America: A Cradle Christian
In the 1950s, Seton Hall law professor John C. H. Wu wrote in his study on the common law that, while the Roman law was a death-bed convert to Christianity, the American common law was a cradle Christian. And so it was for the two nations as political entities.
The Roman Empire surrendered to the rule of Christ, only to pass soon thereafter from the center stage of world history. Centuries later, the United States of America stepped onto a far corner of that stage, birthed by the providence of Almighty God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
On July 4, 1776, by the Declaration of Independence, America's founders proclaimed to the world that, by "the laws of nature and of nature's God," the United States was entitled to equal status in the family of nations. This was an extraordinary claim, one that rooted the very legitimacy of the nation in the law of God, as revealed in nature and in the Holy Scriptures. At the same time, the claim was very strategic.
Just eleven years before, Sir William Blackstone had published the first volume of his Commentaries on the Laws of England. In this introductory text, Blackstone maintained that the English common law had been planted in God's revealed will, initially, as manifested in the created universe, and ultimately, and more perfectly, as written in the Holy Bible.
Relying on the creation account of the book of Genesis, Blackstone contended that true law was comprised of rules imposed by the Creator upon all of His creatures, including mankind. These "laws of nature," he wrote, "were binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this...."
Little did Blackstone know that these words, just a decade later, would serve the cause of America's War for Independence. Appealing to these very laws of nature, and to God's written laws, the American charter of independence asserted that the English king and parliament had persistently violated God's law. Thereby, America's patriots made their case for taking up arms to fight for their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, endowed to them by God.
And by what authority did these American freedom fighters wage war for their independence? To answer this question one must go back to 1536, this time to a work penned by a Frenchman, living in Geneva, Switzerland.
In his great work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, in his exegesis of Romans 13, laid the ground work, contending that, as ministers of God, civil magistrates have a duty to enforce the laws of God even against higher civil officers. From this came the Reformation doctrine of the right of the lower civil magistrate to depose a tyrannical king to restore the rule of law.
As Professor Douglas F. Kelly has documented, in his masterful work, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, Calvin's doctrine of the lower civil magistrate was picked up by the French Huguenots and popularized in their call to political action, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. From there, John Knox proclaimed the doctrine in Scotland, and Samuel Rutherford in England, culminating with the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the restoration of the rule of law in England under William and Mary.
Thus, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the right of the lower civil magistrate to interpose against a lawless ruler in favor of an oppressed people emerged as one of the rights of Englishmen. Those rights, in turn, had been imported to the shores of America by the colonial charters granted to them by the king. For it was under these charters that the American colonists won the right of self-government through elected colonial assemblies from which came the lower civil magistrates who would, on July 4, 1776, in Congress assembled, call for armed action to defend American liberty.
These representatives of the people of the several colonies did not hesitate to employ this Biblical legacy in support of their cause, claiming it to be the right of "the people," after a "long train of abuses and usurpations," to "throw off" a government of "absolute despotism" and "to institute a new government" designed more effectively to secure the God-given, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In paragraph after paragraph, the people's representatives specified the abuses and usurpations that had led them to take the drastic step of leading the people to defend their liberties by force of arms.
The Judge of Nations
Having invoked the laws of God, and having stated their case for breaking their allegiance to the mother country, America's founders submitted their cause to God, "appealing to [Him as] the Supreme Judge of the world." In so doing, they followed in the footsteps of Jephthah, the ninth judge of Israel, who called upon "the Lord Judge...[to] judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon" before he went into battle for Israel's independence (Jud. 11:27).
The similarity of the two appeals was not coincidental. In his influential work justifying the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England, John Locke had cited the incident of Jephthah's appeal in support of his contention that only God had authority to judge between two nations at war. Indeed, as Psalm 2 attests, the very Son of God sits at the right hand of the Father judging the nations.
But America's founding leaders knew God not only as Supreme Judge, but as "Divine Providence." As they prepared to battle the mighty British, they sought God's mercy as they risked their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" in a battle that could not be won without God's active intervention. And just as God revealed Himself to Abraham as Jehovah-Jireh, providing a ram in the thicket to save Isaac, so God met George Washington's rag-tag army's every need, bringing the final victory over Cornwall at Yorktown, Virginia.
A century later, after conducting a comparative study of the American and French revolutions, the great Spanish statesman, Emilio Castelar, urged his fellow countrymen to follow the lead of the United States, not France, in crafting a new constitution for his beloved Spain. The French democracy, he observed, had passed quickly from the world's stage, even though it had been rooted in the reason of the Enlightenment and the works of its philosophers. By contrast, Castelar maintained, the American Republic continued to flourish, having been planted in the soil of the Biblical revelation, and the works of John Calvin.
And so it was. From the American Revolution's opening statement calling for an end to "taxation without representation," to the closing argument that King George III was a "tyrant...unfit to rule a free people," America's founding documents provide unmistakable evidence that the United States of America was founded by Christian statesman under the superintending hand of Almighty God.
But America, too, will pass from the world's stage, as have all other nations before her, unless she repents and turns back to the God of her fathers and submits once again to the "laws of nature and of nature's God."
Topics: American History, Government, Justice, Reformed Thought, Biblical Law