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My Encounter with the Enlightenment

I know I have talked about how I lost my faith before.  But I’ve never talked about it in the terms I’m going to be describing it in this post and the next.  It has to do with what happened with my notion of “truth” when I went to Princeton Theological Seminary.

Princeton Theological Seminary is not administratively connected to Princeton University – it simply is in the same town, across the street, and has a shared ancient history.  What is now Princeton University started off in the mid-18th century as a place to train Christian ministers.  Eventually the school split, with the Seminary, under a different administration, becoming its own entity.   By the time I went there as a 22-year-old in 1978, Princeton was a leading a Presbyterian seminary whose mission is to train ministers for the Presbyterian Church.  I had never even stepped foot in a Presbyterian church and really knew almost nothing about it, or about Princeton Seminary.  But I suspected that many of the students and faculty there were not really Christian.  They certainly weren’t my kind of Christian.

But, as I say, I literally knew nothing about the place.  When I first decided I wanted to go there I didn’t even know Princeton Seminary was Presbyterian or that it was in New Jersey.  I wanted to go there for one reason only.  In college, as I pointed out, I became obsessed with studying Greek and decided I wanted to do a PhD working on Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, to gain qualifications to teach in a secular college or university as a (lone) evangelical Christian.   The leading expert in Greek manuscripts of the New Testament was a scholar named Bruce Metzger.  He taught at Princeton Seminary.  So I decided I wanted to go there to study with him.

By the time I arrived in Princeton, of course, I knew much more about what to expect – that the seminary was Presbyterian, that it was, by my standards, crazily liberal, that it emphasized academics as much as ministerial training, and that it had a large faculty of scholars of whom I had never heard, except Metzger.  Some of that was good news for me (I wanted the most academically rigorous training I could get) and some not so good (I wasn’t thrilled about having to study theology under professors I wasn’t sure were even Christian).

My view of Princeton now is that it is not at all crazily liberal.  At the time I saw it as way left of center, but not to the extreme left (that was places like Harvard and San Francisco Theological Seminary where, we thought, it was a huge disadvantage to be a Christian in any sense at all).  Now I think that it was firmly mainline, and in my view today it is an extremely conservative place.  Not crazy conservative like fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, but still, in the overall scheme of thing, very conservative indeed.

In any event, I went their armed to the teeth to fight for the faith.  Turns out I didn’t really need to.  I was certainly one of the most conservative students there, but I found others like me who had come from evangelical backgrounds who were a bit suspicious of what they would be getting at a place like Princeton.

I would not say that I approached my studies there with an open mind.  I was bound and determined to stand for The Truth, in the face of liberal heresy.   But eventually education has a way of getting at you.  Or at least it should.

Here is an aspect about conservative evangelical Christianity that most people have never thought about.   Conservative evangelical Christian thinkers are almost entirely committed heart and soul to the idea that there is objectivity, and the goal of thinking is to be as objective as possible.  They are sworn enemies of relativism, of subjectivity.  They think Truth is objective and can be proven.  The entire enterprise of apologetics – the “proof” of the faith – is rooted in the sense that there is objective truth out there and the goal of inquiry is to uncover that objective truth through objective modes of investigation.

This creates one of the strangest paradoxes in modern culture that I’ve never ever heard anyone ever talk about (scholar or otherwise).  The very notion of objectivity came into being in the European Enlightenment.  It was during the Enlightenment that thinkers came to believe that through science, experimentation, and the unrestricted use of human rationality (instead of appeal to church authority and tradition) it was possible to establish truth in such a way that anyone would be forced to agree to a proposition: Yes, THIS (and not some other thing) is *demonstrably* true.  It can be proven.

