Kuyper on the Consent Theory of Government

As I have shown previously, the reformed have held to the consent theory of government. Summarizing this position, Rutherford said “I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men.”

Abraham Kuyper

In 1879, Calvinist politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands, which took its name in opposition to the enlightenment-influenced French Revolution, which was founded upon a version of the consent theory known as the social contract. Kuyper mistakenly associated the consent theory of government with the enlightenment (Beza argued it has always been the basis of every legitimate government). But in his zeal to oppose unbiblical enlightenment ideas, Kuyper wound up pointing out the inherent flaw in the reformed theory of government.

The second way in which people have attempted to find such a foundation for authority lay in the free will of man. Each person, it is thought, by nature had the right to determine his own fate. Nobody could exercise any jurisdiction over him. Authority over him did not exist. But that person himself can call such an authority into being by his own free will. Standing alongside him were other people who were equally free. Were all these people to remain standing loosely alongside each other, this could be dangerous for all of them together. So it became desirable that a kind of administrative government would arise to keep order. Those individual persons, by an exercise of their free will, called such a government into being.

This was the foundation of the entire system of the French Revolution, with its doctrine of “social contract.” But of course this foundation was far from solid. Historically it could nowhere be demonstrated where that agreement had been made, where this contract had been concluded. It rested on pure fiction. In the nature of the case, someone could arrange something like that only for his own person, but not for his children. A person who reached the age of majority needed to have freedom of choice all over again. The system also entailed that anyone who wanted to choose differently tomorrow had to have the right to do so. It also meant that in one and the same city or village, one person had to be able to choose for such a government and another person against. As a result, along this path no comprehensive and overarching administrative government ever arose.

Kuyper, Abraham. Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, Volume 1: The Historical Section (Kindle Locations 2233-2239). Lexham Press.

To which libertarians simply say “Amen.”


The consent theory of government is true, but it necessarily entails precisely what Kuyper said: That every individual be free to consent or not to any particular ruler. This implies a free market of defense and justice administration.

Sir Robert Filmer

Kuyper’s criticism was not original. In the 17th century, Sir Robert Filmer (a royalist who argued from Scripture that royal authority is derived from Noah as patriarch) said the same thing.

It is difficult to agree what a popular Government is. Aristotle saith it is where Many or a Multitude do rule he doth not fay where the People or the major part of the People, or the Representors of the People govern.

Bodin affirms if all the People be interested in the Government it is a Popular Estate Lib 2 CI. but after in the same Chapter he resolves that it is a Popular Estate when all the People or the greater part thereof hath the Sovereignty, and he puts the Case that if there be threescore thousand Citizens, and forty thousand of them have the Sovereignty and twenty thousand be excluded it shall be called a popular Estate. But I must tell him, though fifty nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine of them govern yet it be no popular Estate for if but one man be excluded, the same reason that excludes that one man, may exclude many hundreds and many thousands, yea and the major part itself; if it be admitted that the People are or ever were free by Nature and not to be governed but by their own Consent, it is most unjust to exclude any one man from his Right in Government; and to suppose the People so unnatural as at the first to have all consented to give away their Right to a part, (as if they had Liberty given them only to give away and not to use it themselves) is not improbable but impossible; for the whole is a thing so uncertain and changeable that it alters every moment so that it is necessary to ask of every Infant so soon as it is born its Consent to Government if you will ever have the Consent of the whole People.

Moreover if the Arbitrary Tryal by a Jury Twelve men be a thing of that admirable Perfection and Justice as is commonly believed wherein the Negative Voyce of every single Person is preserved so that the dissent of any of the Twelve frustrates the whole Judgment: How much more ought the natural freedom of each man be preserved by allowing him his Negative Voyce which is but a continuing him in that Estate wherein it is confessed Nature at first placed him Justice requires that no one Law should bind all except all consent to it there is nothing more violent and contrary to Nature than to allow a major part or any other greater part less than the whole to bind all the People.

The Free-holders Grand Inquest, p. 121 (1680)


[U]nless it can be proved by the law of nature that the major or some other part have power to overrule the rest of the multitude, it must follow that the acts of multitudes not entire are not binding to all but only to such as consent unto them.


Zbigniew Rau notes

Having rejected the procedure of majority rule as well as unanimity, Filmer concludes that anarchy is the logical and practical consequence of contractarian arguments. “Not only every city,” he stresses, but even “every particular man, [would be at] liberty to choose himself to be his own King if he please; and he were a madman that being by nature free, would choose any man but himself to be his own governor.”

John Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government was a response to Filmer. Rau explains that Locke’s attempt to answer Filmer’s criticism led to self-contradiction and the collapse of his system.

Given the lack of natural political authority, individuals in the act of social contract do not just give up their natural powers to civil society, they also determine a decision-making procedure which is binding on all members of that society and which, thereby, makes the community “one Body, with a Power to Act as one Body.” In this way, individual consent (which legitimizes political power at the level of the individual) is transformed into collective consent (which legitimizes it at the level of civil society as a whole). Without this transformation, there would be “still as great a liberty” as an individual “had before his Compact, or any one else in the State of Nature hath, who may submit himself and consent to any acts of it if he thinks fit.”

Seraching for a suitable decision-making procedure, Locke chooses, not surprisingly, the principle of majority rule as the only acceptable solution. He takes great pains to pursuade his reader that the reasons behind his choice are practical, pointing out that the only alternative procedure would be unanimity, which would no doubt make it impossible to preserve civil society at all…

Nevertheless, contrary to this commonsensical… argument in favor of majority rule and against unanimity, Locke alters the strategy of his argument drastically, and claims that the status of the majority is based upon “the Law of Nature and Reason.”… [T]he attempt at using the natural law model contains a distinct inconsistency, because the agreement concerning majority rule is part of the act of social contract. As such, it is a conventional institution set up by the will of individuals entering civil society. But the damage Locke does to his system by this statement is much greater than that of merely introducing inconsistency. He undermines the entire contractarian model of the Two Treatises. Indeed, when he treats majority rule as a natural institution, he must also acknowledge its “Right to act and conclude the rest,” that is, the right of the majority to impose its decisions upon the minority of civil society as natural. This leads to the approval of a concept of natural political authority, which is precisely what Locke has been arguing against. The reason for this confusion in Locke’s presentation of majority rule is clear. He took this step under the pressure of Filmer’s criticism – according to which, in a political system based upon the rights of individuals, majority rule could not be legitimate unless it had the status of a natural institution.

Contractarianism Versus Holism: Reinterpreting Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, p. 88-89

John Robbins, founder of the Trinity Foundation and former Chief of Staff for Ron Paul, did his doctorate work on Filmer. He notes

Filmer follows this with the argument which strikes at the heart of the consent theory of government:

If it were a thing so voluntary, and at the pleasure of men when they were free to put themselves under subjection, why may they not as voluntarily leave subjection when they please, and be free again? If they had a liberty to change their natural freedom, into a voluntary subjection, there is stronger reason that they may change their voluntary subjection into natural freedom, since it is as lawful for men to alter their wills as their judgments.

Filmer continues his destruction of the consent theory along familiar lines:

Certainly it was a rare felicity, that all the men in the world at one instant of time should agree together in one mind to change the natural community of all things into private dominion: . . . for if but one man in the world had dissented, the alteration had been unjust, because that man by the law of nature had a right to the common use of all things in the world; . . . [226]

Filmer, to my mind, has brilliantly revealed a basic premise and assumption of anarchist and communist movements of the modem age, a premise which he alone sought to destroy; his arguments against which have never been adequately rebutted by apologists of the conventional [consent] theory of propriety and government.

The political thought of Sir Robert Filmer, 140

Lysander Spooner

In 1870, Lysander Spooner applied this same criticism to the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children.

No Treason No. 6: The Constitution of No Authority

He also correctly notes that the idea of a social contract that binds a minority is merely a variation of right by conquest (the first theory Kuyper argues against): the might of the majority makes right.

No attempt or pretence, that was ever carried into practical operation amongst civilized men – unless possibly the pretence of a “Divine Right,” – on the part of some, to govern and enslave others embodied so much of shameless absurdity, falsehood, impudence, robbery, usurpation, tyranny, and villainy of every kind, as the attempt or pretence of establishing a government by consent, and getting the actual consent of only so many as may be necessary to keep the rest in subjection by force. Such a government is a mere conspiracy of the strong against the weak. It no more rests on consent than does the worst government on earth.

No Treason No. 2: The Constitution


Rather than figuring out how a subset of humanity can uniquely posses the power of the sword over others, the true solution is found in realizing that God has granted all image bearers the authority to defend themselves and to administer justice according to the principle of lex talionis.

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