A church, according to Locke, is “a free and voluntary society”; its purpose is the public worship of God; the value of this worship depends on the faith that inspires it: “all the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind”; and these matters are entirely outside the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. Locke, therefore (to use later language), was a voluntary in religion, as he was an individualist on questions of state interference. There is an exception, however, to his doctrine of the freedom of the individual in religious matters. The toleration extended to all others is denied to papists and to atheists; and his inconsistency, in this respect, has been often and severely blamed. But it is clear that Locke made the exception not for religious reasons but on grounds of state policy. He looked upon the Roman Catholic as dangerous to the public peace because he professed allegiance to a foreign prince; and the atheist was excluded because, on Locke’s view, the existence of the state depends upon a contract, and the obligation of the contract, as of all moral law, depends upon the Divine will.
Locke’s theological writings exhibit the characteristic qualities which his other works have rendered familiar. The traditions of theologians are set aside in them much as philosophical tradition was discarded in the Essay. He will search the Scriptures for religious doctrine just as he turned to experience for his philosophy, and he follows a method equally straight-forward. Locke does not raise questions of Biblical criticism, such as Hobbes had already suggested and some of his own followers put forward soon afterwards, and the conclusions at which he arrives are in harmony with the Christian faith, if without the fulness of current doctrine. At the same time, his work belongs to the history of liberal theology, and was intimately connected with the deism which followed; it treats religion like any other subject, and interprets the Bible like any other book; and, in his view of the nature of religion, he tends to describe it as if it consisted almost entirely in an attitude of intellectual belief—a tendency which became more prominent in the course of the eighteenth century.