by Bill Nugent
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Dutch Jew born in Amsterdam. He is often referred to by the Latin version of his name: Benedict de Spinoza.
Early in life he acquired a deep interest in the philosophy of Rene Descartes and other ideas that conflicted with Judaism. He was formally excommunicated from his Synagogue at the age of 24. He became leader of a small circle of philosophers and he supported himself with a “day job” grinding and polishing lenses.
In perhaps his most famous writing, Tractatus Theologica Politicus (published in 1670) he made the fundamental error that is characteristic of modernism. This error was to divide faith from reason. Spinoza thus broke with the leading authority of medieval Jewish thought, the famous rabbi, Maimonides (1135-1204).
Maimonides correctly asserted that faith and reason are compatible. Spinoza’s rejection of the compatibility of faith and reason set the stage for the rejection of faith by the Jewish intellectuals and philosophers who would follow him.
This division of faith from reason is a false dichotomy. It has led to the modernist error that claims that science and philosophy are rational but divine revelation is mere superstition. The Bible, however, is a book of faith based on rational proof. The Bible is the record of God speaking to humanity.
God backed His words with signs, wonders, miracles and predictive prophecy. The Bible is a record of real miraculous events that occurred among real people in real history. It is not a mere list of commands and philosophical statements to be apprehended only by faith.
Miracles occurred in ancient times in the lives of Abraham, Moses, Elijah and others. We have their written testimony. One major category of miracle that we can rationally apprehend in our own time is predictive prophecy. The Bible contains over two thousand predictive prophecies.
Some of these prophecies were fulfilled in ancient times and their fulfillments are recorded in history. Other prophecies were fulfilled in postbiblical times and some Bible prophecies are being fulfilled in current events in our own time.
One example of prophetic fulfillment is the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel which is the fulfillment of a number of Bible prophecies. Predictive prophecy is like God’s signature on the Bible.
We Christians are amazed by the fact that over three hundred Bible prophecies were fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth whom we believe to be the promised Messiah.
No other holy book of any other faith has anything like the Bible’s record of predictive prophecy. The Bible stands alone in its accuracy of predictive prophecy.
Predictive prophecies and other signs and wonders including miracles that occur today in the name of Christ give powerful reasonable, rational proof that God is indeed speaking through the pages of the Bible. It is on this solid rational foundation that the heart can respond by faith to believe and obey God. If there was no rational proof, faith would be a blind leap. God has provided“many infallable proofs” (Acts 1:3).
By contradicting Maimonides, Spinoza did the same damage to Judaism that Gentile modernist philosophers did to Christianity. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) contradicted the synthesis of faith and reason espoused by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) with the same devastating results.
The denial of the rational basis for Judaism and Christianity led to the abandonment of these faiths by the intellectual classes. The abandonment of the faith ultimately led to the abandonment of morality. The mass murder of millions under communism and fascism is the legacy of modern secularism.
Interestingly, Spinoza, in his final work Ethica (1677), details a complex philosophy with strong monistic (pantheistic) overtones similar to Hinduism. His life therefore is a kind of picture of the progression from Torah Judaism to modernist reason to eastern pantheism. Many Jews in recent times have made that same tragic journey.
So towering a figure is Spinoza that much of Jewish religious thought and philosophy since can be understood as a series of responses to his writings. Spinoza’s influence on Abraham Geiger and Reform Judaism is undeniable.
Other Jewish thinkers such as Samson Raphael Hirsch, Zecharias Frankel, Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Heschel all felt Spinoza’s influence.
(A major source for this article is Prof. David B. Ruderman’s lecture series Jewish Intellectual History 16th to 20th Century.)