John Locke and the Reasonableness of Christianity

By George Anastaplo


The godly does not only apprehend the meaning of the words in the Scripture, and

are able to discourse of the reasons therin contained, but they discern also the

spiritualnesse of the work of grace, that is discovered in the same.

—Thomas Hooker (1586-1647)



A memorable date, partly because it is so easy to remember—a memorable date in the history of what we call “Church and State” relations is 1600, the year in which Giordano Bruno (who had been born in 1548) was executed in Rome by the Inquisition. This was after a career of often-vigorous encounters by him with people of various religious faiths (all designated as “Christian”) in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, and England.

Bruno was a learned man of broad philosophical interests. He evidently liked to stir things up. And he may even have been somewhat mad. His challenging cosmology was more Copernican than Ptolemaic—and he could disturb the faithful by speculating about such things as the infinitude of the universe.

Bruno’s fate is believed to have had a profound effect upon contemporaries of philosophical inclinations. These included Francis Bacon (1561-1626), René Descartes (1576-1650), and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Bruno, or at least his fate, can also be thought of as having influenced the theological-political speculations of two exceptional thinkers born a couple of generations after the Bruno execution:    Benedict Spinoza (1638-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704).

It was obvious by the middle of the seventeenth century that a new intellectual and social era had opened, with the beginnings of what we know as the Enlightenment grounded in the modern scientific enterprise. How “religion” was to be dealt with thereafter was an important concern of thinkers of the time, among whom was, of course, John Locke.


How “religion” was to be dealt with was not only a question about the demands upon one of one’s faith, or about what the philosophic response should be to the claims of religion, but also about how “religion” was to be dealt with as a social and political problem. That that problem was sometimes desperate may be seen in how that period can be described which has Bruno’s execution at its midpoint. Here is an account, in a standard reference book, which is provided under the rubric “Religious Wars” (The World Almanac, 1998, p. 562):

A century and a half of religious wars began with a South German peasant uprising (1524), repressed with [Martin] Luther’s support … Radical sects—democratic, pacifist, millenarian—arose (Anabaptists ruled Munster in 1534-35) and were repressed violently. Civil war in France from 1562 between Huguenots (Protestant nobles and merchants) and Catholics ended with the 1598 Edict of Nantes tolerating Protestants (revoked [by Louis XIV] in 1685). Hapsburg attempts to restore Catholicism in Germany were resisted in 25 years of fighting; the 1555 Peace of Augsburg guarantee of religious independence to local princes and cities was confirmed only after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when much of Germany was devastated by local and foreign armies (Sweden, France).

Similar strife plagued England as well, epitomized perhaps for the English-speaking peoples by the conflict between Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) and the Pope.

How strife was to be eliminated, or at least moderated, was a constant concern of thoughtful men and women in the seventeenth century and thereafter. We are reminded of what such concerns mean when we encounter the politics of religious fanaticism in various parts of the world today.


John Locke’s most celebrated discussion of these matters (aside perhaps from what may be found in his solid political works) is A Letter Concerning Toleration, a 1689 translation of his Epistle de Tolerantia, a letter written in Latin by Locke to a Dutch Arminian friend, during the winter of 1685. Locke was at the time a political exile in Amsterdam, living there
“under an assumed name in order to avoid extradition and persecution for his part in the revolutionary activity for toleration in England in 1679-1683.” (John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983], p. 1.)

We find in this Toleration Letter a powerful argument that moves along effectively. It is fairly short, forty or so pages in print. Locke’s argument is reflected in, say, Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on this subject. It is an argument that has been widely accepted in this country, whatever reservations we may now have because of the disabilities assigned (perfunctorily?) by Locke both to known atheists and to Roman Catholics.

The spirit of Locke’s argument may be found in one of the most memorable American pronouncements on this subject, the 1785 Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty (promoted by Jefferson), which begins in this fashion:

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time.

Further on, the Virginia Statute continues thus with its statement of principles, a statement which may include a dubious element or two:

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.

Then it said, echoing here John Milton’s Areopagitica (of 1644) and anticipating the arguments thereafter about when, if at all, the freedom of speech or of the press might be limited:

that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.


But can even more be done in these matters, at least for the sake of domestic tranquility, than there is done in Locke’s Toleration Letter? After all, that Letter does assume that vital differences among Christian sects will continue—and this means that such differences can at time erupt into violent clashes. (This has been seen in recent years in Yugoslavia.) Should something more than the “political” approach relied upon in the Toleration Letter be available here?

Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity (a book of some 150 pages, published anonymously in 1695) approaches the problem here from what can be called a theological perspective. Critical to the Locke approach seems to be the recognition that most people do not really choose their religious allegiances. Rather, they tend to inherit them, depending primarily on their families, on their neighborhoods, or on some other such “accidental” factors.

Thus, although people may feel deeply about the religious faith they happen to have, they usually do not truly understand it, or what can be said for it, or even how and why it should be distinguished from other faiths. Their disabilities here are evident to anyone who notices, for example, that most people are not apt to know the original language of their sacred texts or the history of how those texts came to be established in the form they now cherish.


One can be reminded here of a provision in Article VI of our Constitution of 1787, where it is ordered:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.

I notice in passing that the alternative provided here of an affirmation itself reflects a compromise developed in religious controversies of earlier years. I also that the provision I have just quoted continues in a fashion which can be seen as testimony to the influence of John Locke and his disciples, for it is said thereafter in Article VI of the Constitution: “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That this prohibition is not immediately extended to qualifications for State offices testifies to local divergences at that time in these matters, something evident in the religious establishments that were then still to be found in some States.

But let us return to the Article VI obligation to “support this Constitution.” We are not told either here or anywhere else in the Constitution what “support” means. Even more of a puzzle is what “this Constitution” means. That is, what is one agreeing to? What is one supposed to hold up for the highest esteem as a citizen, and especially as a citizen entrusted with public office in any of the States of the Union? We can see here the problems inherent in any commonly-held allegiance in a community, especially when most of those who so adhere were born into their “faiths,” whether political or religious.

There is even more of a problem when one considers such pledges of allegiance as the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, venerable pronouncements that are routinely recited (with variations) by hundreds of millions of Christians. (See Chapter 16 of this book.) Here, of course, the vocabulary (especially when Trinitarian considerations are involved) is even harder to fathom than that found here and there in our Constitution.


John Locke, in order to promote peace among the many Christian sects of his day, reduces the doctrine that, he insists, Jesus himself had identified as both essential and sufficient for the self-identification of the Christian—he reduces Christian doctrine to the recognition that Jesus is the Messiah. This, he further insists, is something that people of ordinary capacities can grasp.

The Christian identified in this way may well accept other things that he finds in the Bible. But a recognition of the Messiah-ship of Jesus is (Locke argues) all that is absolutely required. And from this, if one is truly to be a Christian, a proper conduct of one’s life follows, conduct which can be guided by precepts provided in the Bible, by Christian communities, and by other influences. It is taken for granted by Locke that most people must be drilled in how to conduct themselves, that they cannot be expected to understand matters as the occasional thoughtful human being does.

It should be noticed that Locke insists here upon the Hebrew term, Messiah, not its Greek equivalent, Christos, however much he refers in the Reasonableness book and elsewhere to Jesus Christ. It should also be noticed that Locke does not undertake any extended inquiry into what Messiah meant to the Jews during the lifetime of Jesus. I will return, further on in these remarks, to some problems implicit in what Locke does here.


Some of the more passionate Christian partisans of Locke’s day did not take kindly to his attempt at peacemaking. However much Locke suggests that other things might well be believed by anyone who does recognize Jesus as the Messiah, he does seem to reduce essential Christian dogma to one affirmation. This was considered by some critics as a form of Deism (or Socianism or Unitarianism), if not even as out-and-out atheism—and certainly not as one of the richly-textured professions of faith to which Christians of that day were accustomed.

At the center of the Reasonableness book, as determined by its paragraphing, is Locke’s emphatic use of the Greek term, parresia. This term is used in the New Testament to describe a fitting plainspokenness (without regard to personal consequence) in testifying to one’s faith. Locke presents himself as plainspoken in this book. Does he, in highlighting parresia as he does, tacitly acknowledge that he is not as plainspoken as he presents himself? (See, on the original ambiguities of parresia, Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist [Southern Methodist University Press, 1971], pp. 275, 781-82.)

