November 19, 2013

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Some Historical Context to Locke on Faith and Reason

Most debates about faith and reason in the Western tradition carry the background assumption that 'faith' is or involves believing the teachings of the Bible. This gives rise to a rather obvious strategy for resolving any apparent conflicts between faith and reason: reinterpret the Bible. Much of what Locke says in "Of Faith and Reason, and their distinct Provinces" (EHU 4.18) depends crucially on this assumption, and this is why, in the 4th edition, Locke saw fit to add a chapter "Of Enthusiasm" (4.19) against those who claimed a direct revelation from God not mediated by language. In this post, I want to discuss some of the historical context for Locke's claims about reinterpreting Scripture in light of discoveries made by 'natural reason.'


Galileo is a good place to start. In his 1613 letter to Castelli and in the much expanded version of the same letter which was addressed to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615, Galileo holds that, since the Bible, as a revelation from God, teaches only truth, and reason, used correctly, yields only truth, the Bible properly interpreted and reason properly employed cannot yield contradictory results. From this Galileo concludes that if reason (including not just a priori reasoning, but also experimental reasoning) has demonstrated something, then the Bible should be interpreted in a way that makes it consistent with that claim.

Now, there ought not to have been anything shocking about this remark of Galileo's. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers, including some of the most respected figures in the tradition (e.g., Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas), had been saying things like this for fifteen centuries already. The problem for Galileo was that he was caught in the crossfire between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as well as a general conservative backlash against increasingly open religious dissent. This is borne out by the charges brought against him. Those charges include, "interpreting Holy Scripture according to your own meaning in response to objections based on Scripture which were sometimes made to you" (from the Inquisition's 1633 sentence, tr. Finocchiaro). Similarly, the 1615 complaint against Galileo contains the charge "that some [i.e., Galileo and his followers] want to expound Holy Scripture in their own way and against the common exposition of the Holy Fathers" (Lorini's Complaint, tr. Finocchiaro). Similarly, Caccini's deposition from the same year charges Galileo with holding propositions which ""are repugnant to the divine Scriptures expounded by the Holy Fathers and consequently to the faith" (emphasis added). In other words, Galileo was charged with interpreting Scripture like a Protestant, i.e., without due deference for the Church and its Tradition. He was not condemned for holding that Scripture needs to be reinterpreted when the apparent meaning of the passage turns out to be contrary to some claim known by natural reason. A second issue he ran up against was that, due to the conservative backlash that was going on at the time, 'natural reason' (or 'philosophy' or 'science') was being identified with Aristotle. But everyone (who knew what they were talking about) agreed that, if (e.g.) Aquinas had become convinced that it can be shown by reason that the earth moves and the sun is stationary, he would have reinterpreted Scripture in accord with this, and this would have been the right thing to do, provided there had not been a prior authoritative proclamation on the subject.

Meanwhile in Holland...

... some conservatives in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition understood the Protestant principle of sola scriptura to imply that we ought not to bring any outside information to our interpretation of Scripture. Typically, these people were reasonable enough to hold that information about the language and historical context in which the Biblical books were written was not 'outside' in the objectionable sense, but they held that we need to interpret the Bible first and then believe natural reason only where the Bible is silent. (These people are still around.)

In his recent book with the fantastic title A Book Forged in Hell, Steven Nadler documents a radical reaction against this approach by a friend of Spinoza's, Lodewijk Meijer (I just read this chapter of Nadler, which was the impetus for this post). In his 1666 work, Philosophia S. Scripturae Interpres (i.e., Philosophy, the Interpreter of Sacred Scripture; an English translation was published by Marquette University Press in 2005), Meijer draws a distinction which roughly corresponds to our distinction between linguistic meaning, speaker meaning, and truth. In the case of the Bible (spoken by God), speaker meaning and truth must always align (Nadler, 122). The conclusion Meijer tries to derive from this is that, quite generally, the only way to determine which of several possible meanings of a passage God actually intended is to figure out which one(s) is/are true. This results in the conclusion that the Bible cannot reveal truths to us at all, since in order to know that a particular proposition is taught by Scripture, we first have to know that that proposition is true! (See Nadler, 124.)

