Saturday, January 3, 2009

John Locke, Progenitor of Deism & Theistic Rationalism

Scholarly consensus holds that John Locke was the most important philosophical influence on the American Founding. Locke wasn't a deist (or as some Straussians argue a secret atheist). He called himself a Christian, defended the Christian religion as "reasonable," thought Jesus was the Messiah and may have believed much of the Bible was true. He was also almost certainly a secret theological unitarian (his Trinitarian critics smelled him out) and otherwise disbelieved in various orthodox doctrines and posited novel concepts not at all in accord with traditional Christianity. For instance his notion of Tabla Rasa denies man has a fallen, sin nature. Indeed, this led deists and "rational Christians" who embraced his teachings like Thomas Jefferson to posit the notion of the perfectibility of man.

Locke argued contra Thomas Hobbes. But what's striking about Locke's case is he didn't try to refute Hobbes by using the Bible or the classical or traditional understanding of politics. Rather, he seemed to argue against Hobbes on Hobbes' own terms: "The state of nature," an explicitly Hobbesean concept. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later hit the scene, did the same thing. He argued against BOTH Hobbes AND Locke, but on the grounds of the "state of nature." And as Leo Strauss correctly pointed out, the state of nature itself (be it Locke's, Hobbes' OR Rousseau's understanding of the concept) is "wholly alien to the Bible."

Though not a deist himself, Locke's teachings, in particular his idea that all truth including revelation must meet the test of reason, spawned a generation of Deists and "rational Christians" who used his method to deny the validity of parts of or the entire Bible. Voltaire, for instance, embraced Locke. One of the earliest and most noble "deist disciples" of Locke's was Lord Shaftesbury, who was literally Locke's student. (Locke actually taught/mentored him.)

In this comment discussion at American Creation, Dr. Gregg Frazer explains how Locke taught all truth must meet the test of reason and how this influenced Jefferson's and John Adams' biblical criticisms [Frazer begins his comment by responding to a nuisance who endorses the Christian Nationalist idea, one who is a terrible witness for that theory]:

When you quote someone (in this case, Locke), it is intellectually dishonest to put together two sentences which are 40 PAGES APART in the original without an ellipsis!!! This is what OFT did in the Locke quote partially addressed to me. By doing so, he wrenched Locke's words completely out of context and completely changed their meaning.

I do not have time to explain here Locke's WHOLE argument IN CONTEXT to those who are unlikely to be open to what he really said. I simply encourage interested and open readers to investigate the broader context of the quotes taken out of context from Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding," Vol. II, chapters XVI-IX.

Locke summarizes his own argument thusly in italics for emphasis: "REASON MUST BE OUR LAST JUDGE AND GUIDE IN EVERYTHING." He then addresses revelation. Speaking of reason, he says: "consult it we must, and by it examine whether it be a revelation from God or no; and if reason finds it to be revealed from God, reason then declares for it as much as for any other truth, and makes it one of her dictates."

For Locke, the ultimate standard is always reason -- even for revelation.

And for ... the theistic rationalists, the same was true. They believed that there was some revelation legitimately from God (part of what separated them from the deists) -- but that was to be determined by reason.

To a[] ... participant in the discussion: you say "if you can find a single Founder or Founding influence who says publicly that the Bible is wrong about x because reason says so, please provide it." This is a very clever tactic on your part -- knowing that public men living in a nominally Christian environment and dependent upon public approval for their positions of power could not "publicly" say that the Bible is wrong. No politician will even do that TODAY, much less in the 18th century.

If you'll admit private correspondence (where one can see what people REALLY believed -- not what they said for public approval), you'll discover John Adams saying of the Fall of man in Genesis that it "is either an allegory, or founded on uncertain tradition, that it is an hypothesis to account for the origin of evil, adopted by Moses, which by no means accounts for the facts."

