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The Biblical Politics of John Locke

Interview with Kim Parker

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John Locke is often thought of as one of the founders of the Enlightenment, a movement which sought to do away with the Bible and religion and replace it with a kind of scientific rationalism. What exactly is the connection between Locke and the Bible?

Locke was extremely interested in the Bible, biblical theology, and religion throughout his life. He was actively engaged with some of the finest biblical minds of his time, and spent an enormous amount of his time keeping abreast of the latest theological developments. Biblical themes and religious questions pervaded much of what he wrote; this is especially true of his works such as The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and his posthumously published Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (1706), but they are also evident in a philosophical work like The Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), and political works such as his Letter Concerning Toleration (1690), and The Two Treatises on Government (1690).

How does Locke see the Bible and politics coming together in his Two Treatises?

In the first instance, the connection between the Bible and politics is established by his literary opponent in the Two Treatises, Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer argues that the Bible teaches that society was arranged hierarchically, whereby women were subservient to men, siblings to the eldest brother, and the eldest brother to the father, and the father to the king. The king rules by divine fiat and wields absolute power. This Locke could not accept, and his First Treatise is a detailed refutation of Filmer’s biblical politics. Locke’s use of the Bible to undermine Filmer’s theory of divine right is more than just polemical, however, as there is a deeper connection between the Bible and politics that he pursues in his Second Treatise. For Locke, a proper understanding of the Bible and a proper understanding of political order reveal the same thing: humans are in a natural state of freedom and equality to each other, and any political society has to recognize these fundamental rights in their constitution, if the constitution is to be in line with the Bible.

Are there any parts of the Bible that Locke is more concerned about than others?

Yes, I think that Genesis is the text in which Locke is most interested. This is not only because Filmer had based his own theory of divine right on Genesis, but because Locke saw in Genesis a text which revealed much about human nature and the foundations for political order. This is all the more surprising when you consider that many of Locke’s contemporaries understood Genesis to be about how Adam and Eve fell into a state of sin, and how a strong government was needed to curb the sinful desires of humanity. Ironically enough, Locke saw these texts much more positively than did his contemporaries and, consequently, humans could be given more responsibility in the choice of their government.

What are the implications of your research?

I think that what the book tries to show is that Locke was profoundly interested in and influenced by the Bible, and that this interest and influence extends into his discussion of politics. And since Locke, among others, was so instrumental in laying the foundations for early modern political thought, and in founding a society in which the principles of freedom and equality play such a major role in the society, then it is important that the Bible be brought into the political discussion. And even though, in the centuries after Locke, the Bible has less of an impact on political thought, one cannot hope to understand the origins of western liberal democracy without first coming to grips with the role that the Bible had to play.