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Deconstructing the Modern Man Part 2: Immanuel Kant

[Note to reader: In this article, I follow Van Til and the Westminster/Reformed Theological Seminary line of thought, which contradicts the normal stories which are told especially by secular historians. This is a work in progress and critiques and suggestions are welcome! For the lay reader: this post is tough going, but if you understand it, it will really go a long way in understanding modern apologetics and Christian Liberalism. I tried to draw things together and summarize/explain the conclusion!]

Born in 1724, Kant was in one sense among the last of the major Enlightenment thinkers, and in another way the quintessential Enlightenment man. Like the Apostle Paul, Kant was one who – although “untimely born” and “the least of the apostles”  – came to epitomize the movement he represented.

His works “The Critique of Pure Reason,” and “The Critique of Practical Reason” arouse out of the man-centered philosophy of the Enlightenment, and mortared this philosophy permanently in the mind of modern man. In “Religion Within the Limits of Bare Reason Alone,” Kant laid the foundations of what would grow to become Liberal, or Modern Christianity.


I. Science in Crisis

Rene Descartes is justly called “the father of modern philosophy” because while disagreeing widely on the details of argumentation, all modern philosophers agree with the ancient Greeks – that knowledge must begin with man alone, not on God. This stands in self-conscious contradiction of the Christian position – represented most explicitly in Calvin – that, “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; no, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, page one, underline added).

The foundations of the scientific revolution were predicated on an ordered universe, created by an all-wise Creator. Thus, it was possible to “think God’s thoughts after him.” As man-centered, autonomous reason began to eclipse God-centered reason, science continued for a while, then began to totter, as the foundation was removed.

As has been mentioned, philosophy was divided into two camps: rationalism and empiricism.

The rationalists followed Descartes in looking inwards for truth. This philosophy was very popular on continental Europe, where Gottfried Leibniz ((1646-1716) modified it, and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) came to give it its fullest expression. According to Spinoza, the order and connections in the physical world mirrored the order and connection in the human mind. According to Spinoza, the mind contained all the basic facts necessary to infer all of truth. Naturally, this approach made Scriptures, the church, and even science irrelevant.

Among the matter-of-fact British empire, rationalism was never very popular. John Locke felt that Descartes’ introspection did not at all align with the ways in which we actually learn and acquire knowledge in this world: all learning, he felt, was through sensory experience. Thus, as mentioned in the previous post, Locke believed that at birth man was a tabula rasa or “blank slate.” In life, the various experiences and lessons of life write on this blank slate truth. Locke’s beliefs were taken up by a younger contemporary, George Berkeley (1685-1753), who limited the ability to receive knowledge by stated that large concepts and abstractions such as “matter” cannot really be known: all that can be known are the objects themselves. Berkeley’s “immaterialism” (as it was called) was taken up by David Hume (1711-1776),  who took it one step further. In point of fact, all that we really have are faded memories of sensory experience, which could not really be trusted. Thus, even for empiricists, science seemed to be an illogical enterprise.

According to Van Til, both rationalism and empiricism had degenerated into a reductio ad absurdum. Using Rudyard Kipling’s analogy, Van Til describes rationalism as a string with no beads, and empiricism as beads with no string. Another way of putting it would be that in rationalism, there is only an internal black-board with a small man scribbling endlessly in a pursuit of truth – but cut off completely from the outside world. In empiricism, there is a sort of dusty attic with stacks and stacks of faded photographs (sensory experience), but only a blank floor (the tabula rasa) to place them on, and no real way of knowing whether one is getting them in the right order or not.

Engaged in bitter debates amongst themselves, humanistic philosophy of both the empiricist and rationalist variety was in crisis, and was rapidly becoming incapable of providing a foundation for science.

II. Religion in Crisis

After the brief period of optimism and spiritual renewal in the Reformation , the mainline denominations became obsessed with a very scholarly, academic version of the faith. pejoratively called “Protestant Scholasticism,” this faith was an attempt to bring the precision of science to religion. It produced many bitter – sometimes bloody – wars, but seemed out of touch with the needs of the common man.

