JOHN LOCKE: CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHER
One reason John Locke is one of my heroes of history is that he had such a salutary influence upon Alexander Campbell and the movement he launched for the unity of all Christians. Campbell not only spoke of him with great appreciation but also referred to him as “the Christian philosopher.” Locke deserves the accolade, not only because he was committed to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all true philosophy, but also because he used his great talents to defend those who were persecuted by the Church of England, Locke’s own church, for their dissident views. He dared to name toleration as “the chief characteristic mark of the true Church” at a time when the Anglican church was most intolerant. He told his own church that it was more tolerant of whoredom, fraud, and malice than of conscientious dissent. That kind of talk was enough to gain the admiration of Alexander Campbell.
But John Locke (1632-1704) had an influence that reached far beyond the American frontier of the early 19th century and Campbell’s reformation efforts. Will Durant refers to him as “the greatest philosopher of this age” and notes that he reached a reputation in philosophy that was surpassed only by Newton’s in science and that people spoke of him as “the philosopher.” He is a good example of how the pen is more powerful than the sword, for long after his death his writings were given credit for inspiring three revolutions in behalf of representative government: the Cromwellian Revolution in England, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution. They all found their philosophical defense in Locke’s great thesis that men may rule only by the consent of the governed. Locke used that one idea —consent —to challenge the ancient tradition that kings (often tyrants!) rule by divine right and make way for democracy and representative government.
In our day when we witness such dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, fired by the revolutionary spirit of the people, we may rightfully look back to John Locke, who defended the right of an oppressed people to rebel against their government when all peaceful means have been exhausted. The power to rule is given by God to the people, Locke insisted, which they confer upon their chosen representative, a position which he holds in trust for the sake of law and order and the good of society. When he violates that trust, the people may ask for the office back (peaceful means); if he persists in his tyrannical ways, they may wrest the office from him (revolutionary means). Divine right resides with the people, not the king. Consent! Locke changed the world with that one idea, and that is the idea behind the great change that has come over Eastern Europe.
It was the idea that inspired the formation of our own republic. All our founding documents are in part Lockean inspired and rooted in the concept of consent, whether the idea of “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people” or that “all men are created free and equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In that Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson went on to write, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” When Jefferson wrote those words John Locke’s writings were near at hand.
is remarkable that some of the founding documents of our own
Stone-Campbell Movement were also Lockean inspired. Some scholars of
our history, such as W. E. Garrison, contend that it is sometimes
difficult to distinguish between what Locke said and what Thomas
Campbell wrote in the
points to these words as an example:
Since men are so solicitous about the true church, I would only ask them here, by the way, if it be no more agreeable to the Church of Christ to make the conditions of communion consist in such things, and such things only, as the Holy Spirit declared, in express words, to be necessary to salvation.
Nothing could be more Campbellian than those words and nothing could better capture the essence of our plea for the unity of all Christians, but they come from John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. He wrote those words while in hiding, for the Church of England had issued its Thirty-Nine Articles as the basis for the Act of Uniformity, dogmas that people had to accept. Dissent was not tolerated. Only in his will was Locke free to acknowledge that he was the author. Concerning the Thirty-Nine Articles and all other creeds conceived by men Locke asked ecclesiastical leaders why they had to impose on people their own interpretations and inventions, “such things as the Holy Scriptures do not mention; or at least not expressly command.” That too has the Campbell ring!
Locke laid down a principle of unity that is classic, one that would be appropriate at any ecumenical conference: Nothing is to be made a test of communion that God has not made necessary to salvation. That rule would go far in settling our divisions, and it goes far in summarizing the call for unity as made by Barton Stone and the Campbells. Locke went on to challenge every sect that makes laws out of its own opinions and interpretations, again reflecting the spirit of our own heritage:
How can that be called the Church of Christ which is established on laws that are not His, and which excludes such persons from its communion as He will one day receive into the Kingdom of Heaven, I understand not.
Locke also impacted his age and ours with his controversial Essay on Human Understanding, which has been described as the greatest treatise on human psychology ever written. When it was condemned by Oxford University, Locke wrote to a friend that he considered the condemnation a recommendation. It was condemned because it challenged the traditional position on how knowledge is derived, which allowed that at least some knowledge is innate, inborn, or intuitive, and that some knowledge is given of God and therefore “natural,” which gave place to “natural religion.” Since the time of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas the churches as well as society had contended that knowledge comes through reason, and the church held that God’s existence could be proved by reason. Locke questioned all this when he concluded that all knowledge comes through experience by way of our sensations and reflections.
At birth the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank page, Locke held, and there is no such thing as innate (inborn) ideas, not even an idea of God. We know God only by God revealing himself to us, primarily through Scripture and the person of Christ. Nature, including our conscience, confirms what God reveals about himself, but is not itself a means of knowing God. As the father of empiricism (knowledge comes only through sense impressions) Locke rejected feelings and mystical experiences as valid sources of knowledge. Knowledge consists of facts, which are things said or done, not dreams, visions, opinions, or even deductive systems. His approach to knowledge was thus inductive and scientific, based upon an application of the mind to the evidence available. He applied this method to the study of the Bible.
