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.
- Necessary to know their boundaries.
- Faith and reason, what, as contradistinguised.
- No new simple idea can be conveyed by traditional revelation.
- Traditional revelation may make us know propositions knowable also by reason, but not with the same certainty that reason doth.
- Revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.
- Traditional revelation much less.
- Things above reason.
- Or not contrary to reason, if revealed, are matter of faith.
- Revelation, in matters where reason cannot judge, or but probably, ought to be hearkened to.
- In matters where reason can afford certain knowledge, that is be herkended to.
- 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.
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: