Luther, Locke, and Human Dignity

In the decades after Luther’s formulation of the priesthood of all believers, various theologians and political thinkers explored the implications of that new theory of human equality for both church and state. As the role between church and state became adjusted in various countries, new conceptions and understandings of the individual arose. The Englishman John Locke was one thinker who took up the challenge of exploring how the individual should relate to the new church-state landscape created especially by more radical dissenting Protestants—who argued for a meaningful separation between the authority of church and state.

It has been shown that Locke’s contribution to our modern conceptions of religious freedom and rights was influenced by a certain strand of dissenting Protestant thought that itself had roots in Luther’s early thought about the priesthood of all believers.1 The competing ideas of the individual and the state that Locke challenged also posited a transcendent realm, overseen by a Creator, who had created humans in His image. Yet they resulted in a much more crabbed and limited conception of rights than Locke did. What was the difference between these competing schemes of rights and dignity?

Locke deals at length with the notion of paternalism in government and religion; decisively rejects it; and substitutes a combination of self-ownership and divine ownership that can best be described as stewardship.

Paternalism, Stewardship, and Self-Ownership

In short, the answer has to do with the kind of relationship between the individual, the community, and the transcendent. In the late seventeenth century, when Locke was writing, three conceptions of the relationship among these elements resulted in three types or kinds of human dignity: the dignity of paternalism, seen especially in ideas of the divine right of kings and sacerdotal privilege; the dignity of stewardship, a concept of self-ownership in relation to others, but of God’s ownership in relation to the transcendent; and the dignity of self-ownership, where the individual, autonomous self is the highest authority in relation to the self. This latter category was only partially developed in the seventeenth century, and awaited fuller expression in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries, especially in the philosophies of John Stuart Mill.

The dignity of paternalism is the outlook that dominated the Middle Ages. It is well expressed in the legal philosophy and writing on human rights by Samuel Pufendorf, the seventeenth-century Lutheran political philosopher. Pufendorf defended a system of human rights and religious liberty, but it was filtered through a conception of the king and religious leaders as having paternal oversight over their subjects. He conceived of the metaphysical realm being mediated through religious and civil elites to the individual subjects.

This view resulted, despite its language of rights and human dignity, in a system that was inherently paternalistic, both civilly and religiously. Civil and religious rulers, at least those that were Christian, were ultimately responsible to God on behalf of the community; citizens and church members were the beneficiaries of this mediation, and were expected to play subservient roles to these elites civilly, intellectually, and spiritually.

The king was expected to oversee a state religion, in cooperation with bishops and priests, and guard and promote it with the civil laws and the force of the state. This view cut across confessional lines, and was characteristic not just of Roman Catholic countries, but also of magisterial Protestantism, as found in Calvin’s Geneva, Luther’s Germany, much of Elizabeth’s England, and even Puritan New England.

But not all of Protestantism embraced this dignity of paternalism. There was a more individualistic brand of Protestantism, flowing from some of the early writings of Luther, and kept alive by the Anabaptists and others in the branch of the Radical Reformation. It spread beyond those historically termed “radicals.” I term it a strand of dissenting Protestantism, meaning that they dissented from the magisterial Protestants who combined church and state over the individual believer.

As indicated earlier, John Locke, in his views on religious freedom, was influenced by this dissenting brand of Protestant thought. Locke deals at length with the notion of paternalism in government and religion; decisively rejects it; and substitutes a combination of self-ownership and divine ownership that can best be described as stewardship.2

John Locke’s most famous political work is arguably his Second Treatise of Government, which most college students read at one time or another. But most people don’t think to ask about the First Treatise, which is a much more obscure tract in our day and age. It is an extended attack, using Scripture and logical argument, on the notion of patriarchy in government, using as a foil Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, or The Natural Power of Kings. Filmer represents a long line of medieval thought that viewed the king as holding a paternal authority, derived from Adam, over his subjects. This authority gives him right as king and ruler to the unquestioning obedience of his subjects, and oversight over their religious beliefs and practices.

