Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 19, 2019, from

7. Faith, reason and toleration

Locke’s views on belief, probability and error owed much to traditional philosophy of religious belief, and to the great debate of his century about the relationship between faith and reason. He was strongly influenced by writers in the Anglican ‘probabilist’ tradition, who argued for toleration within the Church with respect to all but an essential core of Christian dogma. William Chillingworth had rejected as absurd the traditional conception of a moral requirement to have ‘faith’ in the sense of a conviction equal to that of knowledge but beyond what is rationally justified. To recognize a proposition as probable to a certain degree is to believe it just to that degree. Revelation therefore cannot be a basis for belief distinct from probability, but is something the significance of which has to be rationally assessed, capable at best of increasing the probability of certain propositions. Similarly for Locke, when revelation grounds belief that would otherwise be improbable, that is just one natural reason outweighing another: ‘it still belongs to reason to judge of the truth of its being a revelation, and of the signification of the words, wherein it is delivered’ (Essay IV.xviii.8). For if ‘reason must not examine their truth by something extrinsical to the perswasions themselves; inspirations and delusions, truth and falshood will have the same measure’ (Essay IV.xix.14).

Accordingly, like Chillingworth, More and others, Locke combined a purportedly reasonable acceptance of the Bible as revelation with a critical approach to its interpretation, taking into account that it was written by men in particular circumstances. An alleged revelation which conflicts with what is naturally evident loses its claim to be revelation. Certain revealed truths (such as the Resurrection) lie ‘beyond the discovery of our natural faculties, and above reason’, but Locke had little time for mysteries: ‘to this crying up of faith, in opposition to reason, we may, I think, in good measure, ascribe those absurdities that fill almost all the religions which possess and divide mankind’ (Essay IV.xviii.7, 11). Locke took the existence of God and the content of moral law to be demonstrable by reason, and, according to The Reasonableness of Christianity and its Vindications, the only essentially revealed truth of the New Testament is that Christ is the Messiah, promising forgiveness of sins to those who sincerely repent and do their imperfect best to keep the law of nature. The Bible also makes that law plain to those without the leisure or capacity to reason it out – a difficult enough task for anyone, as Locke ruefully acknowledges. The meaning of scripture is thus for Locke primarily moral, and the ‘truth, simplicity, and reasonableness’ of Christ’s teaching is itself a main reason for accepting it as revelation. Saving faith involves works, not acceptance of ‘every sentence’ of the New Testament under this or that preferred interpretation.

Much the same goes for immediate revelation. Even the genuinely inspired would need proofs that they really were inspired, and the errors of commonplace ‘enthusiasm’ are ascribed, as by More, to physiology, ‘the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain’. The advocate of immediate personal revelation over reason ‘does much what the same, as if he would persuade a man to put out his eyes the better to receive the remote light of an invisible star by a telescope’ (Essay IV.xix.4). Divine illumination necessarily depends on, and is not separable from, the natural light – ‘reason must be our last judge and guide in everything’. Locke echoes Chillingworth’s basic principle: the lover of truth, unbiased by interest or passion, will not entertain ‘any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant’. The implication of this standard, in the actual circumstances of life, is toleration: ‘For where is the man, that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falshood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined, to the bottom, all his own, or other men’s opinions?’ (Essay IV.xvi.4).

Locke’s Letter on Toleration, the mature fruit of considerably more unpublished writing directly on the issue, links his epistemology with his political thinking. Belief is not something that can be commanded or submitted to the authority of the government, whose concern is not with saving souls but the preservation of property. Necessarily each individual must judge as they see fit, and the truth needs no help, having its own efficacy. But the right to toleration is nevertheless viewed in the context of the right and duty to seek salvation and true doctrine without harm to others, harm which is at least threatened by all who deny the authority either of moral law or of the established government. Atheists therefore forfeit the right in principle, and Roman Catholics as a matter of political fact. (See Latitudinarianism; Socinianism.)

Citing this article:
Ayers, Michael. Faith, reason and toleration. Locke, John (1632–1704), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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