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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

27 November 2006

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Q: I recently reread the Declaration of Independence and got to thinking about the origin of the phrase, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Happiness.” I’ve tried to trace this back to the Bible without much success. Did God create us with these “rights”?

Thomas JeffersonA: As an American, I’m glad that some people still refer to our founding documents. As a Christian, I’m even happier when someone refers to our founding documents, the Holy Scriptures.

I imagine that few have ever seriously considered your question in depth. All three — life, liberty, and happiness — sound good to us, so some American Christians may not want to study too closely whether they are truly God-given “rights.” As we examine your question, we’ll see a tenuous connection between some of the “rights” and God’s Word. In fact, the entire premise of the Declaration, that it might be “necessary” to gain independence from another nation and that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” departs from Scripture.

When we examine Romans 13:1, we see that God is of the opinion that He is the only Author of earthly government: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Thus, God’s consent, not man’s, is essential in the establishment of a valid government.

It is abundantly clear from the Bible that mankind has the “right” and the privilege of life. Life was God’s first gift to man. Jesus came to give new (and eternal) life. That we have this right is shown when God condemns and punishes those who wantonly end another’s life. I think it no accident that the first great sin recorded after Eden is Cain’s murder of Abel. Obviously, there must have been sins leading up to the murder; doubtless, Adam, Eve, and their children had sinned otherwise in the passing years. Yet the Holy Spirit inspired giving the horror of killing high priority in the history of our race.

Declaration of IndependenceGod reserves unto Himself the right to take life. He delegates it only to certain angels at certain times and to a select few individuals. Other than that, only this world’s governments have been given the responsibility of taking this right away from people — and then, only as a last resort. God shows that there is no “absolute” right to life whenever He commands or allows the death of sinners. Good government only exercises capital punishment in proportion to the crime and should never use it as a threat against law-abiding people. Rather, it is to protect and defend its citizens right to life against forces of evil (Romans 13:3-4).

Liberty is a bit harder to directly justify as a right from Scripture. I’ve not found abundant source material as to why the founding fathers thought that the Bible supported individual liberties so enthusiastically. If I were to guess, I think it’s because so many choices are offered. For example, Joshua told Israel, “Choose this day whom you will serve. (24:15)” Liberty itself is usually announced in Messianic terms, not in the context of earthly freedom but in the ultimate freedom in Christ from sin, death, and devil.

Still, however, argument from example shows that indiscriminately imprisoning or restricting others is not God-pleasing, although God may turn this to a blessing. Perhaps another reason why Jefferson chose liberty for this part of the Declaration is that Scriptural liberty is never license to do evil. Indeed, the more true liberty one is given, the more he is in God’s debt. Accountability is part and parcel of possessing liberty — something that those founding a new country needed to emphasize. This aligns with a full understanding of our stewardship and Christ’s warning to be always ready for His return: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:48)” Liberty is also included as a right that government must promote and defend — a concept not entirely alien to Romans 13.

Presentation of the DeclarationIn Scripture, support for the pursuit of happiness is extremely difficult to find. Various accounts have discussed why these words appear in the Declaration. Most likely, they’re a compromise; they’re not Biblical and they don’t sound particularly Jeffersonian. Already the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason, expressed human rights as including “enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Granted, no one can guarantee happiness; even its pursuit is difficult. Scripture and life both show that happiness usually comes not when pursued as a goal but rather as other goals are pursued and attained.

In the final analysis, the Declaration remains a brilliant piece of social and political writing. However, it suffers when used as an illustration of Christian theology. Even as one who celebrates the freedoms promised by Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, et al., I don’t know if I could have, in good conscience urged fighting against England to obtain them. Certainly, if a government is proven to be evil and to be causing evil, resistance may be necessary. I’m just not fully convinced that the causes outlined in the Declaration are completely valid in light of Romans 13. After all, early Christians suffered greater harm under an intolerant and evil Roman government than anything the American colonists ever faced under England without rising in rebellion against Rome.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Blogger Kepler said...

Pastor Snyder,

All around a good answer. I will expand a bit on the history, however, if you don't mind.

We need to understand (as Americans who are the inheritors of the profound and quite revolutionary guarantees made in our Constitution) that the philosophy behind those ideas was not new with Jefferson. These ideas go back (at least) as far as the late 17th century.

In the 1670s, the question in the mind of all well-educated Englishmen was, "Does a Roman Catholic King have the Right to dictate the beliefs of his non-Roman Catholic subjects?"

Most people's answer to the above question was, in fact, "Yes" a King does have the right to dictate his subjects' beliefs. So, what was a population largely comprising Protestants to do? The answer, of course, was: Make sure the King is a Protestant!

This much feared "forced conversion" had not, of course, actually happened under Charles II, but it was a great worry to many of his subjects. When Charles (who was only suspected of being Roman Catholic) died and his brother James II ascended the throne, things changed, because James actually was openly Roman Catholic.

Shortly thereafter, James II was deposed, and a Protestant King (William of Holland) was invited to the English throne. (William's wife, Mary, was James' niece, so William did, in fact, have some claim to the throne.)

There was, however, in British society a radical element which believed that Government did NOT have the right to dictate the beliefs, practices, or pursuits of its subjects. Yes, the Government had a job to maintain civil order, but hat was about the limit of its purposes, vis a vis the people.

One such radical thinker was a guy named John Locke. In Locke's Second Treatise on Government, he appealed to natural law (not Divine Revelation) when he stated that, "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure....

At best, Locke was appealing to a universal natural law that states: "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." Is this "Christian"? Well, sure, Jesus said it. But both Aristotle and Confucius said something similar. Locke (and Jefferson after him) was going after a "lowest-common-denominator" civil religion, not Christianity in particular. Locke was most likely a Socinian and was almost certainly anti-Trinitarian. Jefferson was no doubt a Unitarian and probably a Universalist.

While the Constitution has proved to be a practical document for administering a nation, there is nothing about it which is particularly Christian.

28 November, 2006 09:26  
Anonymous Carl Vehse said...

Perhaps others will provide relevant Scripture, but Lutherans have plenty of Confessional support for unalienable (or natural) Rights, including life, liberty (and marriage), and the pursuit by both heathen and Christian of (temporal) happiness (vainly for the former, and from God's Word for the latter), also the right of holding property.

For the details, check out the Apology, XVI.9; XVIII.4; XXIII.6-7,9-12; and LC.I.43,157.

Also note the Declaration of Independence's reference to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" comes from William Blackstone's Commentaries and refers, respectively, to "This will of his maker is called the law of nature" and "The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures." The Lutheran Confessions contained a similar view.

In his "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church", (First Principles of the Reformation or the Ninety-five Theses and the Three Primary Works of Dr. Martin Luther, translated by Henry Wace, D.D. and C.A. Buchheim, Ph.D., London: John Murray, 1883, pp. 194-196), Martin Luther had this to say about liberty and freedom:

"I say then, neither Pope, nor bishop, nor any man whatever has the right of making one syllable binding on a Christian man, unless it is done with his own consent. Whatever is done otherwise is done in a spirit of tyranny.... I cry aloud on behalf of liberty and conscience, and I proclaim with confidence that no kind of law can with any justice be imposed on Christians, whether by men or by angels, except so far as they themselves will; for we are free from all."

Finally, while it may be a Sisyphean task like trying to get people to say "nuclear" rather than "nukular", it should be pointed out that the Declaration of Independence does distinguish between the government (the people) and the form of government. It was the latter that was changed on July 4, 1776.

30 November, 2006 20:47  
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26 May, 2010 01:04  

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