Locke’s Pauline Hermeneutics: A Critical Review

  • Maria-Cristina PitassiEmail author
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 226)


The posthumous appearance of John Locke’s paraphrases and notes on the epistles of Paul, on which he had worked during the last years of his life spent at Oates in the house of Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham and her husband, did not go unnoticed in scholarly circles. In 1705 Jacques Bernard, a French pastor who had taken refuge in Holland and who served there as editor of the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, had already written a very detailed review of the Paraphrase and Notes to the letter to the Galatians published earlier that same year, praising Locke’s insight and noting the quality of his interpretations. When the complete version of Locke’s Pauline works came out 2 years later, Jean Le Clerc wrote a meticulous review in which, despite criticising Locke and even taking a number of jabs at him, he did not hesitate to affirm that “… there are not many interpreters who have done better when it comes to Paul’s line of reasoning and the goal at which he aimed.” Finally, in 1708, an anonymous review appeared in English which faithfully summarised the Essay on Paul, but carefully avoided any kind of evaluation. These first responses broadly approved of Locke’s biblical interpretation and legitimised his religious profile as a philosopher in representing his thought as either fundamentally compatible with Reformed theology or else as opposed to orthodoxy and yet actively engaged in the battle against scepticism. They were soon to be counterbalanced by others which were more critical of Locke while nevertheless testifying to the important place occupied by his biblical works at the time, such as the reviews of the Anglican controversist, Robert Jenkin or the German Lutheran, Friedrich Gotthelf Gotter. These reactions to Locke were rapidly followed by a polemic within the Quaker camp during which both sides appealed specifically to the Paraphrase and Notes, and by translations of the Paraphrase and Notes into French, Dutch, and German, as well as a number of exegetical works that were openly inspired by Locke’s work on the Pauline epistles. As a late appendix to the undeniable eighteenth-century interest in Locke’s hermeneutics, the year 1832 saw the publication of the American edition of the Paraphrase and Notes and, more significantly, the anonymous review in the American Monthly Review that bordered on eulogy. A “standard book” that ought to be found on everyone’s shelf, Locke’s Paraphrase and Notes “constitute the best commentary for popular use with which we are conversant; and without it no library can be considered perfect in its theological department.” Marked by “the same philosophical acuteness and accuracy the same ardent love of truth for the truth’s sake, the same manly freedom which marked his researches in intellectual science,” it is the work of a true liberal who would not be aligned with any party or sect.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IHR, University of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland

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