By Ruxandra Ionce | TRINICY.org
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Abstract: The present essay concludes the first series of essays meant to define and develop the concept of the “Christian Imperative,” focusing on the Biblical view of civil authorities and the necessity of a government, as a condition of the fallen state of mankind. As in the previous essays, the subject cannot be treated in an exhaustive manner; however, the points made should offer enough information for the reader to form an opinion and pursue further study, being aware of the overwhelming amount of resources and rich Christian history.
Understanding the ontology of the state and nations has been the subject of intense study which, under the paradigm of evolutionary theory, has created more problems than has offered solutions. A lot of questions were raised regarding the evolution of languages and a state’s raisons d'être with various answers that often raise even more questions. It is, however, sensible to assume people have organised themselves into groups based on criteria that separated them from the rest; the naturally emerging collective identity, which in the course of time will often develop into a national identity. The walls of the citadel primarily served the purpose of protection and security in a fallen world. Since this topic, as the previous ones, can be subject to hundreds of pages, this essay will offer a schematic approach to the biblical view on statehood.
Fortunately, the Bible offers a clear historical account regarding the beginning of nationhood: the Tower of Babel. We can, therefore, draw the conclusion the separation of mankind into groups is a part of God’s sovereign design for humanity. Based on Genesis 11:6, we can also conclude language is the first cause of the appearance of nations:
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
This powerful verse presents the dangers mankind would pose to itself if there are no barriers of language:
A state exists for a number of different reasons, which can easily be derived both from reading the Bible or other historical documents:
Because of sin, a defined hierarchy and subjection have become necessary in order to keep people accountable for their behaviours and deeds. Anarchy is neither biblical nor logical, since it offers no accountability to the individual behaviour. To deny this fact means to deny the existence of rebelliousness, one of the most obvious truths about human nature.
The apparent dichotomy between God’s chosen people and the rest of the world, to which many may raise the objection of discrimination, is they are only to show and portray God’s relationship with His church, His sovereign choice, and to prepare the way for His Son to come. Moreover, there are numerous biblical heroes of non-Hebrew origins such as Rahab, Ruth, Uriah the Hittite, the faithful centurion, and many others who are there to show even before Christ, God did not withhold His grace from anybody who would turn to Him. Through Christ’s resurrection, the walls between the Gentiles and Jews have been completely demolished:
It might come as a surprise to recognize the main political systems we know today are not a modern invention, but have already been tested in the ancient Hebrew society. Extrapolating political teachings from the Old Testament has been subject of study to many biblical scholars. The books of Joshua, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, and II Kings deal with the topic of state administration within the Israelite nation under the keter torah (meaning the crown of the Torah and also the crown used to adorn the Torah scroll in the synagogue). Based on Deuteronomy 16:18, one could say, the ideal form of administration was a form of “proto-federalism” under the judges:
“‘You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment.’”
The ideal form of state administration is illustrated in the book of Joshua, the highest authority being divided, albeit not equally in importance, between the Eved Adonai (God’s prime minister) and Kohen Gadol (the high priest). Because of the persistent demand from the people to emulate the surrounding nations, it was only reluctantly God allowed their transition to rule by monarchy. This transition came not without warning, as God specifically instructed Samuel to show the people the compromises necessary for this new regime (1 Samuel 8:10-17). We can already notice the Bible offers us examples of political and administrative forms that perfectly resonate with our modern reality.
In the New Testament, the central theme becomes the respect and submission to civil authorities. It is important to notice this submission is not qualified and so it is due even to pagan authorities. Submission to authorities is made clear through numerous Bible verses including: Ephesians 5:22, Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 2:13-17, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Corinthians 10:3-33.
