Goldie on Guy, 'Finding Locke's God: The Theological Basis of John Locke's Political Thought'

Nathan Guy
Mark Goldie

Nathan Guy. Finding Locke's God: The Theological Basis of John Locke's Political Thought. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. 256 pp. $103.50 (e-book pdf), ISBN 978-1-350-10352-8; $103.50 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-350-10353-5; $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-10351-1.

Reviewed by Mark Goldie (University of Cambridge) Published on H-Albion (May, 2020) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

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For some time now, studies of John Locke have taken a religious turn. Gone is the hero of Enlightenment rationalism, the harbinger of secularism, the closet unbeliever. The new Locke is devoutly Christian and his theology underpins his entire political philosophy. Scholars who have made this case are by now numerous. John Dunn’s seismic Political Thought of John Locke (1969) has celebrated its fiftieth birthday. Following him have been Colman, Forster, Harris, Higgins-Biddle, Loconte, Marshall, Nuovo, Parker, Perry, Spellman, Stanton, Wainright, and Waldron; and preceding him, Yolton. To press the case further is to push at an open door. One can up the stakes by asserting, as Nathan Guy does, that we now need a “theological” and not just a “religious” turn, though it is not quite clear what that distinction amounts to. For Guy, putting the case remains imperative, largely because of a recalcitrant persistence—almost exclusively in the United States—of a Straussian determination to expose Locke for unhinging the Western world by his catastrophic betrayal of moral values. For Straussians Locke is Judas. Accordingly, Guy is determined to vindicate a devoutly Christian and, more particularly, a liberal Anglican Locke. 

His book, based on a doctoral thesis in a divinity school, is chiefly an exposition of Locke’s texts, based on close reading in Locke’s oeuvre, but it includes an important historical contextual claim, namely, that Locke was deeply indebted to, and his thought consonant with, the seventeenth-century “Latitudinarian” position, a category into which he capaciously dragoons Richard Hooker, the Great Tew circle, and the Cambridge Platonists. Guy here tends to collapse a multitude of theological differences into a catch-all “Latitudinarianism” and avoids the strictures of John Spurr about the plausibility of such a category. Further, Guy’s Latitudinarians are uniformly tolerationist, and he does not attend to the coercive arguments of some of them, such as Edward Stillingfleet, whom Locke critiqued in 1681 (one text Guy does not address). Richard Ashcraft and John Marshall have shown that while the reliance of Restoration divines on adiaphora—the broad sphere of “things indifferent” to salvation—might lead to tolerance, it in practice often led to intolerance, on the ground that vexatious sectaries had no good reason in conscience to object to impositions by the church and the civil magistrate, impositions deemed necessary for civil order, for preserving the catholicity of the church, and for the comeliness of common worship. To take another instance besides Stillingfleet: Edward Fowler, also cited by Guy as a Latitudinarian, wrote that the Christian is obliged to follow in religion what is “commanded by superiors” and that to deny this was to be guilty of “conceited,... contentious and unpeaceful behaviour.”[1] Fowler singled out the Baptist John Bunyan for abuse. As L. J. Trinterud (echoing Ashcraft) remarked, “Rational religion and the repression of troublemakers” marched together in Restoration England.[2] Writing of the “broad and generous” Latitudinarians, Guy remarks that, “since its inception, the Anglican Communion had been the proper place for this moderating spirit to flourish” (p. 63). This sanguine view of the Anglican tradition would scarcely pass muster with William Prynne, John Milton, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Andrew Marvell, or William Penn. A general difficulty with Guy’s approach in this area is that his book lacks sufficient attention to ecclesiology, theories of church authority. The “religious turn” arguably needs as much ecclesiology as theology. 

