French playwright, satirist, and philosopher Voltaire (given name: Francois Marie Arouet, 1694-1778) wrote at a time when a corrupt state church and totalitarian government exercised brutal control over nearly every aspect of French life. Among other causes, Voltaire wrote to free his fellow Frenchmen from the early 18th-century church’s doctrine of “the divine right of kings” – the notion that the monarchy was ordained of God and therefore resisting injustice was a sin.
Unlike Luther, who first attempted to reform the church, or the Anabaptists, who started their own, Voltaire reasoned that the best way to break the corrupt church’s hold on people’s hearts and minds was to make his fellow citizens doubt the core doctrines of the church, and therefore its divine authority.
Voltaire’s attacks on the monarchy, on the state church, as well as on contemporary philosophers who promoted acquiescence to the status quo, were diabolically clever and effective. They influenced Thomas Paine and other American revolutionaries, helped lead to the brutal French revolution, and have influenced many writers and students since.
To thinking Christians, Voltaire’s work is of interest largely because, long after his death, Voltaire’s arguments against core Christian doctrines influenced another kind of revolution – within several mainstream Christian denominations, people influenced by Voltaire’s ideas (though often filtered through other writers) have decided that those core Christian doctrines are expendable “stumbling blocks” that are actually keeping people away from the teachings of Jesus.
But before we focus on that, let’s learn just a bit more about Voltaire. One thing that made him so effective was his ability to come at things “sideways,” getting his ideas past the censors, at the same time he planted seeds of doubt throughout his culture.
Voltaire’s Unique Approach to Banned Subjects – Under almost constant censorship, Voltaire often presented his most “dangerous” ideas by pretending he was writing about someone else. He would start an essay with something to the effect of “You won’t believe what such and such a group has the audacity to say.” Then he would spell out his own ideas about religion or politics in great detail, only to end with a very weak “rebuttal” such as: “Fortunately we in France have the Church to explain that such ideas are only foolishness and may safely be ignored.”
As an example, in Voltaire’s article supposedly denouncing anti-trinitarians (in Dictionnaire Philosophique), he provides a list of arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity. (They center, by the way, on the doctrine being hard to understand and not being explicitly spelled out in the New Testament). Most of those arguments preceded Voltaire, and would not rock the faith of anyone who knew the Bible and something about church history. Voltaire ends the article by saying, that, (fortunately) the (church) councils had settled the subject. However, many people without convictions or motivation to evaluate Voltaire’s claims for themselves have come away from such summaries convinced that Voltaire has made a compelling case against a core Christian doctrine
Voltaire and the Divinity of Christ – In an essay that supposedly attacks those who renounce the divinity of Christ, Voltaire suggests a “history” of how Jesus came to be considered divine by the church, supposedly over a period of centuries. Again, many of the ideas in the following passage originated before Voltaire, but few people expressed them as well.
” , , , Christians spent three whole centuries in constructing little by little the apotheosis [raising to the status of a god] of Jesus. . . . At first . . . Jesus was regarded merely as a man inspired by God, then as a creature more perfect than the others. Some time after he was given a place above the angels, as says Saint Paul. Every day added to his stature. He became an emanation of God manifested in time. That was not enough: he was held to be born before time itself. Finally he was made God, consubstantial with God.
Voltaire’s chronology ignores the fact that virtually all first- and second-century Christian writings and creeds universally accepted the divinity of Jesus. The great church councils of later centuries were not convened, as some insist, to establish Jesus’ divinity, but largely to refute an upstart third-century movement to discredit it.
To scholars serious about their faith and willing to check out the facts, Voltaire’s claims that the doctrine of the divinity of Christ evolved over three centuries should be of historical interest only. But scores of readers who could not be bothered to investigate Voltaire’s claims have simply acquiesced, surrendering this doctrine of Jesus’ own teaching without a shot, as it were. Unfortunately, quite a few of those young men advanced to the pulpit, and even to seminary chairs, where they could disseminate their lack of faith to the next generation under the apparent authority of their own church leadership.
Quoting Voltaire – Voltaire was convincing, prolific, and wickedly funny. Some Christians like to point out that Voltaire enjoyed skewering atheists almost as much as he enjoyed skewering Christians. But before quoting the fellow to prove some sort of “Christian” point, Christians should remember that much of Voltaire’s writing was tongue-in-cheek, and that quoting him out of context could backfire among people who actually take the time to look up the quote.
Voltaire and Twain – American authors often compare Voltaire to Mark Twain, which is a fair comparison if one keeps in mind that Voltaire was first, and was far more vitriolic than Twain (Of course, with church censorship, exile, and imprisonment, Voltaire had more to be bitter about than Twain). To Twain’s credit, he exceeds Voltaire when it comes to capturing the pioneer spirit (for good or for ill) of his countrymen, and for creating compelling characters in most of his fiction. But when he is writing mostly to prove a point, he does emulate Voltaire’s tongue-in-cheek tone. He also reflects Voltaire’s practice when he uses “letters” and “journals” (supposedly from other people) to camouflage attacks on various aspects of society.
In his own attacks against religion, Twain also seems to have repeated several of Voltaire’s arguments (amplifying them with Twain’s own brand of humor, of course). Yet most of Twain’s rants against organized religion or Christian doctrine pale next to the original, even in translation. As a fomenter of “radical” ideas, Twain may influence the reader; Voltaire influenced countless other writers.
Voltaire’s Influence on the Church – Voltaire’s on the church has been as subtle, widespread, and effective as leaven in a lump of dough. Nearly three centuries later, countless religious leaders who’ve swallowed Voltaire’s claims without examination now contend that doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ are outdated “stumbling blocks” that are keeping people away from “The Faith” (assuming you can call anything “The Faith” that actually requires no faith at all).
Ironically, since Voltaire’s assertions have become dogma in traditionally “mainstream” denominations, the churches and institutions affected have become every bit as dogmatic about their version of “Christianity” as was the early eighteenth-century Roman Catholic church that Voltaire attacked. They, frankly, refuse to revisit their basic assumptions, even when archaeological and manuscript evidence proves them wrong.
As a further irony, the churches that abandoned Biblical doctrines that they thought were keeping people away have stopped attracting new people at all, or even keeping more than a fraction of their own children and grandchildren in the church. Apparently if you take everything out of the “faith” that actually requires faith, you also take away the sense that the faith has anything more to offer than lessons in ethics, which, most people seem to feel they can do without. Yet, in spite of history’s lessons, it still seems that every time Voltaire’s arguments are restated by yet another author in search of publication or notoriety, they attract the attention of those who are easily swayed by whatever seems “clever” or “new.”
Though many times refuted, Voltaire’s assertions about basic Christian doctrines have become the bedrock that supports the foundations of the “Liberal,” “Neo-Orthodox, and “Post-Modern Christian” movements of the last two centuries. In a way, Voltaire has been the thorn in the side of theologically orthodox Christians for almost three centuries, a fact that he would probably find quite amusing, did he not have more compelling demands on his attention just now.
Oddly enough, a book about “reforming the church,” largely based on claims originally made by Voltaire, recently “made the rounds” at any number of conservative Bible colleges and seminaries. Maybe you’ve read it and have all kinds of ideas for making “the faith” more acceptable to nonbelievers by minimizing – if not filtering out – everything that smacks of the supernatural. Guess what – you’re just the latest in a long line of shallow thinkers who’ve fallen for the same centuries-old arguments.
Here’s a rule of thumb – the next time you hear what seems to be a reasonable, compelling argument against ANY of the core doctrines of Christianity, chances are it started with, or at least was popularized by Voltaire – and it has never staggered the faith of any Christian who took the time to do their own research or thinking on the subject.