John Locke and Political Hebraism

Louis Hartz, the prominent 20th century theorist, once said that John Locke “dominates American political thought as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation.” Despite challenge from historians like J.G.A. Pocock and Bernard Bailyn, who claim classical republican thought exerted much greater influence over the Founding Fathers than Locke ever did, this estimate of the latter’s political significance, delivered 60 years ago by Hartz, remains widely held, especially within libertarian circles.

Among the most seminal of the Founding Fathers’ ideas incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and Constitution that are often ascribed to Locke are those of government by consent, yielding a concomitant right of rebellion against tyrannical rule; the moral equality of humans, reflected in their all supposedly enjoying equal rights to life, liberty, and to the acquisition and holding of private property; and a right to live and act according to their own religious predilections, within the constraints imposed by the corresponding rights of others.

Despite the close scholarly attention Locke’s political writings have continued to receive, there remains at their core a curious enigma, seldom remarked on, that stubbornly defies adequate explanation. It is that, although Locke’s political writings are deeply infused throughout with Biblical allusions and references, these are  drawn much more from Hebrew Scripture than from their Christian counterpart, despite Locke’s apparently sincere, lifelong commitment to Christianity.

The Paradox of Locke’s Sources

Of course, Hebrew Scripture forms but a part of Christian Scripture, so that Locke would not but have taken the Old Testament to be every bit as divinely revealed as the New Testament. However, it is still puzzling just why he should have drawn so much more heavily on Old Testament sources than he did on New Testament ones, especially in respect of illustrating quite universally applicable theses about the law of nature. Jeremy Waldron first drew attention to this question in his 2002 book God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought, and explained it this way:

Anyone who reads the Two Treatises of Government, alert to their religious and theological character, will find it quite striking how much is made of Old Testament sources and how little of any teaching or doctrine from the Christian Gospels and Epistles . . . Jesus and St Paul may be there in the background of Locke’s theory of equality. Maybe. But they are well in the background, and their specific teachings are not appealed to at all . . . By contrast the Old Testament is all over the Two Treatises . . . Even in the more argumentative and less biblical Second Treatise the balance is between about twenty-five citations from the Hebrew scriptures and just two from the New Testament. Those two consist of a rather vacuous observations from 1 Timothy. . . and some New Testament material on honouring your mother as well as your father.

This is the puzzle that the U.S.-born Israeli theorist Yechiel J.M. Leiter undertakes to solve in John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, a scholarly and copiously footnoted, 400–page study of what its author calls Locke’s political Hebraism. Essentially what Leiter seeks to establish is that Locke “anchored his political theory of civil government in the Hebrew Bible . . . not for stylistic or ornamental reasons, but rather because . . . it could legitimate the moral nature of consensual government that he came to advocate.”

Since the Hebrew Bible forms a part of the Christian one, it is tempting to suppose that, should the former legitimate consensual government (and thereby, by implication, rebellion against tyrannical rule), so too, necessarily, would the Christian Bible. This seemingly natural inference, however, is one Leiter strenuously resists, arguing that the specifically Christian add-ons to the Hebrew Bible, especially as they were interpreted and elaborated on by the Church Fathers and later canonical theologians from Augustine to Luther and Calvin, all subject crucial parts of the Hebrew Bible to interpretations that not only are alien to Jewish understandings of them, but also deprive them of whatever legitimation of consensual government they might otherwise be supposed to provide.

A case in point, he says, is the account in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 of what Christians have come to call “the Fall.” Ever since the apostle Paul, Christians have construed the story related there about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as implying that all subsequent humanity became morally tainted by the sin that this first couple committed in eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. This led to their expulsion from the Garden and hence to their and their descendants’ forfeiture of the opportunity they would otherwise have enjoyed to acquire immortality by eating from the tree of life situated at the Garden’s center. That first sin of this first couple is also understood, in most versions of Christianity, as having predisposed all subsequent humankind to sin, too, thereby condemning them to forfeit all prospect of immortality except by recognizing Jesus of Nazareth as their divinely–sent lord and master, and by their ordering their lives in accord with his moral teachings. Who will so accept Jesus is, moreover (within many versions of Christianity), a matter of divine election or grace, and not within anyone’s own power to effect.

Original Sin and the Challenge of Resistance

Although the 4th century monk Pelagius rejected the Pauline doctrine of original sin as having irredeemably tainted humanity, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin effectively won out, becoming the prevailing view among all subsequent varieties of Christianity well into the modern period. The political implications of the latter were clearly understood and spelled out by Augustine of Hippo, who, according to Leiter, argued that the

city of man government was itself an aberration, an inherently flawed construct relevant only for an inescapably flawed humanity, as both punishment and cure for the sinful fallen. As such, neither the state nor the heads of state could ever be condemned as illegitimate no matter how un-Godlike they may be.

Locke was able to advocate resistance to tyranny, Leiter argues, because the “minimalist” form of Christianity to which he subscribed did not demand that he accept the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, which indeed he declined to do. As Leiter explains, Locke:

could not have accepted the traditional Augustinian understanding of the Fall . . . and at the same time advance a theory of natural law that would lead to just rebellion against tyrannical government. Because the right to consent to moral government is by definition also the right to dissent from amoral government, original sin could not be understood to preclude the ability to discern the nature of proper conduct and choose it . . . Locke wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity to [purvey a] softer approach to Christian dogma . . .centred on his restriction of the mandatory articles of Christian faith to two basic tenets: belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and repentance (or obedience).