Be that as it may, some of Locke’s critics doubted his sincerity in the matters presented in the Reasonableness book. The most vigorous of these critics, one John Edwards, believed that the unnamed author of that book questioned in effect much of the Christian faith, including what was generally believed about the Creation. Edwards includes, in his denunciation, a challenge as to how the wild freethinkers of his day could possibly account for the existence of the world as human beings have always known it. Are we to believe, he scoffed, that all this came into being merely by chance? Here is a lively passage in which Edwards offers what he obviously considers a commonsensical critique of the unorthodox of his day, having just proclaimed that the “Being or Agent which gave the first motion to things, is God” (John Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism [London, 1695], pp. 16-17):

If after all they say, that Matter had this motion by Chance, and so was neither from itself or any other, they talk more absurdly and wildly than before; for Chance is a Word made to signify only the unexpected happening of a thing, but doth not import that there was no Cause or Author at all of it. But however, if they will stand to this (as generally they do) that Matter at first had a strong power by Chance to jump into an orderly System of Heavens, Earth, Sea &c. then I ask them, What is the reason that there hath been nothing of this nature since? What reason can be given why all the Atoms and Effluviums in the several Ages and Successions of Time, ever since this visible World had its being, have not produced some excellent Frame either like this World, or of an other nature? What! is this Lucky Chance quite ceas’d? Is this Fortunate Lottery at an end? Is there no probability of a brave fortuitous hit once again?

Edwards’s criticism continues with still another question which is followed by a wonderful display (ibid., pp. 17-18):

Is there no such fine piece of work as that of Sun, Moon, and Stars, to be expected once more? No: there is an utter despair of it; for from Eternity (according to them) to this moment, we have had no such Luck, and therefore what reason have we to expect any such afterwards? yea indeed, what ground have these Chance-Philosophers to think that there ever was such thing? What reason have they to declare it to be their firm perswasion that Matter was set into motion from  Eternity, and that by the frisking of its Particles, it at last danced into a World? Yet this and all the rest they believe and vouch rather than they will hold that the beginning of things was from an Intelligent and Wise Being.

We can see here the suspicions that someone such as Locke could arouse in his effort to suggest a reasonable plan for a relaxed incorporation of Christian piety in the feverish political order of his day. We can also see how someone such as Locke could arouse among the orthodox of his day a partial resurgence of the passions aroused by Giordano Bruno a century earlier.


Among the attacks on Locke for his Reasonableness book was the charge that he was a covert disciple of Thomas Hobbes, a thinker who had been so imprudent as to invite suspicions of atheism. Hobbes, like Locke after him, had recognized the intellectual (if not also the temperamental) limitations of most citizens—and so he advocated that the dutiful citizen should routinely take his lead, in religious matters, from his acknowledged earthly ruler, someone who can call for guidance upon the best minds of the realm.

Hobbes’s position here, which is a hardheaded alternative to the determinedly-tolerant position of Locke, has been summed up in this way (Laurence Berns, in History of Political Philosophy, Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 417 [emphasis added]):

The “office of our Blessed Savior,” the Messiah . . . is threefold: Redeemer, Teacher, and King. Christ on earth was Redeemer and Teacher, not King. He never did anything to call into question the civil laws of the Jews or Caesar, not gave anyone else warrant to do the same. He is to be the King only after the general resurrection; the kingdom he claimed is to be in another world.

We can see in this passage, with its Hobbesian anticipation of Locke’s emphasis upon the Messiah—we can see here how Locke could be considered by the wary to be a tame version of Hobbes—and, and as such, requiring greater vigilance on the part of the pious.

Further on, in the Berns summary that I have just drawn upon, are these comments on Hobbes’s position (ibid., p. 418 [emphasis added]):

So long as there was no Christina commonwealth, no civil sovereign converted to Christianity, the ecclesiastical power was in the hands of the apostles and those they ordained as ministers. They had no power to command, their office was only to instruct and advice men to believe and have faith in Christ. That Jesus is the Christ is the sole article of faith necessary for a Christian. If commanded by an infidel sovereign to profess the contrary with one’s tongue, martyrdom is not necessary; confession is but an external thing, a sign of obedience to the law. If commanded by the sovereign to do actions such as worshiping false gods, which in effect, deny the Lord, the sin is not that of the obedient but that of the sovereign.

The positions with respect to these matters of both Hobbes and Locke, whatever their differences about resistance to one’s ruler, do seem to encourage citizens to be somewhat skeptical (quietly so?) about any political authority that may be claimed by the religious teachers of one’s time and place, especially when such claims threaten domestic tranquility.