Campbell was influenced by Locke in his plea for unity based upon the facts of Scripture, allowing for differences in the area of opinions and deductions. The motto, “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty” is Lockean, and to both Locke and Campbell matters of faith were matters of fact -- believing facts based upon evidence. Campbell was thus willing to call for a unity based upon “the seven facts of Eph. 4.” There are of course many opinions about those seven facts —one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God —but it is the facts (not the opinions about them!) that both save and unite. This is why both men could call for unity based upon the Bible and the Bible alone. What they really meant was the facts (or the essentials) of the Bible. While people can never agree on opinions about the Bible (and so they should allow liberty), they can agree on the facts (things actually said or done) of the Bible, which is the only ground of unity that is possible.
is therefore understandable that the Campbellite preachers on the
American frontier were known to carry three books in their
saddlebags: a Bible, a hymnal, and a copy of John Locke’s
Concerning Human Understanding.
in 17th century Europe Locke opened up a new way of looking at
knowledge in general, the Campbell movement in 19th century America
opened up a new way of looking at the Bible and religious
Locke also had considerable to say about faith and reason, a subject that has always interested our people in the Stone-Campbell movement. One of Locke’s most influential works was On the Reasonableness of Christianity in which he contended that the Christian religion addresses itself to human reason as well as to the emotions. He insisted that the mind matters as well as the heart. The faithful Christian is to think responsibly. Locke had a neat way of saying, “I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; but when it fails them, they cry out, ‘It is a matter of faith and above reason.’” He found no conflict between faith and reason, for it is reason that implements the faith. Indeed, it is reason that determines if certain evidence is strong enough to produce faith. Campbell was especially impressed with one proposition that Locke postulated, that our faith in anything should be only as strong as the evidence to support it.
Some of Locke’s conclusions about faith and reason would make useful questions for discussion, such as, “No proposition can be received for divine revelation if it be contrary to our clear intuitive knowledge.” This is why we would all reject the interpretation that the offending eye and hand that Jesus refers to are to be literally plucked out or cut off so as to avoid sinning. Such a view is contrary to reason. But can we agree that another set of verses are not to be interpreted in such a way that degrades women to a state of inequality in the church and radically limits their ministry because it is also offensive to our intuitive knowledge?
Locke says that “Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything,” for only reason can make possible a good conscience. One must be “fully assured in his own mind,” as Paul puts it, and only reason makes this possible. This is one of the keys to valid interpretation of the Bible, for it is only through reason that we determine what a particular passage means and how it applies to us. If we concede that everything in the Bible is not the word of God for us, which is apparent enough, then is it not only through reason that we determine what is and what is not the word of God, based upon the evidence available? Reason might be aided by prayer, a searching heart, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, but it is still reason that has to serve as arbiter. Each of us has his own supreme court, which is our own conscience monitored by the intellect.
This kind of emphasis on reason caused our pioneers to be accused of “head religion” and of neglecting the heart. They were charged with knowing nothing of “experimental religion.” If they went too far in stressing “reasonable Christianity” it was because the emotionalism of an extreme Calvinism had so confused the nature of faith that people relied more on their feelings than on revelation. That is why Campbell insisted that while Christianity is indeed a heart religion it must first address the head. It was said of Locke that he swept away a lot of “metaphysical lumber” in clarifying the nature of knowledge. It could be said of Campbell that he swept away a lot of theological speculation in clarifying the nature of religion.
John Locke never married. He gave his 72 years, a long life in his day, to the service of both the church and the world. While he took a degree in medicine, he served the British government as secretary to Lord Shaftsbury, where his political fortunes rose and waned. He spent a lot of time in exile and even in hiding where he did most of his writing, but he published nothing substantial until he was 57. He was controversial but nonetheless influential. While he is generally recognized as one of the founders of modem philosophy, he exemplified how one can be a noted philosopher and a committed Christian.
his dying day he was a defender of the persecuted, defending the
right of dissent. At the time of his death he was writing yet
another essay on toleration. If the persecuted are blessed, then
those who defend the persecuted will be blessed. In the last years
of his life Locke read the New Testament as if he had never read it
before (an approach Campbell once advised), and found himself
enamored by the beautiful spirit of Christ. He was persuaded that it
was only in that beautiful spirit that Christians would find unity.
In his dying hour he praised God for his grace and mercy, and
thanked him for giving him a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus
Christ. It was the finest hour for a philosopher who had given his
life to an understanding of the nature of knowledge. —
John Locke’s temper was too well balanced to take acrimonious criticism to heart. Indeed, as he grew older, his thoughts turned more and more to religion, and he spent his last years studying the Epistles of St. Paul. He died in 1704, surrounded by devoted friends to whom he declared that he left this world “in perfect charity with all men and in sincere communion with the whole church of Christ, by whatever names Christ’s followers call themselves.”--W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy