Descartes’ methodology of doubt has as a corollary his break from all tradition, particularly the Aristotelian tradition that had dominated European Christian thought for centuries. For Descartes, philosophy is the project of an individual mind (namely his own), not a conversation of minds through history. Of course, Descartes is almost naïve in his failure to realize his own indebtedness to the Western tradition, since the language and concepts in which he communicates are themselves the patrimony of a long intellectual history. Nonetheless, Descartes is dismissive and contemptuous of the accomplishments of those who have come before him, and he does not regard them in any sense as a source of truth or illumination.
Enamored by certain advances by himself and others in the mathematical modeling of nature, Descartes discarded the Aristotelian account of physics in favor of a mechanistic, deterministic account of physical reality that was essentially reducible to mathematics. In this highly idealized account of nature, all events followed mathematical laws and were entirely predicted by them. There was no room for the intervention of true agents, i.e. God, into the fabric of the physical chain of events.
Descartes attempted, with some success, to avoid outright conflict with the Church and her authorities by denying at the outset of his philosophical project that he intended to deal with the truths of faith. Near the beginning of the Discourse and the Meditations he drives a wedge between theology and philosophy, between faith and reason, arguing with a superficial piety that the truths of faith cannot be subject to reason, and that therefore his intellectual project pertains only to natural philosophy.[i] While such disclaimers may have assuaged the fears of some ecclesiastical authorities, in time the conflict between Descartes thought and traditional Christian theology was unavoidable.[ii] Since Descartes claimed for philosophy all knowledge subject to reason, he left theology as the realm of undemonstrated and arbitrary assertions and superstition. Furthermore, there was no avoiding the eventual conflict between the view of reality presented in Scripture, in which God can and does intervene into the natural order (i.e. miracles), and his mathematical mechanistic-deterministic model of nature.[iii]
Although Descartes never attempted in any systematic way to apply his methods to theology, much less biblical exegesis,[iv] it is easy to see how the methodology of modern biblical studies, the historical-critical method, reflects aspects of his thought. Fundamental to the historical-critical method is a consistent skepticism toward the truth claims made by the biblical text, coupled with a rejection of “pre-critical” (that is, traditional Christian and Jewish) exegesis, and the assumption of a deterministic universe which rules out the reality of the miraculous. All three aspects of this method are already explicit, for example, in the introduction to David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835).[v]
Since Descartes never pushed his ideas into direct conflict with theology, that role was left to his successors in the radical philosophical circles operating in the Low Countries. It did not take long; in 1666, sixteen years after Descartes death, Lodewijk Meyer published an anonymous work, Philosophia S. Scripturae Interpres, which scandalized Europe by arguing that philosophy—by which was meant, Cartesianism—was the only infallible interpreter of Scripture.[vi] Meyer blithely proceeded to bring the principles of methodological doubt, the rejection of tradition, and mechanical-deterministic naturalism to theology and particularly biblical exegesis, with the result that the Bible was stripped of divine authority and inspiration, the only thing salvageable within it being some inchoate first steps and foreshadowings of Cartesianism.[vii]
[iii] This was realized by his contemporaries, for example Cambridge Platonist Henry More: see Rosalie L. Colie, Light and Enlightenment: A Study of the Cambridge Platonists and the Dutch Arminians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 49-59.
[iv] For an analysis of the few remarks Descartes did make on the subject of theology and Scripture, see H.J.M. Nellen, “Rene Descartes/Cartesius,” in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, (ed. M. Saebø; 2 vols.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 2:823-26. Nellen’s reading of Descartes as being in continuity with the Catholic interpretive tradition is, in our view, superficial and possibly naïve.