John Locke

Information and Background on John Locke

compiled by Lewis Loflin

"Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything."

John Locke was an enormous influence in western culture, in particular Thomas Jefferson. Was he a Deist, Unitarian, or Christian? Until the radical French Enlightenment, American Deism and Unitarianism were really much the same, and both belonged in the fringes of liberal (Anglican) Protestantism.

Locke rejected the Trinity and Original Sin, but held to many Christians beliefs. He knew the Deists, and was influenced by the Polish Unitarians on social issues. Keep in mind the Age of Reason is separate from the later radical French Enlightenment

To quote Thomas Lennon, University of Western Ontario on the writings of Locke (Victor Nuovo (ed) John Locke: Writings on Religion),

Religion and theology are two spheres that converge for Locke, and together they provide a frame for most of his writings...Religion for Locke is the practice of revering God, and theology the discipline of informing, justifying and explaining that seems to me (Lennon), of the problem here is Locke's understanding of the nature and role of Christ.

He repeatedly refers to Christ as "our Savior," but one wonders about the kind of salvation involved. From what does Christ save us? Certainly not from an imputed original sin, a concept that Locke rejects on the ground that Adam's descendents could not be punished by a just God for a sin they did not commit...

Locke has been called a Christian, Socinian, Unitarian, and a Deist. Christianity hinges on Paul's revelations and claims on Original Sin. Without a literal Adam and the "Fall," formal Christianity comes unglued along with the Trinity. So Locke was no Christian in the technical sense, but Locke believed in revelation.

Belief in revelation is clearly outside Deism and perhaps Socinianism. It was clearly beyond the atheistic' Voltaire and the bloody left-wing French Revolution. Locke was clearly a cultural Christian and a rationalist.

For closer look at how they differ see the following:

The following is an extract from At the Origins of English Rationalism:

Morton White in Philosophy, The Federalist, and the Constitution[28] finds the influence of Locke (1632-1704) and Hume (1711-1776) throughout the political writings of the American immediate post-revolutionary era.

Those who follow this interpretation, and also see the two as Enlightenment figures, will tend to consider the Enlightenment influence on the framers to be supreme. (I will simply record my doubts about White's thesis. Those who are only familiar with the canonical philosophical writers of the surveys of the history of philosophy tend to credit them with all the ideas and expressions found in their books, even when they are simply writing as men of their times.)

While Hume is generally regarded as an Enlightenment figure, the status of Locke is disputed. For example, he is sometimes regarded (in my experience by his fellow theological liberals) as a Christian with an excessive if naive enthusiasm for the possibilities of reason and new departures in philosophy.

Calling Locke a proto-Enlightenment figure, Nicholas Wolterstorff designates Locke as the ne who introduced a characteristic Enlightenment attitude - that one's religious faith must be based on good evidence or given up. He thinks that Locke "first articulately issued the evidentialist challenge to the religious believer, doing so as one who was himself a Christian who thought that he could meet the challenge." [29] The impression, then, is of a well-meaning but misguided Christian.

In a strong reaction against such a view of Locke, Peter J. Stanlis claims that "despite his membership in the Church of England, Locke in his religious beliefs is practically indistinguishable from Voltaire." After noting the use deists made of Locke's works (but omitting the fact that this disgusted Locke) he levels his main charge:

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke's most radical and polemical work, he wrote as a "minimalist" and pleaded in good conscience as a believing Christian, a rational defender of revelation, and a loyal Anglican that the Church of England should reform itself in order to attract members from the Dissenters.

How? Locke advocated that it should reject its hierarchical structure and the authority of its bishops, abandon its cannon law and theology, its creed and sacraments, its liturgy, all belief in mysteries and miracles, all external discipline, the Thirty-nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer, all its religious customs and traditions - in short, its entire historical inheritance - as so many superstitions and "prejudices," in favor of one requirement for membership and salvation - to acknowledge that Christ is the Messiah. In the last section of his Essay, Locke stated the central principle of deism: "Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything."[30]

Stanlis is defending Burke and distancing him from Locke and the Enlightenment. Burke is the defender of tradition. In what way is Locke its enemy?

Several points must be born in mind. First the Anglican 'tradition' originally was that God had left much of Church order to the discretion of reason, and thus to the judgement of the king. It was the Dissenters who claimed otherwise. If much of the division between them and the Anglicans was over the arbitrary organization of Church government, why not set aside these obstacles? Is not union the more important consideration?

With his personal and family connections to Puritanism Locke knew very well that Anglican ecclesiology rested on pragmatism and that its theoretical justification was in the Anglican (not Enlightenment) principle that "Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything."

If the deists quoted Locke, both he and they quoted "the judicious Hooker". Further, there are plenty of non-Enlightenment grounds for rejecting Anglican distinctives, as the history of the 17th century makes obvious.

Locke is separated from the deists by his attitude toward revelation. He took it very seriously, writing commentaries on the Pauline epistles. The case of his friend Isaac Newton can help us understand this approach to revelation better. Newton diligently studied the Scripture for information which he thought as divine revelation it should contain. He examined the description of the temple for symbolic clues to the universe.