After dismantling Filmer’s notions of patriarchy in the First Treatise, Locke spends much of the Second Treatise replacing Filmer’s paternalistic oversight with conceptions of dual ownership, the ownership of the individual as against his or her neighbors and rulers, and the ultimate divine ownership of all persons. This dual ownership concept has caused some confusion, as scholars wonder which Locke really believed, self-ownership or divine ownership. The apparent conflict is readily resolved once one understands the biblical notion of stewardship. A steward is one to whom property is entrusted, and the steward has the rights of ownership against all other persons, though he or she is responsible ultimately to the owner for the good management of the property.

The Dignity of Stewardship

The dignity of stewardship is a profound concept that gives significant freedom in relation to others, but also of responsibility in relation to the divine and others that avoids the excesses of paternalism and a hyperindividualism. While one is free in body and soul from the intrusions of others, one has responsibilities to God to treat one’s body as well as one’s neighbor with appropriate respect and dignity. This stewardly relationship goes beyond a mere “right to be left alone,” or a duty merely to leave others unmolested. Stewardship of self implies a responsibility to act with care of oneself, living in a manner to flourish as a human, but also to create conditions where the dignity of others can be realized, all being subject to the same divine oversight and expectation.

The ideal of stewardship means that the political question that comes to us from near the dawn of human time, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is answered with a resounding yes. But it is a yes that recognizes that while I am my brother’s keeper, I am not his father or ruler, at least in manner that would interfere with his own stewardship obligations in this world and beyond. Negative liberties are not enough to fulfill these obligations, leaving persons alone who are struggling with conditions that threaten or impair their human dignity. The steward recognizes a need to help foster conditions where the dignity of all can be realized, and to do it in a way that does not undermine the impetus or motivation of others to exercise their roles as stewards of their persons, property, and liberty.

In opposing this paternalism in the First Treatise, Locke engages in an extended and close reading of Scripture to refute Filmer’s arguments about Adam and his descendants. These theological disputes seem arcane to us today, and thus the book has faded into obscurity. Yet wherever there is an authoritarian, paternalistic government, the Locke/Filmer debate is still very much relevant. The paternalism can be a right-wing dictatorship, such as we saw in the twentieth century with fascism and Nazism.

But this paternalism can also take the form of the statism of left-wing Communism or oppressive socialism, or even a progressive social welfare state model that engages in a kind of soft tyranny of cultivating citizens’ dependence on the state, undermining their own sense of stewardship, while imposing its transcendent moral framework upon all. While this soft tyranny may not yet fully characterize the nations of the West today, one can see sufficient elements of it in government and culture to make a revisit of the Locke/Filmer debates a very relevant exercise.

This soft tyranny also was implicated in another debate that Locke was part of. This argument was with those who would collapse all ownership into self-ownership, and either deny or ignore transcendent relationships, rights, and duties. This debate was perhaps in his day less fully developed, as fully fledged arguments about human autonomy in the absence of the divine did not become widespread until later in the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries. Still, men like Pierre Bayle and Baruch Spinoza developed systems of thinking about humanity, its nature, purpose, and liberties, in the absence of knowledge or belief about the Divine, at least as conventionally understood.

Locke’s response to these purely secular systems was blunt and succinct: “The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.”3 The element of stewardship in his system that created any sort of objective obligations to oneself and others, an external morality, discoverable through reason and experience, was in essence denied by these systems. If all one had was the autonomous, self-defining individual, then the limits of conduct were defined essentially by subjective human desire, except where that desire bumped up against the physical person or desire of another. While one had a duty not to harm another, and thus invade the autonomy of another, there was no clear basis of a duty to help another, unless one desired to.

Further, if there was no objective measure as to the worth or value of a desire, which is essentially the case if one rejects a belief in the transcendent, then society would lose the ability to objectively adjudge between conflicting desires. Perhaps the stronger desire should prevail, but how would that be determined except through how many shared that desire? Thus, all values, including ones that had been viewed as transcendent and having objective elements, are transmuted into subjective desires, and become subject to standard, majoritarian political processes.

Belief in rights, including the right of religious freedom, would become just another desire that would need to be balanced and traded off with any other desires that persons in society might have. Notions of individual rights might be paid lip service in light of the strong Western tradition. But in practice these systems of right would be subsumed under a regime that attempted to equalize all competing desires. “Equality” would replace “liberty” as the central watchword of the civil rights activist. In the implementing of this equality, most liberties would be subject to majority rule. This would have the effect of subjecting rights to the same majoritarian democratic processes that deal with most questions of public and political policy.

