May 24, 2007

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.

Quote(s) of the Day: Selections From Berkeley's Letter to Sir John James

In the course of a bit of research on Berkeley's views on the epistemology of religion, I have just come across a little letter Berkeley wrote to one Sir John James, dated June 7, 1741. James was, apparently, an Anglican living in Boston who was considering converting to Roman Catholicism. While for some reason (perhaps because he was Irish) Berkeley is often mistakenly believed to have been a member of the Roman Catholic Church, he was, in fact, a member of the clergy of the Church of England, and wrote against Roman Catholicism on a number of occasions, this being one of them. His writings on the subject are, however, admirably balanced, respectful, and civil as compared with many of the polemics produced by his Protestant contemporaries. The letter to James, published in vol. 7, pp. 143-155 of The Works of George Berkeley, ed. Luce and Jessop, contains some wonderful reflections on individual knowledge and experience of God, the nature and authority of the Church, and the Christian life. Below are some passages that stuck out to me. I've copied quite a lot of text here (hurray for the public domain!) because that much of it was that God and Berkeley's theology is a very neglected topic. Most of the references in brackets are found in Luce's footnotes; a few that Luce missed were added by me.

You observe very justly that Christ's religion is spiritual, and the Christian life supernatural; and that there is no judge of spiritual things but the spirit of God. We have need, therefore, of aid and light from above. Accordingly we have the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth. [John 16:3] If we are sanctified and enlightened by the Holy Ghost & by Christ, this will make up for our defects without the Pope's assistance. And why our Church and her pious members may not hope for this help as well as others I see no reason. That Author of our faith tells us, He that will do the will of God, shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God. [John 7:17]

There is an indwelling of Chirst and the Holy Spirit, there is an inward light


There is an invisible Church whereof Christ is the head, the members of which are linked together by faith, hope, & charity. By faith in Christ, not in the Pope.


Men travelling in day-light see by one common light, though each with his own eyes. If one man shou'd say to the rest, Shut your eyes and follow me who see better than you all. This wou'd not be well taken. The sincere Christians of our communion are governed or led by the inward light of God's grace, by the outward light of his written word, by the ancient and Catholic traditions of Christ's church, by the ordinances of our National Church which we take to consist all and hang together. But then we see, as all must do with out own eyes, by a common llight but each with his own private eyes. And so must you too or you will not see at all. And not seeing at all how can you too chuse a Church? Why prefer that of Rom to that of England? Thus far, and in this sense every man's judgment is private as well as ours. Some indeed go farther and without regard to the holy Spirit or the word of God, or the writings of the primitive fathers, or the universal uninterrupt'd traditions of the Church, will pretend to canvass every mystery, every step of Providence, and reduce it to the private standard of their own fancy, for reason reaches not those things. Such as these I give up and disown as well as you do.

I grant it is meet the Law of Christ shou'd like other laws have magistrates to explain and apply it. But then as in the civil State a private man may know the law enough to avoid transgressing it, and also to see whether the magistrates deviate into tyrrany: Even so, in the other case a private Christian may know and ought to know the written law of God and not give himself up blindly tot he dictates of the Pope and his assessors.


Light and heat are both found in a religious mind duly disposed. Light in due order goes first. It is dangerous to begin with heat, that is with affections. To ballance earthly affections by spiritual affections is right. But our affections shou'd grow from inquiry and deliberation else there is danger of our being superstitious or Enthusiasts. An affection conceived towards a particular Church, upon reading some spiritual authors of that Communion which might have left a bias in the mind is I apprehend to be suspected. Most men act with a byas. God knows how far my education may have byassed me against the Church of Rome ... It is our duty to strive to divest our selves of all byas whatsoever.

Whatever unguarded expressions may be found in this or that Protestant Divine, it is certainly the Doctrine of our Church that no particular church or congregation of Believers is infallible. We hold all mankind to be peccable and errable, even the Pope himself with all that belong to him. We are like men in a cave in this present life seeing by a dim light through such chinks as the divine goodness hath open'd to us. We dare not talk in the high unerring positive style of the Romanists. We confess that we see through a glass darkly [1 Cor. 13:12]: and rejoice that we see enough to determine our practice and excite our hopes.

...There is indeed an invisible Church, whereof Christ is head, linked together by charity, animated with the same hope, sanctifyed by the same Spirit, heirs of the same promise. This is the universal church militant and triumphant: the militant dispersed in all parts of Christendom partaking of the same word and sacraments. There are also visible, political or national churches: none of which is universal ... The members of this universal church are not visible by outward makrs, but certainly known only to God whose Spirit will sanctifie and maintain it to the end of time.

The church is a calling ekklesia. Many are called by few are chosen. [Matt. 22:14] Therefore there is no reckoning the elect by the number of visible members. There must be the invisible grace, as well as the outward sign; the spiritual life and holy unction to make a real member of Christ's invisible church. The particular churches of Jersualem Antioch Alexandria Rome &c have all fallen into error. And yet in their most corrupt and erroneous state I believe they have included some true members of that body whereof Christ is head, of that building whereof He is the corner stone. [Eph. 2:20] Other foundation shall no man lay, but on this foundation there may be superstructures of hay stubble [1 Cor. 3:11-12] and much combustible trash without absolutely annihilating the church. This I take to have been evidently the case. Christ's religion is spiritual and supernatural, and there is an unseen cement of the faithful who draw grace from the same source, are enlightened by the same father of lights [James 1:17] and sanctified by the same Spirit. And this, although they may be members of different political or visible congregations, may be estranged or suspected or even excommunicate to each other. They may be loyal to Christ however divided among themselves.


But perhaps you will say there is need of an infallible visible guide for the soul's quiet. But, of what use is an infallible guide without an infallible sign to know him by? We have often seen Pope against Pope and Council against Council. What or whom shall we follow in these contests by the written word of God, the Apostolical traditions, and the internal light of the logos that irradiates every mind but is not equally observed by all?


As Plato thanked the gods that he was born an Athenian, so I think it a peculiar blessing to have been educated in the Church of England. My prayer nevertheless and trust in God is, not that I shall live and die in this church, but in the true church. For, after all, in respect of religion our attachment shou'd be only to the truth.

Posted by Kenny at May 24, 2007 3:08 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Biblical Literalism as Hyper-Perspicuity
Excerpt: Last night I was at a lecture on science and religion at USC's Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. (Evidently, we have an Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Who knew?) In the course of a lecture with which I otherwise mostly agreed, Fr. Paul...
Tracked: February 24, 2010 1:27 PM

Post a comment

Return to