According to Romans 13:1-3, governments exist to punish evildoers and reward those who do right; no authority is beyond God’s will - He either appoints it or allows it. The Apostle Peter emphasized the importance of submission to human institutions so that Christians can be clearly distinguished from rebels and instigators and therefore to be good witnesses of Christ:
Even though so many great Christian minds have considered the necessity of the state and the purpose of civil authority (suggestions for further reading will be listed at the end of the article), I am particularly fond of St. John Chrysostom’s writings on the matter, specifically in his 29th Homily together with his 4th discourse on Genesis. According to Chrysostom, subjection is necessary as a remedy to sin since the Fall. Sin has stained the image of Christ in humankind and human nature, and, if uncontrolled, will lead to destruction and chaos. A state is merely a necessary condition of the present state of humanity. An act of God’s mercy and authority is seen as a “medicine” so people can live together in order without chaos or anarchy. Authorities are the “doctors” and can become instruments of God’s providence.
It is important not to confuse the position of authority, the institution itself, with a temporary, corrupt leader. A corrupt leader does not affect the necessity of the position, and he is himself responsible for governing himself above everything else. Leadership is in itself a position of submission, where leaders are meant to serve and make sacrifices.
The beauty of the doctrine of submission is shown in its circularity. We submit and respect authorities, while those same authorities are meant to serve and submit for the greater good. The perfection of submission is accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ at the last supper: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
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The present paper is the second in a threefold series of essays entitled “The Christian Imperative” and continues the line of argumentation on the importance of Christianity as the only objective moral basis for the rule of law and basic human rights and freedoms. These essays are by no means exhaustive regarding the subject chosen; rather they are meant to raise the reader’s interest and curiosity in pursuing further study and gaining confidence, knowing the richness of resources available.
Basic Human Rights & Freedoms
As presented in the previous essay, it is necessary to assume the pre-existence of natural laws or a priori laws that transcend our existence and are therefore universal and unchangeable. These laws originate from our God-given conscience and are common to all mankind, regardless of our individual circumstances of birth, culture and time, but are overshadowed by our sinful nature. The acknowledgment of such laws is the only means of defense against arbitrary power and tyranny. However, understanding equality under the law requires another, more important question to be answered: “what is man?”.
This is arguably the most important question in the history of mankind, since the answer implies the origins of our values, individual dignity and inner worth, for which we all crave for. It is imperative to have an objective basis for human rights in order for them to stand as moral rights. This question is answered in the very first chapter of the Bible, in Genesis 1:26 and 27.
“Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness' (v. 26)
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them” (v. 27)
There is no clearer and more powerful alternative to this answer: man is created to be a reflection of his creator, and hence to possess dignity and free will. It is important to note that individual dignity and sacredness do not come from within, but are given by God himself and impossible to obtain by human endeavor. This logic is very important, since it puts Christianity in stark contrast to all other alternative cosmogonic views, where salvation and meaning are to be found within or by works performed by man himself; to violate human dignity is to revolt against God.
A famous Romanian actor and devout Orthodox Christian, Dan Puric, has subsumed this issue brilliantly, saying that “human dignity is the reflection of man in man, whereas godly dignity is the reflection of God in man”. The first assumption is dangerous, since the objectivity of human dignity cannot be proven nor measured and is therefore volatile and relative to culture, interests and preferences.
Many important philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have claimed the origin of human rights to be in the properties of human reason. Kant's idea of human rights was a reflection of the Enlightenment Zeitgeist. The proponents of the Enlightenment have erroneously presumed that natural rights, moral freedoms and human dignity were a priori conditions of human existence. Unfortunately, these rights were misused during the French revolution, when the monarchy was usurped with the same brutality the masses claimed to have endured. The change of regime after the French revolution costed many lives and contradicted the very principles that animated it.
To present our case, we need to follow the logic that the question of natural law is intimately connected with the question of human identity and origins. Human rights and freedoms require an answer to the question “what is man, to be worth these rights?”. As Sir Roger Scruton points in his book The Soul of the World: “freedom raises a question of origins, not an exercise of rational choice."
This is why it is important to understand that the Bible's unique and dissonant answer compared to any other alternative view is the only practical, objective basis for the ontology of human rights, as also proven by the historical record. Moreover, the legal difficulties emerging are only to be settled with an objective moral framework that would put limits on freedoms and rights, otherwise an unlimited freedom will eventually interfere with that of the other.
