1. Epistles Cannot Possibly Contain The Fundamentals of the Faith
The famous John Locke, in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1696), gave an evangelical defense of Christianity. He argued from all the passages necessary to convince skeptics that indeed Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God. Then Locke dealt with the issue how one would handle conflict found in Epistles with the message of Christ in the Gospels. Locke in Reasonableness of Christianity (1696) at 154 taught us that the only important core of the faith is Jesus and the Gospels, and not the epistles:
It is not in the epistles we are to learn what are the fundamental articles of faith, where they are promiscuously and without distinction mixed with other truths.... We shall find and discern those great and necessary points best in the preaching of our Savior and the apostles ... out of the history of the evangelists.... And what that was, we have seen already, out of the history of the evangelists, and the acts; where they are plainly laid down, so that nobody can mistake them.... But yet every sentence of theirs must not be taken up, and looked on as a fundamental article, necessary to salvation; without an explicit belief whereof, no-body could be a member of Christ's church here, nor be admitted into his eternal kingdom hereafter. If all, or most of the truths declared in the epistles, were to be received and believed as fundamental articles, what then became of those christians who were fallen asleep (as St. Paul witnesses in his first to the Corinthians, many were) before these things in the epistles were revealed to them? Most of the epistles not being written till above twenty years after our Saviour’s ascension, and some after thirty. ... Nobody can add to these fundamental articles of faith.
2. There Is No Spiritual Danger Disputing The Validity of The Epistles (Because Not Fundamental)
Locke goes on to explain that if anyone doubts the epistles' authority, it can have no effect on their salvation.
But farther, therefore, to those who will be ready to say, " May those truths delivered in the epistles, which " are not contained in the preaching of our Saviour " and his apostles, and are therefore, by this account, " not necessary to salvation; be believed or disbelieved, " without any danger ? May a christian safely question " or doubt of them ? "
To this I answer, That the law of faith, being a covenant of free grace, God alone can appoint what shall be necessarily believed by every one whom he will justify. What is the faith which he will accept and account for righteousness, depends wholly on his good pleasure. For it is of grace, and not of right, that this faith is accepted. And therefore he alone can set the measures of it: and what he has so appointed and declared is alone necessary. No-body can add to these fundamental articles of faith ; nor make any other necessary, but what God himself hath made, and declared to be so. And what these are which God requires of those who will enter into, and receive the benefits of the new covenant, has already been shown [i.e., belief that Jesus was Messiah, Son of God]. An explicit belief of these is absolutely required of all those to whom the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, and salvation through his name proposed. Id.,at 155.
Locke goes on to say no one can deny any Scripture that contains a fundamental truth. But there are a good deal of truths that Christians can dispute (obviously having the epistles in view) that do not involve fundamentals, and it has no impact on their salvation. As to what is fundamental, Locke in the first 150 plus pages of The Reasonableness of Christianity proved over and over that the fundamental truth of Christianity is that one must believe Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
Here at pages 154-57, one now has arrived at the reason for this long preface to make this point. Thus, Locke explains in more depth why we can dispute items in the epistles because they could not possibly reflect the fundamentals -- coming after Jesus's words in the Gospels:
The other parts of divine revelation are objects of faith, and are so to be received. They are truths, whereof no one can be rejected; none that is once known to be such, may, or ought to be disbelieved. For to acknowledge any proposition to be of divine revelation and authority; and yet to deny, or disbelieve it; is to offend against this fundamental article and ground of faith, that God is true. But yet a great many of the truths revealed in the gospel, every one does, and must confess, a man may be ignorant of; nay, disbelieve, without danger to his salvation : as is evident in those, who, allowing the authority, differ in the interpretation and meaning of several texts of scripture, not thought fundamental: in all which, it is plain, the contending parties on one side or the other, are ignorant of, nay, disbelieve the truths delivered in holy writ; unless contrarieties and contradictions can be contained in the same words ; and divine revelation can mean contrary itself.
