The Enlightenment (17th and 18th Centuries)
 Orthodox Lutheran Theologians
Already the orthodox theologians of the 17th century were dealing with early rationalists, the Socinians. The latter were a heretical, anti-Trinitarian sect that first met in northern Italy in the year Luther died (1546). Their first leader was Lelio Sozzini (or Laelius Socinus, hence Socinians) (1525-62), a Roman priest in Siena, Italy. In about 1570, his nephew, Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604), took over. Being driven out of Italy, they settled in Poland. After Fausto had assumed the leadership and after a time of consolidation, a new catechism, the Catechism of Rakow, named for the place in Poland where they had settled, was published in 1605, one year after Fausto’s death. It was written in Polish, but in 1609 a Latin translation was prepared.
As far as their doctrine of Scripture was concerned, they believed that all “natural religion” had to be rejected, that Scripture was the sole authority in the church; that it, however, had to be interpreted in light of reason. Consequently, Socinians deny the Trinity (no distinction of Persons in God); they deny original sin; they deny the sacraments (e.g., Lord’s Supper = act of thanksgiving, “Eucharist”); they deny hell (but believe the annihilation of the wicked). Christ, for them, is a mere man, though a miraculously begotten one; hence they, unlike Unitarians, accorded him adoration. Christ is the word of God in the sense that he authoritatively “interprets” God and thus mediates salvation. His death has no atoning value; it simply shows the extent of God’s love. The Spirit is merely a power of God.
 Th. Hobbes (1588-1679)
Earlier Humanism spawned a “philosophical” reading of Scripture in England. Th. Hobbes develops his doctrine of the state based on reason and Scripture; evidently, he understands Scripture as an ethics textbook. The Scriptures are accepted as authoritative based on the fact that men have been instructed by the church to see them as such; in Hobbes’ ideal political commonwealth the sovereign would establish the authority of the Scriptures. Interestingly, he, following Calvinist tradition, interprets the NT in light of the OT. Miracles play an important role in authenticating prophets; since, however, miracles have ceased, there is now no longer prophecy; the bible has taken the place of direct, prophetic revelation.
 John Locke (1632-1704)
Locke also is part of the transition from a traditional reading of Scripture to a “modern” one that was based on human reason. For him, Scripture’s texts had to be read literally, that is, God used the normal rules of grammar to communicate his truths. Reason plays a role in determining these rules. Divine revelation is seen as always truthful. However, reason has to determine what is divine revelation and what is not. Locke recognized all of Scripture as divine revelation which, as stated before, had to be interpreted according to reasonable rules of grammar.
In practical terms, however, this leads Locke to embrace a “rationalistic” form of religion that rejects many core doctrines of Christianity, e.g., original sin (including the blindness of reason in divine matters!) and justification by faith alone: Locke teaches that men inherited from Adam only his mortality, but not his guilt; that we are justified by faith in Jesus as Messiah and good works. Not surprisingly, he calls Jesus a “lawgiver” who also serves as a moral example. He finds the law already fulfilled in those who try as hard as they can to live faithfully as Christ’s subjects. Locke shares these beliefs with contemporary moderate Presbyterians; Latitudinarians; and Arminians, the latter of whom he met while in the Netherlands.
 John Toland (1670-1722)
One of the disciples of John Locke, Toland, went beyond the moderate rationalism of Locke. He published, in 1696, Christianity not Mysterious, that is, a type of Christianity without mysteries and represents a deist, freethinker approach to the Scriptures. He was critical, not only of the Catholic hierarchy, but of all institutionalized churches. His main interests are moral in nature. For him, Scripture is divine because it agrees with human reason. Scripture provides, beyond reason, information about things that are not accessible to reason, e.g., the creation of the world and the final judgment of the world. However, once the “facts” are known, they must agree with reason. Miracles, likewise, have to agree with reason and reasonable possibility. Jesus himself is, for Toland, chiefly a teacher of simple, easy-to-follow moral precepts. Understood this way, there is indeed nothing “mysterious” or hard to understand in the bible, since it is all “revealed” now. Only obscurantist “priestcraft” can still speak of mysteries here to hold “the simple folks” under its control.
 The Debate Over Hebrew Vowel Points
The continent, meanwhile, had seen a debate concerning the age of the Hebrew vowel points that led into the discussion of the accuracy of the OT manuscripts. Proponent of a relatively young age was the Jewish scholar Elias Levita (1496-1549), according to whom the accents and points were first added in the 5th century A.D. Several Christian humanists adopted his views. – The defender of the old age (time of Ezra) of the vowels points was Johann Buxtorf Sr. (1564-1629) who pointed out that, if the points were young, it is possible to change the meaning of many a text quite arbitrarily. The French Protestant pastor, Louis Cappellus (1534-1586), sought to disprove Buxtorf with new arguments and pointed out that men like Luther also did not have a problem with “young” vowel points.
