Hi there. This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on a Biblical Theology of Human Authority and Civil Government.
In Part 1, I laid the groundwork necessary to interact with this discussion adequately, noting that my opponents and I share critical common ground and that we need to properly contextualize Romans 13 if we are to understand what it means to us as we stand in the place of the civil magistrate in the voting booth.
For that reason, we turn our attention in today’s post to a fundamental Biblical principle for all human ethics and consider how it applies to civil government.
The Foundational Principle of Human Ethics
As discussed in my previous post, I will get to Romans 13 and deal with it in-depth. However, in recognition of the fact that Romans 13, at least as traditionally understood, speaks to citizens, and we are interested in God’s mind as it pertains to civil magistrates, I want to first back up to determine if there are any foundation and universal principles we can glean from Scripture that will give us some parameters that we need to keep in mind.
To that end, we must consider what is the fundamental principle to all human ethics. It is this: that each individual person is a being made by God, for God and in God’s image. As such, each individual person has inherent human dignity which they receive from God. Contrary to the shifting sands of Lockean Natural Law theory and its self-ownership which, as David Hume rightly charged, fails to connect is to ought, we stand on the sure foundation of God’s word which tells us that each individual human person is made in God’s image. Thus any violation of another person’s life or personhood is therefore a sin against God.
This is the single foundational ethic of all human interactions. As Jesus said, this is summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Elsewhere he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Jesus said that “all the law…” hangs on this command. Indeed there were other commands as well. The greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God.” Indeed the impetus for loving your neighbor as yourself is the application of loving the Lord your God in the context of human relationships. We love our neighbor out of respect for God’s image in him and the rights God has given him. We won’t discuss the duties that morality places on man in support of his love for God apart from his relationship to man: namely worship, for civil law, while it is moral in nature, does not encompass the full scope of morality. It deals only with morality in the context of human relationships, and fundamental to this is that each human person belongs to God and has inherent dignity from God.
It is from this principle that we derive the rights to life, liberty and property, which is merely a three-fold enumeration of what it means to have life and personhood. Elsewhere it has been stated that there is a right to the “pursuit of happiness.” This however, is implied in the concepts of liberty and property. Do we have Biblical support for this three-fold division? There is no chapter and verse that says this specifically. Indeed this language is highly Lockean and Rothbardian. But just because the terminology comes from Locke and Rothbard, does not mean that the foundational principles are absent from Scripture, even if it does not spell it out in quite this way. And just because Locke and Rothbard based them on a less sure foundation of Natural Law, does not mean that they are not able to be founded on the Solid Rock of God’s Word.
The right to life is the easiest one to defend. It is presupposed when God says, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” If God has given someone life, who is a man to take it away? This is why Cain was judged for killing Abel even before the Mosaic Law had been given. This is why God handed down Capital Punishment after the flood. The right to life was not something introduced by the Thou Shalt Not Kill command in Exodus 20. Rather, it is inherent in the fact that the victim belonged to God. Therefore, being made in the image of God grants each individual the right to his life.
Ultimately the other rights are simply supportive to the primary right. They are necessary in order to sustain life.
The right to property is assumed when God says, “Thou Shalt Not Steal” and “Thou Shalt Not Covet.” In Exodus 22, this idea is further expounded on as Moses instructs that if someone steals another’s property, he owes him restitution. This is the same principle given in Genesis when Noah gives the command for capital punishment. The notion here is that if someone harms another’s life or property, then just recompense must be made. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is a Biblical concept, not of self-seeking vengeance, but of scale balancing justice. If I steal your car, you cannot be made whole until I have provided you with a replacement car. Why? Because you need your car. Why? So you can get to work. Why? So you can earn money. Why? So you can buy food and pay for your shelter! Property is necessary for sustaining life. Liberty is necessary for securing the property that is necessary for sustaining life.
But there’s more to it than this. For even liberty and property are intrinsic to the basic essence of what it means to be made in the image of God. This is a concept frequently overlooked. What does this have to do with the image of God? I believe that the “dominion mandate” of Genesis 1:26 is not a separate concern from the descriptive “in our own image.” In other words, at least a certain portion of what it means to be made in the image of God is to have a certain amount of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a fundamental characteristic of God’s nature, and inherent in that sovereignty is the fact that he is not bound by any external will. He is sufficient within himself and is completely free to act as he wills. Psalm 115:3 says “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Thus sovereignty begets liberty by definition. Indeed, liberty may be defined as nothing less than a man being free from intrusions upon his just sovereignty by another. God is free from such intrusions.
What does this have to do with us? Consider the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. The master gives some of his wealth to three servants and expects them to have temporary mastery over that wealth until he returns, at which time he will call them to account for what was done with it. In a sense, the master has given some of his sovereignty over a small portion of his assets to the servant.