In sum, Locke’s understanding of original sin was thoroughly hebraic. Although subsequent humankind was deprived of immortality and condemned to a harsher existence than it would otherwise have enjoyed had Adam and Eve resisted the temptation Eve was offered by the serpent, it was neither irredeemably condemned to sin, nor unable or unentitled to resist tyrannical rule.

Of course, at the time Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Civil Government, the most pressing case against rebellion was not being advanced through direct appeal to the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Rather, it was being advanced by invoking the alleged divine right of kings, which advocates posited on impeccably “Old Testament” foundations: principally on the account in Genesis of the right to dominion or rule granted Adam, and supposedly through him, to his heirs.

English Politics and Divine Right

Locke wrote and anonymously published his Two Treatises to provide a moral and theological justification for the overthrow of the openly Roman Catholic King James II, who not only was claiming to rule by divine right (as had all his Stuart forebears) but was also (unlike them) invoking that right to overturn statutes preventing Catholics from assuming positions of power and influence in the government and military. James issued Declarations of Indulgence exempting Catholics from having to take vows denying transubstantiation that would otherwise have prevented them from assuming such positions.

At the time of the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which James ll was deposed in favor of Mary, his Protestant daughter, and her Protestant Dutch husband William (who also happened to be the son of the deposed king’s deceased elder sister), the chief theoretical apostle of the divine right of kings had been the royalist Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653). Filmer had defended the doctrine in his essay Patriarcha, which was published posthumously in 1679 at the time of the Exclusion Crisis, in which a vain parliamentary attempt was made to prevent James’s succeeding his elder brother, Charles.

In 1688, Locke and his fellow Whigs who sought to sideline James, were particularly exercised to do so by the birth, earlier that year, of James’s son, which would have ensured a Catholic succession. Since Filmer had justified the doctrine of divine right by appealing to Old Testament stories about God’s granting Adam dominion over other creatures, Locke had no alternative but to take on Filmer at the hermeneutical task of Biblical exegesis. Again, as Leiter is at pains to show, the Biblical passages Locke invokes against Flimer were almost exclusively drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Writes Leiter:

For Robert Filmer . . . the most important political facts contained in Scripture occur in the opening pages of the Book of Genesis where God gave the world to the first man . . . ma[king] Adam lord over the earth… ever since sovereign authority has been attained through divinely granted fatherly authority . . . Locke responded . . . that all people descend from Adam and no man can rule any other by claiming divine right . . . Following Moses and Joshua, Filmer claimed, God “raised judges to defend his People in time of peril”, but it was only with the giving of kings to the Israelites that He re-established “the ancient and prime right of Lineal Succession to Paternal Government”. Yet there is no scriptural mention of this “positive command,” emphasizes Locke . . . [who] focusses on scriptural proof that the history of the Israelites tells nothing of a fatherly authority that is passed on through lineal succession, but shows rather that the opposite . . . [In] the narrative of the Jewish people . . . paternal authority in the Filmerian sense is totally absent, and the right of lineal succession is of short duration and of minor import.

Besides showing how Locke used the Hebrew Bible to demolish Filmer and thereby defend rebellion against tyrannical rule, Leiter also devotes successive chapters to showing how Locke appealed to that same source to develop his natural law doctrine that accorded equality of moral status and liberty to all, constrained only by the universal obligation Locke discerned that same law as imposing on anyone possessed of more than he needed for survival to give charity to the indigent to ensure their survival, too. The Locke who emerges from Leiter’s study of his Hebraism bears little resemblance to the apostle of minimum government portrayed by libertarian theorists such as Robert Nozick.

Political Hebraism and the Logic of the Two Treatises

The book contains a wealth of insights that make it well worth reading by any serious student of Locke or of classical liberalism more generally.

Some might question the contemporary significance of the issue that so exercises Leiter, but I think he fulfills a valuable service in drawing attention to just how reliant on the Old Testament/Hebrew Scripture were Locke’s Two Treatises. One of the most important features of the Second is the primacy it gives to the story of the Israelite leader Jephthah (Judges, chapters 11-12), and especially to the appeal Jephthah makes to God on the eve of his battle with the Ammonites, who occupied and claimed as rightfully theirs the Israelite territory of Gilead.

Locke cites the story to illustrate several major contentions he advances in the Second Treatise: 1) the legitimacy of sovereignty as emanating from the consent of the governed; 2) the limited scope of government in poor, undeveloped societies which is confined to waging defensive wars; and 3) the legitimacy of overthrowing foreign powers and tyrants by force in circumstances not admitting of their peaceful removal, and always and only after having fully satisfied oneself in one’s own mind of the justice of one’s cause and lack of peaceful means to resolve it to one’s satisfaction.

It needs to be remembered that Locke’s primary purpose in writing and publishing the Treatises was as a moral justification of violent resistance against tyrannical rulers—and, conversely, as a condemnation of recourse to political violence in circumstances that admit of the peaceful resolution of grievances and felt injustices. It was not for nothing that George Washington ordered that the ships he sent out against the British navy during the American War of Independence flew ensigns bearing the words: “Appeal to Heaven.”

The hebraic provenance of much of the imagery underlying and illustrating Locke’s Treatises is well worth renewed appreciation and understanding, as our societies have become so distanced from the Biblically literate culture in which they were written. We should be grateful to Yechiel Leiter for having written this book.