Locked into Locke?

Critics allege that the traditional, “mainstream” Church of Christ relies too heavily on a system of interpretation inspired by John Locke (1632-1704). This love of the great English thinker goes all the way back to Thomas and Alexander Campbell and the early days of the Restoration Movement. Although contemporary Christians may not be aware of these philosophical underpinnings, the Campbells’ enthusiasm for Locke is supposed to have had both a profound and negative effect on how we interpret Scripture today.

Two contributions are of particular note. First, Locke was a hard-core empiricist. Genuine knowledge, as he insisted in his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, must come either from sensory experience of the outside world, or from reflection on the mind’s conscious workings. The mind can combine the sensory data into more complex ideas, but there is nothing in the intellect that didn’t depend, ultimately, on sensation. And second, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke suggested that the test of Christian communion should depend on nothing but the Bible’s “express words.”

The unfortunate result, so the critics charge, is to see the Bible as a collection of bare facts. Only through sensory experience (by reading or hearing its words) may we come to know God’s explicit commands. If someone wants to know whether a particular teaching or practice has divine authority, he need only consult the Bible. Anything else is mere opinion or speculation. There is no room for asking after deep theological issues, or wondering how a particular passage “speaks to” its modern audiences.

Also, in the hands of the Campbells, Locke’s prescription for toleration becomes an appeal for conservative conformity to God’s word. If a reasonable man is asked to compare any religious body to Scripture, he cannot help but discern the one true church. We recognize this church by seeing its distinctive pattern among all the facts of the Bible. In this way, God’s Word becomes our blueprint or roadmap for the church. As far as the early Restorationists were concerned, if the Lord wanted to add baptized believers to His church (Acts 2:47), then we had better find that church, and if we don’t find it, we had better restore its true form.

Critics have derided this approach to Scripture as flat, unimaginative “pattern theology.” Clearly, someone who rejects the Bible as an authoritative guidebook is apt to arrive at some different conclusions. If he sees the Bible as, say, a love letter, then the formal structure of the early church hardly matters. The idea of restoring the church is at best open to revision, at worst irrelevant.

What these criticisms show, if anything, is that the church is guilty of having a distinctive intellectual heritage. However, it is no easy matter for any of us—conservative or progressive—to turn our back on Locke or any number of influential Western thinkers. Even the critics of Biblical empiricism find themselves arguing from the facts of Scripture every now and then, and describing the Bible as a love letter (or whatever) is itself an exercise in imposing a certain pattern on the text.

But in the end, the criticisms miss their mark. Our concerns are not with defending Locke, patternism, or the Campbells. Rather, various innovations are being resisted out of a genuine concern for the prospective relationship of any individual to his or her God. Salvation undoubtedly is in the Lord’s church alone. If we are not confident as to that body’s identity, then our relationship to God is in question. The crucial issue in the present debate is not whether Locke should be our guiding light in all things hermeneutical, but whether the various proposals before us, such as the dubiously pattern-free “community church,” are more or less like the church for which Christ died. If that church does not, if it cannot, exist today, we are all lost.

[An edited version of this article appeared in Gospel Advocate.]

© 2003 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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