Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview
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i. Theology and the Revolution in Bible Criticism

No other part of Spinoza's assault on authority, tradition, and faith proved so generally disquieting as his Bible criticism. As the great Swiss theologian and exegete Johann Heinrich Heidegger (1633–98), one of the authors of the strongly Calvinist Formula Consensus Helveticae (1675), noted, Hobbes and La Peyrère may have begun the process of eroding confidence in Scripture as divine Revelation in some men's minds, and questioning the Mosaic authorship of the Five Books, 'but no-one struck at the foundations of the entire Pentateuch more shamelessly than Spinoza'.1 His principles of Bible hermeneutics seemed to threaten the very foundations of theology and religion and, for that very reason, had to be powerfully confronted and refuted.

Admittedly, some key features of the new Bible criticism, such as the search to establish linguistic meanings and usages by a close comparison of passages, and exploring historical context, were in fact pioneered earlier by Grotius, who believed the reconciliation of the Christian Churches could only come about when Scripture is no longer used as an armoury for polemical warfare by one confession against another, but understood as an expression of the thought world of the ancient Israelites and early Christians. During the early Enlightenment, Grotius indeed was not infrequently considered the great exegetical innovator who initiated the process which culminated in Spinoza, Simon, and Le Clerc.2 Nevertheless, for Grotius too the Bible remained divine Revelation and there is still a considerable gap between his rationalistic methodology, leaving space for Providence, Christ, and the miraculous, and Spinoza's, which does not.

Spinoza begins by dismissing the entire corpus of previous Bible interpretation, whether Christian or Jewish: 'the chief concern of theologians on the whole has been to extort from Holy Scripture their own arbitrarily invented ideas, for which they claim divine authority.'3 Men being naturally driven by the impulse to self

1 Heidegger, Exercitationes, 304; see also "François", Preuves de la Religion 1, 452, 508–80.

2 Faydit, Remarques, 106, 110, 140; Van Rooden. 'Spinoza's Bijbeluitleg', 120–0; Schröder, Ursprünge, 95–5;
Faydit calls Grotius 'l'oracle et le maître de Mr Le Clerc'.

3 Spinoza, TTP, 140; Popkin, 'Spinoza and Bible Scholarship', 396.


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Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750
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