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Berkeley’s Subjective Idealism and Theology

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George Berkeley had a very odd view of reality from the standpoint of a Christian. Firstly, he was an empiricist. This means he denies innate ideas and believes that all knowledge is gained through experience (a posteriori). He is also an idealist and he denies the existence of matter. He thought that what we call matter is merely just a collection of ideas that we perceive. In fact, his philosophy focuses entirely on the subjective aspects of idealism. He sums up his entirely philosophy into one phrase: “to be is to be perceived.” Things that are not being perceived do not exist. But he says that God perceives all things so that they don’t go out of existence.

Berkeley holds to this philosophy for two reasons. The first of these reasons is that he sees any acceptance of matter as an acceptance of materialism. He thinks that if matter truly exists independently of our minds then it would somehow make Christianity less-plausible. He sees it as leading to atheism. The second of these reasons is that he’s anti-Lockean. John Locke (who was a dualist) proposed that things in nature have primary qualities and secondary qualities. The primary qualities can be things such as size, shape, number, and figure, whereas the secondary qualities are things like color and sound. Berkeley denies these primary qualities and says that it is not just colors that are subjective like Locke said, but rather everything that we perceive is subjective in our minds. This view is called nominalism.

This view seems to completely contradict Scripture. The biggest problem with this is regarding the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

This verse shows that Christ took on an actual human nature ontologically speaking. It was not just a set of ideas. If He didn’t then the resurrection was not really a bodily resurrection.

1 Timothy 3:16 By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;

1 John 4:2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;

These three verses continue to support the existence of matter regardless of any perception of the mind. The word flesh in this context means an actual physical substance. These verses also distinguish the spirit from the flesh.

Berkeley’s denial of this theological fact has huge repercussions.    2 John 1:7 says,

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.

Does this mean then that Berkeley’s views are heretical? It would appear so. This verse is aimed primarily at the Gnostics. The Gnostics thought that the flesh was evil and that the spirit was good and thus they thought that a bodily resurrection was impossible. This makes Christ’s resurrection very different from the contemporary thought of a resurrection at that time.

To sum up, it would appear that idealism and Christianity are completely incompatible. Materialism is also incompatible with Christianity (for obvious reasons). Dualism is the only correct view according to Scripture.

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