Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.2 (2001) 296-297
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Locke, John. The Reasonableness of Christianity. Edited by John C. Higgins-Biddle. The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, The Clarendon Press, 1999. Pp. cxxxix + 261. Cloth, $95.00.
John C. Higgins-Biddle's new edition of the work Locke published anonymously in 1695 is another fine entry in the Clarendon series. It is the first critical edition and the only one to include the revisions Locke made in a personal copy. Higgins-Biddle provides a set of Locke's manuscripts related to the text (including manuscript indices), a table of Biblical references, and a bibliography. In his meticulously researched introduction, Higgins-Biddle sets out the background and main themes of The Reasonableness by considering the controversies that surrounded it, particularly the accusations of Deism, Socinianism, and Hobbism.
Locke's title is apt to mislead contemporary readers by encouraging them to expect a rationalistic defense of religious belief. What we have instead is a treatise largely devoted to discovering the basic beliefs one must hold in order to be a Christian. Christianity is 'reasonable' according to Locke because its fundamental doctrines are perspicuous and accessible to all, not because it is in every respect rationally demonstrable. Locke argues that belief in two propositions, viz., that God exists and that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, is sufficient to make one a Christian. Early critics, as Higgins-Biddle shows, mistakenly took this to mean that other doctrines, especially that of the Trinity, formed no part of Locke's brand of Christianity. Instead, Locke suggests that although belief in the fundamental doctrines is sufficient to make one a Christian, one is subsequently obligated to receive "all the parts of Divine Revelation, with a docility and disposition prepared to imbrace" (169). Locke grants, however, that a Christian may be ignorant of or even disbelieve a large portion of scriptural truths. His failure to specify which particular 'truths' he had in mind seems to have led to the charge of Socinianism, which persists to the present day.
It is not clear what this charge amounts to, and Higgins-Biddle does a fine job of sorting through the religious controversies of Locke's age. One core plank of Socinianism or Unitarianism seems to have been the denial of the Trinity. Nowhere in The Reasonableness does Locke so much as mention that doctrine; however, his position does make it a secondary one, since assent to it is not required of all Christians. What is most important here is the continuity between Locke's project in this work and his thoughts on toleration. The chief aim of those who, like Locke, advocated the 'way of fundamentals' was to achieve toleration for non-conformist religious sects and to make possible a more harmonious and unified Church of England.
Locke is often regarded as a founding father of English Deism, a view Locke understood as entailing the denial of all religious claims except those supported by natural theology. But Locke himself saw The Reasonableness as partly directed against the temptation to reject the claims of revelation. Such claims can be objects of faith, accepted by virtue of Biblical authority. Opposition to Deism is particularly evident in Chapter XIV, where Locke argues for the necessity of Christ as saviour. Locke admits that we cannot know what 'transactions' there were between God and Christ, but claims [End Page 296] that it would be presumptuous to reject a doctrine simply because we cannot fully comprehend it.
It is not for its role in these controversies alone that The Reasonableness is to be valued. Locke also has much to say that is relevant to his moral philosophy. In the Essay, Locke had claimed that ethics admits of demonstration, yet he never managed to produce such a demonstration, despite repeated requests. Locke defends his omission in the penultimate chapter of the present work by suggesting that scripture reveals the natural law, allowing us to forego the difficult work of demonstrating it. Furthermore, most people lack the leisure or...