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Book review: John Locke’s Theology: An ecumenical, irenic, and controversial project by Jonathan S. Marko

12 January 2024

John Locke’s theology is original and apposite, John Saxbee suggests

JOHN LOCKE (1632-1704), English philosopher and physician, was one of the most influential thinkers at the heart of the European Enlightenment. While his philosophical works, especially An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, have been widely studied, his theology has received relatively scant attention. Jonathan Marko has now provided the most thorough account of how Locke promoted a highly original and still apposite Christian prospectus that prioritised core beliefs, comprehensibility, and ecumenical tolerance.

As a philosopher, Locke is noted especially for his promotion of empiricism and challenging idealism’s advocacy for innate ideas. He considered the mind of a newborn baby to be a tabula rasa, or blank slate, on to which knowledge is ascribed on the basis of experience. So, it is no surprise that he opposes any suggestion that beliefs should be espoused simply because a Church or sect declares them to be true, or because they happen to be the prevailing creed. He would have had no truck with the idea of cradle Christians. To be authentic, Christian beliefs must be based on an individual’s reflections on their own experience, including their own engagement with scripture.

This being the case, Locke argued that the essential articles of Christian belief must be such that “the labouring and illiterate man may comprehend . . . a Religion suited to vulgar capacities.” He pares them down to just three: (1) there is one God; (2) Jesus is the Messiah foretold of in the Old Testament; (3) only those who recognise Jesus as Messiah and King, obeying his teachings, can be saved and enter upon eternal life.

Marko here breaks new ground by tracing the theme of eternal salvation as a thread running through all Locke’s major works.

Locke deploys this doctrinal minimalism as the basis of his appeal for toleration and an eirenic approach to divisive religious controversies. He believes, somewhat optimistically, that these three fundamental articles of faith are “agreed on by all Christians . . . capable of no dispute, acknowledged by everybody to be needful”.

Furthermore, in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1696), and elsewhere, he argues for the necessity of scripture as the rational way for God to reveal these fundamental articles of faith — especially the Gospels and Acts — and the reasonableness of miracles to ease legitimate assent to the Christian faith on the part of the poor and uneducated.

Locke’s commitment to paring Christianity down to its absolute essentials inevitably attracted the attention of his contemporaries with excoriating accusations of deviancy from orthodox Christian beliefs. But there were those who affirmed his eirenic intentions, concern for the faith of the less theologically literate, the essential reasonableness of Christianity, and the internal coherence of his authorship.

How such a project, seen by Marko as independent of Locke’s personal beliefs, might prove serviceable today is a moot point. But there is sufficient evidence here to warrant the rehabilitation of Locke as a still-relevant theological pioneer, in addition to his place in the pantheon of British philosophers.

Locke was part of the Church of England, and Marko’s study prompts us to reflect on the extent to which his focus on just a few fundamentals in the interest of general accessibility, personally corroborated assent, and eirenic mutual toleration speaks of Anglicanism at its best — or insipid worst.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

John Locke’s Theology: An ecumenical, irenic, and controversial project
Jonathan S. Marko
OUP £71
(978-0-19-765004-2 )
Church Times Bookshop £63.90

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