- John Locke and the Eighteenth-Century Divine by Alan P.F. Sell
Professor Sell’s goal is to discern the impact of Locke’s thought upon the later divines; Sell’s scope is the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century. Most of the text is a detailed descriptive account of various scholars’ reactions to Locke’s epistemology, metaphysics, and views concerning religion. Sell focuses on the question of the relative authority of scripture, reason and revelation. He contends that Locke’s epistemological and political positions are intimately bound up with his Christian faith, that as a conservative empiricist, Locke is “much more the rationalist than he has sometimes been painted” (48). The important question bequeathed by Locke to Christian apologetics is: “can the epistemological starting point be redeemed for Christian apologetic use or is it not viable at all?” (12). Sell addresses this question throughout the following chapters: “Ideas, Knowledge and Truth”; “Reason, Revelation, Faith and Scripture”; “Morality and Liberty”; “Toleration and Government”; and “Christian Doctrine”.
Sell notes Locke’s roots in Calvinism, his appreciation of Arminian doctrine and his friendship with a number of prominent Latitudinarians. He argues that most criticisms of Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity are misguided. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Locke was charged with scepticism, deism, Socinianism and materialism. Sell presents the objections of numerous scholars, notably Bishop Stillingfleet, William Carroll, John Norris, Richard Bentley, Henry Lee, Richard Price, Bishop Berkeley, and Samuel Johnson. He also covers the views of Locke’s defenders, including Anthony Collins, Catharine Cockburn and Samuel Bold.
The reader might be disappointed with Sell’s short presentation of an inordinate number of Lockean critics; there is little analysis or discussion of the merits of the particular objections cited. He does offer an analysis of the general charges against Locke, but rarely quotes Locke sufficiently to justify his conclusion that Locke was not a deist, sceptic, or materialist. Sell simply takes Locke’s word for it. This book is best taken as an excellent reference guide.
Sell contends that in spite of Locke’s friendship with deists such as Collins, Locke’s Reasonableness of the Christian Religion was written to dissolve the deist prejudice against Christianity. He dismisses the charge of deism because: (1) Locke argues for revelation and against natural religion, (2) Locke’s God possesses the traditional attributes assigned to him (power, omniscience, providence), (3) Locke grounds morality not exclusively in natural law, as did deists, but in the gospel, (4) the anti-materialist thrust of Book IV, Chapter X of the Essay, and (5) Locke’s argument that there can be truths of revelation which are above reason. Sell concludes that the “main problem posed to Locke by the deists was that of guilt by association” (209), in other words Locke’s work was misused for political reasons.
Sell considers the charge of Socinianism more serious than that of deism. Socinianism is defined by its denial of the Trinity, and by the claims that there cannot be an innate idea of God, that there is no original corruption deriving from Adam, that the wicked will not suffer eternal torments, and that some bodies are not raised at general resurrection. Despite Locke’s agreement with most Socinian claims, Sell claims that [End Page 631] Locke cannot be pinned down on the issue of the Trinity. There is no question, he says, that “the Locke of 1662 affirmed both the doctrine of the Trinity and the human divine nature of Christ, whilst recognizing that the human mind could not explain how these things could be so; there is no question that especially from the 1690’s onwards he was actively reviewing the matter; there is no hard evidence that he ever repudiated the doctrine.” (214)
According to Stillingfleet, Locke’s sensationalism and his proposal that matter might be capable of thought undermine Christian faith. Sell does not find this charge convincing. He defends Locke’s distinction between “the man” and “the person,” stressing that Locke claims a high degree of probability that the...