Gottfried Leibniz: Christian Philosopher?

How and in what ways does Leibniz’s philosophy deserve to be considered a work of distinctly Christian philosophy?

May 22, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
gottfried leibniz christian philosopher
Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; with Le Triomphe de Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Benozzo Gozzoli, via Louvre Collection


What is the relationship between Gottfried Leibniz’s philosophical project and Christianity? Leibniz was interested in creating synoptic concepts, which means that one part of his thought is liable to effect the rest of it. His work draws on the unifying concepts available to him, and given that he lived in Western Europe during the 17th century, it should be no surprise that those concepts were overwhelmingly Christian.


This article first discusses Leibniz’s life and intellectual project, before considering the accusation that Leibniz was a religious rationalist. It then examines the relationship between Leibniz’s thought and that of Pelagian. This article concludes with a discussion of the relationship between elements of Leibniz’s philosophy of logic and his religion.


Leibniz: His Life and Work 

A Statue of Leibniz, Martin Bernigeroth, 1710, via Wikimedia Commons


It is a standard interpretation of Leibniz’s life and work to hold that he was committed to a thoroughly rational approach to religion. Indeed, Leibniz certainly conceived of his life, in part, as an attempt to develop a systematic encyclopedia of the sciences. At its foundation, this would consist in the development of elements of philosophy and science – metaphysics, logic, ethics, mathematics and physics, upon which more distinctly theological ‘demonstrations’ would be built. Demonstrations of what? Well, Leibniz envisaged a coherent demonstration of many elements of the Christian religion: God’s existence, the mysteries recorded in the Bible, the authority of scripture and so on.


He spent time in Paris during the first half of the 1670s, interspersed with brief trips to London. He met Baruch Spinoza, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens and many other major intellectual figures of the time during this period. He was, in short, a man operating at the forefront of intellectual advances which were if not themselves strictly secular, certainly rationalistic in the colloquial sense and plausible precursors to the secularization of knowledge which was to take place during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.


Theodicy and Reason

“Christus Pantokrator” (Byzantine Mosaic in the Norman Cathedral, Monreale, Sicily), various artists (anon), 1267, via Wikimedia Commons

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Certain facets of Leibniz’s philosophy also lend themselves well to this picture. For one thing, the most general aspects of his philosophy (in other words, his metaphysics) has theodicy as one of its major components. Theodicy is an attempt to offer a response to the problem of evil, which is the problem presented for belief by the following contradiction: God is meant to be perfect – all powerful, all knowing, and absolutely good – and yet bad things happen anyway.


Clearly, there are two broad strategies one can take to this problem – one can attempt to reason one’s way out of it, or one can accept the seeming contradiction and regard belief in God’s perfection as a matter of faith alone. Leibniz takes the former approach (we needn’t focus on how he does so).


Yet those who claim Leibniz took a thoroughly rationalistic approach to faith sometimes give confusing reconstructions of his thought. For one thing, they can’t seem to quite agree what kind of rationalism he was applying. Whereas Leibniz’s rationalism is often characterized as progressing beyond the confines of medieval thought, others hold his rationalism to be a kind of regression. One of the representatives of this latter school of critics is August Wilhelm Dieckhoff, who claimed that Leibniz’s rationalism comes from his making the “fundamental Pelagian mistake of the Roman-medieval Church”.



Print of Pelagius, 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons


What is Pelagianism? This is a very difficult question to answer straightforwardly, largely because Pelagius and his works have a controversial place within the history of Christianity. Pelagianism is often simply stated as a belief in the non-fallenness of man. In other words, whereas many Christians believe that original sin has fundamentally tainted mankind in various ways (including, but not limited to, their epistemic powers), Pelagians held that this was not so.


The relationship between Pelagianism and Leibniz is fairly transparent. If human beings are fallen to the point that we cannot fully trust our own rational powers, then the role of faith in belief is delineated quite clearly. If we are not, then rationalistic approaches to religion are more plausible than otherwise. What makes Pelagius an intriguing figure is that he was condemned as a heretic in the early Church – he was one of Augustine’s main opponents – and yet many of his works become medieval classics, largely because they were attributed to other authors (sometimes, ironically, to Augustine himself). To summarize, even as Pelagianism was explicitly condemned by the Church authorities, it clearly had a substantial intellectual role to play in the formation of Christian ideology.


Leibniz’s Pelagianism Reconsidered

Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, by Cristoph Bernhard Francke, 1695, via Wikimedia Commons


Perhaps something similar to the tension between Pelagianism and the Church is present in Leibniz’s thought, in a different context. The elements of his philosophy which are explicitly rationalistic are just that – too explicit for ordinary clergymen and church authorities.


During his lifetime, he was protected by his role as a political adviser and court historian for the House of Hanover, but given most of his philosophical writings were published after his death, this kind of reaction to Leibniz’s philosophy is unsurprising. And yet, the rational elements of his thought are representative of elements of faith. There are corollaries between elements of faith and elements of reason which are mutually supportive.


Take, for instance, arguments for the existence of God (of which Leibniz had several). Such arguments both do and do not presuppose faith in the existence of God, and so both are and are not rationalistic. They do not presuppose God’s positive existence (otherwise, they would not even approximate an argument for God’s existence), but they do nonetheless proceed from an a priori concept of God which is not in itself produced by the argument.


Leibniz and Belief

A photograph of Leibniz’s skull, 2021, via Wikimedia Commons


In spite of his rationalistic reputation, Leibniz’s conception of religious belief appears to make room for a non-rational, intuitive component. He draws a distinction between the two reasons we have to believe in the following way:


“The reasons of our persuasion are of two kinds, those of one kind are explicable; those of the other kind are inexplicable. Those which I call explicable can be proposed to other people by distinct reasoning; but inexplicable reasons consist only in our conscience or perception, and in an experience of an interior feeling into which others cannot enter, if one does not find a way to make them feel the same things in the same manner. . . . Now, those who say that they find in themselves a divine internal light, or a ray [of light] which makes them feel some truth, base themselves on some inexplicable reasons.”


It is worth asking at this point what, exactly, the threat posed to religious belief by rationalism might be. Aside from the aforementioned implications for the fallenness of human beings, there is also an important sense in which belief is meant to be a kind of positive decision, a choice.


Leibniz on Logic and Belief 

Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, anonymous, 1711, via Wikimedia Commons


As much as Leibniz is drawing a distinction between two epistemic faculties in the passage above, there are other elements of his thought which suggest that his conception of reason is sufficiently broad that it might be able to accommodate this volitional element of belief.


To understand how, it is important to clarify that Leibniz’s intellectual project was – on his own conception – nothing less than an investigation into the clarificatory role that logic might play in every sphere of human activity. He invented various logical systems which attempted to reduce statements of natural languages to logical simples in order to draw out contradictions which are otherwise submerged within natural language.


However, he was also explicit about the overall intention behind his investigations into logic. That was an investigation of, “a part of logic, so far virtually untouched, devoted to the estimation of degrees of probability; a steelyard of proofs, presumptions, conjectures, and clues”. In other words, Leibniz’s logical project was concerned with bringing logic to bear on the imprecision and uncertainty which characterizes subjects outside of the pure sciences.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.