Spinoza himself takes a different radical view. In the Theological Political Treatise, Spinoza argues (probably ad hominem) that even the moderate view of Maimonides, that Scripture must be interpreted so that it does not teach known falsehoods, violates an important Protestant doctrine known as the perspicuity of Scripture. This doctrine does not appear very explicitly in the confessional documents of the Dutch Reformed Church, but it was endorsed by the orthodox theologians of that tradition. Here is how the doctrine appears in the Westminster Confession (1647):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (art. 7).

Note that this statement of the doctrine is carefully qualified: it does not apply to everything revealed in Scripture, and it still claims that interpretation requires "a due use of the ordinary means." However, the idea is still that even "the unlearned" can get at God's revelation. Furthermore, some of the radical Protestants with whom Spinoza associated did not make these qualifications.

The reinterpretation of Scripture according to reason was introduced to avoid attributing to Scripture either known falsehoods or outright contradictions. Spinoza's argument can be seen as posing the following dilemma: either Scripture has to be reinterpreted according to reason, in which case it is not accessible to "the unlearned," or else Scripture teaches known falsehoods and contradictions, in which case it is not a source of truth. Spinoza grasps the second horn, holding that Scripture is a source of moral training, but not of 'philosophical' truth. This is not simply a matter of denying that the Bible is a science textbook; Spinoza even denies that the Bible teaches the truth about God.


Locke was in Amsterdam when he was putting the finishing touches on the Essay. He may well have read both Meijer and Spinoza: they both published originally in Latin and only later in Dutch translation, and they were both published in Amsterdam. By comparison to these writers, Locke adopts a moderate position. Locke's position is essentially a generalization of the unobjectionable position adopted by Galileo. For Locke, "Faith .. is 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" (EHU 4.18.2). Faith is, in other words, belief on the basis of divine testimony. Against Meijer and Spinoza, Locke holds that divine testimony via Scripture can provide a rational basis for belief.

Locke argues that we can know with certainty the following principle:

Divine Veracity (DV): For any proposition p, if it is revealed by God that p, then p.

However, in order to show that it is revealed by God that p, we would need to show both that a particular utterance or inscription is a divine revelation and that that utterance or inscription means that p. Neither of these things can ever be known with certainty. Locke therefore appeals to the well-known principle that (as it is often put) one person's modus ponens is another person's modus tollens. The following two argument forms are both logically valid:

  1. God has revealed that p.

  2. Whatever God reveals is true.

  3. Therefore,

  4. p
  1. Not p.

  2. Whatever God reveals is true.

  3. Therefore,

  4. God has not revealed that p.

Locke explicitly draws from this the conclusion that if some claim is known to be false, we must conclude that that claim is not revealed by God. But his claim is more general than Galileo's in two ways. First, the question of whether the Bible (or a particular canonical book) is a revelation from God is on the table here: one possible response is to concede that the Bible teaches the proposition in question and, on that basis, deny that the Bible is a divine revelation. Second, Locke does not have in mind only the restricted case in which the proposition in question is known with certainty. Locke's argument suggests, much more generally, that the evidence that p is revealed has to be weighed against the evidence that p is false. Note, however, that this does not yield Meijer's strong conclusion, and Locke explicitly points this out (EHU 4.18.7-9). Locke says explicitly that "an evident Revelation" (EHU 4.18.9, boldface added) can overcome probable belief on the basis of reason, but this is in the case where we determine, by reason, that the evidence of the revelation is stronger than the probability against the proposition. There are also some matters, Locke says, in which reason provides no basis for judgement, and revelation can provide us with probable belief in these cases. (For more on Locke's religious epistemology, see sect. 1.1 of this paper.)

On the assumption that there is a God of a rather traditional sort, Locke's view seems like a moderate and reasonable one. Any evidence against a proposition is evidence against that proposition's having been revealed by God. That, however, does not necessarily render divine revelation impossible. The thought that it does probably stems from failure to recognize that probable belief plays an important role in our cognitive lives; not everything needs to be certain knowledge. (Locke would, I think, agree with this diagnosis.)

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at November 19, 2013 9:56 AM
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