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V. Comparison with Locke

We can understand this testimonial model better if we compare it with a picture of a very different sort—that of John Locke, whose Enlightenment model is still dominant in some Christian circles.337337   Locke’s cool rationalism with respect to the authority of Scripture is echoed at present by, for example, Richard Swinburne (see footnote 348), but also by those more evangelical thinkers who hold that warrant for Christian belief can only come by way of argument or evidence. According to Locke, all of our beliefs should be formed by “following reason.” What that means, more specifically, is that epistemic duty demands “not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs [inductive as well as deductive] it is built upon will warrant.”338338   An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. with “Prolegomena” by Alexander Fraser (New York: Dover, 1959 [original first published in 1690]), IV, xix, 1, p. 429. Subsequent page references to Locke’s essay are to this edition. And what that means (as we saw in chapter 4) is that I should proportion degree of assent to the evidence; that is, I should, as far as I can, believe a proposition p with a firmness that is proportional to the degree to which p is probable with respect to what is certain for me.

All of our beliefs should be formed by following reason; but this doesn’t mean, as Locke sees it, that there is no rational room for beliefs formed by faith, which he defines as “the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason; but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication” (416). Nor does it mean that we can’t properly believe an item of divine revelation, where that item itself is not more likely than not with respect to what is certain for us:

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 then we may reject it. . . .


What he does mean is

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. (439)

Locke’s claim is that before believing an allegedly revealed proposition, we must first satisfy ourselves by reason that this proposition is, indeed, a revelation from God. What we need is a rational proof (a proof whose premises and procedures come from reason, not from revelation) that the proposition in question really is proposed for our belief by God. So what we need in the case of a scriptural teaching is a rational proof that this teaching is indeed a divine revelation; it is that proposition which must be shown to be probable with respect to what is certain for us. Once we have that, then we can properly believe what it teaches, although presumably with a firmness that is proportional to the probability (with respect to what is certain for us) that the teaching in question really does come from God.

Things are very different on the testimonial model. It isn’t that one believes, for example, that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, because one has first seen or shown that it is likely (with respect to what is certain) that this particular suggestion of Paul’s (or perhaps all of II Corinthians, or perhaps the entire New Testament, or perhaps the entire Bible) is in fact divinely inspired and hence true. This would be vastly too tenuous and speculative. A belief that the passage is a divine revelation, if properly formed by way of historical inquiry, could only be halting and tentative; but then the belief itself would have to be equally halting and tentative. As Calvin puts it:

If we desire to provide in the best way for our consciences—that they may not be perpetually beset by the instability of doubt or vacillation, and that they may not also boggle at the smallest quibbles—we ought to seek our conviction in another place than human reasons, judgment, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit.339339   Institutes, p. 78. Of course it doesn’t follow that Scripture scholarship and biblical commentary are not both important and necessary; Calvin himself wrote more than twenty volumes of detailed and searching biblical commentary.

Instead, on the present model the source of belief and knowledge here is independent of ordinary historical investigation and of the probability mongering, the vagaries and uncertainties to which that line of inquiry is condemned. The belief in question is, instead, immediate and basic, an immediate response to the proclamation. Of course this response takes place within the context of a whole interlocking 268system of beliefs; we may add, if we like, that it obtains some of its warrant from its coherence with a coherent system. Nevertheless, the belief is still basic in that it isn’t accepted on the evidential basis of these beliefs or any others. It is basic, and properly basic—with respect to warrant and rationality as well as justification. Says Calvin, no doubt with an anticipatory glance in Locke’s direction,

Since for unbelieving men religion seems to stand by opinion alone, they, in order not to believe anything foolishly or lightly, both wish and demand rational proof that Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply: the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded. (79)340340   Note here that the Holy Spirit plays a dual role: inspiring the human authors of Scripture (bringing it about that they say what he wants them to say) but also working in the hearts of the hearers and readers, bringing it about that they believe what they hear and read. So the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit is to what he himself has said.

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