This Enlightenment thinking is what led thinkers away from church dogma and teaching – for example about the nature of the universe (you mean the earth is *not* the center of all things?), about human beings (think, evolution), about the etiologies of disease (am I sick because God is angry with me or because I caught a virus), about morality (is it really right to torture heretics?  Is slavery justified?), about the grounds of authority (is something true if the church has always said it is true?) about the nature of religion (is it invented rather than handed down from above?), about the possibilities of belief (is it sensible to believe in a greater being or, in fact, did we get here by a combination of matter, time, and chance?), and on and on and on.  The Enlightenment changed everything.  It made possible the modern world, whether in terms of science (the very concept of “natural law”), technology, academic disciplines (from chemistry to anthropology to history to psychology to… well, it’s a long list), and religion (agnosticism and atheism became genuine options).

We are all, of course, heirs of the Enlightenment.  Thank God, so to say.

But the irony is this.   Fundamentalist Christians, who take a very hard line precisely against the (horrible!) findings of the Enlightenment — with its Big Bang, evolution, multi-culturalism, and so on – are in one respect as much or even more the Children of the Enlightenment than anyone else on the planet.  They continue to think that Truth is completely Objective and that can be established by bjective modes of inquiry.  Conservative apologists continue to think you can PROVE the truths of Christianity: There is One God, the Creator of all things; the Bible is the literally inspired Word of God; Jesus was physically raised from the dead; and so forth and so on.

The problem is that if you think truth is completely objective and that you can prove something to be true, this means you can also, in theory, objectively prove that it is false.  If you admit the possibility of objective truth you admit the possibility of objective error.  This possibility is what in the long run has proved so disastrous for evangelical Christianity.  It certainly was what proved to be disastrous for my own evangelical Christianity.  Since I was open to both proof and disproof, I eventually came to see that my views did not rest on a solid foundation.  My Enlightenment approach to truth as an evangelical ended up undercutting my anti-Enlightenment views of the truth.  That led to a crisis of faith.  And it was because I was a child of the Enlightenment when it came to my way of establishing truth, when I didn’t accept the results of the Enlightenment when it came to what I believed about the truth.

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My Resistance to Change at Princeton Seminary
Mythicists and the Virgin Birth: Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2017



  1. Avatar
    trudy  May 7, 2017

    Dear Bart,
    Thanks so much for talking about how you lost your faith – you can do this as often as you’d like! After hearing you speak of this the first time, it changed my life. It was difficult and I must admit, sad, but there is no going back. I miss belonging to the community of my church (Catholic), and I’ve been told to return just to be a part of that, even if I no longer believe. I’m afraid that is too hypocritical for me, so it probably will never happen.

    And so, I appreciate hearing about your loss of faith … because that was the beginning of my becoming an Agnostic. I have read many of your books, but still cannot call myself an Atheist.

    Thanks very much for your Blog!


  2. talmoore
    talmoore  May 7, 2017

    Spinoza made the absolute best possible rational case for the existence of God, and yet even he was not able to make God anything more can a pantheistic “substance” of “infinite attritubes” that was, more or less, indistinguishable from the universe as a whole. A better, more logical case, has never been made, as far as I see it. And yet, Spinoza’s argument is simply wrong. It has massive flaws and inconsistancies that are simply fatal to its logic. The fact of the matter is that any rational attempt at “proving” God is always going to fail because everything we experience and discover about objective reality points to no God existing. Period.

    There’s a reason that we see a constant, steady process of establishment–>revolution–>schism–>secularization through religious history. It’s because everytime institutions are founded to “study” God, they inevitably fail to find him, causing a crisis in which the established institution, for the sake of academic honesty, is forced to become more secular, while those who refuse to accept such secularization establish “conservative” institutions to continue studying God the way they believe He must be studied.

    And the cycle continues, with that new “conservative” institutions having the same crisis, and schisms, and re-establishments, and so on and so forth. Methodists rebelled against the “secularism” of Anglicans, and Baptists rebelled against the “liberalism” of Methodists, and Pencostalists rebelled against the “worldliness” Baptists, and on and on. The university system itself started out in Europe as a place to study theology (i.e. to study God objectively, scientifically), but as they investigated more and more, the universities became more and more secular. So more conservative universities were established to counter the “secularism” of those former religious universities. Harvard, Yale and Princton all started out as seminaries and religious institutions, and as they investigated more and more, the more and more secular they became. So “conservative” universities, in rebellion over the perceived secularization of institutions that were ostensibly there to “study God,” were established in reaction. And so it goes, on and on, with Falwell’s Liberty “University,” Oral Roberts “University,” Bob Jones “University,” Brigham Young “University,” and so on — the Sisyphean cycle continues.

