Sunday, July 26, 2009

Abbott on Locke, Reason & Revelation

Longtime American Creation reader Ben Abbott sent me this post on John Locke, Reason & Revelation. Ben is a smart guy and close reader of our blog. He's learned a lot from us and we in turn can learn from him:

Regarding John Locke's opinion of reason and revelation, chapter XVIII of Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is titled "OF FAITH AND REASON, AND THEIR DISTINCT PROVINCES".

The first first few paragraphs for this chapter are quoted below.

OF FAITH AND REASON, AND THEIR DISTINCT PROVINCES.


1. Necessary to know their boundaries. -- It has been above shown, First, That we are of necessity ignorant, and want knowledge of all sorts, where we want ideas. Secondly, That we are ignorant and want rational knowledge, where we want proofs. Thirdly, That we want general knowledge and certainty, as far as we want clear and determined specific ideas. Fourthly, That we want probability to direct our assent in matters where we have neither knowledge of our own nor testimony of other men to bottom our reason upon.

From these things thus premised, I think we may come to lay down the measures and boundaries between faith and reason; the want thereof may possibly have been the cause, if not of great disorders, yet, at least of great disputes, and perhaps mistakes, in the world: for until it be resolved how far we are to be guided by reason, and how far by faith we shall in vain dispute, and endeavor to convince one another in matters of religion.

Faith and reason what, as contradistinguished. -- I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, it is matter of faith, and above reason. And I do not see how they can argue with any one, or ever convince a gainsayer, who makes use of the same plea, without setting down strict boundaries between faith and reason, which ought to be the first point established in all questions. where faith has any thing to do.

Reason therefore, here, as contradistinguished to faith, I take to be the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz. by sensation or reflection.

Faith, on the other side, is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation. [...]


Locke expresses the opinion that the devout are eager to apply reason ... except when reason fails them. At which point Locke observed they may assert that their claim is a matter of faith and above reason.

But, what is the proper province of reason? What of revelation? By what means are the provinces for reason and revelation deterined? Finally, by what means is the claim of revelation judged? These questions are addressed by this essay by Locke.

In the 2nd paragraph of section 2, with prepositions and non-essential parts removed by me, Locke says;

"Reason [...] as contradistinguished to faith, I take [...] to be the discovery of [...] truths, [...]."


Here, Locke mentions faith, but not revelation. However, in the 3rd paragraph Locke defines the word "faith" to be synonymous with revelation. Although with better prose, essentially Locke says;

"Faith [...] we call revelation."


If the essay were to end here the short of it would be; Reason is superior to revelation in the discovery of truths. However, Locke's argument isn't so simple.

This chapter of Locke's essay contains the sections enumerated below.

  1. Necessary to know their boundaries.


  2. Faith and reason, what, as contradistinguised.


  3. No new simple idea can be conveyed by traditional revelation.


  4. Traditional revelation may make us know propositions knowable also by reason, but not with the same certainty that reason doth.


  5. Revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.


  6. Traditional revelation much less.


  7. Things above reason.


  8. Or not contrary to reason, if revealed, are matter of faith.


  9. Revelation, in matters where reason cannot judge, or but probably, ought to be hearkened to.


  10. In matters where reason can afford certain knowledge, that is be herkended to.


  11. If the boundaries be not set between faith and reason, no enthusiam, or extravagancy in religion, can be contradicted.


A review of the entire chapter, indicates that Locke does place limits upon the province of reason. For example, in section 7 Locke writes;

"7. Things above reason. -- But Thirdly, there being many things wherein we have very imperfect notions, or none at all; and other things, of whose past, present, or future existence, by the natural use of our faculties, we can have no knowledge at all: these as being beyond the discovery of our natural faculties, and above reason, are when revealed the proper matter of faith. Thus, that part of the angels rebelled against God, and thereby lost their first happy state; and that the dead shall rise, and live again: these, and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason are purely matters of faith; with which reason has directly, nothing to do."


Here Locke makes the point that reason has nothing to do (pro or con) regarding notions that are beyond the discovery of our natural faculties.

Then in section 8, Locke clarifies the point in section 7 by asserting that reason is the means to judge what qualifies as a revelation.

"But yet 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."


In section 9, Locke discusses the practical limits to reason's province.

"Whatever proposition is revealed of whose truth our mind by its natural faculties and notions, cannot judge that is purely matter of faith, and above reason."


And then in section 10, Locke again clarifies that reason is the means to judge what qualifies as revelation.

"Whatever God hath revealed, is certainly true; no doubt can be made of it. This is the proper object of faith: but whether it be a divine revelation or not, reason must judge; which can never permit the mind to reject a greater evidence to embrace what is less evident."


In the final section of the chapter, section 11, Locke warns against not respecting the distinct provinces of reason and revelation, and warns of how religion may suffer in the absence of reason.

