The lecturer was setting forth a biblical perspective on the role of government, with special attention to the Pauline text in Romans 13. At one point he introduced a rhetorical flourish with a passing negative reference to John Locke. The Bible sees the authority to govern as coming from God—“and not,” the lecturer said, “from a human contract, as John Locke insisted.”
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.
Locke not only found this perspective to be philosophically problematic; he also saw it as based on a confused understanding of biblical teaching. He engaged, therefore, in a lengthy discussion of the “dominion” mandate of Genesis 1, the nature and extent of the fall into sin, the difference between parental and political authority, the creational status of women, and the biblical portrayal of the origins of national identities.
Nor was all of that—and there is a lot of it in the First Treatise—the end of Locke’s serious wrestling with biblical materials. One of his last writing projects, to be published after his death, was A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians. It in he confessed, in his prefatory “Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul’s Epistles by Consulting St. Paul Himself,” that while he “had been conversant with these epistles, as well as in other parts of sacred scripture,” he now realized that “I understood them not,” particularly “the doctrinal and discursive parts of them.”
It is especially instructive in this regard that Locke gives special attention to Romans 13, the New Testament passage that is usually seen as the central text for Paul’s understanding of the role of government. We are fortunate that Locke chose to comment on this passage, because he directly addresses the way—as in the case of the speaker I was listening to—in which his views are often contrasted with Paul’s depiction of God-ordained political authority.
Here, for example, is the Calvinist philosopher Gordon Clark, who sketches the contrast in these terms: “The authority of magistrates does not derive from any voluntary social compact, but it derives from God.” A similar way of putting the case was made by Robert Bellah and his associates in their influential 1985 book, Habits of the Heart. John Locke, they said, was the key figure in setting forth a “radical philosophical defense of individual rights” of a seventeenth-century political perspective “that owed little to either classical or biblical sources.” This way of viewing things, the Bellah team argued, “consciously started with the biological individual in a ‘state of nature’ and derived a social order from the actions of such individuals.”
Note that both 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.
So, while for Locke political authority does come from God alone, he insists that the Scriptures are not clear—intentionally so—about where that authority properly comes to reside. That question has to be decided on other grounds. This is exactly the point that John Calvin made in treating the issue of political authority. When the Reformer insisted that civil magistrates “have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives, in a manner acting as his vicegerents,” he explicitly warns that this does not settle questions about the merits of a specific form of government. To get clear about those matters, Calvin says, “depends largely upon the circumstances.”
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 arrangement? A single ruler? A parliament? The citizenry? A constitution?
If both John Calvin and John Locke thought those were good questions to ask in working at a theologically sound conception of political authority, I’m content to take the assignment seriously. And I think I have a Pauline blessing for doing so.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.
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