Click for More Articles

A Book Forged in Hell



(Refer to the Publication of A Book Forged in Hell by Steven Nadler)


    (Subtitled Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age)


No doubt many have heard of Albert Einstein’s famous phrase ‘God does not play dice.’ [Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion, p222]. This kind of God-talk was often employed by Einstein. It is easy to interpret it in the general terms of the God of Scripture exercising a providential oversight of creation that precludes it being subject to random means and ends. However, we need to extend and correct this kind of understanding if we are to seriously appreciate the profound influence that the seventeenth century thinker Benedict Spinoza had upon the development of the modern Naturalistic conception of the cosmos that is evident in these remarks of Einstein. [Einstein and Religion, pp43-48].


In the particular case at issue, Einstein’s remarks were made as a criticism of what has since become known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, due mainly to the Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, in 1927. This interpretation included the uncertainty principle, the particle/wave dualism of Quantum phenomena and the liberal use of probability theory. It therefore issued a challenge to Einstein’s commitment to Spinoza’s conception of a rigid causality in Nature. In its funda-mentals, he claimed, Nature was not to be considered a game of chance. Its comings and goings were the result of a set laws that, remarkably, were open to the scrutiny and analysis of human beings.


Although Einstein denied that he was an atheist, he did admit to being fascinated by his Spinoza’s pantheism – the identification of God with the cosmos that had usually been considered God’s creation.  It is a moot point whether Spinoza himself would have admitted to being an atheist. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that his views have had a profound effect upon the development of Naturalistic conceptions of the cosmos associated with such figures as Denis Diderot of the Eighteenth century Enlighten-ment.


Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) was born of Portuguese Jewish parents who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and found refuge in the more tolerant climate of the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the young Spinoza found himself expelled from the synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656. Moreover, his claim to fame rests upon two books, one a very sophisticated philosophical work entitled Ethics; the other a more popular ‘pamphlet’ kind of publication entitled Treatise on Theology and Politics. 




We may appreciate something of the significance of Spinoza’s role in the emerging Naturalistic/secular outlook of the Western world by considering the problematic character of the relationship of philosophy to theology on the one hand, and the relationship of philosophy to the sciences on the other. The seventeenth century European context, in which Spinoza found himself, was overwhelmingly still a culture in which all debates about humankind (man), God and the World in the public domain revolved around the rival ‘confessional’ claims of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed and Anglicans. As such it was a culture in which almost no one openly challenged the basic precepts of Christianity.  This was heavily in the form of a tradition that, broadly interpreted, entailed the received scholastic tradition involving Aristotle and the Bible - supporting the right of the ecclesiastical and kingly powers that reached back into the antiquity of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome and Greece.


The role of philosophy in this tradition was generally conceived as that of an aid to theology, one that carried with it the idea the philosophy, as such, was simply a religiously neutral exercise in the intellectual exploration of the wider creation. Early in the seventeenth century Rene Descartes had launched a major project in what he considered a reform of natural philosophy that played a hugely significant role in the growth and development of modern physics. However, even when Newton’s great work, Principia Mathematica, provided a much more satisfactory mathematical and empirical account of the mechanics of the heavens and the earth, its achievement was still considered a contribution to natural philosophy. 


Spinoza’s works of philosophy had major implications for the issues of freedom of religion, tolerance, politics, science and theology, of his time. On the other hand, his contributions introduced radical implications for all of the Church-related confessional standpoints inherited form the previous one hundred years.  In regard to these, his system of thought had serious consequences for the entire Judaeo-Christian heritage. It undercut Biblical authority, the possibility of miracles and almost all of the other problems that arose as a consequence of the Deism and Naturalistic influences of the eighteenth century Enlightenment.


Much of the philosophical debate of the late mediaeval period revolved around the Via Antiqua of the Nature-Grace synthesis of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and the Via Moderna led by such thinkers as William of Occam (1287-1347).  The latter, having a much more pessimistic appreciation of the possibilities of natural reason, advocated more of a division between the realm of nature and the realm of grace. The implications for science and philosophy were twofold. First, he emphasised that words connoting universal entities – such as tables, dogs or humans – were merely collective names for describing the individuals concerned, a doctrine known as nominalism. Second, he emphasised that events in the creation were the result of God’s will, not a consequence of his essence. This goes under the name of voluntarism


During the Reformation/Counter-reformation period, the various confessional standpoints, on all sides, were under the influence of the ongoing effects of Via Antiqua and Via Moderna. Significantly, reformers like Luther and Calvin, generally followed Occam in their voluntarist emphasis upon creation function-ing under the will and providence of the sovereignty of God. However, they endeavoured to guard themselves against any arbitrariness in the exercise of God’s by an insistence upon the faithfulness of God in the keeping of his word of the covenant. 