    • Avatar
      jcutler79  May 8, 2017

      Hi Talmoore,
      Unlike Oral Roberts U, Liberty U, or Bob Jones U, BYU is a fully accredited university that does not teach pseudohistory or pseudoscience, creationism, etc., like these other schools. You can even get it from rationalwiki.org (and contrast this statement with what rationalwiki.org has to say about the other schools you listed):
      “Brigham Young University (abbreviated BYU) is a private university in Provo, Utah, named for the Mormon prophet. It is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Unlike many other strict religious universities (e.g., Bob Jones University), it is an accredited, internationally recognized university, complete with reputable scholastic and research departments as well as a diverse NCAA sports program, and not in any way a diploma mill— the university even openly teaches the doctrine of evolution.[1]”
      I just find it revealing that even a source like rationalwiki.org would contrast BYU with the very schools you listed with it.
      I’m just curious, why did you mention BYU in a context like that, with the sneer quotes?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 9, 2017

        BYU is relatively more liberal than the others, true, and I think that proves my point. BYU is older than all the others, having been established in the 19th century. Meanwhile, those evangelical universities were founded more recently — in the case of Liberty university, much more recently. But BYU started out just as peripherally conservative in the beginning as well, not receiving full accreditation until 50 years into its existence. Over time, these institutions become relatively more liberal, not the other way around. Moreover, I can’t think any institution that was founded as a secular, liberal school and gradually became more religious and conservative over time. The arrow always points in the same direction. I believe that is telling.

        • Avatar
          jcutler79  May 11, 2017

          That makes sense.

          I’m curious about another statement you made above. Do you think you’ll ever encounter a compelling, rational case for belief in God, given that not even Spinoza’s attempt persuaded you?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  May 14, 2017

            “Do you think you’ll ever encounter a compelling, rational case for belief in God, given that not even Spinoza’s attempt persuaded you?”

            I doubt it. Spinoza’s argument is mindbogglingly rigorous. It’s like the Euclid’s Elements of theological proofs. If that couldn’t convince me, I can’t imagine anything else would. This is what I call in my research the paradigm shift from a top-down worldview to a bottom-up world view. Once it becomes clear that the universe no longer goes God–>fundamental laws of nature–>human beings, we have to consider the possibility that it actually goes Fundamental laws of nature–>human beings–>God.

  3. Avatar
    Jessie  May 7, 2017

    Another fantastic post, Professor.

    Gosh, I don’t know where to start.

    a) The history of Princeton Theological Seminary, and the emergence of Westminster Theological Seminary (and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) in the era of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy is so incredibly fascinating. My favourite essay is written by John Frame (from Reformed TS) named, “Machen’s Warrior Children”. It talks about the establishment of Westminster TS by former Princeton TS faculty as well as others from the Dutch Christian Reformed Church (ie. the one and only Cornelious Van Til, the progenitor of presuppositional apologetics.)

    If you are ever presented with an opportunity to write a blog post about this history, I encourage you to do so. It is *amazing*.

    b) Your inference that you weren’t familiar (as a Moody grad) with the history of Princeton is interesting. As a former fundamentalist Moody scholar, do you recall Moody professors discussing theological schisms like that of the PCUSA/OPC of the 1930’s or the PCUSA/PCiA schism of 1973? Or was that not part of the curriculum?

    Your blog is very educational. Keep writing.


    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      I once knew that history pretty well (about the Presbyterians); but I think I’ve forgotten most of it. But no, at Moody we didn’t worry about the problems “those liberals” had had….