Cappellus, as well as the Catholic Jean Morin (1591-1659), were active in OT textual criticism, both received generous support from the Catholic church which sought to undermine the Protestant reliance on the Scriptures alone by proving that the text of those Scriptures was unreliable and full of contradictions.
 NT Textual Criticism
Also the NT text received greater scrutiny. At the beginning of the 16th century Erasmus published his Greek NT based on a few NT manuscripts. Into the 17th century, his text was the commonly “received text” (textus receptus). The Briton John Mill (1645-1707) published a new Greek NT shortly before his death for which he had reviewed many more manuscripts. The German Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1757) provides another edition of the Greek text; he is the first one to gather the NT manuscripts into various “nations” and “families” based on similarities and local origin etc. The Swiss Johann Jacob Wettstein (1693-1754) published, a few years before his death, the Novum Testamentum Graece where he combines textual criticism (inventing the current system of denominating NT manuscripts) and also provides material parallels from ancient Christian, Jewish, and Pagan writings; this second apparatus anticipates the approach of the later “history of religions” school.
 Richard Simon (1638-1712)
The French Catholic Simon is the now famous author of the Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (“Critical History of the Old Testament”). When he was about to publish this work in 1678, he was a Catholic priest and a member of the Oratorian Order. However, when a certain Catholic bishop saw the table of contents of the book he had all copies destroyed, even though the censor and other religious authorities had already authorized the publication of the work.
The first book of Simon’s Critical History is dedicated to textual criticism: The Hebrew as well as the Greek manuscripts of the OT available now, so Simon, contain several changes and thus undermine the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, on which Protestants and Socinians insisted. He further taught that the present-day OT contains certain additions which are later but do not change the meaning of the text in a major way. Thus, the authority of Scripture remains intact.
He denies that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch as a whole. Rather, professional “scribes” compiled Mosaic and other materials (e.g., the creation account which is older than Moses) into the current form. This seems to introduce the (Catholic) principle of tradition into Scripture; however, it needs to be pointed out that also orthodox Lutheran theologians recognized that Scripture as a book is younger than the oral preaching of the patriarchs and apostles contained in it. This is not the controversial point between them and the Catholics. After his work on the OT, Simon also published the three companion volumes for the NT (textual and canon criticism, 1689; translation criticism, 1690; interpretation criticism, 1693).
 Baruch de Spionza (1632-1677)
The Jewish thinker de Spionza of Amsterdam, not unlike John Toland, accepts the authority of the prophets / revelation only in moral questions, and that only for the intellectually poor. The others, the philosophers can know God and his will from studying nature. In other words, for Spinoza natural knowledge of God is also a kind of prophecy, “natural prophecy” or “natural revelation,” that is. The advantage of Scripture in comparison to natural reason? Reason does not realize that simple morality and obedience are the way to a blessed life, as Scripture teaches. In this, its moral teachings, rests the divinity of Scripture. In other words, Scripture does not reveal any supernatural truths or realities (miracles appear as such simply because the ancient witnesses understood certain events as such; the law of nature cannot be broken); God accommodated the limited knowledge or temperament of the “prophets” when he gave them a revelation. Everything that goes beyond the moral core of the message of the prophets is open to criticism, which allowed Spinoza, among other things, to integrate the changing worldview and be a “critical” scholar. Christ was seen by this Jewish thinker as a true moral philosopher who had immediate knowledge of God and his will, but who was not a Savior in any traditional sense of the word.
 August Hermann Francke (1663-1772)
Francke represents, as far as his views of the interpretation of Scripture are concerned, an amalgamation of orthodox Lutheranism, Pietism, and older Spiritism. In his hermeneutics lectures of 1693 he distinguishes between the core and the shell of Scripture. Historical, grammatical, logical, and other analytical methods serve to understand the shell of Scripture. Francke warns his hearers not to spend too much time and energy on the shell, which he designates as “meaning of the letter” (sensus litterae).
To determine the meaning of the core, the single “literal meaning” of a text (sensus litteralis), Francke recommends several tools. The exegetical ones have to do with the content of a given text (scope, context, parallels, analogy of faith), but also questions of figurative speech are discussed here. The dogmatic ones aim at knowing God’s nature and will; Francke commends to state the main doctrine of a text in connection with the other doctrines touched upon in it. Francke sees it as crucial to distinguish between law and gospel. The dogmatic interpretation eventually has to present Christ as the core of Scripture and way to eternal life. Next Francke, following orthodox examples, suggests a “porismatic” (from porismo,j, “gain,”see 1 Tim. 6:6) approach that is to draw theoretical and practical conclusions from what has been achieved so far. This leads to the main point, the practical application of the text to the life of the exegete. This shows: for Francke, the text can fully be understood only by a believer.
Francke, however, does not stop here. In a next stage, he demands that the exegete also deal with the affects / emotions of the writers and his own affects if he desires to reach the core of Scripture. This again separates the regenerate from the unregenerate because the affects of the former are different than the ones of the latter. Only the affects of the former can relate to the affects of the biblical writers.
