Unless you make a point of studying it, not many people pay attention to the history of thought in our culture. Somebody famous makes a statement, other people repeat it, and before you know it, everybody accepts it as the way things really are. The way people think subtly and gradually changes around us, and we, too often, get swept along with the changes, whether they are correct or not.
What is taught by the influential in universities these days is often greatly influenced by what people like John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) taught. True, more recent thinkers have had huge influence, but when convenient, skeptics do not hesitate to go back a few centuries to make their point.
The truth is, whether you realize it or not, John Locke contributed a key component to the way Americans and Europeans think. And this is true whether you ever attend college or not.
Many folks today who don’t believe that faith in God—or more specifically, faith in Jesus Christ—is rational are almost giddy to recite the following quote from Locke.
“Therefore, no proposition can be received for divine revelation if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge.”[i] From this quote, here’s what unbelievers assume Locke meant: if a proposed idea does not pass the test of human reason, then we can correctly conclude it is not revelation from God.
Former associate professor for Law and Government at Regent University, Gary Amos, wrote, “It is widely held that … Locke rejected a Biblical view of knowledge and exalted fallen human reason over God’s divine revelation.”[ii]
Reason over Religion! Now Fall in Line! Or Maybe Not
Skeptics say Locke was right to put human reason above revelation. So we’re supposed to fall in line and do the same. The only problem is this: Locke never made that claim! Locke actually argued precisely along historical, Christian lines of thought.
At the beginning of his Essay, John Locke referred to 2 Peter 1:3 which says, “… [God’s] divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us …”
Right after that, Locke explained that God causes all men to have a knowledge of their Maker and their duties to Him.[iii] This is in perfect agreement with Romans 1:20, which says, “For since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.”
At the very least, all people should know (1) there is a God, and (2) God is divine and eternally powerful. Creation itself makes these two things clear enough that it is inexcusable for humans to miss them. Locke used the term “self-evident” regarding what God reveals to all humans through nature.
Locke also agreed with Romans 2:14-15, which reads, “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them.
Having pointed out Locke’s agreement with Scripture, here’s that famous quote of Locke, once again. “Therefore, no proposition can be received for divine revelation if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge.” And now, here’s how Locke himself explained “intuitive knowledge.”
“This part of knowledge is irresistible, and like bright sunshine, forces itself immediately to be perceived, as soon as ever the mind turns its view that way; and leaves no room for hesitation, doubt, or examination, but the mind is presently filled with the clear light of it. It is on this intuition that depends all the certainty and evidence of all our knowledge.”[iv] Locke followed by explaining that this intuition is directly from God, not from evidence, nor from our senses.[v]
So how do college professors and philosophers and atheists and others get Locke’s argument turned so completely upside down? In short, they substitute another kind of reason (discursive reason)—which is discussed later in Locke’s Essay—in the place where Locke clearly uses “intuitive knowledge” and reason.
Now John Locke is, by no means, the final authority on faith and reason. But as shown here, the only way to arrive at a quote by Locke that supposedly elevates human reason above divine revelation is to do gross violence to what Locke originally said.
For Further Reading:
[i] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols., ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser, New York, Dover Publications, 1959, 2:421, bk. 4, chap. 18, sec. 5.
[ii] Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence, Providence Foundation, 1989, p. 91.
[iii] Ibid., p. 92-93.
[iv] Locke, Essay, 2:177, bk. 4, ch. 2, sec. 1, and nn. 1,2.
[v] Amos, Defending the Declaration, p. 93.