During the seventeenth century, the dominant position of religion and church gradually eroded under the influence of debates in which the sacrosanct status of the Bible played an important role. Traditionally, this process has been explained with reference to the rise of the sciences, in particular astronomy and physics, which, from 1635 onwards, led to a worldview in which a divine power, watching over human affairs, seemed superfluous. According to this interpretation, the scientific revolution was accompanied by an even more radical one in philosophy, which eventually paved the way for the Enlightenment.
We propose to address this complicated development, which may be described as a process of secularization, from quite a different angle. We think there are good reasons to postulate that this process of secularization was a gradual change that started earlier and owed much to autonomous developments in the field of classical philology. This ultimately caused an upheaval in the received views of Bible, religion and church. The term ‘secularization’, then, is here used in the specific sense of assigning a secular, non-sacred status to the Bible, which in turn resulted in questioning the claims to truth upheld by the established churches. Textual research caused the conviction that the Word of God had been preserved in a single sacred source to give way to the awareness of a complicated transmission in a plurality of (often heavily corrupted) texts. This undermined the exclusive Christian claim to salvation.
We will examine our hypothesis by exploring the activities of Dutch scholars, preachers and pamphleteers in the period from 1575 to 1725. The geographical concentration on the Netherlands, and especially Holland, is intentional: Dutch scholarship was profoundly engaged in Bible study, Holland was the centre of the book trade in that period, and the public debates in the Netherlands were to be a hotbed for ‘enlightened’ ideas. Our inquiry will study in detail the contributions made by luminaries such as Hugo Grotius, Isaac Vossius, Isaac de La Peyrère, Benedictus de Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Jean Le Clerc. Analysing tracts, pamphlets and collections of letters, both in Latin and in the vernacular, we will trace how an originally academic debate gradually broadened into a maelstrom of public controversy.