Adams likewise questioned the reliability of the Ten Commandments -- saying that "authentic copies" of the original were lost. Speaking of the coming millennial kingdom of Christ, which he identified as being founded on revelation, he said to Jefferson: "You and I hope for splendid improvements in human society .... Our faith may be supposed by more rational arguments than any of the former ...."

Adams further said: "Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature" and that "no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it." [i.e. the Bible]

Also remember that Adams said that he would not believe revelation delivered DIRECTLY to him BY GOD on Mt. Sinai if it contradicted what his reason told him about the Trinity.

Jefferson said of the Old Testament: "the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it." His favorite word for the New Testament aside from the words of Jesus was "dunghill." Even with the words of Jesus, he used his reason to separate what "genuine, and his own" from what was "attributed" to him.

If taking a pair of scissors to the Gospels and cutting out whatever one considers irrational is not saying that "the Bible is wrong about x because reason says so," then it would seem to be impossible to provide such proof.

Just in case, I'll add that Jefferson said of the rest of the New Testament that it was full of "superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications" along with "so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth" and "trivialities and imbecilities."

Like Locke, Jefferson said: "Whether the particular revelation which you suppose to have been made to yourself were real or imaginary, your reason alone is the competent judge. For dispute as long as we will on religious tenets, our reason at last must ultimately decide, as it is the only oracle which God has given us to determine between what really comes from him and the phantasms of a disordered or deluded imagination."

And he told his beloved nephew to "keep your reason firmly on the watch in reading" and to judge the "pretensions" of biblical writers "by your own reason."

And on and on and ....

Their standard tactic was to deny the legitimacy of the parts of the Bible (most of it) that they considered to be irrational -- that is, to deny that it was legitimate revelation from God.


Brad Hart said...

Good post Jon. When it comes to deism I am in complete agreement with our friendly commentator BPABBOT, who stated in another thread that deism, as a term, is a lot like's as clear as mud.

What is a deist? What is a Christian?

What makes me believe that you are right is the fact that Jefferson, in his letters, etc., gave Locke so much credit for being one of the primary inspirations for the Dec. of Ind. As you have pointed out on numerous occasions, the DOI clearly appeals to rational Enlightenment thought as opposed to an orthodox Trinitarian interpretation of the Bible. In my opinion these facts are pretty clear, even thought I am likely to be attacked by a select few (I'm sure you know who I am talking about) for saying so.

Good post.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

One must not tempt others to draw narrow conclusions about Locke from single sentences like "reason must be our last judge and guide in everything". Locke had a transcendental view of what reason was, with a solid intuitionist strain as well. That reason must be our last judge and guide was not, for Locke, an exhortation or recommendation but rather a conclusion of his theory. The point was not that we shouldn't accept as knowledge things contrary to reason, but rather that we cannot do so - the relationship of knowledge to reason and intuition is just hard-wired that way.

To put it in other terms (not Locke's but my own), if God wanted to reveal something to us he could do so, but to be effective we would perceive the revelation either as reasoned or as intuitive, else we could not know it. Jefferson, I hope to argue in an upcoming post, spent alot of effort seeking such reasoned intuition about Christ (and his possible divinity) through scripture.

To only present Locke's summary sentence as such is more likely to mislead than to enlighten.

Moving on to tidbits,

There is no contradiction that I can imagine between tabula rasa and original sin. One has to do with knowledge, the other with nature (in the Platonic/Scholastic sense). Can you elaborate?

Also, why do you make so much of Locke et al using non-biblical arguments? Don't you think that Aquinas, had he lived in their time, would have joined in on the discussion of the state of nature? Christians can be philosophers too, can't we?

To acknowledge that public figures (like the founders) could not publicly deny scripture is noteworthy for its implications to the Christian Nation hypothesis. Not that it is conclusive evidence, of course, but if you are going to admit the one but deny the other you should probably make the distinction.

To point out that Adams, in private correspondence, is willing to interpret the fall of man as, e.g., allegory for the origin of evil, is unremarkable, unless you are willing to assert that, e.g., all Christians must be young-earth creationsists; to believe anything else disqualifies you (or in this case me) as a Christian. Are you willing to go there? If not, what is your point?

