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B. Revelation

The question that started off the whole discussion issuing in the nine hundred pages of the Essay was on “the principles of morality and revealed religion.” But now we see that we are to regulate our opinion by reason, that is, proportion our belief in a proposition to the degree to which it is probable with respect to what is certain for us. Does this mean, then, that divine revelation, “revealed religion,” is to play no 80role in the right regulation of opinion? If that regulation demands that we proportion degree of assent to the evidence, what room is there for assenting to “the great things of the Gospel,” as Jonathan Edwards calls them, the incarnation, atonement, and other central features of Christianity? Must we conclude that God could not reveal to us propositions unavailable by the use of our natural faculties? Surely not: “God, in giving us the light of reason, has not thereby tied up his own hands from affording us, when he thinks fit, the light of revelation” (IV, xviii, 8, p. 423). Even if he does afford us the light of revelation, however, must we not regulate assent in such a way as to believe what he reveals, only if the latter is probable with respect to what is certain for us? If so, how can we accept what he teaches by way of revelation? Incarnation, atonement, and trinity don’t seem particularly probable with respect to what is self-evident or about my own mental states.

Locke answers, first, that God indeed can and does reveal such truths to us, and that what he reveals should certainly be believed: “we may as well doubt of our own being, as we can whether any revelation from God be true” (IV, xvi, 14, p. 383); “Whatever God hath revealed is certainly true: no doubt can be made of it” (IV, xviii, 10, p. 425). But then does he think these great truths are probable with respect to what is certain for us? First, he declares repeatedly that we can’t properly believe what goes against reason in the sense of going contrary to the principles of knowledge:

a man can never have so certain a knowledge, that a proposition which contradicts the clear principles and evidence of his own knowledge was divinely revealed, or that he understands the words rightly wherein it is delivered, as he has that the contrary is true, and so is bound to consider and judge of it as a matter of reason, and not swallow it. . . . (IV, xviii, 8, p. 424)

However, it is not required that to be worthy of assent, such a teaching must be probable with respect to what is certain for me. Rather, what has to be probable, in this way, is that the doctrine in question is indeed revealed, really is proposed for our assent by the Lord:

So that faith is a settled and sure principle of assent and assurance, and leaves no manner of room for doubt or hesitation. Only we must be sure that it be a divine revelation, and that we understand it right: else we shall expose ourselves to all the extravagancy of enthusiasm . . . (IV, xvi, 14, p. 383)


Whatever God hath revealed is certainly true: no doubt can be made of it. This is the proper object of faith: but whether it be a divine revelation or no, reason must judge. (IV, xviii, 10, p. 425)


Locke’s constant question is ‘how do you know that this is from God?’ “How do I know that God is the revealer of this to me; that this impression is made upon my mind by his Holy Spirit; and that therefore I ought to obey it? If I know not this, how great soever the assurance is that I am possessed with, it is groundless; whatever light I pretend to, it is but enthusiasm” (IV, xix, 10, p. 435). “Reason,” he says, “must be our last judge and guide in everything” (IV, xix, 14, p. 438, his emphasis). He goes on:

I do not mean that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine whether it be a revelation from God or no: and if reason finds it to be revealed from God, reason then declares for it as much as for any other truth, and makes it one of her dictates. (IV, xix, 14, p. 439)

Overall, then, the view is this: God can certainly reveal truths to us. We are not obliged to accept as revealed, however, anything that would go contrary to what we would otherwise know, even with respect to the lowest level of knowledge. Furthermore, a given candidate p for revelation, if it doesn’t have evidence from what is certain, cannot have any more epistemic probability than is enjoyed by the proposition that p is indeed a revelation from God (IV, xvi, 14, p. 383). So we are to follow reason, in the formation of religious opinion, but so doing does not preclude accepting certain propositions as specially revealed by God, and accepting them on that basis.

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