We all know that George Berkeley was a bishop.(Bishop of Cloyne of the Anglican Church of Ireland) However, how can a Christian ordained member of the clergy can make arguments against biblical scripture which clearly states that matter exists?

What Bible says:

The biblical record is far from devoid of reference to “things” of a material nature, and such things are presented as being both extended and external, and not merely mental (e.g., Genesis 1:24; Leviticus 7:19; Leviticus 15:20; Acts 21:25; etc.). In fact, God created matter before there were any human beings to perceive it (Genesis 1).Scripture teaches that humans have ideas about matter that are produced by beings other than God. What of occasions when malevolent spirits manipulated what appeared to be matter (e.g., Matthew 9:32-33; 12:22; 15:22-28; 17:14-18, etc.)? When an unclean spirit caused a man to cut himself, break his chains, and live in the mountains, his ideas of matter were not presented directly to him by God. How are we, on Berkeley’s account, to explain circumstances such as these? Also, what are we to make of sins of the flesh, so emphatically decried by the New Testament writers, if there is only the idea of flesh (e.g., 2 Corinthians 7:1; Galatians 5:16, 19-21; Jude 8), but not real flesh? However, the paramount issue in this debate is the body of Jesus. John forcefully pointed out the danger involved in the denial of Christ putting on flesh (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7). In fact, those who deny that Christ came in the flesh are “antichrist.” It is eternally insufficient to reduce the incarnation to mere mental representation.Bible is sufficiently clear, not only about the existence of matter, but also about the necessity of our belief in it. Nevertheless, the denial of the existence of matter makes a mockery of many aspects of biblical teaching.


What Bible says:

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. 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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    Because one can be a Christian without believing that the Bible is literally inerrant, among other things. More to the point, Berkeley allowed that God maintains empirical objects in existence by His perception of them, so he has a surrogate function in place that could be metaphorically described as a matter function (God's constant perception). At any rate, though docetism be heretical, a heretic is not an infidel, so that's the worst we can say of Berkeley (that he was a heretic, not an infidel). Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 21:52
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    @Wiseman your question, which is not very philosophical in the first place, is just, "How could a Christian believe something contrary to the Bible?" I provided a general and a specific answer for that; I can't speak to every nuance of Berkeley's heterodoxy. He apparently wrote a text Alciphron which the SEP article on the man describes as Christian, particularly Anglican, apologetics. I don't know for sure but I don't think that Anglicans tend to be so fastidiously "Biblical" (whatever that means, considering all the versions/translations) as you seem to expect a Christian to be. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 22:41
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    Christians devolve to attacking "all the other" Christians eventually. This is why I don't usually get involved.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 22:46
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    @Wiseman however, the LDS have a very different theory of creation, and IIRC the statement of exnihilation is not explicitly in all versions of the Bible, but only those that have the Book of Wisdom or something. So matters are not so easy, it turns out. We should look at the philosophical reasons for disagreeing with Berkeley (there are plenty enough) and not scriptural ones, or little will be gained and much lost to our understanding in the end. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 23:11
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    @ScottRowe, he was more of a troll than a cowboy - we wouldn't want to insult cowboys :-) See Moriarty's work cited in my answer. Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 13:32

3 Answers 3


George Berkeley may not have been too bothered by contradictions in the theories he propounded. Serious problems with his character were explored in a series of papers by Clare Moriarty:

  1. Moriarty, Clare. The ad hominem argument of Berkeley's Analyst. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 26 (2018), no. 3, 429-451.

  2. Moriarty, Clare. Ructions over fluxions: Maclaurin's draft, The Analyst Controversy and Berkeley's anti-mathematical philosophy. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 96 (2022), 77-86.

  3. Moriarty, Clare. Duelling catechisms: Berkeley trolls Walton on fluxions and faith. Intellectual History Review 33 (2023), no. 2, 205-226. https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2021.1963933

The circularity of his proposed "solution" via "compensated errors" for infinitesimal calculus were analyzed in Andersen's paper

  1. Andersen, Kirsti. One of Berkeley's arguments on compensating errors in the calculus. Historia Mathematica 38 (2011), no.2, 219--231.