  4. Avatar
    dwcriswell  May 7, 2017

    Bart: Would you be willing to elaborate on how your changing views affected your relationships with friends and family and how people reacted to your changing perspective. Thanks so much!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      I may get to that! Maybe I’ll add it to the Mailbag.

      • Avatar
        dwcriswell  May 8, 2017

        That would be great!

      • Avatar
        Judith  May 9, 2017

        There was an article about you years ago that quoted Sarah saying you are right about everything you say and debate but your conclusions are wrong. I’ll find it for you. Then maybe you will explain whether it means what I think it does – that what you say is true but that does not mean God does not exist.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 9, 2017

          Yes, I think that’s what she would have meant. We can’t agree on *everything*! That would be way too boring….

          • Avatar
            Judith  May 9, 2017

            LOL. That’s good, Dr. Ehrman.

  5. Avatar
    Gary  May 7, 2017

    “And it was because I was a child of the Enlightenment when it came to my way of establishing truth, when I didn’t accept the results of the Enlightenment when it came to what I believed about the truth.”

    Great article, but could you make the last statement a little clearer for me? (there are a lot of “when’s”) 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      I MEANT to write something like this (it needs to be read in the context of the preceding sentence): And it was because I was a child of the Enlightenment when it came to my way of establishing truth, even though I didn’t accept the results of the Enlightenment when it came to what I believed about the truth.

  6. Avatar
    mjt  May 7, 2017

    I’m not 100% sure I understand what a relativistic view espouses. Is there a source (not a whole book) that you would recommend that explains the idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      Hmm… I’m not sure where to send you. Sorry!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 8, 2017

      Unitarian Universalism can be said to be a “relativistic” view of religion and God.

  7. Avatar
    dankoh  May 7, 2017

    I don’t have the details at hand, but I recall there is a line of scholarly thinking which holds that Kant was really an atheist (in secret, since being identified as such in his day was not a good career move); thus, his attempts to prove the existence of God were really a way of showing it could not be done.

    I suppose you could say the fundamental principle of the Enlightenment is objectivity, but I prefer to call it reason, and that reason demands that we be objective in our quest for truth. (I’m pushing it back one step, as it were.) In this respect, reason is even more a threat to fundamentalism than objectivity, since reason denies that we can take anything on faith.

  8. Avatar
    godspell  May 8, 2017

    Kant once wrote that he and his contemporaries were not living in an enlightened age, but rather an age of enlightenment, a fine but important distinction–that still holds true today in many respects.

    Yes, it was a good thing, in many ways–but it also created the most horrific dogmas the world had ever seen. To believe in objective truth that can be discovered and proven is one thing–to do the groundwork and look clearly at the facts is another. The most horrible dogmas of the modern era have mainly not been related to theistic religion–the terror of the French Revolution–the desire to remake society so completely they even tried to change the calendar–the increasing need for purity of belief, the way those who had been revolutionaries one week became reactionaries the next–the split between left and right (and the distortion of what people really believe that this brought about)–all were a result of the Enlightenment, and far worse ideologies, of the left and right, followed in its wake.

    And ultimately, they infected theistic religion as well. Fundamentalism is an overreaction to modernity, a desire to go back, erase everything that’s happened, everything we’ve learned. Even atheists can be guilty of it, because it’s a habit of mind, a desire to possess the truth, in a way that no human mind ever can. Truth isn’t stable, isn’t constant, isn’t objective. Truth is analog, not digital. But look which type of computing triumphed. On or off, yes or no, true or false.

    I think this is a very productive line of discussion you’ve started here. We need to think harder about the ways we all think–and where that kind of thought is taking us.

