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Book Review, John Locke, Philosopher of American Liberty

John Locke, Philosopher of American Liberty,

Mary-Elaine Swanson

Nordskog 2012. (401 pages)


Review by Don Crowe, PhD.


Don Crowe

The late historian Mrs. Swanson (1927-2011) has written this valuable biography of John Locke. She had previously written The Education of James Madison and contributed to the series by Verna Hall on the Christian History of the Constitution and the American Revolution. This new book covers the life and thought of John Locke (1632-1704), especially his contribution to the formation of the form of government adopted by the United States. His Second Treatise of Civil Government was particularly influential in the philosophy of many of the founding fathers. The book is well documented for a serious study of John Locke, with footnotes, bibliography, and a general index. One of the strengths of the book is that it discusses Locke from many original sources.



John Locke was born in 1632 into a Puritan family. His early years were during the reign of Charles I. During this time period there was greatly increased tension between the King and the Puritans. Puritan representatives to Parliament and Puritan pastors and scholars opposed the Stuart doctrine of ‘the divine right of kings.’ They challenged his right to impose taxes without the consent of their representatives in Parliament, and especially his ‘right’ to force religious conformity upon his people. On these issues, Locke was in agreement with the Puritans. Locke was a highly educated man who studied at Oxford under John Owen, England’s greatest Reformed theologian. Locke was17 years old when Charles I was executed; he was 20 when he entered Christ Church, Oxford.


Thus Locke lived during the tyrannical reign of Charles I, the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy with the crowning of Charles II, the reign of James II, and the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary in 1688. Locke wrote essays on education, government, and a defense of Christianity against Deism (The Reasonableness of Christianity), and lastly Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians, Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians.   Locke’s love of liberty is carried on in many of the words and phrases of The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, The Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

The two points that comes through ‘loud and clear’ are:


    1. John Locke was a Bible believing Christian, not merely a theist or Deist.
    2. John Locke’s writings on civil government were influential and appreciated by the founding fathers and many among the colonial clergy.


We learn that despite his Puritan upbringing, “Locke came to respect and in some measure share Arminian theological views. Certainly, he admired their toleration of those who differed from them and their reliance on Scripture rather than creeds.”   Pages 49-51 discuss the disputes over Arminian doctrines which led at long last to the Synod of Dort and its overwhelming approval of the Reformed doctrines as opposed to Arminianism. Sadly, I did not find it to be a balanced treatment of the issues. An important distinction must be made on the subject of “Toleration” between the State and the Confessional Reformed Church. Even Locke recognized limits on toleration. He knew that a church must be governed by some laws and rules agreed upon by its members. One example is admitting or dismissing members, after exhortation and admonition and counsel. Locke said, “If by these means the offenders will not be reclaimed, and the erroneous convinced, there remains nothing farther to be done, but that such stubborn and obstinate persons, who give no ground for their reformation, should be cast out and separated from the society.” (Works 6:16 referenced on page 58) I agree with Locke at this point. The Dutch Reformed Church was a creedal confessing church who sought to preserve unity in a common confession of faith. Every pastor, elder, and teacher took ordination vows to uphold the standards and doctrines set forth in the creeds (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and after 1619 the Canons of Dort. Ever since that time these creeds are called “The Three Forms of Unity.”) Since Arminius and followers came to reject many of the doctrines they had vowed to uphold, they were rightly dismissed from their office. There were two important factors that complicated the situation. One was the idea of an established State Church. By Locke’s principles the Arminians should be allowed to establish their own churches, rather than subvert the Reformed Church. But the State would not permit that. In order to have everyone in one State church prominent government leader Oldenbarnevelt sided with the Arminians and permitted them to propagate their doctrine in the name of tolerance. They imposed silence on the Reformed to suppress discord. (To the State controlled churches, the interest of the State is first, the faithfulness to Scripture secondary.)   “In this manner, under the pretext of public order and tolerance, a systematic oppression of the Reformed Church and its faith was organized.” (from Groen van Prinsterer, a 19th century Prominent Christian historian and statesman.) As the State forced Reformed seminaries and churches to accept Arminians as pastors and teachers, the Reformed congregations who wanted Reformed pastors were forbidden to hold separate meetings. They were known as “the church in mourning.”   The Reformed congregations wanted the 20 year long dispute settled by the Churches in a National Synod. The Arminians preferred to let the State decide.  The State could take upon itself to go beyond the disciplinary powers of the Church even to the extent of exile or even execution. The State in this case interfered with the right of the Reformed Church to conduct its own church discipline, first favoring one side, then the other.