Similar to the previously presented approaches in the ontology of law, there also have been several attempts to explain the ontology of human rights in mere secular terms. Two of these approaches are:
The criticism brought to these theories is justified. Moral relativism poses a continuous threat: if there is no objective basis for human rights, there is no objective reason not to change them according to various interests and cultural influences. Moreover, it is impossible to argue for human rights based on reason alone, since we lack the knowledge of their origin and what makes human beings universally worthy of such claims; it is logically necessary to have a metaphysical base and a higher truth that has been already revealed: the Bible.
I am very certain that our readers are more than aware of the “classic” accusations brought against Christianity, two of which being most prevalent: the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. However, these arguments can easily be used confidently by any believer to show what it means when people are ignorant of the Scriptures and make up their own religion. The real question is “how did real, scriptural Christianity influence the course of history?” and the answer is absolutely overwhelming.
Due to the nature of this short essay, it is impossible to even scratch the surface of this vast subject so it will be limited to just a few interesting examples to prove that the modern notion of human rights and freedoms stems from the Christian understanding of man's divine dignity. It is important to be reminded of the fact that these short essays are primarily thought to offer some intriguing facts and stimulate the reader's curiosity and desire for further study.
As mentioned in the previous essay, the Ancient world did not have an understanding of human rights. Before Christianity, the notion of individual rights did not exist, as the individual in the social hierarchy did not benefit from legal recognition, and, hence, did not enjoy special protection. In Roman law (a legal source for Western law) for instance, legal protection was only granted by the Roman state to the social institution of the patriarchal family, where the pater familias (the oldest man in the family) exercised autocratic authority over all members of the family. Christianity proved itself to be the only religion in history that elevated human dignity to a position of sacredness, which flows out of man's identity as a bearer of the image of God and the commandment, reinforced by Jesus Christ “[...] Love your neighbour as you love yourself'” (Mark 12:31).
The history of the Early Church is one of the most fascinating periods in history through the modern perspective of human rights, especially for women. The cultural background in the time of Jesus was characterized by a deeply anti-woman worldview, common throughout the Roman empire. In the book “The Jesus I never knew”, author Philip Yancey comments:
“For women and other oppressed people, Jesus turned upside down the accepted wisdom of His day. According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels.”
In the following lines, I would like to mention a few of the many milestones in the history of Christianity in regards to human rights:
I. The Magna Charta Libertatum - This treatise on law and justice is one of the earliest, most comprehensive legal acts that not only postulates the rule of law and equality under it for all including the sovereign, but also liberties of “free men”, a clause which became the foundation for modern human rights in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. It is generally accepted that the draft was originally drafted by Stephen Langton, who was appointed at the time See of Canterbury. According to the Australian legal scholar, Dr. Augusto Zimmermann, Archbishop Langton was “a learned theologian and his massive commentaries on the Bible contain thousands of pages of explanation about the meaning of scriptural words and phrases. He applied his knowledge of biblical hermeneutics to draw modern parallels between England and the Old Testament stories of good kings and bad kings who abused their powers by violating God’s laws.”
II. The Eastern Roman Empire - Unfortunately not as popular in general history studies, the Eastern Roman Empire, known also under the modern name of the Byzantine Empire, was the longest-lasting empire in history. Christianity became state religion and everybody, regardless of ethnical background was recognized as a citizen of the Empire as long as they shared the Christian belief. According to professor Anthony Kaldellis, it functioned more like a Republic, where people had much more influence on the political process than previously and erroneously thought by many Western historians, and the common good of the people was often decisive in overthrowing an emperor. Women could have great power, the example of Theodora, the former actress who became an empress by marrying Justinian and had a tremendous influence on the many reforms made during their reign. Justinian himself, was a peasant’s son who was later taken under the wing of his uncle, Emperor Justin I ( a former swineherd and soldier) and grew to be one of the greatest emperors, especially known for legal contributions through the Code of Justinian
III. The Declaration of Independence - “We hold these truths as self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is one of the most important moments in the history of human rights, pointing out both to the inherent, self-evident rights but also to their divine origin, thus implying an objective moral basis.
