John Locke (1632-1704) is one of the greatest philosophers of all time. He was also a careful, thoughtful, and fair-minded Christian. Hardly allergic to argument, like many Christian philosophers then and now, he had no taste for hot-blooded, public theological feuds, particularly over what should be regarded as non-essentials. Such feuds were legion in late seventeenth century England.
But what are the essentials? Specifically, what are the essential teachings which one must accept to be a Christian? Many have a rather expansive view of those. But Locke suspected they had inflated something simpler. In the winter of 1694-5, he decided to be a good Protestant and to go back to the sources. What does the New Testament, he wondered, demand of us, as far as beliefs are concerned? Does it require, for instance, believing “grace” as taught by Calvinists? Or the contents of the “Athanasian” creed about the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus? The simplified but vague “deity of Christ” so insisted upon by present-day evangelical Protestants?
Locke examined this question, and found an explicit answer in scripture. All that Christians must believed, he argues, can be summarized like this: Jesus is the Messiah.
Is Locke correct? This episode, a sampling of his positive case for the central claim of this book.
In our next episode, we’ll hear Locke answer some objections, discuss what else is required besides belief, and hear how Locke thinks that the simplicity of this message reflects the wisdom of God.
Links for this episode:
- John Locke: Writings on Religion, edited by Victor Nuovo. (Includes the Reasonableness and other writings.)
- John Locke: The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures. A reprint edition, which also includes reprints of two follow-up books in which Locke defends himself against a hot-headed Calvinist polemicist who charged him with “Socinianism.” Includes helpful introduction by philosopher Victor Nuovo. (I quote from Nuovo’s comments here in the introduction to this episode.)
- John Locke: Vindications of the Reasonableness of Christianity. The definitive scholarly edition of the two follow-up books, edited with extensive notes by Victor Nuovo. Extracts of numerous writings relevant to Locke’s book and the ensuing controversy. Includes parts of John Edwards’s Socinianism Unmasked
- John Locke and Christianity: Contemporary Responses to The Reasonableness of Christianity, ed. Victor Nuovo.
- Victor Nuovo‘s page at Middlebury College.
- Overviews of Locke’s life and work at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.