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Book review: Theology and the Enlightenment: A critical enquiry into Enlightenment theology and its reception by Paul Avis

23 June 2023

The Enlightenment’s traducers are routed, says Peter Sedgwick

THE Enlightenment refers to the movement of critical rationality and public argument that began in the second half of the 17th century in England and Holland and spread throughout Europe in the 18th century, culminating in the downfall in France of the French monarchy (the ancien régime) through the French Revolution, in 1789. It included such intellectual giants as Newton, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In the 19th and 20th century, the Enlightenment’s influence shaped the emergence of the social sciences and the humanities.

It has, however, been much criticised by many theologians in the past few decades as leading to rationalism, an attack on tradition, and the elevation of doubt as the first principle of knowledge. Paul Avis cites many theologians who have made such criticism, including the late Lesslie Newbigin and Colin Gunton, and the widely read (and still very productive) Alister McGrath.

Avis is a very creative and wide-ranging theologian. He has written significant works on Anglicanism, ecclesiology, ecumenism, and historical theology. In this book, he goes back to his earlier book, In Search of Authority: Anglican theological method from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (T & T Clark) (Books, 27 June 2014), and looks in depth at how the Enlightenment should be assessed by Christian theology.

The structure of the book is interesting, because he does not simply offer a chronological survey; nor does he look at each thinker in turn. Rather, he offers a series of chapters that build his argument to the conclusion that the Enlightenment is to be welcomed.

After an initial chapter, he looks at how the Enlightenment has been “scapegoated” by many contemporary theologians, and then makes the case for seeing the Enlightenment as “virtuous”.

He then moves to look at the Enlightenment on religion, which is followed, as befits someone who has written so much on Anglicanism, with a chapter on “the Anglican Enlightenment”, then a chapter on Enlightenment history and the Bible, and a final chapter on “the Enlightenment in the frame of Christian theology”.

Avis writes with enormous scholarship and has read very widely. He also has a very engaging personal style, which is both detailed in his assessments and robust in his judgements. Readers of the Church Times will be especially interested in his chapter on the “Anglican Enlightenment”, with judicious assessments of John Locke, John Wesley, and the new approach to religion in England in the 18th century.

Avis does a wonderful job of summarising contemporary scholarship, showing how deeply the Church of England in the 18th century was intellectually vibrant and reached into every community. This new approach to this period destroys the old and tired image of the Church of England as failing and intellectually moribund.

This book is a wonderful resource for any student seeking to catch up on contemporary scholarship on the Enlightenment. Avis puts us in his debt for presenting such a thorough demolition of the case against the Enlightenment.

Canon Peter Sedgwick was Principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff.

Theology and the Enlightenment: A critical enquiry into Enlightenment theology and its reception
Paul Avis
T & T Clark £28.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.09

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