How Do We Know?

     Way back when I was being encouraged to study church history I found that a man named John Locke (who was born in 1632 in England) had substantial influence on the study of how people come to know what they know. I think my first exposure to him came in a class at Freed-Hardeman in connection with some of the Restoration Movement preachers in the 19th century. Later I read most of his philosophical work and his own comments on the reasonableness of Christianity. He meant by that expression that Christian faith was rational, in which he was correct (see John 8:32). Locke is better known among most students (if at all these days) for his political documents which substantially influenced our founding fathers in this country. Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were ideas in the air at the time the Declaration was written. Those ideas were put in the air by the work of John Locke (specifically, his “Second Treatise on Civil Government”).

     Back to the matter of how people know what they know. This is a subject of real importance in our spiritual lives. When the subject of how a person comes to know God for many people the popular response has something to do with God revealing Himself to that person through an operation of the Holy Spirit. For many people who like some of the ideas associated with the Christian faith but who are not interested in a full time commitment to the pattern revealed in the Bible the perspective is that you can come to know God any way you want. And for way too many people knowing God is just not something in which they are interested.

     Sad truth is that the Christian world has brought this last point of view on itself. Christianity is not an objective matter for most people. It is an emotion. It is for many what they view as a good wholesome leisure time activity. The creed seems to be that one may believe whatever he wants and God will put His stamp of approval on it. After all, if faith just comes on a person like a cloud or ray of sunshine, how can we do anything else but embrace diversity in what folks believe?

     The problem is placed before us by the Lord Himself. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me” (John 14:6). This statement makes the Christian faith an objective, real and definite thing. It is most assuredly not subjective and amorphous. Put in everyday language, “It is what it is.”

     So what did John Locke have to do with all of this? Well, in terms of origination, nothing. But his books came along when the early preachers in churches of Christ here began to examine the presuppositions undergirding the Reformation Movement and the resultant Protestantism of their day. Thus when Locke said that the mind of a human being started out as a blank tablet to be written on by the experiences of life that come to a person via his senses, it was helpful. You see, the doctrine of original sin is not taught in the Bible. We are not born sinners; we become sinners. This non-existent original sin cannot blind us from truth for the simple reason that it does not exist. Thus there is no barrier to the idea that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). We do not wait for God to do a work on grace on us in order for us to believe. He does not do that. Instead He provided the Gospel of Christ as His power to bring about salvation (Romans 1:16).

     When you dig through Locke’s epistemology (the study of how we know things) you find (it is findable!) that it is a way of approaching the problem of how humans know things that is consistent with free-will moral agency. God does not choose particular people to be saved or lost. He wants all saved (Hebrews 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:4). So that everyone has the same chance, the same access is provided. Jesus came and died for all and by the power of the Holy Spirit left a record of that work in what we call the New Testament. When combined with the Old Testament we have a Book that reveals God’s plan of salvation. We read that Book and make up our minds. That’s the way it is. We know what specifics we know about God by reading the Bible. No feeling in your chest or little voice. Read it and see.