often consciously antagonistic, albeit no less important in shaping the
subsequent course of Enlightenment thought.
When we study natural phenomena of whatever sort, contends Spinoza in
s eventh chapter
of his Tr e a t i s e , we must ¢rst try to dis cover thos e features
which are most universal, such as the laws governing motion and rest, laws
which are eternally true, and then descend by degrees from the most general
to the more speci¢c. When studying texts, including Scripture, he urges us
to do the same, seeking out ¢rst what is most universal and fundamental in
the narrative. What is most universally proclaimed (whether by prophets,
scribes, or Christ) in Scripture is ‘that there is a God, one and omnipotent,
who alone is to be adored and cares for all men, loving most those who
worship Him and love their neighbour as themselves, etc.’
universals are historically determined and are therefore poetic concepts,
inexact, limited and vague, and while it is totally impossible to infer from the
biblical text ‘what God is’ or how he ‘provides for all things’, nevertheless
such universals are not just wholly ¢ctitious or arbitrary intended meanings.
To his mind, they are inadequate but still signi¢cant perceptions, that is,
vague but natural approximations to the ‘truth of things’.
In short, progress in understanding the history of human thought and
belief, and Man’s ancient texts, depends on combining a particular set of
naturalistic philosophical criteria with new rules of text criticism which
supplement the philology of the past with the strict elimination of all
supernatural agency and miracles and a constant stress on reconstructing
historical context. The general principles guiding Spinoza’s text criticism
are identical to those he applies to the study of nature. Both are rooted in
the same type of empiricism, so that, at least in his terms, correctly
undertaken Bible criticism is ‘scienti¢c’ in a wholly novel sense which,
however, was not one of which Boyle, Locke or Newton could approve.
With Spinoza, as with Bayle, it is a fundamental principle that natural
processes are exclusively determined by mechanistic cause and e¡ect, that
mind and human belief is part of this determined chain of natural cause
and e¡ect. Consequently, history, study of religion and generally what in
German are called the Soziale und Geisteswissenschaften [social and
intellectual sciences] are methodologically no di¡erent in principle from
the other sciences: ‘I say that the method of interpreting Scripture’, as
Spinoza expresses it in one of his most famous formulations, ‘does not
Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ch.
di¡er from the [correct] method of interpreting nature, but rather is wholly
consonant with it’.
Detaching Christ from the churches
Spinoza creates a whole new ‘science’ of contextual Bible criticism,
analysing usage and intended meanings, and extrapolating from context,
using reason as an analytical tool but, except in the case of the rudiments
of moral theory, never trying to uncover elements of philosophical truth
embedded in Scripture.What one ¢nds in Scripture is truth generally very
obscurely and vaguely expressed, albeit in one very important case, namely
its basic moral precepts, truth which is propagated more or less adequately.
It is in teaching the rudiments of true morality that Spinoza, like his Dutch
ally, the radical Cartesian and controversial Bible exegete Lodewijk Meyer,
fully accepts that religious teaching based on the Bible plays not just a
positive but also, given that most people cannot become philosophers, an
indispensable role in underpinning society.
This positive dimension to what most contemporaries (and many since)
regarded as Spinoza’s ‘anti-Scripturalism’ merged in a remarkable and
characteristic manner with his attack on ecclesiastical authority and what
soon came to be called, in those Early Enlightenment circles in£uenced by
Spinoza,‘priestcraft’. This campaign made extensive use of the circuitous
tactic, introduced by Spinoza in the Theological-Political Treatise and later
elaborated by a long line of other radical, Deist and sceptical writers,
sharply di¡erentiating between the high-minded, idealistic visions of
those great founders of religions, like Jesus (and, in later radical authors
such as Radicati and Boulainvilliers, also Muhammed), and the sordid
perversion and corruption of their ideals by self-seeking ‘priests’
motivated chie£y by ambition and greed. In this way, radicals could argue
that ‘true’ Christianity, or ‘true’ Muhammedanism, that is the genuine
teaching of Christ and Muhammed, in no way corresponds to the actual
doctrines and pretensions of the theologians, priests and mullahs who
build and exploit socially and politically powerful organizations while
falsely claiming to be their followers.
Such as John Toland (
1670^1722), Anthony Collins (1676^1729), Bayle, Henri de Boulainvilliers
1659^1722), Count Alberto Radicati di Passerano (1698^1737) and the Huguenot author and
´ deric Bernard (1683^1744).
Spinoza claims that Christ was not a ‘prophet’, a term which has a rather
pejorative resonance in his terminology, but rather someone whose mind
was adapted ‘to the universal beliefs and doctrines held by all mankind,
that is to those concepts which are universal and true’. Christ, in other
words, was a moral teacher and hence a philosopher whose thought had
little or nothing to do with what ecclesiastics and theologians subsequently
turned it into. Jesus’ message, held Spinoza, belonged by de¢nition not to
the realm of theology which, in his scheme, is solely directed at inculcating
‘obedience’ rather than ‘truth’ but, insofar as what he taught was true and
clearly expressed, belongs rather to the sphere of philosophy. While
Spinoza stopped short of explicitly identifying Jesus with his own
philosophy, in the way that John Toland afterwards subversively identi¢ed
Moses with primitive ‘Spinozism’, he did expressly claim, as his German
friend and disciple, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (
reported to Leibniz, that in so far as Christ was a universal moral teacher
who proclaimed true religion to consist in ‘justice and charity’, he was no
‘prophet’ speaking from ‘imagination’ rather than on the basis of reason,
but rather ‘the supreme philosopher’.The Piedmontese Spinosiste Radicati
later added to this the idea that Jesus was really a great social reformer and
egalitarian, the wisest and most just of legislators, someone who desired
men to live in ‘perfect democracy’, his legacy being then wholly subverted
by the ¢rst bishops, patriarchs and popes, who outrageously abused his
teaching to erect their own authority and pretensions to pre-eminence and
were, in e¡ect, responsible for destroying the ‘democratical government
settled by Christ’.
Spinoza’s emphatic if idiosyncratic eulogy of Christ as a uniquely
inspired moral teacher who was not, however, a superhuman individual has
long puzzled commentators of both Christian and Jewish background.
Evidently, Christ, for Spinoza, was someone who was in no way divine.
Equally clearly, as he admitted in letters to Henry Oldenburg, secretary of
the Royal Society in London, in December
1675 and January 1676, in
Spinoza’s eyes, the Resurrection never took place.
Doubtless, one should
infer from both his remarks about Jesus in the Theological-Political Treatise
and his letters, and from his philosophical system as such, that to his
mind Christ neither performed any miracles nor could do so. In the
Alberto Radicati di Passerano, Twelve Discourses concerning Religion and Government, inscribed to all
Lovers of Truth and Liberty (
2nd edn. London, 1734) pp. 46, 49, 75.
Baruch de Spinoza, The Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis, IN,
1995), pp. 338^9, 348.