Spinoza, Rationalism, the Enlightenment, & Historical Criticism
It is no small wonder that Benedict De Spinoza was censured with a חרם (cherem) and excommunicated from the “Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656.”1 His move toward rationalism, i.e., the idea that humanity must succumb to the “natural light of reason”2 as the deciding factor of all truth, provided a basis for rejecting traditional interpretations of both Judaism and Christianity.
Contrary to the providential views of both Judaism and Christianity, Spinoza was a naturalist, who spoke in naturalistic terms. Essentially, Spinoza believed that no principles outside of nature could be induced to explain any phenomena. Therefore, Spinoza’s god is not a providential god, nor a personal god. Instead, he is identical with nature. For Spinoza, “all things are predetermined by universal natural laws to exist and operate in a given, fixed, and definite manner…[and they] depend on human decree.”3 Therefore, Spinoza’s god is not a providential lawmaker who issues decrees and punishments. He is an impersonal god who has no will, no intentions or plans, he is not wise, just, or good. He is only found in nature. The personal anthropomorphic conception of god that is a foundation for the typical traditional religion of his day, which Spinoza calls “superstition,”4 must be rejected.
For Spinoza, this concept does not stop at his idea of god. He argues that there is no supernatural, only nature. Whatever happens in the universe happens simply as the laws and processes of nature. Therefore, there are no miracles. They only seem to exist since, “men are accustomed to call divine…the work of God, anything which the cause is not generally known.”5 Therefore, the notion of prophecy as supernatural is also abandoned. For Spinoza, prophetic knowledge is not superior to natural knowledge and anything that looks supernatural is not. Instead, it can always be explained in a natural way. Thus, the prophets are only those who teach morality by “imaginative faculty”6 i.e., they “were not endowed with a more perfect mind, but with a more vivid power of imagination”7 Thus, they are not qualified to speak on philosophical or metaphysical matters. Their message is divinely inspired only in the sense that they preach to the people about “charity and moral conduct.”8 Therefore, the revelation of the Spinozian god was adapted, “to the understanding and beliefs of the prophets, who may well have been ignorant of matters that have no bearing on charity and moral conduct but concern philosophic speculation, and were in fact ignorant of them, holding conflicting beliefs.”9 Therefore, it can be seen that Spinoza sought to limit the scope of the prophetic, with his move toward what would later be called pantheism. No doubt probably as a way of trying to undermine the dogmatic influences of his day.
However, in my opinion, it was not Spinoza’s view of god that brought about the plight of violent condemnation after Theologico-Political Treatise (TTP) was published. Likewise, it was not due to Spinoza’s political philosophy. Instead it was his theology, more particularly his view on interpretation. In his chapter, “Of The Interpretation of Scripture,” he posits that the proper approach to scripture is no different than figuring out the meaning to a human work of literature. Thus,
“The method of interpreting Scripture does not widely differ from the method of interpreting nature-in fact, it is almost the same. For as the interpretation of nature consist in the examination of the history of nature, and therefrom deducing definitions of natural phenomena on certain fixed axioms, so scriptural interpretation proceeds by the examination of scripture, and inferring the intention of its authors as a legitimate conclusion from its fundamental principles. By working in this manner everyone will always advance without danger of error-that is, if they admit no principles for interpreting scripture, and discussing its contents save such as they find in scripture itself-and will be able with equal security to discuss what surpasses our understanding, and what is known by the natural light of reason.”10
Thus, we can see how Spinoza was able to question whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch, whether Adam was a real man, or whether both the Mosaic Law and Ceremonial Law superseded natural law. For him, scripture was compiled by human beings and passed down through generations. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, an editor in the second-temple period put it together, most likely Ezra. The finishing touches attached by other scribes. Therefore, for Spinoza, reading scripture was nothing supernatural.
“For as the highest power of scriptural interpretation belongs to every man, the rule for such interpretation should be nothing but the natural light of reason, which is common to all-not any supernatural light nor any external authority; moreover, such a rule ought not to be so difficult that it can be applied by very skillful philosophers, but should be adapted to the natural and ordinary faculties and capacity of mankind.”11
Whatever the case, it is easy to see how later enlightenment ideas formed around Spinoza. Overall, I think his views on scripture attempted to undermine the political and ecclesiastical influence of the leaders of his day, as he was in favor of the removal of ecclesiastics from political and social policy. Additionally, his push for toleration and freedom of expression makes sense in light of the time in which he lived, as he was both displaced by the inquisition and excommunicated by fellow Jews. Additionally, his views on election as something “temporal…[and] only valid while the kingdom lasted.”12 Would have certainly brought about the condemnation of both the Jews and the Dutch Reform Church.
In conclusion, in my opinion, Spinoza’s religion was nothing more than a basic moral code, something that he called the “true religion.”13 Moreover, TTP was for him, an emancipatory effort to set free the world from both religious and political dogma. It single-handedly paved the way for later rationalist who would also reject the authority of Scripture. And provided the basis for enlightenment deism, in which scholars like Lessing and Reimarus would build their foundations upon-also denying the supernatural. Certainly, Spinoza’s explanations foreshadowed higher criticism, because in the end, they were an attempt to replace religious tradition with rational scientific study.
1. Benedict De Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise (Trans. R.H.M. Elwes; New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc, 2009), ix.
2. Ibid., 89.
3. Ibid., 45.
4. Ibid., xviii.
5. Ibid., 69.
6. Ibid., 21.
7. Ibid., 21.
8. Ibid., 33.
9. Ibid., 33.
10. Ibid., 87-88.
11. Ibid., 107.
12. Ibid., 57.
13. Ibid., 4.