The Biblical Origin of Individual Civil Liberties: Two Competing Views (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Filmer’s Assertion of Scriptural Divine Right

Robert Filmer (1588-1653) describes and opposes a common seventeenth-century view, that “Mankind is naturally endowed and born with Freedom from all Subjection, and at liberty to choose what Form of Government it please: And that the Power which any one Man hath over others, was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the Multitude.”14 He characterizes the view as popularized by divines to minimize the king’s authority and facilitate the Church’s increasing influence and power.15 By contrast, Filmer suggests, “the Scripture is not favourable to the Liberty of the People,”16 that desire for liberty was the cause of Adam’s fall, and was consequently as dangerous for moderns as it was for Adam.17 Filmer assigns motive to Adam (desire for liberty), employing a theological hermeneutic, going beyond what is written, and effectively supporting the divine right view by that one supposition. Nothing in the Genesis text nor later texts dare assign motive to Adam. Rather the accounts and later commentary (including nine direct NT references to Adam) simply provide the historical facts of what occurred.

Filmer’s hermeneutic maneuver allows him to view authority as imbued in a parental sense. He says,

I see not then how the Children of Adam, or of any man else can be free from subjection to their Parents: And this subjection of Children being the Fountain of all Regal Authority, by the Ordination of God himself; It follows, that Civil Power, not only in general is by Divine Institution, but even the Assignment of it Specifically to the eldest Parents, which quite takes away that New and Common distinction which refers only Power Universal and Absolute to God; but Power Respective in regard of the Special Form of Government to the Choice of the people.18

Authority, in Filmer’s view is through parentage, and it is not a far reach for Filmer to connect parental authority with the authority of the king:

As long as the first Fathers of Families lived, the name of Patriarchs did aptly belong unto them; but after a few Descents, when the true Fatherhood it self was extinct, and only the Right of the Father descends to the true Heir, then the Title of Prince or King was more significant, to express the Power of him who succeeds only to the Right of that Fatherhood which his Ancestors did Naturally enjoy; by this means it comes to pass, that many a Child, by succeeding a King, hath the Right of a Father over many a Gray-headed Multitude, and hath the Title of Pater Patriæ.19

In Filmer’s view the king had divine authority to govern as a parent of the people. While in some cases kings were removed or deposed, such was only accomplished by Divine will, even if unrighteous acts (such as rebellion) were employed by the people to accomplish regime change. Filmer asserts that, “If it please God, for the Correction of the Prince, or punishment of the People, to suffer Princes to be removed, and others to be placed in their rooms, either by the Factions of the Nobility, or Rebellion of the People; in all such cases, the Judgment of God, who hath Power to give and to take away Kingdoms, is most just: Yet the Ministry of Men who Execute Gods Judgments without Commission, is sinful and damnable. God doth but use and turn men’s Unrighteous Acts to the performance of his Righteous Decrees.”20 This imbued authority was absolute and unconditional, and assured in every generation:

the Authority that is in any one, or in many, or in all these, is the only Right and natural Authority of a Supream Father. There is, and always shall be continued to the end of the World, a Natural Right of a Supreme Father over every Multitude.21

Filmer provides no remedy for investable tyranny, as

The Father of a Family governs by no other Law than by his own Will; not by the Laws and Wills of his Sons or Servants. There is no Nation that allows Children any Action or Remedy for being unjustly Governed.22

Still, natural law demands that the king seek to preserve his people. Thus the interests of the many necessarily outweigh those of the individual. The most significant implication of Filmer’s divine right theory is that there simply are no individual rights, and Filmer justifies that principle as part of a system for human governance that is built on New Testament teaching:

If any desire the direction of the New Testament, he may find our Saviour limiting and distinguishing Royal Power, By giving to Cæsar those things that were Cæsar’s, and to God those things that were God’s … We must obey where the Commandment of God is not hindered; there is no other Law but God’s Law to hinder our Obedience.23

God limits royal power, but does not provide specific ground rules for its expression. There is a wall of separation then between God’s sovereignty expressed in the affairs of humanity and the workings of human government, all by virtue of the first hermeneutic device—a theological imputation of motive to Adam.

John Locke’s Personal Freedom Model

John Locke’s (1632-1704) model eliminates Filmer’s wall altogether, as he directly castigates Filmer’s view. Locke says after reading Patriarcha, that he was “mightily surprised that in a book, which was to provide chains for all mankind, I should find nothing but a rope of sand.”24 In his first Treatise Locke seems bewildered at Filmer’s willingness to see all humanity born enslaved, and remarks early in his work that

Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it.25

As Locke critiques Filmer’s divine right view, he first takes on Filmer’s argument from Adam, summarizing Filmer’s case and then lamenting that “the thing is there so taken for granted, without proof, that I could scarce believe myself, when, upon attentive reading that treatise, I found there so mighty a structure raised upon the bare supposition of this foundation.”26 Specifically, Locke challenges Filmer’s assertion that Adam’s authority was the basis of human government. Locke lambasts Filmer for not proving his assertion, nor even really arguing for it. But by making an assertion “drawn from the authority of Scripture,”27 Filmer opened himself up to scrutiny for his exegesis. Locke responds as any good hermeneut should:

If he has in that chapter, or any where in the whole treatise, given any other proofs of Adam’s royal authority, other than by often repeating it, which, among some men, goes for argument, I desire any body for him to show me the place and page, that I may be convinced of my mistake, and acknowledge my oversight.28

Locke further challenges Filmer’s assertion that Adam was given governmental authority over humanity at the creation, recounting in some detail the text of Genesis: “First, it is false, that God made that grant to Adam, as soon as he was created, since, though it stands in the text immediately after his creation, yet it is plain it could not be spoken to Adam till after Eve was made and brought to him; and how then could he be monarch by appointment as soon as created, especially since he calls, if I mistake not, that which God says to Eve, Gen. iii. 16, the original grant of government, which not being till after the fall, when Adam was somewhat, at least in time, and very much distant in condition, from his creation, I cannot see, how our [Author, referring to Filmer] can say in this sense, that, “by God’s appointment, as soon as Adam was created, he was monarch of the world.”29 Filmer had asserted that Adam had royal authority over all including humanity. Locke suggests that there was no element of authority over humanity until—at the earliest, Genesis 3:16. In short, according to Locke, Filmer cannot assert exegetically that Adam had a natural sovereignty over humanity at creation. Locke adds that,

Whatever God gave by the words of this grant Gen. i. 28, it was not to Adam in particular, exclusive of all other men: whatever dominion he had thereby, it was not a private dominion, but a dominion in common with the rest of mankind. That this donation was not made in particular to Adam, appears evidently from the words of the text, it being made to more than one; for it was spoken in the plural number, God blessed them, and said unto them, have dominion.30

While Locke says much more against Filmer’s assertion of Scriptural justification for divine right, this particular interchange is emblematic of Locke’s approach. Whether one agrees with Locke’s conclusions or not, it is evident that Locke is approaching Scripture with a literal grammatical historical approach in these contexts—even making extensive appeal to the Hebrew vocabulary and grammar of the Genesis account—while Filmer is content to employ a theological hermeneutic allowing him to make self-justified suppositions. It is no coincidence then that Locke’s conclusion would be such a stark contrast to Filmer’s. For Locke, all humanity are equal; for Filmer, there is integral inequity, and slavery belongs to all at one point or another.

Once he had destroyed Filmer’s divine right “fatherhood” explanation of governmental authority, Locke would argue at length in his Second Treatise that the basis of government was rooted in natural law as given by the Creator. This natural law has embedded within it the idea of universal equality and liberty and universal responsibility:

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.31

Locke identifies here such an important principle, that all humanity belong to God and for His own pleasure. It is because of this stewardship of life that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have their true value. It is this foundational concept that guides Locke’s perception of the grounding of authority, as this state of nature demands that all humanity collectively have “the right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation.”32 Locke’s concept of government agrees with Genesis 9:6, which provides the first direct legislation of human enforcement against unlawful activity (specifically, the violating of the image of God through the act of murder), and is consistent with Romans 13:3-4 which warns the reader that there is no need to fear authority if one does good, for authority bears the sword—as a servant of God—a punisher and wrathbringer against those who do evil.

Locke acknowledges the universal and natural freedom of all humanity, and that freedom cannot be infringed, because

This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to, and closely joined with, a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together.33

Freedom under government is then that freedom to abide by a societal standard—standards agreed upon by those participating. Locke is hinting at a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Slavery was another matter, and a totally unacceptable one. For Locke this meant that people must use their ability to reason as an expression of their freedom and to protect that freedom:

The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free, but to thrust him out amongst brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched and as much beneath that of a man as theirs.34

It is here that the responsibility of parental education is apparent. Whereas Filmer argued for parental rule as the foundation of government, Locke argues that parental authority is designed for education unto the appropriate use and preservation of individual liberty.


14 Sir Robert Filmer Baronet, Patriarcha: Or the Natural Power of Kings (London: Richard Chiswell, 1680), Chapter 1.

15 Filmer, 1.1.

16 Filmer, 2.1.

17 Filmer, 1.1.

18 Filmer, 1.4.

19 Filmer, 1.8.

20 Filmer, 1.9.

21 Filmer, 1.10.

22 Filmer, 3.1.

23 Filmer, 3.3.

24 John Locke, Two Treatises on Government (London: Printed for Thomas Tegg; W. Sharpe and Son; G. Offor; G. and J. Robinson; J. Evans and Co.: Also R. Griffin and Co. Glasgow; and J. Gumming, Dublin, 1823), 7.

25 Locke, 7.

26 Locke, 13.

27 Locke, 14.

28 Locke 13-14.

29 Locke, 16.

30 Locke, 23.

31 Locke, 107.

32 Locke, 108.

33 Locke, 114.

34 Locke, 131.

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