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World magazine breaks the story about conservative Christians who view David Barton of Wallbuilders as an embarrassment. The focus of the current controversy is Barton’s new book on Jefferson. My friend Jay Richards doesn’t mince words; he says this book and Barton’s other books and videos are full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”

I’m not a scholar of Thomas Jefferson, but I am a scholar of John Locke . Barton has an article about Locke on his website, so I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion on whether it matches Jay’s description of Barton’s methods. It does, and then some.

I should note for the record that I’m not only a conservative (both theologically, as an evangelical, and politically, as a Republican) but one with a track record of defending Locke against claims that he was a deist or that his philosophy is antithetical to Christianity. As providence would have it, just over a week ago I published an article on how Locke’s Reasonableness helped me come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Yet Barton’s attempt to fit Locke into his larger historical narrative forces him into numerous distortions. Moreover, the article contains a number of incidental facutal errors that don’t even advance his thesis, indicating that his inability to write reliable history stretches beyond ideological cheerleading and into outright incompetence.


1) Barton: “One of Locke’s earliest writings was his 1660 ‘First Tract of Government’ followed by his 1662 ‘Second Tract of Government.’ Neither was published at that time, but they later appeared in 1689 as his famous Two Treatises of Government.”

The Tracts and the Treatises are different works. Far more embarrassing for Barton, they actually defend opposite positions! In the Tracts, Locke offers a Hobbesian argument that state authority should trump individual claims to liberty, especially in religion. Needless to say, Locke had a total change of heart between the writing of the Tracts and the Treatises. The late 1660s seem to have been a period of rapid change in his thinking.

2) Barton: “Locke . . . saw many of his principles enacted into policy during the rule of Lord Cromwell . . . ”

Cromwell ruled 1653-1658; Locke’s first known writings on government, the aforementioned Two Tracts, were written after Cromwell’s death, and weren’t circulated outside Oxford that we know of until their rediscovery in the 20th century. Moreover, Locke was a strong royalist partisan during his time at Oxford in large part due to his detestation of Cromwell and the republicans, whom he viewed as turbulent religious fanatics. I think it would be difficult to find a ruler whose “policy” was more hostile to Locke’s “principles” than Cromwell; it’s not much of a stretch to say Locke supported the rebellion against James II largely because he saw James as a Catholic version of Cromwell - a man willing to tear apart the fabric of society out of loyalty to a narrow-minded religious enthusiasm.

3) Barton: “Locke . . . argued for a separation of the state from the church . . . ”

Locke advocated religious toleration but not a separation of the state from the church. He supported the state-run, tax-funded Anglican church; he argued that those who dissented should be free to practice their own religions in their own churches, but not that the state should not run a church.

4) Barton: “In his Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke urged the Church of England to reform itself so as to allow inclusion of members from other Christian denominations – i.e., the Dissenters. He recommended that the Church place its emphasis on the major things of Christianity (such as an individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ) rather than on lesser things (such as liturgy, church hierarchy and structure, and form of discipline).”

None of these issues is discussed in the Reasonableness. The book does not even discuss the church of England, much less advocate reforms to its policy. Most of the book is exegesis of scripture; some of it is history and moral philosophy. To the extent that it has implications for church membership, they tell strongly against Barton’s thesis (see #7 below).

5) Barton: “Locke’s defense evoked strong criticism from rationalists, thus causing him to pen two additional works defending the reasonableness of Christianity.”

Locke was (and still is) welcomed as an ally by theological rationalists. The Reasonableness was (and still is) attacked by theological conservatives; Locke wrote his two “vindications” of the Reasonableness in response to the conservative John Edwards, who attacked Locke’s theology as rationalistic in a book entitled Socinianism Unmasked.

6) Barton quotes Locke as saying “[L]aws human must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made.” However, in the footnotes he admits that Locke was “quoting Hooker’s Eccl. Pol. 1. iii, sect. 9.” Admittedly, Locke quotes Hooker without indicating any disagreement, but to portray Hooker’s words as Locke’s is still irresponsible. If Locke never said himself, in his own words, in all his hundreds of pages of writing about government, that human laws must not contradict scripture, that fact is worth noting. I’m not aware of his ever having said it. And in fact there is evidence Locke entertained doubts about the inerrancy of some parts of scripture, so it’s far from clear whether he really owned Hooker’s position here.

7) Barton’s discussion of Locke’s relationship to deism, and the theological attacks against him in his own time, makes no mention of the fact that Locke fought hard for the position that people could be saved in Jesus while denying the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Atonement. In Locke’s time that would have been a reference to Socinians and deists. Supporting this “latitudinarian” view of salvation was one of the primary motives of the Reasonableness, and it was on these grounds Edwards and others accused Locke of being a Socinian rationalist. Many interpretations of these facts are possible; Locke was certainly not a deist, and I believe there’s a strong case to be made that the charges of Socinianism and rationalism were overblown and that Locke does not deserve to be called a “forerunner of deism.” However, his influence was crucial to normalizing the presence of deism in Anglican theological discourse and the eventual admission of deists to Anglican membership. Not to even mention the key issues here, and to portray anyone who takes the other side as dishonest or ideologically blinkered, is supremely irresponsible. And in any event Barton has the camps backwards; in our time as in Locke’s time, it’s generally the conservative Christians who attack Locke’s theology and the liberals, rationalists, and secularists who defend it.

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