But this is unfairly to dwell on a contextual claim. Guy’s book chiefly depends on its exposition of Locke himself. He argues efficiently for the centrality of Christian convictions as foundational for Locke’s politics. The Locke that emerges is broadly Thomist in his embrace of natural law (the voluntarism is recognized but played down); is not deistic, because committed to the truths of revelation that vouchsafe a saving Christ; and is hostile to hyper-Calvinism, to “enthusiasm,” and to Catholicism (p. 70). Locke’s ethics rely on the other-worldly motivation of divine reward and punishment. Locke’s polity is Christian, albeit that non-Christians are tolerated. The institution of the church is separated from the state—for the sake of the church, and for securing liberty for the pursuit of evangelical persuasion in the public sphere. Locke, on this argument, may privatize the church but he does not privatize religion. There are discussions of Locke’s doctrine of creation, Christology, ethics, and scriptural hermeneutics. There are engagements with contemporary theologians, such as Janet Soskice and Rowan Williams. Guy’s coverage of Locke’s works is exceptionally thorough. The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) is of course central, though it is a pity that the Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St Paul (1707), still terra incognita in Locke studies, is not given fuller analysis. Perhaps what best captures the contextual and exegetical pillars of Guy’s book is the fact that, besides Locke, the authors occurring in the list of abbreviations are Aquinas, Hooker, and the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth.

Dunn once argued that Locke’s Christianity rendered him redundant for secular liberal modernity. Guy turns this on its head: Locke’s Christianity emerges fully armed to underwrite a contemporary (North American) liberal Anglican vision of the public sphere. He is of course right that Dunn wrote long before the post-secularist resurgence of religion in the twenty-first century; and he is also right that liberal secularists continue to find in Locke the philosopher of a public sphere cleansed of religion. Guy does not want his Locke to advocate the “value neutral” instrumentality of secular liberalism, nor a hedonic self-interestedness, nor an anarchic liberty of desire unconstrained by embrace of God’s purposes and his promises for the afterlife (p. 159). Guy’s own convictions seep throughHe makes Locke in his own liberal Anglican image. His concern for finding a place for Christianity in the public square bears comparison with John Perry’s recent book, The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology (2011). He does, however, miss a trick in not taking up Jack Turner’s demonstration in his article that Locke himself, despite his apparent “separation” of church and state, did advocate a role for the civil power in evangelization.[3]

Guy’s account neglects Locke’s anticlericalism and scarcely nods at the sheer bloodiness of early modern Christianity, Anglican included. As for theology, he leaves us with the view, which nonbelievers will find either quaint or insulting, that morality requires a certificate from the Christian God, and with the dismal prospect that only God’s rewards and punishments can sustain morality. This may indeed have been Locke’s view too; in which case, we shall have to differ about whether Dunn was right about Locke’s purchase for us, now.  

In pursuing his claims, Guy pens some nice aperçus, such as that many of Locke’s interpreters render his religion “either incidental or insidious,” and that the Straussian hermeneutic is one of “suspicion, subversion, and charade” (pp. 1, 4). There are occasional factual slips: Locke did not meet Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or Freiherr Samuel von Pufendorf. The explications sometimes go awry. To say that Locke holds to reason as “the candle of the lord,” as did the Platonists, is to set aside the critique of innate ideas in the first book of the Essay (1689) (p. 142)To say that, “like Locke, Cudworth thought that humans were social beings” is to say rather little (p. 72). The theme of sociability in Locke might just as readily be excavated via Cicero and the Stoics, as John Marshall does. To refer to Locke’s Questions [Concerning the Law of Nature] as being first published in 1954 obscures the fact that Wolfgang Marius von Leyden’s edition did not have that title: it is odd that Guy relies on the later edition having the title Questions, since that edition was designed by Straussians to debunk Locke’s orthodoxy. To lambaste Locke’s translator William Popple as a moral anarchist for upholding “absolute liberty” is to misread Popple’s meaning in the preface to the Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) (p. 17). Popple was talking about the limitations of the newly passed, but restrictive, Act of Toleration of 1689. 

Guy’s book is a thoughtful and considered addition to the growing literature that appraises Locke as a doctor of the church. In his view, this makes Locke urgently pertinent today. 


[1]. Edward Fowler, The Design of Christianity (London: n.p., 1671), 242, 303.

[2]. L. J. Trinterud, “1689: The End of the Clerical World,” in Theology in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England, by W. Hudson and L. J. Trinterud (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1971), 41.

[3]. Jack Turner, “John Locke, Christian Mission, and Colonial America,” Modern Intellectual History 8, no. 2 (2011): 267-97.

Citation: Mark Goldie. Review of Guy, Nathan, Finding Locke's God: The Theological Basis of John Locke's Political Thought. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL:

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