He made an extensive study of biblical chronology and elaborated a chronology of the world that posited the reliability of the Bible, not the pagan sources which his contemporary chronologists made primary. Convinced that the Trinitarian proof texts were Athanasian forgeries he began collecting manuscript sources for a project of textual criticism by which he hoped to establish the original text.[31]

Locke had great respect for Newton as an exegete and submitted his commentaries to Newton for review. In all this Locke showed not the mentality of the Enlightenment but of something closer to a Jehovah's Witness.

Certain doctrines are rejected on rationalistic grounds, but then there is a great effort to bring the biblical exegesis into line with the minimalized doctrine in a way in which today's mainline liberal simply wouldn't bother to do.

Perhaps a closer analogy to Locke is the modern Evangelical feminist who will not formally break with the authority of the Bible, but will go to great lengths of special pleading and textual tampering to make it come out his way.[32]

Stanlis is right that Locke was strongly denounced by several writers and even called an atheist, notably by John Edwards, but such charges were commonplace against every departure from Orthodoxy.[33] Edwards had to argue that Locke had a hidden agenda. Edwards is important in that he recognizes there is something more deeply wrong with the intellectual climate of his time.

He is suspicious of the direction of science, noting that Descartes's Mechanical Philosophy, which saw animals as biological robots, could be extended to human beings.

In any case, the import of citing Lock's influence as a sign of Enlightenment thinking is far from perspicuous. His rationalism is more developed and clearly stated than Hooker's, but so far as I can see, not different in kind from either Hooker's or that of Locke's ecclesiastical contemporaries.

His political philosophy is important and influential, but is it Enlightenment politics? It is not the unicameral absolutism of the French revolution, nor the military dictatorship (destined to wither away as Enlightenment progresses) which Kant endorsed in the article from which our opening quotation is drawn.

The distinction between a right-wing Enlightenment, influential in English whiggery and in America, and a left-wing Enlightenment on the continent, is also weakened when we consider the ubiquity in the 17th century of supposed Enlightenment characteristics. How much of the right-wing 'Enlightenment' was just a continuation of already settled characteristics, no longer overshadowed by the Anglican-Puritan conflict?

The great unexplored area in Locke studies, to my mind, is the influence on him of dissenting political theory. If Locke was not Burke's sort of traditionalist, neither was Cromwell a traditionalist, yet Burke is certainly more of an Enlightenment thinker than Cromwell. The great shortcoming of popular writers on the American Revolution is that most seen never to have heard of the English Revolution.

Thus pre-Enlightenment influences which American political thought shared with Locke are discounted. We are told that because the American revolution, or at least the political rebuilding that followed it, showed the influence of Locke it was an Enlightenment movement, and therefore anti-Christian. There seems to be little clear thinking in this argument.

Another View

The following is an extract from English Deism by IEP:

JOHN LOCKE. The Revolution of 1688, the establishment of the freedom of the press in 1694, the political favor that was bestowed on the new tendencies in theology, in opposition to the stricter Anglicanism which was tainted with Stuart partizanship, were conditions favorable to the development of the seed that had already been planted.

Parallel with the liberalization of orthodox dogma, there ran a more radical development with the attainment of a standard for the testing of the contents of revelation.

Of surpassing importance in this direction was the influence and work of John Locke (d. 1704), who, in the field of theology, found his starting point, like most prominent thinkers of the age, in the conflict of systems, doctrines, and practices.

Out of his reflections on the data of experience he developed a mechanical-teleological metaphysics and an empirical-utilitarian ethics, the latter agreeing, with the old idea of lex naturae in that ethical experience merely confirms the connection established by a teleological government of the universe between certain acts and their consequences.

In spite of his supernaturalist tendencies, Locke nevertheless maintained, in his Letters on Toleration (1689-92), that only rational demonstration, and not compulsion or mere assertion, can establish the validity of revelation.

In the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) he had investigated the conception of revelation from the epistemological standpoint, and laid down the criteria by which the true revelation is to be distinguished from other doctrines which claim such authority.

Strict proof of the formal character of revelation must be adduced; the tradition which communicates it to us must be fully accredited by both external and internal evidence; and its content must be shown to correspond with rational metaphysics and ethics.

Revelation is revelation; but, after it is once given, it may be shown a posteriori to be rational, i.e., capable of being deduced from the premises of our reason. Only where this is possible is there a presumption in favor of the purely mysterious parts of revelation.

Where these criteria are disregarded the way is open to the excesses of sects and priesthoods by which religion, the differentia of reasoning man, has often made him appear less rational than the beasts.

Locke advances therefore the remarkable conception of a revelation that reveals only the reasonable and the universally cognizable. The practical consequences of the thesis are deduced in his Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695), which aims at the termination of religious strife through the recovery of the truths of primitive, rational Christianity.

From the Gospels and the Acts, as distinguished from the Epistles, he elicits as the fundamental Christian truths the doctrine of the messiahship of Jesus and that of the kingdom of God.

Inseparably connected with these are the recognition of Jesus as ruler of this kingdom, forgiveness of sins, and subjection to the moral law of the. kingdom. This law is identical with the ethical portion of the law of Moses, which in its turn corresponds to the lex naturae or rationis.

The Gospel is but the divine summary and exposition of the law of nature, and it is the advantage of Christianity over pagan creeds and philosophies that it offers this law of nature intelligibly, with divine authority, and free from merely ceremonial sacerdotalism. To do this it requires the aid of a supernatural revelation, whose message is attainable through reason also, but only in an imperfect way.

Article archive