This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets [is not
to be attributed to some] blind metaphysical necessity, [but] could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful
Being, [who governs all things], not as the soul of the world, but as Lord
over all.

Sir Isaac Newton, Mathematical Principles
of Natural Philosophy

During the Enlightenment, there was a sustained and penetrating assault upon Christianity and the "fanatical" mindset many claimed it fostered. Thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot savagely criticized the superstition and irrationality that characterized portions of the Christian worldview. In the wake of this devastating assault, a new image of Jesus emerged as the Teacher of Common Sense. The beauty and wisdom of Jesus’ message, many Enlightenment thinkers insisted, lay not in its other-worldly origins, but in its universality an Read More
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets [is not
to be attributed to some] blind metaphysical necessity, [but] could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful
Being, [who governs all things], not as the soul of the world, but as Lord
over all.

Sir Isaac Newton, Mathematical Principles
of Natural Philosophy

During the Enlightenment, there was a sustained and penetrating assault upon Christianity and the "fanatical" mindset many claimed it fostered. Thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot savagely criticized the superstition and irrationality that characterized portions of the Christian worldview. In the wake of this devastating assault, a new image of Jesus emerged as the Teacher of Common Sense. The beauty and wisdom of Jesus’ message, many Enlightenment thinkers insisted, lay not in its other-worldly origins, but in its universality and its compatibility with reason. Philosophers dissected the New Testament and pored over historical documents in their attempts to discover the "true Jesus," the flesh and blood individual whose eminently rational teachings were seen as the distillation of a supremely sensible individual. Jesus’ teachings had authority not because they were uttered by the messiah, but because they were intrinsically worthwhile.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Sermon on the Mount

Like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is an intimate revelation of a wisdom so profound that it perplexes human understanding.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta

Coloured lithograph
PMA:J99.1961
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

John 14:17

Given their singular significance to the development of Western culture, it is strangely appropriate that Jesus and Socrates led similar lives. Both lived simply. Both were esteemed as excellent teachers, though neither wrote an extant word. Both were regarded as traitors by the political and religious communities of their times. Both were executed for their beliefs. For some Enlightenment thinkers, these parallels suggested that Truth was not the sole property of the Christian religion, nor was it necessarily the result of a divine dispensation. The philosophy of Socrates was as liberating - perhaps as salvific - as the religion of Jesus. Not all scholars agreed. Some, like Joseph Priestley, argued that Socrates’ thought was elaborate and beautiful, but Jesus’ ideas and life were the very embodiment of God on this earth. Christian intellectuals, drawing on this idea, have often noted that they were students of Socrates and discipl Read More
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

John 14:17

Given their singular significance to the development of Western culture, it is strangely appropriate that Jesus and Socrates led similar lives. Both lived simply. Both were esteemed as excellent teachers, though neither wrote an extant word. Both were regarded as traitors by the political and religious communities of their times. Both were executed for their beliefs. For some Enlightenment thinkers, these parallels suggested that Truth was not the sole property of the Christian religion, nor was it necessarily the result of a divine dispensation. The philosophy of Socrates was as liberating - perhaps as salvific - as the religion of Jesus. Not all scholars agreed. Some, like Joseph Priestley, argued that Socrates’ thought was elaborate and beautiful, but Jesus’ ideas and life were the very embodiment of God on this earth. Christian intellectuals, drawing on this idea, have often noted that they were students of Socrates and disciples of Jesus.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Socrate

Both Jesus and Socrates were great teachers of what many came to see as universal truth. Many Enlightenment thinkers found the spirit of truth which had inspired Jesus manifesting itself in the ideas of Socrates.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta

PMA:J99.1836
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


… abstracting what is really [Jesus’] from the rubbish in which it is buried … [is like separating] the diamond from the dung hill…

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short

The Enlightenment quest for the historical Jesus was not simply a European phenomenon; indeed, one of the more famous searchers after the "authentic" Jesus was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America. Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson believed that the crystalline purity of Jesus’ life and teachings had been contaminated by the dross of evangelists and theologians. So Jefferson "edited" the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life and teachings, removing all references to miraculous occurrences such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, leaving only a spartan description of Jesus’ life and his exquisite system of morals. This vision of the authentic Jesus - which Jefferson felt could invigorate the moral health of America - was no less glorious for having been a philosophy distilled from the man Jesus. Indeed, for Jefferson, it may well have been mor Read More
… abstracting what is really [Jesus’] from the rubbish in which it is buried … [is like separating] the diamond from the dung hill…