Should Locke be taken, then, to have said more prudently what Hobbes, perhaps too boldly for his own good, had already said about the necessary political supervision of Christian dogmatism? That is, is Locke’s reformulation of the Christian creed—something to be accepted not only in England but also on the continent (where his Toleration Letter had been published in both Dutch and French)—is Locke’s reformulation also grounded not in theology but rather in a reasonable political order?


However astute Locke may have been in his attempt to defuse religious strife by emphasizing as he did the dominance of the Messiah-recognition, he does not seem to have succeeded. I base this judgment on my review of texts in which one might expect to see Locke’s influence at work.

One such text is the Book of Common Prayer, the quite substantial prayer book of that Anglican Church in which Locke himself held membership. Christ, of course, is used repeatedly, but Messiah, rarely. One such use may be found in its catechism, where there is the following brief exchange, which does conform to what Locke argues at great length in his Reasonableness book (Book of Common Prayer, New York, 1979, p. 849):

Q. What is redemption?

A. Redemption is the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death.

Q. How did God prepare us for redemption?

A. God sent the prophets to call us back to himself, to show us our need for redemption,

and to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Q. What is meant by Messiah?

A. The Messiah is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help

of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and

with all creation.

B. Who do we believe is the Messiah?

A. The Messiah, or Christ, is Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son of God.

[See, also, ibid., p. 187: “Almighty Father, who didst inspire Simon Peter, first among

the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God . . .” Confession of Saint Peter.]


Be all this as it may, it should be instructive to compare versions of the Book of Common Prayer, before and after 1700, to see what Locke’s influence may have been in these matters.

Even less use of Messiah may be seen in texts that reflect the more popular religious sentiments of our own day. Consider, for example, the quite substantial Sacred Harp songbook. The uses of Messiah in the songs collected there are rare. And it is evident, there as elsewhere, that most Christians today who can speak with veneration of Christ, do not readily associate that name with Messiah (except perhaps when reminded of this by Handel). Consequently, they may not sense the boldness of the argument that Locke makes about the sufficiency of the Messiah-identification, no matter what Christos may “really” mean.

It should also be noticed, in accounting for the fortunes of the Reasonableness book, that it is perhaps the most tedious of Locke’s extended texts. One has to labor through much of it, and even more through the two Vindications (of some 250 pages) that he was moved to issue in its defense. This is in marked contrast to the eloquence and persuasiveness of the Toleration Letter.


The typical Christian today, if not also in Locke’s time, does not know much about the specifically Jewish implications of the Messiah tradition. Certainly, as I have indicated, our contemporary Christian is not apt to think “Messiah” when “Christ” is mentioned.

Of course, Locke could argue that the creed he proposes is in effect a tautology:     anyone who considers himself a Christian is in effect a Messiah-ist. And so there should be no problem with an emphasis upon Jesus being the Messiah. But, as we have noticed, partisans could wonder whether something more was needed than what might seem to the suspicious as little more than clever wordplay.

The reader who understands Locke’s concerns may well observe that to emphasize the Messianic character of Christianity is to recognize, if only tacitly, that the critical problems Locke and others of like mind faced were political, not theological or spiritual. (We should recall, by the way, that the kings of Israel were anointed, not crowned—that is, they were “christened,” or made Messiah-like.)

It will not do, Locke indicates, for responsible thinkers to question and thereby to undermine the Christian credentials of a community. Since some religious faith is needed if personal morality and political integrity are to be available in the community at large, whatever religious faith is relied upon, it can be expected that it would have to be domesticated politically by the sensible philosopher-statesman who is aware of inherent human limitations. Such domestication of religious faith is called for by a recognition of the fortuitous character of the reliance upon any faith by those who were not themselves privileged to have personally experienced the original revelation vital to their faith.


It is possible that John Locke believed, aside from what he considered politically salutary to promote, that his own understanding of Christianity was superior to that of the conventional theological partisans of his day. He was, among other things, quite learned in the Bible.

Even so, he may have been somewhat presumptuous here, especially in the way he used his Messiah argument. Did he, among other things, understand what the Jews both of Jesus’ time and since had thought, and thought deeply, about the Messiah? (It can be considered providential that we could be reminded, by a full-page advertisement in the New York Times this morning [April 2, 2004, p. A11], of how some Jews regard the Messiah (Moshiách) and the Redemption of the World.)