In the creation mandate, when we were commanded to have dominion over the earth, God was giving a certain portion of his sovereignty over to us. This was not to divulge himself of his overarching authority, but it was to invest more immediate authority in us for the time being. Therefore, part of being made in God’s image is to be sovereign, in a human sense, over a certain limited sphere of creation, our life and our property. In fact, a grammatical reading of the text leads me to conclude that the dominion mandate is the single defining aspect of our nature that ties us to being made in God’s image. We were put here in creation specifically to be God’s representatives in this world by stewarding its resources on his behalf. This, of necessity involves the limited sovereignty over that which we steward, and this sovereignty, by definition, carries with it the liberty to act sovereignly over that sphere. Thus, since we have the right to be sovereign over our life and our justly acquired property (starting with our body), we necessarily have the liberty to use them as we please.
There are, of course, limits on this sovereignty and liberty. Our dominion is not the same as God’s dominion. Our sovereignty is not the same as God’s sovereignty. So, therefore, our liberty is not the same as God’s liberty! We are finite beings. We are not omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent like God. Therefore there are things that are physically impossible for us, such as unaided flight. Further, while the domain of God’s sovereignty encompasses the whole of creation, our sovereign domain is limited to a certain subset of creation: that which is our property acquired justly through our labor and voluntary exchange. Thus there are natural limits to our sovereignty and liberty. What areas of creation am I not sovereign over? Those areas that some other man is sovereign over: his property. What then is the limit of my liberty? Anything that would restrict my neighbor’s sovereignty over his life and property. That is to say, anything that would restrict his liberty.
At this point I could probably digress into a discussion the Doctrines of Grace. No doubt the way I have stated these things may cause the reader to wonder where I stand on Calvinism. Calvinists aren’t very big on free will or this idea that man would have any kind of sovereignty. That is a discussion for another day, and if you desire a fuller explanation I would be happy to give it. Suffice it to say, that I affirm the points of Calvinism and that the final major constraint on our sovereignty and liberty is our bondage to sin. Nevertheless, I think that to go too far down this road would be to miss the point. For we must remember that when we speak of man’s relationship to God and man’s relationship to man, we speak of different things.
Before God, man stands as the property in front of the rightful owner (Romans 9:21). Indeed man’s sovereignty is meaningless in this context, and as it stands, his liberty has been compromised through his bondage to sin. As we see in Matthew 25, man’s sovereignty over his life and property, is really just a stewardship of that which God has entrusted to him. Thus, God has complete rights over the man.
But before man, man stands as an equal. Each man is made in God’s image, and entrusted with a certain domain of creation over which he is to be sovereign in the limited human sense (each man’s property) and thus we are morally obligated to leave each man free to do with his life and property as he chooses, knowing that he answers to the master for how he stewards those resources and for the choices he makes with his liberty.
Let Me Explain. No, There is Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.
So I believe that to this point I have laid a fundamental ethical principle that should be understood to guide all human interaction. If I could summarize, I would rely on Christ to do so who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Since I would not desire my neighbor to take my life, liberty and property without my consent, it is therefore immoral for me to do so to my neighbor. I am to respect his sovereign rule over his own life and his own area of dominion. Thus I may not invade his life, liberty or property so as to kill him, to enslave him by exerting my will upon him, or take his property. I may not kill, enslave or steal from him.
There are perhaps some positive things that I must do in order to treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated, but I want to focus on the negative here, first, for we must keep in mind that the taking of life, liberty or property without consent is theft, slavery and murder. These things are wrong no matter why they are done. The ends do not justify the means in God’s economy. If doing a positive good to my neighbor requires me to steal from another neighbor in order to do it, then it would be wrong for me to do it! If I freely give of my own life, liberty or property to a neighbor, then I am doing something virtuous. This is helpful for the context of civil government, for the government does not have its own life, liberty or property to give. Thus in order for the government to do some positive beneficial act, it must first take from someone else.
Moreover, the Scripture does not give any exemptions from obedience to this command to a civil magistrate on the simple basis of the fact that he is a civil magistrate. The government is not excused from obeying these things. The government and all of its officials are called to account to the same ethical standard as everyone else, as we will see. This is known as the rule of law. Examples abound throughout Scripture of rulers who overstepped their boundaries and were judged by God. Therefore as civil magistrates in the voting booth, we must take great care to obey these commands.
I thank you for staying with me thus far. I know it has been a long read, and if you have made it this far then you truly are a patient fellow. Thank you for hearing me out. I do hope you stay tuned for Part 3, in which I will finally deal with Romans 13 in-depth.
See you then.