I try to stay up on when Locke experts debate what he was really getting at. Here, at The Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg argues Locke breaks with the classical-Christian understanding of the natural law.
Locke himself supported King James II’s overthrow in the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the subsequent passing of the Bill of Rights in 1689. There were many reasons for James II’s removal from the throne, but we should not pretend that his eviction was based on some type of contract violation. It proceeded from the refusal by significant segments of Britain’s political elites to accept his political authority any longer.
Which brings me to another point that I think demonstrates the problems of social contract theory: political authority in itself does not require a contract or some form of transmission process for its legitimacy.
Contra Locke, the rational foundation for civil government is not, in fact, consent. As Aquinas wrote, “it is natural for man, more than any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group” [emphasis added].
Another reason for the prevalence of social contract theories is that they often allow us to rationalize philosophically and legally the emergence of new sets of political arrangements. A number of authors, for example, have speculated that Locke’s social compact arguments, with their particular emphasis on consent, flow from his desire to legitimize the particular political order instituted in Britain by and after the Glorious Revolution.
One weakness of such interpretations is that Locke appears to have worked out the basic principles of his political theory some years before 1688. Hence Locke’s treatises deserve to be treated, as Copleston writes, as more than just another Whig pamphlet. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that Locke’s political theory—either before or after 1688—can be entirely separated from his opposition to the Stuart dynasty, his disputation of the divine right of kings (which obviously opposes any notion of consent from the governed), and his personal beliefs as a longtime Whig.
Of course, nobody can completely escape the influence of context when developing his or her ideas, but this does not mean Locke could not have formulated a more robust account of political order to explain why James II needed to be removed from power. Pre-existing classical natural law arguments about the legitimacy of removing rulers who become tyrants would have been perfectly adequate.
... In Locke’s view, we do not obey our rulers because a concern for human flourishing, justice, and the common good tells us that it is reasonable to do so. Instead, we obey because our rulers have a superior will. “Law’s formal definition,” Locke wrote, “is the declaration of a superior will.” How different this is from Aquinas’s understanding of law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.”
In the end, this difference may well reflect varying conceptions of God. The notion of divine wisdom (logos) is integral to the classical natural law understanding of why the commands of God create concrete responsibilities in conscience for human beings.
By contrast, Locke joins some of his contemporaries, such as Grotius and Pufendorf, in explaining this obligation in terms of a God who exercises raw, perhaps even willful, power. “For who will deny,” Locke writes, “that clay is subject to the potter’s will and that the pot can be destroyed by the same hand that shaped it.”
Here is Greg Forster's response defending Locke's authenticity in the classical-Christian tradition.