Religious Tolerance: John Locke

John Locke’s “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” is the unification of enlightenment era idealism with traditional Christian thought. Locke’s assertion of the freedom of the individual believer and his call for tolerance in doctrinal differences lead to a uniquely modern interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Deemed by many to be a defense of Christianity, “The Reasonableness of Christianity” comes across to this reader as Locke’s attempt to reconcile his own philosophical views with his personal religious faith.

Locke advocates the individual freedom of the believer in non-essential matters of religious conviction: “The law of faith … is for everyone to believe what God requires him to believe as a condition of the covenant he makes with him.” [1]. To Locke, the Christian faith consisted of the acknowledgement of fundamental precepts that were necessary for the attainment of eternal security, and of supplemental spiritual truths in which we are only regulated by the revelation we are given. This allows for a certain amount of freedom of belief within Christianity.

Locke’s evaluation of the Bible is that only the direct instruction of Christ and the apostles, contained in the Gospels and Acts, are to be trusted as the necessary components of salvation. Locke makes a distinction between the “fundamental articles” of faith revealed in the Gospels and the instructions to the Christian community contained in the epistles to the churches. [2]. For lack of a term provided by Locke, I will label these primary, and secondary teachings. The primary doctrines which Locke deems necessary for salvation are faith in the eternal God of scripture, as evidenced by repentance and a return to morality, and belief in the messiahship and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The secondary teachings are those moral precepts that are espoused by Paul and the other early church fathers through their instructions to the infant churches. Locke values these teachings as useful truths to the observance of the Christian faith, but unnecessary for entering into the covenant of salvation with God. [3].

According to Locke, salvation is a restoration of the immortality and state of bliss that was lost to humanity by the fall of Adam: “as Adam was turned out of paradise, so all his posterity were born out of it, out of the reach of the tree of life; all, like their father Adam in a state of morality, void of the tranquility and bliss of paradise.” [4]. Locke acknowledges that this original act of disobedience tainted humanity, but contends that the penalty enacted upon future generations was not a state of guilt, but a state of mortality. [5]. The idea that God would impose a penalty upon Adam’s posterity for an act they did not commit offends Locke‘s notion of divine justice. This is where I believe that Locke’s theology breaks down. His argument presupposes that eternal damnation is the consequence of a penalty imposed, rather than a state of separation which exists between God and humanity. It can be reasonably argued that humanity is not so much penalized, but rather voluntarily removes itself from God’s providence and protection, returning us to the original state of chaos which existed prior to the act of creation.

Whichever state existed after the fall, Locke conjectures that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised by scripture, whose purpose was to restore the original condition of humanity. Locke argues that belief in this restoration is a fundamental requirement of “saving faith,” reasoning that this is the only requirement for salvation set forth by “Our Savior and his apostles.” [6]. Locke asserts a “threefold declaration of the Messiah” through the miracles performed by Christ, his fulfillment of the prophecies, and his proclamation of the doctrine of the Messiah. [7]. This provides Locke with sufficient proof of the identity of Jesus, and the validity of his teachings. Locke’s dependence on the use of scripture to validate scripture is an obvious shortcoming in his contention that the truth of Christianity can be attained objectively through human reason.

The innovation of “The Reasonableness of Christianity” is in Locke’s supposition that humanity would be incapable of constructing an equitable system of morality without the aid of divine revelation. Locke reproves previous religions for their failure to instill virtue, maintaining that prior to the advent of Christianity, organized religion did little more than advocate proper observance of rituals. Locke also faults philosophy for its unsuccessful attempts to produce an organization of ethics comparable to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Locke finds Christian morality to be the most substantive and comprehensive system ever proposed to humanity.

Locke’s theological essay serves as a testament to the influence of the Age of Reason upon traditional Christian beliefs. Its success lies not in Locke’s defense of traditional Christian beliefs, but in its call for theological reform. It is a challenge to reassess traditional Christian values to accommodate the enlightened ideals of freedom, individuality and tolerance.

By Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2008)

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[1]. John Locke. 1695. “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA): 32.

[2]. Ibid., 32, 43-44.

[3]. Ibid., 43.

[4]. Ibid., 27.

[5]. Ibid., 26-27.

[6]. Ibid., 43.

[7]. Ibid., 37.

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