Locke WASN’T a Radical Individualist?

Richard J. Mouw on the pop (mis)understanding of John Locke:

There was no opportunity for me to put in a good word for Locke, but I do think he gets a bum rap in Christian discussions of political thought. This has much to do with the way teachers of political thought make selective use of classic philosophical sources. If, for example, students read Locke at all, they are directed primarily to what he wrote in his Second Treatise of Government. No attention is paid to what he covered in his First Treatise. In that earlier work, Locke offered a detailed refutation of the views set forth in Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia, where Filmer argued in favor of monarchial power exercised by rulers who have inherited their authority from Adam as the primal parent of the human race. [ . . .]

Even presuppositionalists seem to get Locke wrong:

[B]oth Clark and the Bellah group employ the derived from formulation in describing the Lockean view: the authority inherent in the social and political bonds is derived from a contract made by individuals in a state of nature. But this is a view that Locke explicitly rejects in endorsing the Pauline conception as set forth in Romans 13. The apostle, he tells us, is pointing to the fact that God is the source from whom “all magistrates, everywhere, have their authority”; and Paul is also telling us, he says, “for what end they have it, and should use it.”

Locke is unambiguous on this point: All political authority comes from God. Paul had it exactly right. But Locke then goes on to observe that there is a further issue that the apostle did not explore. It turns on a crucial distinction: “the example of our Saviour, who refused meddling” in cases where questions who rightly holds the authority that comes from God alone.

In short:

Here is the basic point. To insist—as we must—that all political authority comes from God does not yet tell us exactly where that authority “resides” in human collective relations. Or to put it differently: If all authority comes from God, where does God primarily “deposit” that authority in political arrangements: a single ruler? a parliament? the citizenry? a constitution?


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.