Unalienable Rights: Of the Reformation or the Enlightenment?

John C. Rankin (2013)

This question is an acid test for the United States at this time, as unalienable rights have never been under such assault. Only a biblically literate people can make the difference.

There are those who say our concepts of civil rights are rooted in the Greco-Roman culture, and then the Enlightenment. Not so. Ancient Athens has its form of “democracy” among a few wealthy males, thus a de facto self-appointed plutocracy, maybe fifteen percent of Athens, with about fifty percent of the whole city being slaves. In Rome, the Senate serves as some check against Caesar’s power, but again, this only benefits fellow elites in city that is up to sixty percent slaves. There is no concept of God-given gifts of life, liberty and property to all people equally.

The Enlightenment is rooted in pursuit of a “freedom from religion,” and its ahistorical and amorphous “deism” is a philosophic means to remove an active God from the equation of defining the human social order. The Enlightenment leads to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror and the boomerang to Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Reformation is rooted in the original passion of Martin Luther’s quest for freedom. It has its many shortcomings, but in being committed from the outset to ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – “the church reformed and always reforming” – it survives the “religious wars” in pursuit of a “freedom for religion,” and produces its greatest fruit in the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, reality surfaces – in order for the colonists to go over the head of King George III, also head of the Anglican Church, they go straight to the Creator. And by so doing, they necessarily (though with only partial grasp of their trajectory) allow “freedom for religion” as well as “freedom from religion.” The former allows the latter, but the latter does not allow the former.

The theological gifts of life, liberty and property, and as defined as political rights for all people as rooted in the Creator, are universal in aspiration. To the extent that we advance such a reality, we advance the Gospel and well-being of all peoples and nations.