In response to Protestant Scholasticism, the very different movement of Pietism arose. In Germany, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) began a movement which focused on inner transformation, personal study of the Bible, prayer, and outreach. Zinzendorf was able to integrate Christians from all of the major denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist) by de-emphasizing theology. Pietism became the precursor to Weseleyanism, and was echoed by many similar movements across Europe.

Thus, Christianity seemed divided into the harsh dichotomy of a cold intellectualism versus a vibrant but theologically shallow spiritualism.

To the educated man, both options seemed absurd. Especially because Christianity: 1) was causing a tremendous amount of war, 2) was in some places (especially in the form of the Catholic church) holding back science, 3) was out of touch with the leading philosophies of the time, religion also seemed to be in crisis. It was out of reach for the burgeoning Modern Man, who required, above all, to maintain intellectual respectability alongside his faith.


Born into a simple pietist home, Kant seemed to have a vibrant faith as a child – a faith which was later crushed in the harsh pietistic school in which he was reared. Later in life, he recounts difficulty even in praying or worshiping God – perhaps due to the imperfections of his education.

Although lacking in spiritual guidance, Kant’s education gave him a brilliant mind – a mind which he soon put to the task of (as the cliché goes) “saving science, and making room for religion.”

I. Critique of Pure Reason: “The Salvation of Science”

Kant’s genius was his ability to understand a broad range of perspectives, and to synthesize them into one coherent whole. He agreed with the Cartesian (that is, those who followed the system of Rene Descartes) rationalists, that the human mind is born with a certain amount of information within it. However, he also agreed with the empiricists that information is learned through sensory experience.

Kant’s solution was to use the limited amount of basic knowledge which all men share in common (basically, “common-sense”) as the foundation for knowledge, and to build sensory experience on top of this. This is the essence of Kantian realism: beginning with a set of  a priori (that is, “before experience”) presuppositions, then building truth on top of those.

Thus, in Kippling’s analogy, he was stringing the beads of distinct life experiences with the string of rationality. In my analogy, he was sticking the faded photographs of sensory experience onto the blackboard of human rationality.

The practical consequence of Kant’s new philosophy was agnosticism towards God. In contradiction of Calvin, Kant refused to ask where the order of creation, or the a priori information in one’s mind came from: it was – to put it crudely – “just there,” and was not a proof of an all-wise creator God. Further, Kant drew a sharp distinction between what he called the “phenomenal” (or material) world – which could be studied and learned about through the senses and through reason – and the “phenomenological” (or spiritual) world – which could not be accessed at all. Thus, it was Kant’s system which provided the foundation for the now-common saying, “theism is not science” – a statement which would have been incoherent to the founders of modern science, such as Isaac Newton, who built the entire scientific enterprise upon Biblical theism.

II. The Critique of Practical Reason & Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone: “Making Room For Religion”

As the story goes, Kant came home one day to find his man-servant in tears. When he asked what was wrong, the servant said, “They tell me you have taken away my God!” Thus motivated to return some sort of religion to the simple-minded, Kant set out to “save religion” in The Critique of Practical Reason.

Book One: Radical Evil

Kant began his book with a bombshell: the first thing we need to know about humanity is that we have within us a “radical evil.” Was Kant, after all, negating the “advances” of John Locke and others, going back the Medieval notion of original sin? No, certainly not.

Kant did believe in a moral order. He defined this as “Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will,” or (in plain English) “Act according to the laws which would most benefit everyone everywhere.” Lying may benefit you in the short-term – but if this became normal, society would fall apart and each person (yourself included) would suffer. Therefore, one should not lie – and so on. One should note that this is basically the “golden rule” put in philosophical terminology.

The problem which Kant faced was that most people very often did not live up to this moral imperative. This was radically evil, and widespread: if it was not caused by original sin, what was it caused by?

