John Edwards (1637-1726) was an Anglican Calvinist and would-be defender of Christian orthodoxy. Seemingly at the last minute, he tacked on to his Some Thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism (1695) a critique of Locke’s Reasonableness. Guns blazing, he charged Locke (among other things) with promoting “Socinianism” (aka “Racovian” theology, i.e. the type of unitarian theology famously expounded by the Polish Brethren, aka the Minor Reformed Church of Poland in the 17th c.), with despising the epistles of the New Testament, and so promoting biblical ignorance, perhaps, speculated Edwards, in service to Roman Catholicism! After a somewhat unsatisfying reply by Locke, Edwards followed with Socinianism Unmask’d (1696), in which he objects that if Locke is right, every Muslim is automatically a Christian – which, of course, is absurd.
In this episode, we hear from Edwards’s books, and I point out some shortcomings of Edwards’s arguments. He can’t seem to stop himself from arguing ad hominem – against the man, criticizing Locke’s character – rather than sticking to the topic of dispute. And Edwards assumes that because Locke doesn’t mention all the things Edwards would put into a summary of Christian belief, then Locke either denies or simply doesn’t value them.
In truth, probably Locke did deny some, and consider others as speculations, while believing others as firmly as Edwards. But what’s important is that Edwards is missing the point. Of course, Locke agrees that Christians must believe whatever is divinely revealed (and he’s far more concerned than Edwards about Christian disputes about the contents of revelation).But Locke is not listing what Christians should believe, but rather, what one must believe (or as I suggested in episode 53, must confess) in order to join the club. This latter list should be a lot shorter than the former list, lest there be a high barrier to entry into God’s kingdom; it would be unwise for God to want to save many, and then to require beliefs which only a few are capable of. This is one of Locke’s main points (and he thinks God has acted exceedingly wisely), but Edwards doesn’t grapple with it.
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Next week, in episode 55, we’ll hear some of Locke’s A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, & etc., where Locke calls out some shortcomings of Edwards’s case, and makes some important points the ethics of belief, and about disagreements between informed, sincere, humble, and biblically literate Christians. We’ll also discuss some shortcomings of Locke’s responses.
Links for this episode:
- 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. Includes helpful introduction by philosopher Victor Nuovo.
- 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.
- John Locke and Christianity: Contemporary Responses to The Reasonableness of Christianity, ed. Victor Nuovo. Includes partial versions of Edwards’s Some Thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism and his Socinianism Unmaks’d – quoted in this episode.
- podcast episode 52 – John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, Part 1
- podcast episode 53 – John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, Part 2