  9. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  May 8, 2017

    Thanks Bart, one of your best posts ever – you have “enlightened” me to a better understanding of some of my conservative evangelical friends and their Achilles Heel.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 9, 2017

      I think it’s pretty clear it’s not only conservative evangelicals who have this problem. The mixed legacy of the Enlightenment affects pretty much everyone.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 8, 2017

    Wow! How interesting that the view that one can prove stuff is both the foundation and the undoing of evangelical Christianity. I had never thought of it that way. So, why do so many remain entrenched in evangelical Christianity despite the evidence against it? Is it all a matter of education in Bible History 101? If so, why don’t Evangelical Christians educate themselves if their religion and their Bible is the most important thing in their lives? That’s the real puzzle. Such an education could easily be provided in what would amount to a one semester college course. It’s certainly no more complicated than freshman calculus or physics or chemistry. So, why not do it?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      There always seems to be a difference between those for whom faith seeks knowledge and those for whom knowledge seeks faith.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 9, 2017

      I dunno, how come so many people still believe in Marxism, after it led to economic collapse, brutal tyranny, and mass genocide?

      Or Social Darwinism, when even Darwin never believed in that?

      Irrationality is not the sole province of theistic believers, kiddo. Honestly, they’re getting some really stiff competition from the unbelievers these days.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 11, 2017

        Actually, there are lots of Marxists around. Can’t confuse Marxism with, say, the Soviet Union.

        • Avatar
          godspell  May 11, 2017

          Well yes, which is why I asked “How come so many people still believe in Marxism?” It’s a lot of posts to keep up with, I know. 🙂

          Should we confuse Christianity with whatever it is Pat Robertson believes? Donald Trump now claims to be a Christian. That argument cuts in many directions, Bart. Anything that becomes a source of power and influence will attract many adherents who are there only for power and influence (and money, and these days, media exposure).

          If we can blame Christianity for the evils connected to it, we can sure as hell blame Marxism (and materialistic atheism) for the horrors perpetrated in its name during the 20th century. And recognize that neither Jesus nor Marx would have endorsed everything done in their name, but I’ve read a fair bit about Marx, and I think he’d have endorsed a fair bit of it. He was a brilliant man, but also a deeply angry and vindictive one. The Soviet Union embodied his ideas AND his personality a lot better than Robertson (or Torquemada) embodied Jesus’.

          Once you decide there’s nobody watching you, what aren’t you capable of?

      • Avatar
        jwesenbe  May 12, 2017

        If you truly understood Marxism, you would know it has never been put through its proper paces. Marxism requires steps, one being a mature capitalistic economy. Russia and China jumped, straight to communism without passing the obligatory “Go”.
        Other Marxist states did the same, going from feudalism or agrarian societies directly to “Marxist” societies. These generally were tyrannies in reality.
        The United States is an economy that has traveled along the Marxist path and may very well reach that state, but is still far from it at this point.

  11. Avatar
    Forrest  May 8, 2017

    The Enlightenment whether conscious or not in our thinking determines the direction we think (conclude). I have to ponder your statement that “this means you can also, in theory, objectively prove that it is false.” The scientific method demands that there is a way to prove something false. I cannot prove that Yahweh doesn’t exist, nor can I prove Zeus doesn’t exist. My evangelical friends challenge me to prove that Yahweh doesn’t exist and when I ask them to prove Zeus doesn’t exist, the response is, “well, we know Zeus doesn’t exist.” So is it a draw? So I am agnostic about this.
    How do you relate to this challenge? Your thoughts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      My view is that scientific knowledge is not the only kind there is, and many things are not scientifically provable. How would a scientist prove that Pride and Prejudice is a great novel?

  12. Avatar
    Bwana  May 8, 2017

    Could you please re-phrase that last sentence, because its confused grammar leads to a crisis of meaning.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      For the second “when” substitute “even though.” Sorry ’bout that.

      • Avatar
        Bwana  May 9, 2017

        Ah ..OK, all clear now. Thanks for a great post!

