Locke’s Minimum Definition
In his “Reasonableness of Christianity”, Locke spends a lot of pages arguing, with extensive biblical citations mainly from the Gospels and Acts, for the claim that the articles which constitutes Christian belief is that Christ is the Messiah, God’s ordained Lord, King and the Son of God, and that he died and rose again.
A Calvinist Puritan, John Edwards, criticised his work bitterly, accusing him of all kinds of heresies from Socinianism to Atheism to even being a Mohammedan. John Edward complained that Locke’s “bare minimum” conception conveniently leaves out any examination of the epistles and omits an allegedly “essential” thousand and one other articles including, but not restricted to, the doctrine of the Trinity, justification by faith alone, the satisfactory atonement of Christ, etc, etc, etc.
Locke’s reply is what is interesting. Locke first points out that he is not prescribing to us the duties of the Christian, whether that of creeds or deeds. He is merely interested in the narrower question, what are the articles of faith sufficient to make someone a Christian. Then he points out that it is evident from the witness of the Gospels and the Book of Acts that many people were made Christians on the basis of the preaching we find there. And that preaching is: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and the divinely appointed King of the coming Kingdom of God; also, that Jesus was crucified and rose again. According to what we read in the Gospels and Acts, this was what John the Baptist and Jesus preached. This was also what the Apostles preached in Acts, and this preaching or message, upon reception, made them Christians.
Locke then points out that therefore there obviously were Christians before the epistles were written. In some sense, it is clear that Christians existed and were being made, before the teachings and doctrines of the epistles were promulgated. This isn’t the same of course of whether, after reading and learning the apostles’ doctrine in the apostolic letters, you are obliged to believe in them to remain a Christian. But the point remains. The articles of faith sufficient to make one a Christian are what he mentions, Jesus being God’s son, appointed King, Lord and Messiah of the coming Kingdom, and that he died and rose again.
Here’s an example. Let us suppose we have a Christian duty to help people in dire need, and that a Christian who turns away someone in dire need is not a Christian. It does not follow that therefore if you didn’t help someone in dire need in Africa, you’re not a Christian. You simply don’t have the means to. Likewise, suppose there is a duty to believe everything that Jesus taught his apostles and that a Christian who refuses to believe something taught by the apostles is not a Christian. It does not follow that therefore if you didn’t believe what is written in the third letter of St John or Revelations, you are not a Christian. You may simply not have read the letter yet!
From here we can understand another point which Locke makes to buttress his case. He argues that the articles of faith sufficient to make one a Christian are simple and graspable by the masses who naturally would not have time or capacity to read, understand, and grasp complex theological formulas and theories. Therefore very complex theological formulas cannot possibly constitutes the articles necessary to make one a Christian or exhaustive cover to cover knowledge of the Bible, otherwise, no one but clerics would be Christians.
On Vicarious Faith
One of the key Protestant point of contention during the Reformation was against the idea of “vicarious faith”, or the idea that other people can believe for you. This is normally encapsulated in the formula “I believe whatever the Church believes”, while not knowing what the Church actually believes. This is obviously “vicarious” in that the Church, somehow, does the believing on our behalf without you actually needing to believe yourself.
This conception of vicarious faith however is not restricted to Romans. Other high church denominations would have their own version of it, e.g. I believe whatever is passed down in the “Apostolic Tradition”, or whatever is taught by the Fathers, etc, without actually having read the documents or writings of said Apostolic Tradition or Fathers or knowing what is contained therein.
(This is why incidentally that later Roman Catholicism would make heresy, not so much an issue of believing or rejecting truth or doctrine, but a matter of obedience and submission. The point about “heresy” is not whether you believe or reject the truth, the point about heresy is obedience or disobedience to ecclesiastical authority regardless of the contents of its actual teachings. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:
The guilt of heresy is measured not so much by its subject-matter as by its formal principle, which is the same in all heresies: revolt against a Divinely constituted authority.
(“Heresy“, section IV))
Protestantism would later on develop their own version of such a “vicarious faith”, whereby we say, “I believe whatever the Bible says” without actually having read the Bible in its entirety or understanding its teachings. The bible has effectively become a substitute for actual faith in the contents of its teachings.
This brings us back to John Locke’s point. He is merely operating within a framework which rejects “vicarious faith”. It is one thing to say that “I believe the Bible is sufficient for teaching and training in righteousness, etc”, it is another thing to say that “I believe everything which the Bible teaches.” Erm, unless you know everything which the Bible teaches, you can’t possibly believe everything which the Bible teaches. Otherwise, you are merely subscribing to a form of vicarious faith, that is, the Bible believes on your behalf. John Locke is at least not confused on this point. He knows that there is a distinction between the Bible as a canonical form and rule for faith and practice, and the contents of the Bible and the realities to which it witnesses to. He merely spells out which of those “contents” in the Bible is sufficient to make one a Christian according to its own witness.
Conclusion: What Neo-Orthodoxy Got Right and the Definition of the Christian
I think one of the key insights which neo-orthodoxy gave us is the understanding of the Bible as witness. The Bible, as important a text as it maybe to the Christian faith, draws its vitality ultimately from the external realities and events to which it is a witness to: Jesus Christ. The text is no doubt vital, without it we would have no means to see. But the point of the text is precisely to see the realities to which it reveals. Without a telescope, we would not be able to see distant planets or galaxies, but we should not confuse the telescope with the galaxies. Likewise, without the Scriptures, we would not be able to peer into the mystery of God’s will, but we should not confuse the Scriptures with the actual realities realised by the divine will.
This brings us back to John Locke’s main argument. John Locke begins with a question, what is sufficient to make a person a Christian? He then searches the Scriptures to see how Christians were actually made and constituted by its own witness. He reads of how Christians were made with repentance and faith and what was the preaching which they so believed which made them Christians and then simply reported what was this message which made them so.
He doesn’t use the Bible as a talisman as it were, as if the mere ritual repetition of its words constitutes a Christian. The Bible as an external text does not by itself make a Christian, it is the realities to which it points to which does. He uses the Bible in its true and proper sense. As an authoritative witness to external realities and events which serves as a rule for his own thinking. The Bible is the rule for thought and action; it isn’t a substitute for thought and action. It is not the repetition of the Bible’s words but the believing of its contents, the realities to which it refer to, which counts.
Thus, while the Bible says many things and records many things, it is not the saying and the recording which constitutes the substance of our faith or lives; it is the things to which it witnesses to which does. And all Locke has done is to pick out the “one thing needful” to make us Christians.
As Kierkegaard puts it in his “Philosophical Fragments”
Even if the contemporary generation had not left anything behind except these words, ‘We have believed that at such and such a year the god appeared in the humble form of a servant, lived and taught among us, and then died”–this is more than enough. The contemporary generation would have done what is needful, for this little announcement, this world-historical nota bene, is enough to become an occasion for someone who comes later, and the most prolix report can never in all eternity become more for the person who comes later.