Wednesday, November 26, 2014

John Locke & Sacred Scripture

The posts that I will be setting up over the course of ... however long it takes ... will be about the Father of Classical Liberalism, as he pertains to theology. As my few readers know, I'm quite interested in the topics of theological anthropology and the debate about final punishment. Locke talked about both ideas and I wrote a paper about it. Its limited and fairly short, but I find Locke to be continually fascinating. 

So, here is to those posts. Whenever they appear.

Written in 1695, Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity offers us a glimpse into his perspective regarding the nature of final punishment. He begins with the assertion, “If upon a fair and unprejudiced examination, thou findest I have mistaken the sense and tenour of the Gospel, I beseech thee, as a true Christian, in the spirit of the Gospel, (which is that of charity)…set me right, in the doctrine of salvation.”[1] As with his political and philosophical concepts, Locke models charity over and against dogmatism. Indeed, Locke appears to affirm the “divine inspiration of the New Testament, [which] is matter of faith, and necessary to be believed by all Christians…”[2] When he offers his paraphrase and exegesis of St. Paul’s epistles[3], he believed that they appear to him “very plain, intelligible, and instructive”[4] though Locke is certainly quick to admit when he doesn’t understand St. Paul’s work. He confesses to not understanding 1 Cor. 11:10, a passage that many today still do not comprehend. Because Locke is acutely aware of his own limitations, he can acknowledge that Greek is “a language dead many ages since.”[5]  

He calls Paul “a man of quick thought, and warm temper, mighty well versed in the writings of the Old Testament, and full of the doctrine of the New.”[6] Curiously, he has some insightful awareness of textual criticism in the Pauline epistles, noting with disdain that the division of chapters and verses has rendered Paul so “chopped and minced, and as they are now printed, stand so broken and divided, that not only the common people take the verses usually for distinct aphorisms; but even men of more advanced knowledge, in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the coherence…”[7] In stating that he has “sought the true meaning [of Scripture], as far as my poor abilities would reach,”[8] Locke continually emphasized his limitation, and didn’t desire to be exalted beyond his own status. His commitment to Scripture is not to be underscored nor dismissed. Within evangelicalism, there is a spoken acknowledgment that divergent views can fall within the family of beliefs, with respectful disagreement hopefully being triumphant over sectarianism. As evangelical Christians, our commitment is to Scripture.[9]  

Indeed, Locke expressed a similar view when he said “For if I blindly…take the Pope’s interpretation of the Sacred Scripture, without examining whether it be Christ’s meaning; it is the Pope I believe in, and not in Christ.”[10] Because Christ has given John Locke the bible, Locke can then believe in Christ. Scripture and that which is contained within are therefore reasonable in the eyes of the Father of Classical Liberalism. 

[1] John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, 7.
[2] The Reasonableness of Christianity, 191.
[3] Locke’s exegesis of St. Paul was published after his death. His writings cover Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, Romans and Ephesians. He doesn’t address Colossians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philippians or Philemon. While the authorship of several of these epistles is debated, Locke doesn’t comment on their exclusion nor does he provide reasons for accepting the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.
[4] John Locke, A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul, iii.
[5] A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul, iv.
[6] A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul, v.
[7] A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul, vii.
[8] A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, xxi
[9] Cf. The Evangelical Theological Society (partial) statement of faith: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” See also Fuller Theological Seminary: “Scripture is an essential part and trustworthy record of this divine self-disclosure. All the books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, are the written word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. They are to be interpreted according to their context and purpose and in reverent obedience to the Lord who speaks through them in living power” and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: “As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”
[10] A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul, xxii.

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