All in all, George Berkeley is one of the most highly overrated thinkers.

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    So maybe we shouldn't put much effort in to studying and criticising his ideas. Why in the world he's included in Philosophy curricula is beyond me.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 11:36
  • @ScottRowe, historians trained in the Weierstrassian paradigm like Berkeley because Berkeley thought there was something wrong with infinitesimals. They prefer quoting his "ghosts of departed quantities" to actually analyzing his worthless critique; see this article (cited by over 110 publications). Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 11:40
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    If I'm understanding you, I would still say that liking someone's words, quoting them and using them for a different concept doesn't mean we all have to study the original misconceived ideas.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 11:48
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    @ScottRowe, Very good point, as far as I am concerned. Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 11:50
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    @ScottRowe Very good point as well. He should be excluded because of his tautology.
    – Wiseman
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 20:00

I'm afraid your sources are misinformed. Berkeley did not think that his master arguments were against Biblical teachings and he did not think that the Bible explicitly states that matter exists. The following quotations from his Treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge establish the point sufficiently clearly:-

§ 82. OBJECTIONS DERIVED FROM THE SCRIPTURES ANSWERED.--Some there are who think that, though the arguments for the real existence of bodies which are drawn from reason be allowed not to amount to demonstration, yet the Holy Scriptures are so clear in the point as will sufficiently convince every good Christian that bodies do really exist, and are something more than mere ideas; there being in Holy Writ innumerable facts related which evidently suppose the reality of timber and stone, mountains and rivers, and cities, and human bodies. To which I answer that no sort of writings whatever, sacred or profane, which use those and the like words in the vulgar acceptation, or so as to have a meaning in them, are in danger of having their truth called in question by our doctrine. That all those things do really exist, that there are bodies, even corporeal substances, when taken in the vulgar sense, has been shown to be agreeable to our principles; and the difference betwixt things and ideas, realities and chimeras, has been distinctly explained. …. And I do not think that either what philosophers call matter, or the existence of objects without the mind, is anywhere mentioned in Scripture.

In fact, the existence of God is essential to his system:-

§29. IDEAS OF SENSATION DIFFER FROM THOSE OF REFLECTION OR MEMORY.--But, whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them (sc. the senses) are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other will or spirit that produces them.

§33. OF REAL THINGS AND IDEAS OR CHIMERAS.--The ideas imprinted on the senses by the Author of nature are called real things; and those excited in the imagination being less regular, vivid, and constant, are more properly termed ideas, or images of things, which they copy and represent. But then our sensations, be they never so vivid and distinct, are nevertheless ideas, that is, they exist in the mind, or are perceived by it, as truly as the ideas of its own framing. The ideas of sense are allowed to have more reality in them, that is, to be more (1) strong, (2) orderly, and (3) coherent than the creatures of the mind; but this is no argument that they exist without the mind. They are also (4) less dependent on the spirit, or thinking substance which perceives them, in that they are excited by the will of another and more powerful spirit; yet still they are ideas, and certainly no idea, whether faint or strong, can exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it.

And he explicitly argues against atheism:-

§92. OBJECTIONS OF ATHEISTS OVERTURNED.--For, as we have shown the doctrine of matter or corporeal substance to have been the main pillar and support of scepticism, so likewise upon the same foundation have been raised all the impious schemes of atheism and irreligion. Nay, so great a difficulty has it been thought to conceive matter produced out of nothing, that the most celebrated among the ancient philosophers, even of those who maintained the being of a God, have thought matter to be uncreated and co-eternal with Him. How great a friend material substance has been to atheists in all ages were needless to relate. All their monstrous systems have so visible and necessary a dependence on it that, when this corner-stone is once removed, the whole fabric cannot choose but fall to the ground, insomuch that it is no longer worth-while to bestow a particular consideration on the absurdities of every wretched sect of atheists.

He is proud of all this and explicitly draws attention to it in the title of his book:-

A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge by George Berkeley (1685-1753) wherein the chief causes of error and difficulty in the sciences, with the grounds of scepticism, atheism, and irreligion, are inquired into.

By the way, the argument known as his master argument does not mention God, or the Bible, or matter:-

§22. ... to what purpose is it to dilate on that which may be demonstrated with the utmost evidence in a line or two, to any one that is capable of the least reflexion? It is but looking into your own thoughts, and so trying whether you can conceive it possible for a sound, or figure, or motion, or colour to exist without the mind or unperceived. This easy trial may perhaps make you see that what you contend for is a downright contradiction. Insomuch that I am content to put the whole upon this issue:--If you can but conceive it possible for one extended movable substance, or, in general, for any one idea, or anything like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause.

It is not unreasonable to take what the Bible says as implying or assuming the existence of matter. But Berkeley is arguing that is a misinterpretation, and that his immaterialism is compatible with common sense. For him, the idea of matter is an invention of philosophers and benefits only sceptics and atheists.


Berkeley argues that the concept of matter is an invention of “philosophers” and “schoolmen”, so his denial of matter does not contradict common sense or (as you see above §82) the Bible.

Here are two quotations to show this:-

§35. … I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend either by sense or reflexion. That the things I see with my eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it. The Atheist indeed will want the colour of an empty name to support his impiety; and the Philosophers may possibly find they have lost a great handle for trifling and disputation.

§54 ………. In one sense, indeed, men may be said to believe that Matter exists, that is, they act as if the immediate cause of their sensations, which affects them every moment, and is so nearly present to them, were some senseless unthinking being. But, that they should clearly apprehend any meaning marked by those words, and form thereof a settled speculative (he means "philosophical") opinion, is what I am not able to conceive.

  • My source is bible as seen. Unlike Berkeley, Christian theologicans states and Scripture itself clearly states that matter is created and exists in scientific form. There is no misinterpration and so ever and yes of course scripture supports dualism.
    – Wiseman
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 8:02
  • No where in the bible states that matter does not exist without mind. Thats the main problem we are discussing. Again he is trying fit his absurd ideas to bible.
    – Wiseman
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 8:25
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    You said "No where in the bible states that matter does not exist without mind." I'm sure that's true. I'm sure it is also true that it does not state that matter does exist without mind either. Both statements are philosophical doctrines, and the Bible is not philosophy.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 10:10
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    @ScottRowe Obviously, Berkeley didn't succeed. But, as my supervisor always used to say, being wrong in interesting ways is almost as good as being right, and in some ways, better.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 15:20
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    @ScottRowe That is true. He created this entire scheme to remove all Philosophical support for atheism and matterialism? He thinks that if matter truly exist independently of our minds then it would make Christianity less plausable leading to atheism.
    – Wiseman
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 19:48

Not every Christian denomination is dualistic. I should mention what Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter-day Saint movement, said on this score:

We shall find a very material difference between the body and the Spirit:—the body is supposed to be organized matter, and the Spirit by many is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ—and state that Spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic, and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body, and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it.

This echoes (unwittingly, it seems) a thesis derided by Kant, that "this is just as when ignorant persons that like to dabble in metaphysics imagine matter so subtle, so super-subtle, that they almost make themselves giddy with it, and then think that in this way they have conceived it as a spiritual and yet extended being." At any rate, then, the mainline LDS viewpoint is not the Cartesian dualism of res extensa vs. res cogitans, but spiritual matter is a subtype of general physical matter. (There is, incidentally, something of a "science fiction" tendency in LDS cosmology, where other planets, stars, universes, and timelines, and an "outside curtain where nothing has a place," all appear.)

Another kind of Christianity where dualism is perhaps undermined is the Gnostic one. According to the SEP article on cosmology and theology, Christianity can most generally be understood in terms of "the unique role of Christ." He still has such a role in the relevant Gnostic circles (we do find some subordinationism here, I think, but this occurred even in early mainline Christianity betimes, e.g. among the Arians). At any rate, if Christianity and Gnosticism overlap enough, they can hardly be mutually exclusive by the by. And heretic or not, Berkeley did write the Alciphron, which has A Defence of the Christian Religion against the So-called Free-thinkers for a subtitle, as well as two sections denoted The truth of Christianity.

  • Why you keep giving LDS as an example? Berkeley was an Anglican bishop . Anglican church neither denies matter nor dualism.
    – Wiseman
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 2:12

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