  13. Avatar
    Stephen  May 8, 2017

    That is an astute point about objectivity and the risk of disconfirmation. There has been some appreciation of this problem within the conservative/fundamentalist community of late and over the last few years we’ve seen the rise of what’s called “Presuppositional” apologetics. One does not have to prove anything. The Christian faith is simply self-evident to the elect and the fact that you can’t see it is just a sign that you’re not one of the elect. They use as their proof text Romans 1:18 and following. Consequently they deny there is any such thing as atheism. We’re just willfully suppressing our innate knowledge of God. I’m not sure why but many of these folks come from the Reformed/Calvinist tradition and your former debate opponent James White is one such.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2017

      Yes, it’s an interesting phenomen: fundamentalists latching on to post-modern epistemologies! (Through Calvin, of course)

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  May 9, 2017

        Can you explain ‘postmodernism’? Is your current belief that there is no such thing as ‘objectivity’ an example of it?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2017

          That would take a book, not a comment! But as to me, I certainly believe there is an objective reality out there, as I realize with exquisit clarity every time I hit my thumb with a hammer. But I don’t think there are objective observers of reality. We have to filter reality through who we are.

  14. Avatar
    JimCriz  May 8, 2017

    Though I still remain a Christian, so much about this post resonates with me. I had a crisis of faith a couple of years back. I was reading anti-Christian literature, while also reading pro-Christian apologetics books intermingled. I found so much of the apologetics so bad, it was actually counter-productive and weakened my belief even more. This modernist approach actually made Christianity seem brittle. It wasn’t until I decided that it was ok to be uncertain about aspects of my faith and that I could reject the infallibility of Scripture and still be a Christian that my belief in God found a place to re-establish, though much transformed through the process.

  15. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 9, 2017

    Fanatics of any stripe are, almost by definition, neither reasonable nor rational.

    ‘A man must be excessively stupid, as well as uncharitable, who believes there is no virtue but on his own side.’ (Joseph Addison, 1711).

  16. Avatar
    mcdoty00  May 10, 2017

    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman. I could not agree more with your experience. This paraphrases nicely a great part in different William Lane Craig debate, this one with Physicist, Sean Carroll, where he explains the Enlightenment in much the same way. He says,

    “Religion and science have gone their separate ways over the years. 500 years ago this debate would not have been held; there was no demarcation between what we would now call science and what we call religion, there was just attempts to understand the world.

    And what happened is that science came about by developing techniques, methodologies for gaining reliable knowledge about the world, and the reliable knowledge that we got was incompatible with some of the presuppositions of religious belief.

    The basic thing that we learned by doing science for 400 years is something called naturalism — the idea that there is only one reality, there are not separate planes of the natural and the supernatural, there is only one material existence and we are part of the universe, we do not stand outside it in any way.

    And the way that science got there is through basically realizing that human beings are not that smart. We’re not perfectly logical; we as human beings are subject to all sorts of biases and cognitive shortcomings. We tend to be wishful thinkers and to see patterns where they’re not there, and so forth. And in response to this science developed techniques for giving ourselves reality checks, for not letting us believe things that the evidence does not stand up to.

    One technique is simply skepticism, which you may have heard of. Scientists are taught that we should be our own theories’ harshest critics. Scientists spend all their time trying to disprove all their favorite ideas. It is a remarkable way of doing things; it’s a little bit counter-intuitive, but helps us resist the lure of wishful thinking.

    The other technique is empiricism. We realize that we are not smart enough to get true knowledge about the world just by thinking about it. We have to go out there and look at the world. And what we’ve done by this for the last 400 years is realize that human beings are not separate, that the world is one thing, the natural world, and it can be understood.”

  17. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 10, 2017

    I was in Minneapolis last week for the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NCCC) and the overarching theme was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation & healing the divisions. I picked up a couple of books to on Luther (one on the 95 theses) but haven’t made time to read them yet. I’ll be interested to see how much thinking shaped the back and forth between Reformation and counter Reformation.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 10, 2017

    You mentioned the idea of natural law as a product of the Enlightenment, but (Catholic especially) theologians seem to mean something completely different when they use the term. Did they call that “inward knowledge” of God’s law Paul claims all humans have by another name before the Enlightenment? Or did Enlightenment philosophers co-opt a theological term as a way of challenging the notion of revelation over against reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      Yes, the Enlightenment sense of natural law involves scientific inquiry, not what theologians are thinking of when they think of the argument from nature for the existence and character of God.

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