Kant divided human will into three aspects: the “Villa” (the moral law – basically the conscience – which is never defiled), the “Gesinna” (which was the disposition of a person, which could be corrupted) and the “Vilcre” (the choosing agent of a person, which is always free to choose one or the other). Kant looked to the story of original sin in Genesis 3 not as a historic event which transmitted sin to all humanity, but as a metaphor or myth which was universally true for all humanity: in the same way that Adam was tempted by his tarnished disposition (Gesinna), yet also had a sense of what was right and wrong (the Villa), and could just as easily have chosen not to sin as to sin (the Gesinna), so we too, in every occasion of life, should choose right instead of wrong.

Book Two: Jesus As An Archetype

In learning to act morally, Kant decided that an archetype would be helpful. He looked to Scriptures for this endeavor, and re-interpreted the example of Christ. Just has he categorically rejected the notion that Adam’s sin transferred some consequence to his descendents, so too he rejected the notion that a sacrifice by one person years ago could help us with our sin problems. This would, in fact, be “immoral” – since it would be causing a person to suffer for sins which he never committed. Rather, he believed that the great contribution of Jesus was a moral example. Being moral was defined as following Jesus’ sinless example.

Book Three: The Church

Kant believed that church was important. If people were to live moral lives, they should meet together with other moral people, and be encouraged and given practical tips on morality. Thus, church was an integral part of Kant’s new morality. It was man’s own moral consciousness, however, not the morality of the Bible which was to be followed. When the Bible seemed to be immoral from man’s perspective, the Bible should be modified to fit within the parameters of man-made morality.

Book Four: Religions of Magic

Kant divided religion into two categories. On the one hand, there were religions of magic, whereby humans attempted to manipulate God to do their bidding. On the other, there were religions of morality, whereby humans attempted to please God by means of their morality. Because Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were only attended by a few witnesses and was unacceptable to the modern mind, these were not to be the focus of religion: rather, we were to focus on the sinless nature of Jesus’ life. Voicing an assumption which was shared by many at the time, Kant stated that the modern period was the best one for determining orthodoxy within Christianity.

Book Five: Religion and Clericism

The practical upshot of Kant’s system is that much of what had been previously valued as a part of Christianity had to go: specifically, anything which was not directly related to reinforcing morality within people was superfluous. He called these aspects “pseudo-service” and noted especially singing or chanting worship to God, offering penance or incense, etc.: these were merely aspects of “magical religion” – it was man trying to twist the arm of God. In “true religion,” man does not really need God’s help, but tries to make one’s self worthy of His favor, through hard work, as has been stated.

In conclusion, Kant makes mention of what one should do with the fact that they have sinned often and at times grievously against the moral law. Since the historic atonement for sin has been removed, Kant’s only suggestion is that one must pour one’s self that much more passionately into a moral life, in order to become one’s own atonement for sin. Because of the morality of one’s later life, it would be unethical for God to judge such a person for their earlier sins.


In summary, the philosophy of Kant was a philosophy managed to save the crumbling edifice of science by tying empiricism and rationalism together. The logical conclusion of this was to limit knowledge to what could be perceived by the senses and what could be deduced by pure reason. Naturally, historic Christianity did not fit within this system.

In Van Til’s words, Kant’s “salvation” of religion was a sort of “bed of Precrustes.” In places where Christianity was too short for Kant’s system, he stretched it. In places where Christianity was too long, he cut it off. This deceased, fragmented corpse he then vivified with Enlightenment Romanticism. The result was a spectre which was not Christianity at all, but a post-Christian, non-salvific religion tailor-made to fit Modernity.

Centuries earlier, Martin Luther had rightly said that there are only two types of religion in the world: religions of legalism – man trying feebly to make himself presentable to God – and the one religion of grace. In emptying Christianity of original sin and the atonement, Kant removed all that was distinctly Christian from Christianity, and (in the words of Machen) returned the western world to the vague notion of spirituality and ethics which was already in the world (especially in ancient Greece) before Christianity came on the scene.

This emptied Christianity, or “non-redemptive” Christianity (Machen) eventually became (through Romanticism and the influence of Friedrich Schliermacher) what is now known as Christian Liberalism.


  1. Good stuff.Ravi Zacharias refers to Kant as a “watershed thinker”.At the dividing line of a watershed,all runoff flows one way or the other-either to the river of life or to the lake of fire.

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