Though all divine revelation requires the obedience of faith, yet every truth of inspired scriptures is not one of those, that by the law of faith is required to be explicitly believed to justification. What those are, we have seen by what our Saviour and his apostles proposed to, and required in those whom they converted to the faith. Those are fundamentals, which it is not enough not to disbelieve : every one is required actually to assent to them. But any other proposition contained in the scripture, which God has not thus made a necessary part of the law of faith, (without an actual assent to which, he will not allow any one to be a believer,) a man may be ignorant of, without hazarding his salvation by a defect in his faith. He believes all that God has made necessary for him to believe, and assent to ; and as for the rest of divine truths, there is nothing more required of him, but that he receive all the parts of divine revelation, with a docility and disposition prepared to embrace and assent to all truths coming from God ; and submit his mind to whatsoever shall appear to him to bear that character. (Id., at 156).
Locke Says Divisiveness Comes From Non-Fundamental Issues
Locke then continues to lament that dissenters create grounds for separation rather than staying in one body of Christ. These disputes are often over non-fundamentals, which Locke explained above was due to attention paid to the epistles. Locke explains:
The dissenting congregation are supposed by their teachers to be more accurately instructed in matters of faith, and better to understand the christian religion, than the vulgar conformists, who are charged with great ignorance; how truly, I will not here determine. But I ask them to tell me seriously, " Whether " half their people have leisure to study ? Nay, Whether one in ten, of those who come to their meetings in the country, if they had time to study them, do " or can understand the controversies at this time so warmly managed amongst them, about 'justification,' the subject of this present treatise ? I have talked with some of their teachers, who confess themselves not to understand the difference in debate between them. And yet the points they stand on, are reckoned of so great weight, so material, so fundamental in religion, that they divide communion, and separate upon them. Had God intended that none but the learned scribe, the disputer, or wise of this world, should be christians, or be saved, thus religion should have been prepared for them, filled with speculations and niceties, obscure terms, and abstract notions. But men of that expectation, men furnished with such acquisitions, the apostle tells us, 1 Cor. i. are rather shut out from the simplicity of the gospel; to make way for those poor, ignorant, illiterate, who heard and believed promises of a Deliverer, and believed Jesus to be him; who could conceive a man dead and made alive again; and believe that he should, at the end of the world, come again and pass sentence on all men, according to their deeds. That the poor had the gospel preached to them; Christ makes a mark, as well as business of his mission, Matt, xi. 5. And if the poor had the gospel preached to them, it was, without doubt, such a gospel as the poor could understand; plain and intelligible; and so it was, as we have seen, in the preachings of Christ and his apostles. Id., at 158.
What Was John Locke Resisting Epistles For?
The famous Locke - whose works inspired our Founding Fathers - realized that all the salvation messages of Jesus hinged on "works worthy of repentance."
We saw above that Locke's work Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) says the epistles are inferior to gain the truths about salvation; and we should seek the Lord Jesus' words to know the gospel.
So why did Locke single out the Epistles as less authoritative than Christ's words?
Well, John Locke cites numerous passages where Jesus rejects that faith alone saves. Where Jesus emphasizes works worthy of repentance for salvation. Locke could not find agreement with Jesus in Paul's epistles, admitting that Paul meant a faith justified Abraham, (Locke, Reasonableness, etc. (1695) at 23-24). However, Locke outside the epistles found agreement in Paul's words recorded by Luke in Acts 26:20. Here is an important excerpt at page 198 of the original 1695 text where Locke quotes this passage in Acts:
So that Repentance does not consist in one single Act of sorrow (though that being the first and leading Act, gives denomination to the whole) But in doing works meet for Repentance, in a sincere Obedience to the Law of Christ, the remainder of our Lives. This was called for by John the Baptist, the Preacher of Repentance, Mat. III. 8. Bring forth fruits meet for Repentance. And by St. Paul here, Acts XXVI.20:
"Repent and turn to God, and do works meet for Repentance."
There are works to follow belonging to Repentance, as well as sorrow for what is past.
John Locke was not only a doctor, a famous political writer, etc., but also an eminent Bible commentator on the entire NT. He is famous for his work The Second Treatise on Government wherein he set forth the theories of constitutional government. But he was an excellent Bible commentator. Locke resolved the problem of Paul by letting the Paul presented in Luke's hearing be the Paul we accept. Locke chose in the quotes above to downplay the epistles of Paul that speak very much at odds with the Paul of Acts. We thoroughly examine this anomoly between the Paul of Luke's Acts and of Paul's Epistles at this link. I wonder if Locke saw the problem of Paul was deeper than this, and chose to solve the problem by the reasonings we see in the Reasonableness of Christianity of 1695.