The issue was further complicated by the extreme form of Predestination[1] advocated by Beza, under whom Arminius studied, and Gomarus who opposed him at the Leiden seminary. Gomarus’ view on this was not included in the creeds of the church and most Reformed theologians did not hold it, but they also rejected the over-reaction of Arminius in the direction of semi-Pelagianism.


There is an extensive discussion of “the laws of nature and nature’s God” in which Mrs. Swanson conclusively shows that Locke understood this phrase in a Christian sense. Locke was not a mere deist who could talk about a “God” of some sort. Locke specifically believed in and trusted in Jesus Christ. He did not believe that unaided reason could rightly understand morality or government. Revelation from God, the God revealed in Scripture, was necessary. The problem was that many of those following Locke wanting to claim him for their own thought put a very different spin on the phrase which did not include the God of the Bible. Deists adopted the phrase without Locke’s Christian commitment. For example Locke had written The Reasonableness of Christianity. He appealed to the miracles of the prophets and especially Jesus and the apostles as evidence of their God-given authority to speak His word. The miracles were signs evidencing the “credit of the proposer” or the credibility of what they spoke and wrote. Thus we have the will of God in written form. This evidentialist apologetic was rejected by later philosophers like David Hume. Both Locke and Hume were considered “empiricist” philosophers, but the skeptical Hume seized on Locke’s emphasis on the “reasonableness” of Christianity in order to exalt human reason. Hume declared that miracles, so far from serving as the “credit of the proposer” were themselves Unreasonable!


There is an unresolved tension between the oft stated need for special revelation and yet the rejection of specifically Biblical law. On the one hand, there is a necessity for written revelation, but on the other hand the specifics of Biblical law are rejected. What then is the necessity of it? Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) stated that revelation was a surer and shorter way for the unlearned to know the duties God required. Most people according to Locke lacked the education and skill to discover this system of morality on their own. (section 241 )   Locke made statements like “Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything.”[2] Those like Hume and Rousseau wanted the supremacy of reason and considered themselves above the need of the “unlearned” for revelation. The dismissal of biblical law (p 344) seems to be a revolt against anything specific being added to what could be learned by reason. The fact that people have contended about the ‘interpretation’ of the Bible , seems insignificant compared to the rampant subjectively with which the vague “law of nature” or even our written Constitution is “interpreted.” God’s Law revealed in His creation and much more clearly and specifically in Scripture is the same law. Nothing supposedly derived from ‘nature’ is to be accepted if it is contradicted by Scripture. Locke, as a Christian, surely agrees, yet does not always clarify. Besides, the biblical laws that the State is to be concerned with are not the disputes between various Christian denominations (things like Baptism, church government, and eschatology are not the purview of the State.) The State is to be “under God” not just as a vague platitude, but as the specific directives of God’s revealed word require of magistrates. More specifically biblical views[3] were developed by Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, and "Junius Brutus" on The Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants.


I thought that chapter 15 Recovering Our Lockean Political Roots, was particularly strong in pointing out the severe problems that have arisen in our society because of “progressives” and others disregarding all that is biblical in the Constitution. The Constitution is in their view no longer an objective standard, but a ‘living changing document’ reflecting the current views of “the people.” This is evolution applied to civil government, education, and all of life. Christians need the equally comprehensive worldview provided by God’s very specific revelation in Scripture. The abuses of power by executive and judicial branches call for a renewal of sound principles of civil government. Among the ideas that Locke contributed we should mention:


  • No taxation without representation
  • A Sound currency, backed by silver (and/or gold)
  • A Division of powers in civil government with the legislature preeminent.
  • A written Constitution.
  • A government formed by Compact (Or as I prefer by Covenant) with specified limited powers and accountability.


This is definitely a book worth reading to learn more about a genuinely Christian philosopher John Locke who had such an influence on our founding statesmen and those “Election” sermons of colonial pastors. We are indebted to Christian historian Mary-Elaine Swanson for this her last work. Locke needs to be rescued from the later distortions of supposed followers and allowed to speak for himself on his Christian understanding of law and government. Mrs. Swanson made that possible for our time.

[1] Beza and Gomarus: God first considers all people as created and unfallen, and decrees that some will be saved and decrees others will be lost. In another Reformed view God considers all people as fallen and lost in sin and in sovereign grace elects many of them out of the mass of fallen humanity, to eternal salvation. In electing many, He is passing by others.

[2] Essay on Human Understanding. IV.xix.14

[3] By ‘biblical view’ I do not mean merely any view that any Christian has, but a conclusion reached on the basis of the written Biblical texts as the highest authority in ANY area of life and thought. Thus a person could be a genuine Christian but not be expressing a view derived from the text of Scripture.