IV. Abolition of Slavery - The abolition of slavery could only be done based on the premise that all men are equal and created in the image of God. Although this achievement was the result of the combined forces of many (see the African abolitionists Olaudah Equiano, Quobah Ottobah Cuguano, Ignatius Sancho, Mary Prince etc.), the voice of William Wilberforce became instrumental in the movement, as he was convinced that what he was doing was a service and a duty to God.
V. The world after the two World Wars and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights - The most devastating armed conflicts in human history, the two world wars, have shocked the world by their unprecedented gruesomeness and destructive ideologies. These ideologies (national socialism and communism) are a direct result of a systematic, oppressive pursuit to deny the existence of God in all aspects of a citizen’s life . A natural, immediate response was to reinstate the protection of the dignity of human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the UN General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948 and stated in the first article:
“All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been developed through other documents such as the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights etc. In comparison to the classical rights that extended only to the realm of security, property and political participation, the modern concept of human rights (also known as the “second generation” of human rights) now includes socio-economic rights, rights to welfare, education etc.
The problem with modern human rights is that they lack an objective moral basis, making any epistemological criticism about their universality and objectivity perfectly justified. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, where the divine source of these inherent rights was recognized, the modern conception of human rights and freedoms relies on the shaky foundation of secularism. According to Daniel Philpott (Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies. Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, University of Notre-Dame), human rights are only valid when these three criteria are met:
As mentioned in the previous essay, one cannot expect to enjoy inalienable rights and equality in front of the law if there is no objective moral basis and a transcendent source of human dignity. The rejection of a Creator, who made man in His own image, leaves an empty space that can be filled with any transient philosophy, often based on selfish interests, racist superiority, pseudo-scientific arguments and thirst for power.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek,there is neither slave or free, there is
neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” - Galatians 3:26-8
Christianity offers the only complete answer to the question of human identity, dignity and meaning; it also affirms at the same time the limitations of our own endeavours and capacity to understand ourselves and the universe around us. We all have in ourselves the longing for eternity and redemption, no matter how subtle or tacit. Christianity offers the only solution: salvation comes in the ultimate form of sacrifice from God Himself, by sending His only begotten Son to carry our sins and pray for our transgressions in full, for this is exactly what it was required to restore our Edenic innocence and bring us the future glory of Heaven.
In the next essay, we will explore the subject of civil authorities and their role in protecting these rights, as their governing over our society requires a guarantor. Surprisingly, the Bible covers the issue in a comprehensive, critical manner and offer clear guidelines of conduct in respect to authorities.
Suggested Literature & Resources
Kaldellēs Antōnios Emm. The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome. Harvard Univ. Press, 2015.
Moon, Sheryl, and Philip Yancey. The Jesus I Never Knew. Zondervan, 1998.
Moyn, Samuel. Christian Human Rights. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Zimmermann, Augusto. “The Christian Foundations of the Rule of Law in the West: a Legacy of Liberty and Resistance against Tyranny.” Creation.com, Creation Ministries International, Aug. 2005, creation.com/the-christian-foundations-of-the-rule-of-law-in-the-west-a-legacy-of-liberty-and-resistance-against-tyranny.
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Inspired by Kant's notion of the categorical imperative, the ‘Christian Imperative’ ought to stress the importance of Christianity as a Sine qua Non in understanding and interpreting reality and the impact on the development of Western Civilization. This will open a series of three short essays on relevant topics such as the rule of law, basic human rights and freedoms and civil authority, that should encourage the readers to further study and discussion.
The Rule of Law
We live in a self-contradictory era of postmodernism- the word of the age- an era where people doubt reason, logic, and absolute truths while at the same time claiming to occupy a position of superior objectivity. For us as Christians, it can feel as if we are being forced to retreat from professing our faith, as we are being bombarded with waves of explicit or even tacit opposition from the media or other societal pressures, constantly confronted with “scientific facts” raised to disprove biblical truths and to prove religion a thing of the past, incompatible with the modern man. Yet, the Bible is clear about where we should position ourselves as Christians, in the spiritual battle of ideas:
“Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3: 14-15,ESV).
