The Lutherans vs. Locke on Faith and Reason

Luther is famous, among other things, for calling reason a whore. Let us say, at least, that Lutherans since him have been slightly suspicious of its claims. Hamann, a 19th century Lutheran, wrote: “It is the greatest contradiction and misuse of our reason if it wants to reveal” (quoted in Beiser, The Fate of Reason, 22). Reason and revelation do not stand beside each other as two parallel sources, Hamann would say, each handing out some information about the human and divine states of things. Rather, reason is a faculty that muses over the things shown to it, whether by divine revelation or in common experience. As Hamann writes elsewhere, “Experience and revelation are one and the same and indispensable crutches or wings of our reason, if it is not to remain lame and creep along. The senses and history are the foundation and ground – however deceptive the former, and naïve the latter: I nevertheless prefer them to all ethereal castles” (quoted in Betz, After Enlightenment, 230).

Luther calls us to put our full trust in the Word of God, also opposing any “ethereal castles,” though for him, these castles are built with bricks of sinful human words. He, additionally, differs from Hamann on a central point: the role of experience. Hamann saw all his experiences after his conversion as constituting secret messages from God, which simply needed a key to be unlocked. For Luther, in contrast, revelation spoke against his experience–his “clear” and “evident” experience–of guilt and condemnation before God. For John Locke, it is these clear and evident deliverances of reason from experience that make up “the sole matter of all our notions and knowledge” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 171).

The word “matter” here is significant, however. Our “ideas” for Locke mean the most basic elements drawn from our sensory experience of the world (e.g., colours, lengths, durations). So of course, in this sense, revelation cannot be a source of “knowledge” apart from our “reason.” (Revelation does not teach us of additional colours, for example.) But what then can Locke mean when he argues, “For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge” (172)? How could it? Let us turn, then, to how Locke understands “faith.” This he defines as “the assent to any proposition … upon the credit of the proposer” (170).

At first glance, this seems quite an optimistic state for faith, especially when one agrees with Locke that revelation is, by its nature, “the testimony of God (who cannot lie)” (172). The First Vatican Council, interestingly, employs the same language of “proposing for our belief mysteries hidden in God” (Dei Filius, in Gunton, 179). Yet, for Vatican I, the human person is “obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect … by faith” (178). Locke, on the other hand, is less positive about the situation, for the reasoning human person is for him the arbiter of what is or is not revelation.

Since, for Locke, the foundation of all knowledge is our “own understanding” or “intuitive knowledge”, that which we ourselves experience will always be more sure than what is reported either, “by the tradition of writings, or word of mouth” (172). Thus, Locke imposes a further requirement on the Scriptures or reports of tradition: an additional revelation must immediately be given to each individual by God to confirm that these previous revelations are genuine. Of course, God does not grant such genie-wishes and the consequences are dire. Locke writes:

Indeed, if anything shall be thought revelation which is contrary to the plain principles of reason, and the evident knowledge the mind has of its own clear and distinct ideas; there reason must be hearkened to, as a matter within its own province. (173)

It is uncertain just what constitute for Locke the “plain principles,” “evident knowledge,” or elsewhere, “common sense” (173) of a “considerate” or “sober good man” (174). But evidently, not included among these are trust of what is “passed down” from others–the etymological root of “tradition.” Let us return, then, to our polemical friend Luther, who in his commentary on Galatians, writes:

In listing faith among the fruits of the Spirit, Paul obviously does not mean faith in Christ, but faith in men. Such faith is not suspicious of people but believes the best. Naturally the possessor of such faith will be deceived, but he lets it pass. He is ready to believe all men, but he will not trust all men. Where this virtue is lacking men are suspicious, forward, and wayward and will believe nothing nor yield to anybody. No matter how well a person says or does anything, they will find fault with it, and if you do not humor them you can never please them. It is quite impossible to get along with them. Such faith in people therefore, is quite necessary. What kind of life would this be if one person could not believe another person? (Commentary on Galatians, 5:22)

By a strange twist, then, we find Luther supporting a certain claim of tradition against an unmediated–at least through persons, human or divine–delivery of reasonable knowledge. In other words, Luther would argue, against Locke, that we should trust what others tell us about this revelation that has occurred in Jesus Christ, rather than suspiciously holding it up against the light of “our intuitive knowledge” (172). At least he could be read this way here. And interestingly, Locke would be compelled to agree by his (reasonable?) judgment of the trustworthiness of the “one who cannot err, and will not deceive” (173), if only for him the mediatory nature of Scripture were not an insuperable obstacle (172). Or alternatively, if the divine authorship of Scripture were immediately obvious–something careers have been spent attempting to show as “common sense,” whatever that is. Instead, Locke seems to give this cry: if only God would split the heavens and come down! Maybe then he would believe, in view of such clear, immediate evidence. And yet God has: in Christ.

John Locke on Toleration

Locke, in his treatise, “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” holds to a strong divide between the political authority (the “magistrate”) and the Church. In short, the Church and State are separate and should simply hold to their own areas of authority, not interfering in each other’s proper work. He has this to say, though, about the limits of toleration:

That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. (35)

But actually, the Church is in “the protection and service” of another Prince, the Prince of Peace. I think Hauerwas might have something to say about this.