The Lockean presumptuousness that can be suspected in these matters may also be seen perhaps in another distinguished Englishman of his time, Isaac Newton (1642-1727). He, too, knew the Bible well. Newton dedicated his prodigious intellect, in the closing decades of his life, to (among other matters) an intense study of, and speculation about, prophecies found in the Book of Daniel and in the Book of Revelation. He wrote at length on what he discovered in those texts, the study of which he believed could provide him at least as reliable a grasp of the spiritual universe as his work in mathematics and physics had provided him and others of the physical universe.

There may be something naïve about what Locke and Newton did in their respective probings of the Bible, assuming that they did take seriously their ostensible teachings. But both of them considered themselves anything but naïve in their recognition that it would not have been useful for their reputations and continued public effectiveness to have been identified as Unitarians instead of as Trinitarians, especially since Unitarianism could be considered, by some of the more enthusiastic Christians of their day, to be akin to atheism.

We can suspect that such men might conduct themselves quite differently today. What, for example, would an Islamic Locke identify as the common ground upon which Sunnis and Shiites, for example, could meet in an effort to moderate their sometimes-deadly enmity? Certainly, we on the outside can readily see much more that should unite than should divide the adherents to these two sects of Muslims.


A few more words about Locke’s project should be offered here. We have noticed that his critics did suspect that there was something threatening in his recommendations about the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

When one proceeds as Locke did in his Reasonableness book, I have suggested, something other than an organized religion is sensed to be relied upon as sovereign, even in spiritual matters. That is, the faithful may well suspect that it is not the “committed” believer who speaks as Locke does, but rather the dispassionate statesman.

Thus, there may be seen here by anyone who is suspicious of what we now know as “intellectuals”—there may be seen here not a heartfelt profession of faith but rather primarily an exercise of rhetoric, albeit in the service of domestic tranquility and other transitory political concerns. And this, it could be feared, depended upon and reinforced a calculated shift away from that primary concern for the salvation of souls that the true believer is apt to hunger for.


I return, in closing, to the “frisking,” or creative dance, of the atoms, which had been ridiculed in 1695 by the Lockean critic, John Edwards (someone to be distinguished, by the way, from Jonathan Edwards of New England).

Consider the challenge posed to the likes of Edwards by the astrophysicists and cosmologists of our day. We are told by them that there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe. We begin to get an inkling of what this can mean when we hear that there are one hundred billion suns in our own galaxy alone.

Did John Locke, if not also Isaac Newton himself, assume that there was in the universe only the galaxy of which our solar system is a part? We, on the other hand, can hear scientists speculate not only about an abundance of life elsewhere in the universe but even about the prospects of our creating life here on earth from inanimate materials.

There is, depending on one’s perspective and perhaps on one’s temperament, something either exhilarating or demoralizing about such speculations, especially as one contemplates, for its practical implications, an “infinity” of worlds elsewhere.

That is, we can see, in what is said to have been already discovered in recent decades about the astonishing extent of the observable universe, a resurrection of the spirit of Giordano Bruno, an intrepid, if not even reckless, explorer, who (unlike the eminently cautious John Locke) could at times trouble not only his enemies but perhaps even more some of his more thoughtful friends.


*This talk was given in the First Friday Lecture Series, The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, April 2, 2004. The epigraph is taken from Thomas Hooker’s Application of Redemption, By the Effectual Work of the Word, and Spirit of Christ, for the bringing home of lost Sinners to God, as quoted in Thomas L. Pangle, “A Critique of Hobbes’s Critique of the Biblical and Natural Religion in Leviathan,” Jewish Political Studies Review 4:2 (Fall 1992), pp. 25, 35, 56. See also note 67 in George Anastaplo, The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008). See as well Appendix K of The Bible: Respectful Readings, “Yearnings for the Divine and the Natural Animation of Matter.”

William T. Braithwaite, of St. John’s College (Annapolis), has been instructive in his study of Locke’s Reasonableness venture. More can be expected, during the coming decade, from Professor Braithwaite here as elsewhere. It should be instructive to consider, in connection with Locke’s approach to these matters, the challenging “General Scholium” with which Isaac Newton concludes his Principia Mathematica.

This version of this talk is taken from George Anastaplo, The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008), pp. 305-17.






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