Friday, April 28, 2017

America as a Theological Problem During the (Neo)Hellenic Enlightenment

Sebastian Münster's map of the New World, first published in 1540 ~~ Sebastian was a German cartographer, cosmographer and a Christian Hebraist scholar.

"Ἡ Ἀμερικὴ ὡς θεολογικὸ πρόβλημα τὴν περίοδο τοῦ (νεο)ελληνικοῦ Διαφωτισμοῦ"

"America as a Theological Problem During the (Neo)Hellenic Enlightenment"

Ἑῷα καὶ Ἑσπέρια (Athens) 2 (1994/96) 9-70.

By Vasilios N. Makrides


The discovery of America contributed not only to the radical expansion of human knowledge and to a reorientation of man's place on earth, but caused some theological problems too. These difficulties appeared mainly because of the existence of indigenous populations in the New World. What was the origin of these people? Were they descended from Adam and Eve? Were they affected by the original sin? Had Christ saved them? Why are they not mentioned in the Bible? What was their relation to the inhabitants of the already known world? Among the various answers to these questions in Western Europe, the Preadamite theory by Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676) should be mentioned here. La Peyrère suggested a polygenetic theory and argued for the existence of human beings on earth before the creation of Adam and Eve. Despite harsh criticism and countermeasures by the religious establishment of that time, La Peyrère s theory tried to reconcile the biblical information with the new discoveries, exerted strong influences in the long run and paved the way for the wider dissemination of polygenism (e.g., by Voltaire).

The purpose of this article is to examine the belated diffusion of these ideas and discussions in pre-independent Greece during the period of the (Neo)Hellenic Enlightenment. Our main source is the correspondence between Neophytos Kavsokalyvitis (1713-1784) and Nikephoros Theotokis (1731-1800), two of the eminent intellectual figures of the eighteenth century. Neophytos had some questions about the New World, therefore he asked for Theotokis' opinion, whom he esteemed highly. For example, had the Christian message reached the New World before 1492? What was exactly the origin of the Americans? How did they manage to reach this remote continent? When was America first inhabited? Did the universal flood affect the New World? Theotokis in his lengthy answer exhibited clearly the characteristics of a polyhistor. Aside from his strong theological background, he was very well informed of the latest developments in the fields of archaeology, history, geography and natural science. He put particular emphasis on the defense of the historicity of the biblical account concerning the universal deluge. For this reason, he tried to prove that America was populated for the first time after this cosmogonie event. He also discussed some additional (theological) issues in relation to the American continent. Theotokis main concern was to show that the biblical information in general can be corroborated and verified by science, because the Bible is a God-inspired work that can never lie. It should not be forgotten that Theotokis wrote his letter during the period of the Enlightenment and was acutely aware of the serious dangers posed to Christian doctrine by various anti-religious currents.

No doubt, the discovery of America did not cause a major controversy at that time. Its limited discussion, however, is indicative of a certain religious mentality which has a long historical background since the early Christian times and which constantly seeks to reconcile the Bible with scientific knowledge and progress. Despite the differentiation of science from religion, this mentality prevails in various forms among certain religious circles even nowadays. Its objective is to "marry" the Bible with science and to demonstrate the scientific reliability of the former in every possible detail (e.g., the creation account of Genesis, the universal flood).

The entire 62 page article in Greek can be read here.