We dispose of ample sources of encouragement and study, having testable, rational and historical reasons to be fully convinced that Christianity is the one true moral compass for our society.
In the West, the rule of law is a legal tradition meant to exclude the possibility of any individual or branch of the government to act arbitrarily or outside the law. Indisputable is the fact that human beings possess an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong; with few exceptions, the sense of justice, wrongdoing, good and evil is a common denominator for all civilizations throughout history, thus being commonly materialized into laws. This opens a moral discussion on the existence of higher laws, out of which principles for issuing legislation can be derived. In his book The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to the that of the Modern, the French philosopher Benjamin Constant states that, before Christianity, the notion of individual rights did not exist, as the individual in the social hierarchy did not benefit from legal recognition, and, hence, did not enjoy special protection. In Roman law (a legal source for Western law) for instance, legal protection was only granted by the Roman state to the social institution of the patriarchal family, where the pater familias (the oldest man in the family) exercised autocratic authority over all members of the family. But Christianity proved to be the only religion in history that elevated human dignity to a position of sacredness, which flows out of man's identity as a bearer of the image of God and the commandment, reinforced by Jesus Christ “[...] Love your neighbor as you love yourself'” (Mark 12:31).
In the ontology of law (the branch of metaphysics that attempts to explain the nature of the existence of laws), one can distinguish three main approaches:
Although all might serve as useful tools for interpreting certain legal texts, the latter is the only one capable of keeping an objective moral standard, as it offers a universal and transcendental view of the governing principles behind lawmaking, independent of context, time and personal interests. Justin Martyr (d. cca. 165 AD), the early Christian apologist, stated that the Christian belief is the only philosophy that is both useful and worthy of trust, arguing that the divine Logos enlightened ancient thinkers such as Socrates to see the errors of paganism. Ancient Greek philosophy was often used by Medieval Christian scholars as a useful tool in defending the faith- an approach known as natural theology, different from the revealed theology approach (used primarily by the Reformed theologians, although it existed prior to the Reform and used by Anselm of Canterbury, St. Augustine etc.)- in which they referred to the observable laws of creation in answering questions such as the existence of God and morality. This approach is confirmed by Romans 2:14-15:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (ESV).
Natural laws originate from our God-given conscience and are common to all of humanity, according to Romans 1:19-20:
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
The understanding of pre-existing, universal higher laws is the only defense against the abuse of power and tyranny. One of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke argued that any lawmaker who issues laws that conflict with the God-given natural laws (property, liberty and life) finds himself in a “state of war” against the society. The American Revolution, through the American Founding Fathers, was based on the idea that resistance against tyranny is not only justifiable but it is also a moral duty. They clearly affirmed the principles and practices of the Bible, even if sometimes not explicitly enough, to be the only guarantors of freedom and justice. Even today it is clear that the freest and most human-rights oriented states in the world are Western democracies, shaped by the Christian worldview.
As presented above, we do have the strong argument of natural laws, that God bestowed in the conscience of all human beings. However, the intellect alone cannot be the ultimate basis for judging right from wrong as human nature is corrupted by sin. Fortunately, we have the revealed truth- the Bible- to guide us and offer us the moral pillars for a free society. Many religions claim to be ultimate truths, but Christianity is the only one to provide perfectly coherent and testable answers to the question of meaning, identity, morality and salvation, questions so deeply ingrained in the human psyche.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV).
However, this line of argumentation remains incomplete. We have pointed towards the philosophical and practical necessity of higher laws as a source for legislation but, in order to argue for equality before the law, we need to take a deeper dive into the topic of individual dignity and the ontology of human rights and freedoms. This constitutes the subject for the next essay in which we will elaborate on the superiority of the Revealed truth.
Benjamin Constante, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of Moderns (1819).
Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (1969).
Stephen A. Flick, America's Founding Fathers and the Bible.
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