As a consequence of the initiatives of Descartes on the one hand and Spinoza on other, we may picture three dominant religious/philosophical positions emerging in the seventeenth century.  The first of these was a theism that minimally implied that we humans, together with the rest of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, is the result of a creation by God ‘in the beginning’.  This creation was also subject to the genesis of unfolding, in created time, through the subsequent activity of a genesis shaping by God during ‘the seven days.’  Most important to this kind of view, is perhaps the idea that the lawfulness by which God governs the cosmos and everything in it in a way arises from the sovereign but faithful will of God.


This voluntarism had at least two forms of interpretation.  One came dangerously close to saying simply that everything that happened in the cosmos was the immediate result of the will of God, without any effort to redress the issue of the arbitrariness of God’s will –a doctrine sometimes referred to as ‘occasionalism.’  The other, as indicated above entailed the idea that the lawfulness of everything that happened in the cosmos was the result of the regularity of God’s faithfulness to his over-riding Word and his various covenants with his creatures – including humankind as its vice-regent or temporal ruler pictured in Psalm 8.  Its overall view of the lawfulness of the cosmos – in both its ‘natural’ and ‘human’ realms – was one in which law, at least in the first instance, was not a property of creation itself.  In this sense, it would not be proper to speak of ‘the laws of nature’ or ‘natural law.’ 


 However, to discover the contents of God’s lawful ordering of creation it was necessary to examine the way in which creation actually functioned empirically under the lawfulness of God, not by means of the soul’s knowledge of the mind of God though the a-priori knowledge of the mind of God construed in the terms of the Platonic forms. 


Ontologically, therefore, this kind of theistic stance with regard to the regularity, order and lawfulness of creation – whether of the ‘natural’ or ‘human’ worlds resulted from God’s ongoing faithful upholding of the full scope of God’s creation.  The fuller detail of this kind of stance may be found for example, in Susan Schreiner’s book The Theater of His Glory.


The second of these stances concerning the relationship between God and his creation may be described as the Deistic view of Descartes.  Now, Descartes did not describe himself as a deist.  However, the definition of deism may be stated as the view that the Creator God brought all things into existence – including their laws – in the beginning, and then allowed them to continue in accordance with these ‘laws of nature’.  In the wake of this idea, therefore nature and humans may have had a beginning at the time at which the Creator brought all things into being.  Thereafter, however, creation unfolded in accordance with something akin to a Stoic providence that disclosed its purposes in the course of the events of history as experienced by humankind in the here and now.


The third such overall stance was that of Spinoza.  He used the word ‘God’ virtually as a synonym for ‘Nature.’  As such this god was neither the covenant God of Israel; nor was it a manifestation of the nature gods of the Greeks and Romans.  For them, their panoply of gods arose from nature, but were not equated with it.  Rather Spinoza’s god was simply the whole cosmos, including humans, looked upon as the ultimate source of all order and meaning.  In this way, Spinoza provided many of the more intellectual classes of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with their sources for radical religious and political views that later had a major influence upon the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.


We can see these various influences as they impinge people like Voltaire and Diderot in the eighteenth century.  Voltaire described himself as a Deist, a follower of the Newton system of mechanics and, following Spinoza, someone who looked upon the Bible as a thoroughly human and fallible book, to be replaced by modern and enlightened views.  Diderot, the author of the Encyclopedia had no place for an entry under the name Jesus, described himself as an atheist and a naturalist.  As such his naturalism fell in line well with the ideas of Spinoza – whether or not one used the word ‘god’ to describe it.


The overall generalized idea of an ‘evolutionary nature’ developed in the nineteenth century – with its antecedents in the idealistic thought of Hegel, the positivism of Comte and much else besides.  It flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the addition of ‘the dynamite’ of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  This was taken up in the anti-religious and pro-scientific ideology exemplified in such historical writings as A. D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Volumes I and II, 1896; J.W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1874; and W.E.H. Lecky, A History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 1897. 


Suffice it to say that the present short article is meant as an Introduction to the sig-nificance of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Enlightenment for understand-ing the ‘religious’ character of secular age in which we live. It needs to be said that the first of the three possible standpoints concerning the relationship of God to Creation, that emerging from which we might describe as covenantal voluntarism, was not seriously developed as a philosophical option after 1650 or so. The reality was that the overwhelming philosophical influences were in the terms of Deism and Naturalism. While these may have been resisted theologically, the significance of such views has generally had minimal impact upon the dominant secular outlooks of our modern world.


In this respect, at some point we plan to include a review of the thorough-going historical study of the Enlightenment by the Jewish scholar, Jonathan Israel, who, in his three big volumes –The Radical Enlightenment (featuring the significance of the thought of Spinoza); The Democratic Enlightenment (relevant especially to the emergence of the USA) and The Enlightenment Contested (relevant to ‘conservatives’ generally) in the collection of articles to feature on this Website.  We will also seek to amplify our discussion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age


Furthermore, one of the most important ways of characterising what has come to be called the Reformational philosophy developed during the course of the twentieth century, is the nature of lawfulness as the ongoing boundary between Creator and creation discussed as the first of the three options considered in this short article. 



This is a mockup. Publish to view how it will appear live.