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Few men produced ideas more influential to the founding of this country than the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) . The most famous in the Declaration of Independence–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”–echoes many of Locke’s most important ideas.

Locke’s philosophy (and in some places, theology) of government includes seminal concepts like these:

1. All men are born under natural law, a law which comes from God and can be known by all rational creatures.

2. This law requires us to preserve, protect, and work for the flourishing of human life.

3. Because of this natural law, no one has the right to arbitrarily take another man’s life.

4. All men, therefore, are born free, with a God-given right to life, liberty, and property.

5. All men are born equal, not in an absolute sense of equality, but in the sense that they are by nature free.

6. The natural state of liberty is threatened by the persistent evil of man. We consent to be governed and join civil society to gain protection from the evils of others and because we are prone to wrongdoing ourselves.

7. The proper role of government, then, is to safeguard my life and liberty and that of my neighbor.

Here is how Locke puts it in greater detail:

If man in the state of nature be so free, as had been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power?

To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.

The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting (Two Treatises, Sections 123-24).

Granted, John Locke is not our Constitution, even less some authoritative creed for Christians. But it would be good for us to look at our first principles of politics rather than just disagreeing on the latest hot button issue or quarantining our theology of government as if Christians shouldn’t talk of such things.

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11 thoughts on “A Lockean Philosophy of Government”

  1. Julia says:

    Locke is important to read not only because he influenced the founders so explicitly, but also because it shows the different metaphysical assumptions between the way Christians see human nature and the assumptions upon which the Constitution was founded. Locke’s state of nature is worth digging into as a direct counterpoint to Genesis 1-3. For Locke, men are born as individuals who only enter relationship for their own self-interest or convenience. It is rather good for man to be alone actually, but not the best. You see in the excerpt you posted that, for Locke, man is “absolute lord of his own person and possessions.” We know this not to be the case for the Christian. Only God has “absolute” lordship of anything or anyone. There is a meaningful difference between “absolute lordship” and stewardship.

    Furthermore, I think one can see these assumptions about the individualistic nature of the human person in Locke’s section on marriage. Locke extends the contractual agreements even to the conjugal union, claiming that even this partnership is really one of two individuals together for convenient raising children who could dissolve the union at any time. Hardly “one flesh.”

    While there is perhaps more Christian influence on the founding than most people give credit for (see: faithful Calvinist John Witherspoon), I think there is far more Enlightenment influence, which can be troublesome for the Christian who thinks about the future of the American identity. I love Alexis de Tocqueville for the best contrast of America’s Puritan roots and the Enlightened liberalism enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution. Patrick Deneen’s article “Unsustainable Liberalism” in the Aug/Sept 2012 issue of First Things is also a good place to hear this side of the Locke debate with a contemporary cast.

  2. M says:

    Unfortunately for Locke, the natural state of man is not liberty or freedom. We are either a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. Romans 6. Liberty like anything else can become an object of worship. Especially in America.

  3. Daniel says:

    Great post Mr. DeYoung. I work at a law office for one of my jobs part-time and we just mentioned some of these things briefly yesterday, so it was refreshing and informing to see it on your blog. I have been writing of natural law extensively on my own blog over the past 2 months as well. Blessings in Christ, Daniel.

  4. Flyaway says:

    Love John Locke. Thanks for posting.

  5. John Locke has always been on of my favorite reads. Thanks for this synopsis.

  6. Ken Selby says:

    This is why I love John Locke check out his political principles in this quote found in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” pertaining to his love and sophisticated acceptance of slavery:

    “Once captured in war, the native has by his own fault forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery out-weigh the value of his life, ’tis in his power, by resisting the will of his Master (man not God), to draw on himself the death he desires.” (II 23, 284).

    Or this one too found in the good ol’ “Two Treatise of Government” which actually is beautifully our present situation in American politics and wonderfully legitimizes our arguing of “the latest hot button issue”s:

    “For man has the freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions, and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man.” (II 4, 269).

    Kevin DeYoung, thank you for reminding us of these great truths that we as Christians shall cherish for days to come!

  7. Daniel says:

    Julia, good comment. As to Locke, he is hardly an admirable political philosopher. I mean, if we are seeking to understand the true nature of man, that is.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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