert of Cherbury although there were some non-English Deists – Voltaire in France thought of himself as a French Deist. English love to think about stuff. You know the old joke: “How did the gospel win the British Isles? The English heard that it was something to argue about. The Irish heard that it was something to fight about. The Welsh heard that it was something to sing about. And the Scots heard that grace was free.” Well, the English love to think and argue about stuff. It’s just an English thing. And so this new approach of Deism was very attractive to that temperament.
Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), set down five principles of Deism. Let me just give them to you very quickly: One, there is one God who created the world but who no longer intervenes by either revelation or miracle. So there was a Creator that brought the world into being but He doesn’t intervene anymore.
Secondly, there is an objective difference between right and wrong. So they’ve wanted to retain basic Christian ethics.
Thirdly, the duty of one’s life is to support that which is right. So that the deist not only wanted to have a theoretical objective ethic, he wanted to have practical ethic that would impel people to do what was right.
Fourthly, the soul is immortal.
And, fifthly, our condition in the life to come is based on our ethical conduct in this life. That’s it: the five principles of Deism. Now not every deist believed all of those principles or would have stated them in those ways. But that’s how Herbet of Cherbury, the father, the founder of Deism, put it.
So how would Deism answer those questions that we have been asking the last couple of weeks?
1. What is prime reality? What is really real? Here’s how the Deist would answer, ‘Here’s what’s really real, the first cause, the universe: This transcendent God as a first cause created the universe but then left it to run on its own. We can’t know anything more of Him except that which we learn through the universe itself because He’s not revealed Himself to us since then.’ What’s the nature of the world around us? It’s a closed system. It is a deterministic, closed system of cause and effect. Miracles are out.
Friends, does it surprise you that it is in the era of Deism that we begin to hear for the first time within the Christian church, in 1700 years of Christian history, Christians who call themselves teachers or preachers, but who question miracles? Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. You see, the dominant worldview is saying, “You don’t need miracles to explain anything anymore. Everything works ‘cause-and-effect.’ That’s how it works. You don’t need miracles.”
And so suddenly you have people from within the church saying, ‘Well, Jesus didn’t do miracles. He was a great moral teacher.’ Then you have Thomas Jefferson, for instance, going through his Bible and cutting out every miracle that Jesus…literally with scissors, cutting out every miracle that Jesus did and saying, “I believe what Jesus taught. I just don’t believe all these stories about these miracles.” He was a Deist and it makes perfect sense, but where had he gotten that idea? –not from the Bible but from an alien worldview. So miracles are out.
2. What about salvation? Well, we are part of that same closed system and we can be understood just the same way that that closed system of the universe can be understood. What happens after death? A lot of Deists were ambiguous about this, but not Herbert of Cherbury. We just read what he said. He thought that after death we would be rewarded for good conduct.
Isn’t it interesting, that whenever you back away from the fullness of the testimony of the biblical gospel, what will you start teaching? –salvation by works. And that’s what’s given to us by the Deists. How is it possible to know anything at all? The Deists’ answer? –By reason. That’s how you know–by reason.
Now we have some popular characters in our own pop culture that still reflect that today. Any Trekies our there? –Mr. Spock, the Deist. What’s everything going to be solved by? Logic. Or maybe you’re an X-Files fan. Dana Scully: ‘There’s always an explanation. We’ve just got to think it through.’ At least in the early seasons. Now, you know, Dana’s flopped. You know she’s completely gone. ‘This world is in its normal state,’ says the Deist. ‘It’s not fallen. It’s a closed system. It operates on cause-and-effect. All you have to do is think long enough and hard enough about it, and you can figure it all out. All you need is a little reason and a lot of time and you’ll figure it all out. We can know this universe by studying it, by thinking about it, by our reason.’ How do we know what’s right and wrong? The universe shows you what’s right and wrong. You don’t need your Bible. Ethics can be derived from general revelation, from the nature around you.
3. The meaning of life? What’s the goal of history? What’s the meaning or purpose of life? Well, interestingly, the Deists don’t give an answer to that question. Ooops. Little bit of an oversight, isn’t it? You see what we said at the beginning: Every ethical system, every worldview system but Christianity has some questions that it doesn’t answer well or at all. And so very often what you find in Deism is that the deist is borrowing his capital from Christian thinking. He doesn’t come up with his own distinctive answer to the question; he just borrows an answer to that question from Christianity.
But what Deism did is that it set into play such a confidence of our human understanding of this world that when the next generation came along they said, ‘Why do we need God as a first cause? Nature can explain itself. Why do we need to posit a first cause?’ And that is the taproot of Naturalism, the next great philosophy that succeeded Deism. And in two weeks we’ll come back together and talk about that. Thank you for being here tonight. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this opportunity to think about our world and the ideas that shape it. Help us to think Christianly and biblically about that world and to be able to engage effectively the thinking of this world so as to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of sinners. We ask this in Jesus’ name.
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