- Christianity, Antiquity, and Enlightenment: Interpretations of Locke
Since Locke’s theology became a matter for serious scholarship, the key works have been Wainwright’s “Introduction” to the Paraphrase and notes on … St Paul (Oxford, 1987), Higgins-Biddle’s “Introduction” to the Reasonableness of Christianity (Oxford, 1999), and the ongoing work of John Marshall. Like Wainwright and Higgins-Biddle, Victor Nuovo’s familiarity with Locke’s published writings and unpublished manuscripts stems from his editorial activity: he is currently preparing Locke’s Theological Manuscripts for the Clarendon Works. This familiarity with the texts, especially the manuscripts, is the greatest strength of the collected essays under review here (five previously published articles, three conference papers, and three new pieces). This strength, however, throws into relief some of the weaknesses. I will address the three themes of the book’s title in turn.
Christianity. This subject comprises the heart of the book (chapters 1–6). There is much of interest here. Drawing extensively on the manuscripts, chapter 2 offers a narrative survey of Locke’s theological interests from 1694 to 1704, outlining the wide nature of Locke’s program of theological study in the early 1690s, and then demonstrating how Locke narrowed his focus to the issue of justification around the end of 1694. In chapters 3 and 5, Professor Nuovo adds many useful details to our knowledge of Locke’s approach to the New Testament narrative. He is to be commended for recognizing that a full study of Locke’s theology must shift away from the historiographical obsession with his possible antitrinitarianism. His placing of the Reasonableness in the context of the controversy over justification incited by the re-publication of the works of Tobias Crisp is convincing (32–33).
I am not convinced, however, by the argument for Locke’s belief in Christ’s pre-existence: it does not follow from the fact that in the Reasonableness, “Jesus’s reticence to reveal his true identity is explained by his need to fulfil the prophecies concerning him,” that “it was as though his intellectual nature was a sort of script fashioned by God on account of Adam’s fall and imprinted beforehand on the soul of the incarnate Messiah” (37). This claim is later repeated (81), the evidence being Locke’s notes from Nicholas Gibbon (usefully printed at 100–101), about whom it would be nice to hear more, and a manuscript note from 1 Pet. 1:11 (“the spirit of Christ was in [the ancient prophets]”). But it is unclear to me why in the former case Locke’s notes should be taken as signalling agreement, and in the latter why ‘spirit’ must, for Locke, have meant “Christ’s rational soul,” as suggested. [End Page 128]
There are also issues of interpretation, especially when Professor Nuovo attempts to connect the various strands of his argument. For example, reading Locke’s Christology into his other works is problematic: that he worked on theological topics in the 1690s does not mean that he “came to regard [the Essay] as a natural theology,” nor is his theory of knowledge adequately characterized as a “theistic reliabilism” (89–90). More fundamentally, Professor Nuovo’s reading repeats a fallacy current since Locke became an idol of liberal theologians in the nineteenth century: that his historical-contextual approach to scripture was particularly novel or indebted to his novelty in other fields (113). Recent historiography is dismantling this narrative: a historical-contextual approach to the Bible was not the product of the “new philosophy,” but a gradual outgrowth of late sixteenth-century humanism. Locke was familiar with this tradition, and Professor Nuovo knows some of the relevant evidence (e.g. Locke’s reading of John Lightfoot), but there remains much more to be found among the manuscripts.
Antiquity. I focus less on these chapters (7–9) because they rely on a peculiar methodology that offers little in the way of historical analysis. Professor Nuovo admits that he is not interested in Locke’s actual attitude to Platonism...