In effect, the democratic system would revert to a new paternalism, not one based on the divine right of kings, bishops, and dictators, but on the collective subjective desires of the community of autonomous individuals. When one is prevented from acknowledging a transcendent element, there is no objective element of stewardship to consider, nothing to adjudicate between the conflicting desires of the members of the group, except a rule by the majority or the most popular desire.

Under this system the language of human dignity is retained, because humanity is all we have. Indeed, the human becomes virtually divine in a sense, because it defines and encompasses its own reality. But it is an extraordinarily limited divinity, as it is hemmed in and limited by the subjective desires of its divine neighbor. Ultimately, it is a very thin dignity that does not produce many meaningful, measurable duties toward oneself or others, except perhaps the duty to stay alive, and not to physically harm others.

In answering the age-old question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the new dignity answers with a version of the clever evasion offered by the lawyer to Christ: “But who is my brother?” The answer to this question offered by the new dignity is: those who are aggrieved like me, whom I most identify with. Thus, we have the new regime of identity politics, in which one’s political view is tightly bound to one’s racial, ethnic, social, religious, gender, or class identity. Various competing groups will ally on those questions where the greatest number of desires overlap.

Crucially, the new system provides nothing objective or principled to press back against a majoritarian rule based on a new paternalism over the individual. Any number of issues take on the importance given previously to the most sacred notions of human rights, such as bodily integrity, the right to be free from torture and abuse, and the right and freedom of religious worship and practice.

Thus, our collective desire for safety and security in the age of terror is seen as justifying a policy and practice of “enhanced interrogation” methods that previously the American government had condemned as torture. Persons are held for years without trial and a failure of due process that would have been viewed, for the entirety of the twentieth century, as a gross violation of basic constitution rights.

People, including American citizens, who might be labeled “terrorists” are targeted, far from any active field of battle, for assassination by drone strikes based purely on presidential fiat. These assassinations are, again, acts that in pre-war-on-terror times would have been viewed as illegal and unconstitutional, as well as unethical and immoral. But our “desires” for safety and security are seen, in both the popular mind and in parts of the legal and political community, as overcoming our perceived enemies’ “desires” for liberty, bodily integrity, and even life.

In addition, in America, private sexual preferences and behaviors are given equal, and at times superior, legal pride of place and protection in a manner that impairs the convictions and practices of religious persons. In our new regime of human rights, all desires and preferences are equal, but as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some desires and preferences are more equal than others.

Those preferences that are more equal would be the ones whose ideological bases are those consistent with the ruling ideology of naturalistic materialism and secularism. Thus, personal sexual preferences, including same-sex behavior and marriage generally prevail against millennia-old religious and moral convictions regarding sexual behavior and the ordering of the family. All of these results flow logically and consistently, I believe, from the new, thin, purely self-ownership notion of human dignity.

But do we have actual, hard evidence that the Protestant concept of dignity has actually contributed to notions of modern democracy and human rights in our world? It is one thing to trace the ideas of Luther and Locke and their impact on the founding of America, but international human rights have a much broader base than that. Can Protestantism truly claim to have impacted the world between Locke and the rise of twentieth-century civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., and international human rights? Come back next time to Liberty, and we will discuss a startling and persuasive answer to the role of dissenting, free church Protestant thought and the rise of worldwide democracy and civil rights.


1 Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestantism and the Separation of Church and State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 63-90.

2 S. Adam Seagrave, “Self-Ownership vs. Divine Ownership: A Lockean Solution to a Liberal Democratic Dilemma,” American Journal of Political Science, 55, no. 3 (July 2011): 710-723.

3 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 246. Because his view that atheism would undermine the validity of both morality and rights, Locke drew the conclusion that atheists should not be tolerated. I believe this was a mistaken conclusion that conflicted with his own premises of the importance of private judgment to religious belief. The reality is that the unbeliever and atheist should have the same freedom as the theist or supernaturalist to make their own judgments about ultimate reality, including a divine realm.


Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.