Sunday, October 23, 2016

How John Locke Influenced Christian-Deism, etc.

I think we are destined to debate about what John Locke really meant. Straussian claims that he was a secret Hobbesian imbibed atheist or something along those lines are too controversial to be asserted (as opposed to wondered about).

He was a secret something, probably theological unitarian of the Arian bent. He had a lowest common denominator understanding of Christianity that was so generously ecumenical that it got him accused of secret Socianianism.

I write this because I don't think an article by one Timothy Gordon (that Tom Van Dyke at American Creation linked to) quite gets John Locke anymore than the renowned Jeremy Waldron (insofar as Mr. Gordon properly articulates his argument) does. Gordon writes:
Locke was as Protestant as he was empiricist. As Jeremy Waldron notes, “Locke was intensely interested in Christian doctrine, and in the Reasonableness he insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus [i.e. the Bible].” This is a repudiation, not an affirmation, of natural law—the abiding epistemological expression of the Protestant one, at least until Immanuel Kant came along. Only revelation is meaningful. By implication then, Locke’s metaphysics was the perfect expression of Anglo-Protestant Christianity, notwithstanding his very un-Protestant “tabula rasa,” which was only a small setback. Such a setback is quite negligible in light of the more predominating Lockean concomitance between a meaningless empiricist nature and a meaningless Protestant nature—both of which thrive in Locke’s philosophy. And this means that the concept of “natural law” should be utterly anathema to Locke or the Lockean.

This is why, Waldron continues, “like the two other very influential natural law philosophers [being read by the Founders], Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, Locke equated natural law with the biblical revelation.” Natural law equals Biblical revelation? What an intentional misconstruing of opposites!

Natural law is what we know about reality from nature, not from revelation. Locke, however had to proceed like that because he wanted to overthrow the (ironically Catholic) tyrant in 1688. And he wanted to do so even though natural law and revelation are conceptually distinct. Indeed, such a distinction between Natural Law (inherent in the two out of three of Catholicism’s teaching voices the Reformation excised) and Revelation informed the sine qua non of the Reformation, which repudiated the Catholic view of their concomitance.
If Gordon accurately represents Waldron, I agree with Gordon and not Waldron's Locke. Natural law is not biblical revelation. But I don't think either Locke or those other natural law thinkers equated them as such. In fact, in his Second Treatise on Government, Locke noted that the "state of nature" -- foundational to his political theory -- needs a law to govern it, and "reason ... is that law."

Rather the argument is that reason and revelation are separate channels that when properly put together will arrive at the same conclusion. I saw, at Princeton, Waldron debate Michael Zuckert, who posits the esoteric Hobbesian atheistic Locke theory. The debate was moderated by the late great Locke scholar, Princeton professor Paul Sigmund. Sigmund told me personally, off the record, he saw Locke as a "liberal Thomist."

Locke may well have repudiated natural law; but if that's true, it's an esoteric conclusion. Locke's exoteric texts don't do such. Rather, one could argue Locke changed or weakened the classical understanding of natural law by providing a metaphysically thin basis for it.

But ultimately I think Locke made a good point when he, as summarized in the above quotation, "insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus."

Locke also, if I properly understand his teachings on Christianity and the limits of human understanding, thought the average person -- certainly the people with below average intelligence -- (i.e., the "ignorant fishermen" who were Jesus' original followers) might not be able to understand all of the verses and chapters of the Bible and complex doctrines that have developed in Christendom over the ages.

Yes. With three graduate degrees and having passed the bar exam in two states, I've gotten through Aristotle and the natural law thinkers. And I've read the Bible and so on. All of this can be very difficult to understand. Parts of the Bible are as difficult to understand as the intricacies of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Locke was NOT saying that whereas natural law can be difficult, the Bible is easy. Rather he was saying that Jesus' moral teachings were much easier for people of average or below average intelligence to understand than what you get through the long chain of reasoning required to understand the natural law and other complicated matters.

In essence, Jesus here provides a shortcut to get to the same conclusions a very refined mind can get to through reason alone, examining nature. If a more simple mind can't grasp the complicated intricacies of the Nicene Trinity and other complex theological doctrines, and instead ends up believing in something not orthodox, such shouldn't disqualify the person from "Christianity" provided he believes Jesus a unique Messiah.

This is a point that the Christian-Deists, Unitarians, and other expositors of "Primitive Christianity" would later run with. And I don't see it as a repudiation of natural law or equating natural law with biblical revelation.

Though it does strongly reinforce the point later made by Christian-Deists that Christianity essentially was a republication of the law of nature. As it were the "essential" parts of Christianity tended to be the simple parts, Jesus' words, and moral teachings and example. Everything else was either superfluous or up for grabs.

This includes what the canon of the Bible was. Especially whether some of the harder to understand books of the Bible like Revelation (Apocalypse) properly belonged. Whether St. Paul was inspired or an original corrupter of Jesus' words. I'm not saying Locke took such unorthodox positions on these matters. But the Christian-Deists he inspired, using his method, did.


Tom Van Dyke said...

If Gordon accurately represents Waldron, I agree with Gordon and not Waldron's Locke. Natural law is not biblical revelation.

Leo Strauss claims it is. I think you're getting too far into the weeds without the proper study, not that I think it's even necessary. The historian doesn't care whether or not Locke believed in natural law, only that the Founders believe he did.

They did.

Alexander Hamilton:

"I shall, henceforth, begin to make some allowance for that enmity, you have discovered to the natural rights of mankind. For, though ignorance of them in this enlightened age cannot be admitted, as a sufficient excuse for you; yet, it ought, in some measure, to extenuate your guilt. If you will follow my advice, there still may be hopes of your reformation. Apply yourself, without delay, to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject; but if you attend, diligently, to these, you will not require any others."

Bill Fortenberry said...

Jon, I can't quite figure out what you mean when you use the term "natural law." Are you referring to an actual body of law which exists in nature, or are you referring to the collection of human reasonings and writings about a possible body of law which exists in nature? Locke held the former of those two views, but most of those who claim that he was a "secret something" hold to the latter view. Which view do you take? Is natural law an actual law which exists in nature, or is it just a collection of arguments?