"If the provinces of faith and reason are not kept distinct by these boundaries, there will, in matters of religion, be no room for reason at all; and those extravagant opinions and ceremonies, that are to be found in the several religions of the world, will not deserve to be blamed. For, to this crying up of faith, in opposition to reason, we may I think in a good measure ascribe those absurdities that fill almost all the religions which possess and divide mankind. For men having been principled with an opinion that they must not consult reason in the things of religion, however apparently contradictory to common sense and the very principles of all their knowledge, lave let loose their fancies and natural superstition; and have been, by them, led into so strange opinions and extravagant practices in religion, that a considerate man cannot but stand amazed at their follies and judge them so far from being acceptable to the great and wise God, that he cannot avoid thinking them ridiculous and offensive to a sober, good man."


Thus Locke argues that reason is preferred when it is reasonable to apply it, and that revelation is to be judged reasonable before accepting it. In this, I do not find that Locke is saying "reason trumps revelation", but that within its provice, reason is the preferred means of discovery, and that the guardianship of faith is part of the province of reason.

21 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Mr. Abbott, and a conscientious excerpting.

That Jesus was the Messiah---and Locke explicitly wrote he believed Jesus was---is "above" the province of reason. But if the earth can be shown to be not 6000 years old but billions, then a reasonable explanation must be offered, like the authors of the Bible couldn't count that high!

Thus Locke argues that reason is preferred when it is reasonable to apply it

I believe Locke also writes elsewhere that any revelation to which one can also give the assent of reason is the strongest-believed of all.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is largely designed to be a pure philosophical study of epistemology, how we know what we know. What's striking is how much the Bible was and had to be figured in, unlike today.

reason is the preferred means of discovery

Unfortunately, up until Locke's time---and I fear through our time as well---moral truth is often undiscoverable by reason. The Essay was published in 1689, but as Locke wrote in The Reasonableness of Christianity in 1696:

"And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the new testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by Our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen."

bpabbott said...

Regarding your paraphrase of Locke, "any revelation to which one can also give the assent of reason is the strongest-believed of all", is that from the The Reasonableness of Christianity As delivered in the Scriptures, or do you refer to a passage from the essay I've referenced?

In either event, I do think it consistent with Locke's that the strength of belief for any claim of faith / revelation is in proportion to its reasonableness.

bpabbott said...

Regarding the comment "[...] until Locke's time---and I fear through our time as well---moral truth is often undiscoverable by reason."

I understand the discovery of moral truth to be a creative process.

And, as such, I do recognize it as a revelation ... even if only the the metaphorical sense.

I also recognize most of what we call morality was revealed to us by socieity.

Thus, while I'm skeptical of the claim that there are moral truths that undiscoverable by reason, it is clear to me that no man is capable of applying reason to discover all the moral principles we take for granted today.

Even so, not only do I find the words of Locke you quote to be reasonable, but I generally agree with them.

Tom Van Dyke said...


In either event, I do think it consistent with Locke's that the strength of belief for any claim of faith / revelation is in proportion to its reasonableness.


Yeah. Based on a reading of Locke's full work, not just quote-grabbing. Sometimes brute reason leaves our hearts so empty. That was the rest of what Locke says to us. Locke was a human being, like the rest of us. Most of us, anyway.

J said...

Locke--"any revelation to which one can also give the assent of reason is the strongest-believed of all"

That sounds about like Jefferson claiming that he respected those sections of Scripture--christian revelation--which he felt were compatible with Reason. Certainly Locke does suggest there is a criteria of some sort--so we might agree to say JC's morals as expressed in the Beatitudes (well, some people might), because they seem compatible with a rational ethics. On other hand, the rationalist would be hard-pressed to accept the strange mystical vision of the Book of Revelation as literally true. At the very least, Locke opens the door to Jefferson's more skeptical approach to reading the ancient text of the Bible, though I would agree that Locke never explicitly rejects biblical inerrancy--.

J said...

Locke was a human being, like the rest of us.

Working for Shaftesbury he also wrote a justification of slavery
in the colonies (carolinas, specifically), and an essay more or less claiming that the colonists were justified (by God's grace, more or less) in seizing the natives' lands. That's not that surprising, but Locke did at times sort of pretend to be an abolitionist.

The ECHU is an important work, but Lockean empiricism hardly represents the pinnacle of philosophy or human thought.Locke really doesn't prove his sensationism accounts for all knowledge--he does however repeat it. Locke seems naive in a sense; the philosophy of common sense, as Bertrand Russell said. Russell also claimed, "Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency.""

It's also rather amusing that some evangelicals now read Locke as a religious thinker. Many intellectuals of the time--especially on the Continent-- considered empiricism as a whole the work of the devil, a forerunner to moral relativism, materialism and other social ills.

King of Ireland said...

J stated:

"It's also rather amusing that some evangelicals now read Locke as a religious thinker."

Is this unreasonable of a man who wrote a book called "The Reasonableness of Christianity", took the time to paraphrase 4 books of the New Testament, and prefaced his philosophical views on govenmnent with his First Treatise that is filled with references to the Bible?

I stated in a comment yesterday that when the French got hold of his "Two Treatises" they only translated the first and that this is the one that made it to America. I got this from Wiki so I take it with a grain of salt until I get more information but this is telling.

The supposed propaganda about the religious Christian hijacking the secular Locke could be the real "liars" line. At first glance, it looks more like the non-religious secularists hijacking the Christian Locke. It seems secularists want to take the philosophical ideas of Locke without the Theological underpinnings?