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short

The Enlightenment quest for the historical Jesus was not simply a European phenomenon; indeed, one of the more famous searchers after the "authentic" Jesus was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America. Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson believed that the crystalline purity of Jesus’ life and teachings had been contaminated by the dross of evangelists and theologians. So Jefferson "edited" the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life and teachings, removing all references to miraculous occurrences such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, leaving only a spartan description of Jesus’ life and his exquisite system of morals. This vision of the authentic Jesus - which Jefferson felt could invigorate the moral health of America - was no less glorious for having been a philosophy distilled from the man Jesus. Indeed, for Jefferson, it may well have been more so.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English

Jefferson sought to separate Jesus' ethical teachings from the religious dogma that had come to adhere to the Gospels and from the miracle narratives of Jesus.

Thomas Jefferson
Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English
c. 1816 - ?
PMA:J98.320
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night, God said: "Let Newton be," and all was light.

Alexander Pope, Works of Alexander Pope

Given the modern tendency to view science and religion as vastly different - even oppositional - modes of thought, it is rather surprising to consider that the "father" of modern science, Isaac Newton, wrote more theological works than scientific studies. For Newton, as for many natural philosophers of his age, science did not contradict faith, but supplemented and enriched it. Exploring God's creation was a way of becoming sensitive to the glorious workings of a God whose illimitable creative powers were everywhere evident, but nowhere fully explicable. It is perhaps not an overstatement to assert that Newton conducted his science within of the mystery of his faith. Just as Jesus and the Christian message illumined Newton's life, so, too, Newton threw light upon the dark corners of human understanding.
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night, God said: "Let Newton be," and all was light.

Alexander Pope, Works of Alexander Pope

Given the modern tendency to view science and religion as vastly different - even oppositional - modes of thought, it is rather surprising to consider that the "father" of modern science, Isaac Newton, wrote more theological works than scientific studies. For Newton, as for many natural philosophers of his age, science did not contradict faith, but supplemented and enriched it. Exploring God's creation was a way of becoming sensitive to the glorious workings of a God whose illimitable creative powers were everywhere evident, but nowhere fully explicable. It is perhaps not an overstatement to assert that Newton conducted his science within of the mystery of his faith. Just as Jesus and the Christian message illumined Newton's life, so, too, Newton threw light upon the dark corners of human understanding.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Sir Isaac Newton

Newton argued we are to believe in one God and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is next to him in power and glory.

Sir Godfrey Kneller
National Portrait Gallery
c. 1702
Oil on canvas
PMA:J99.1825
© National Portrait Gallery


Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

Romans 1:20

It would be a grave error to assume that St. Francis’ contempt for material possessions in any way implied disdain for the material world. Quite the contrary, St. Francis’ love of nature was as earnest and as profound as any the world has known. He gave sermons to the birds; he blessed fish, birds, and a frightened trapped rabbit; and he is reputed to have made peace between a wolf and the town of Gubbio. After centuries of trying to dispel nature worship from Europe, with Francis Christianity returned to a revivified understanding of the natural world as a participant in the life-giving breath of the Creator. Francis considered all of Nature’s creatures, all of Nature’s impulses, as his brothers and sisters, as manifestations of the same compassionate vitality that had created human nature.
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

Romans 1:20

It would be a grave error to assume that St. Francis’ contempt for material possessions in any way implied disdain for the material world. Quite the contrary, St. Francis’ love of nature was as earnest and as profound as any the world has known. He gave sermons to the birds; he blessed fish, birds, and a frightened trapped rabbit; and he is reputed to have made peace between a wolf and the town of Gubbio. After centuries of trying to dispel nature worship from Europe, with Francis Christianity returned to a revivified understanding of the natural world as a participant in the life-giving breath of the Creator. Francis considered all of Nature’s creatures, all of Nature’s impulses, as his brothers and sisters, as manifestations of the same compassionate vitality that had created human nature.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

While he loved all sentient beings as participants in God's Creation, St. Francis seems to have been most fond of birds, the creatures "most unearthly in their nature."

Giotto

Engraving
PMA: J99.1795
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Describe how Jesus was perceived during the Enlightenment
  • Describe the Jesus of Thomas Jefferson and Sir Isaac Newton

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