As to your summary of Adams on the Trinity ("Adams said that he would not believe revelation delivered DIRECTLY to him BY GOD on Mt. Sinai if it contradicted what his reason told him about the Trinity."), Adams' own words are much more clear (and reasonable) than your summary of them would lead us to believe. God cannot change the sum of two and one (just as I have previously pointed out Kant's position on God's inability to change the number of sides of a triangle), but nothing in Adams' letter suggests that God cannot explain to Adams how the three persons of the Godhead are a unity of some transcendental sort. That said, let us always recall that God did not teach us the Trinity; man devised the Trinity in order to avoid falling into error from sophisticated arguments that seemed to prove heresies from scripture. Adams, it is true, may not have known this - the founders are generally unaware of the content of, or basis for, most tradition and orthodox doctrine. This is all part of that American unorthodoxy and contempt for tradition that I keep pointing out (without allowing that it amounts to a denial of Christianity - instead it defines an unorthodox American Christianity).

I'll post shortly on Jefferson, part one of what will probably be two posts.

Jonathan Rowe said...

There is no contradiction that I can imagine between tabula rasa and original sin. One has to do with knowledge, the other with nature (in the Platonic/Scholastic sense). Can you elaborate?

Tabla Rasa or a "black slate" of human nature, as I understand it, denies man's sinful or fallen nature. A fallen nature by logical necessity denies that man's nature is a "blank slate."

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

No, Tabula Rasa is a theory of (lack of) innate ideas:

This is different from original sin, a doctrine of damaged nature:

bpabbott said...

Kristo: >>One must not tempt others to draw narrow conclusions about Locke from single sentences like "reason must be our last judge and guide in everything".<<

The sentence appears to be rather narrow in focus. Do you imply that it is not?

In any event, regarding the quoted part;

"That reason must be our last judge and guide was not [...]"

... did you intend ...

"That reason must be our last judge and guide [*us*] not [...]" ?

Regarding your question respecting nature and knowledge ...

"There is no contradiction that I can imagine between tabula rasa and original sin. One has to do with knowledge, the other with nature (in the Platonic/Scholastic sense)."

I'm confused by your qualifcation. All we can have knowledge of is natural. Do you suggest Jon is basing his positon on what is not known?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'll do a little more digging; but it's my understanding (mainly based on what I've read of scholars interpreting Locke) that Taba Rasa applied to human nature itself. And we see this in Locke's rather "cheery" view of the state of nature, as compared to for instance, Hobbes'.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Ben!

No, I meant "was".

Locke's sentence seems narrow, but only if you provide your own logical definition of "reason". Locke's idea of reason was very broad, not unlike that of Kant (I'll always look for a way to bring him in). Reason is our judge in forming knowledge only because that is what reason is, a faculty for judgment. As such, it includes the capacity for forming judgments that are not logical deductions (which is what all learning is, inference of things not strictly dependent on what is already known). Reason is a broad and abstract thing.

As for tabula rasa, I am pointing out that there is no contradiction between a doctrine of initially empty minds and initially defective holiness. To make a very weak analogy in computer terms, tabula rasa is like saying a computer as initially purchased has no loaded programs or stored data, but original sin is like saying that a computer as initially purchased is not capable of perfect execution of instructions - it has inherent defects fresh from the factory.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Wow, Jon/Gregg,

I finally found what you were referring to when you accused OFT of intellectual dishonesty for "putting together two sentences which are 40 pages apart without an ellipsis".

Pardon me for defending OFT, but shame on you. He pesented two different quotes, clearly on separate lines, therefore separating them with ellipses (which would have implied one continuous quote) would have been the dishonest thing. He refrained form dishonesty by refraining from your recommendation.

OFT did the right thing. You not only accused him falsely, but also calimed the dishonest thing as what he should have done. You never bridge over 40 pages with ellipses!

Shame, shame, shame.