The Bible says that house built on sand will fall. Look at the public schools where modern philosophy is king and tell me we as a Nation are better off because of this. We went from number one in the world to some think 30 th or 50th. I think it is worse from what I saw as a teacher compared to overseas. Problem number one? No right or wrong is being taught. Thus, the kids are out of control.

King of Ireland said...

Bpabbot stated:

"I also recognize most of what we call morality was revealed to us by society."

A society impacted a great deal by 2,000 years of Christianity. Now I am the first to say this has some good and some bad. But I think it is hard to deny the fact the the story of Jesus has not impacted the moral fiber of Western society.

I think our battles over the Christian Nation issue and what that even really means clouds this understanding. It is at our own peril whether one believes this world view was handed down from revelation or reason.

King of Ireland said...

J stated:

"Locke opens the door to Jefferson's more skeptical approach to reading the ancient text of the Bible, though I would agree that Locke never explicitly rejects biblical inerrancy--."

Locke's approach to the Bible does open up a can of worms. But one does not have to take it as far as Jefferson did. Inerrancy is ridiculous. There are errors all over the Bible. Paul gives opinions all the time was he infallible? The other thing people do is take passages that are descriptive and make them out to be proscriptive. The same battle is going on today between the "Emerging Church" and the "Traditional Church".

bpabbott said...

In this essay, Locke discusses the provinces of reason and faith. As it is not a theological exercise, he abstains from the mention of his personal reasoned conclusions regrading theology, such as biblical inerrancy. I think this is wise, as Locke avoids distancing those whose reasoning reaches different conclusions than his own.

While Locke did document what he thought to be "The Reasonableness of Christianity", my impression is that his words are the manifestation of passion for reasoned analysis, rather than passion for reasoned theology itself. Thus, I sense he is again avoiding theological conflict by focusing on what is well reasoned and avoiding counter examples.

King of Ireland said...

Bpabbot stated:

" my impression is that his words are the manifestation of passion for reasoned analysis, rather than passion for reasoned theology itself."

Explain this I do not understand your point.

bpabbott said...

King, my comment was too quick and poorly worded. I'll give it the effort is deserves and respond later.

bpabbott said...

King,

My impression is that Locke is instructing on how to form reasonable opinions (theological opinions, or otherwise). Locke is not instructing what those reasonable opinions should be. As such, Locke is not taking the sides, of one opinion vs another.

Thus, when those promoting opposing, but well reasoned, world-views each understand Locke to be speaking to them is indicative (to me) that Locke has succeeded in reaching each of them.

My comment; "[Locke's] words are the manifestation of passion for reasoned analysis, rather than passion for reasoned theology itself"; may be better expressed as; Locke seeks to teach men how to think reasonably, not what is reasonable to think.

I should cautiously qualify that my remarks respect the context of the essay this post examined. When my spare time permits, I hope to study Locke's essay The Reasonableness of Christianity, so that I may have a better informed opinion of that work.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Locke seeks to teach men how to think reasonably, not what is reasonable to think.

Very nice work on all this, Ben. There's no question that Christianity---"religion"---was coming out of what LEH Lecky [only somewhat unfairly] blanketed as "superstition" [witch trials, demons being blamed for the work of germs].

Further, each in his own way, Luther and Calvin were as theologically dogmatic as the [Catholic] church they condemned.

The best argument for Protestantism in the Founding was not in the doctrines of "reformed" Protestantism, "TULIP" and the like, but in the resistance to any authority's interpretation of scripture as the Last Word. A man's reason and his religious conscience answer to only one Sovereign, and that sovereign isn't a king or a president or a government, nor a church or a preacher.

If Locke's part in all that is to be called Enlightenment, then so be it. But as we see, at least in Locke's case [and I would argue in the Founding's as well], that such progress from superstition and authoritarianism was still within the purview of Christianity, not outside it, as Hume and Voltaire and Rousseau held themselves.

[OK, OK, dave 2, you know what I mean. Locke argues within Christianity, not outside it. The other 3 don't.]

bpabbott said...

Thanks Tom.

Its poetic that we find common ground with Locke.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, that indeed was your core point.

King of Ireland said...

Bpabbot stated:

"Locke seeks to teach men how to think reasonably, not what is reasonable to think"

I think this is well put and true. The best Church meetings I was ever part of used the socratic method and one had to ask questions not answer them. The first time I went in I could not even tell they were Christians. Numerous unbelievers came every week and participated in the open conversations.

It was awesome until they started bringing Bible in and the goal became getting all the Christian kids back in church more than seeking truth from the ground up. While it was pure it was great. Why? It followed what you just stated:

People were challenge to think not told what to think.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated:

"Further, each in his own way, Luther and Calvin were as theologically dogmatic as the [Catholic] church they condemned."

No doubt. Your second point in that comment is well put too.

King of Ireland said...

"Its poetic that we find common ground with Locke"

I think these are the ideas that a majority rallied around philosophically regardless of their respective theological views. I think we all lose sight of that. It is a shame because it causes so much ill will today,

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