Sixteen years later, in 1709, Francke lectured again on hermeneutics. This time, he distinguished between three “senses,” that is, three levels of meaning of Scripture; the older distinction between core and shell had become unimportant. The grammatical sensus litterae is the first level; the sensus litteralis is the next; and the sensus mysticus / spiritualis is the third level of meaning. Misunderstanding can take place on all three levels, that is, the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit can be missed. Only the regenerate can know the spiritual meaning of the text; the unregenerate can know only the external sense, like the Pharisees.
 Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768)
Reimarus was professor for oriental languages in Hamburg. He set forth a clearly rationalistic understanding, according to which human reason alone, based on nature, is sufficient for knowing God. Since he managed to deceive his contemporaries about his true beliefs, he was celebrated by them as a defender of Christianity against philosophical atheism during his lifetime. First after his death this picture began to change when Lessing published some of Reimarus’ critical writings anonymously.
Reimarus subjected the main characters of the OT to a harsh moral critique: beginning with Adam, they all fall short of displaying the kind of moral uprightness one would expect in the recipients of divine revelation. Consequently, the OT does not contain any divine revelation at all but is rather a document of a despicable human religion. The NT’s interpretation of the OT messianic prophecies as fulfilled in Jesus is rejected by Reimarus as unreasonable allegory.
As for the NT, Reimarus “proves” based on the contradictions in the resurrection accounts that Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples, that he, in other words, did not rise from the dead. Reimarus, following the Briton Th. Chubb, furthermore distinguished between the words and intentions of Jesus and the theological thinking of his disciples, a distinction which was of major importance throughout the 19th century. Jesus, for Reimarus, was a mixture of moral philosopher (universal meaning) and political pretender (particular-Jewish meaning). These true intentions the disciples sought to hide after the death of their leader when they refashioned Jesus into an otherworldly Redeemer from sins etc. This teaching Reimarus characterizes as “Jewish” because it is based on the OT.
Evidently, Reimarus was not a Christian; he shared the belief of Enlightenment philosophers in a good and wise God who is to be served by a moral lifestyle. What caused him to break with the faith of his childhood is the “foolishness” of Scripture: he was unable to find in Scripture neatly revealed the neat system he learned (which seemed incompatible with the assumption of an all-wise Being that wants all to be saved). And: Scripture teaches things that are against the optimistic anthropology he cherished as a man of the Enlightenment (e.g., original sin) or against reason (e.g., Trinity).
 Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791)
Semler came from a home of Lutheran Pietists, but early rejected Pietism’s display of piety as hypocritical. Semler turned to historical studies and academic theology. Semler, as his contemporary Lessing, saw in Luther the hero of the new age because he, according to Semler, taught that the authority of the church is nothing, and the “free conscience alone” is everything, when it came to the interpretation of the bible. In addition to this hermeneutical misunderstanding of Luther, Semler’s theology also is not Lutheran. E.g., the NT passages speaking about the vicarious atonement of Christ he understood as mere illustrations of the hitherto unknown moral goodness and mercy of God toward those who’d like to improve their moral condition. He can find kind words for Pelagius along these lines. However, since Semler distinguished between the clearly defined public (church) religion and the private religion of the individual (based on individual investigation and conviction), he was able to abide externally by the Augsburg Confession. Semler appears to be another version of a blend of Pietism (criticism of institutionalized religion, moralism, individualism) and enthusiasm (difference between Scripture and God’s Word).
His main hermeneutical work is Abhandlung von freier Untersuchung des Canons (“Treatise on the free examination of the canon”), in four volumes (1771-1775). The first volume deals with questions of the delineation of the OT canon. He first noted that, historically, there were different canons in use early on (MT, LXX, Samaritans, etc.) – why should one think that the Hebrew Canon contains only inspired writings and why shouldn’t be an inspired work among the additional writings in the Greek canon? From this Semler drew the conclusion that today too each reasonable reader should be allowed to determine the extent of the canon (according to increasingly moral principles (Enlightenment idea of progress in human history!) – which, for Semler, excluded Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, which were morally irrelevant but contained only matters of particular interest to the Jewish nation). Here Semler applies the distinction between public and private religion to suspend the ecclesial canon for the inquiring individual.
Because Semler believes in the moral progress of humanity, he views the OT (and the NT to a lesser extent) as a document of an outdated religion. Each writing contains, besides abiding, timeless moral truths, material that is strictly of historical interest. He recommends publishing a severely abridged version of the OT for continued use in the church of his time. Evidently, Semler did not believe in the inspiration of Scripture, as taught by the orthodox teachers. For him, if there was an inspiration, it is strictly limited to the autographs which now are lost and replaced by manuscripts which contain much error. This, in a sense, allowed for further critical investigation of the bible in the future.