Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought

The law of loving your neighbor as yourself written on the tablet of the heart by God

In Chapter 9 of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, he traces the idea of natural law back to 1150 AD when a lawyer named Gratian compiled the first canon of law in the west. His work (the Decretum Gratiani, as it came to be called) was derived from Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. It was an attempt at harmonize those two sources into a comprehensive whole.

The original notion of natural law came from the Stoics: “The Stoics believed that the fundamental moral principles that underlie all the legal systems of different nations were reducible to the dictates of natural law.” Gratian syncretized the Stoic notion of natural law (the law of nature) by attributing it to divine origins. This law, which God desires to write on men’s hearts, can be summarized as the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Holland observed that for a millennia Christianity existed without “what Muslim lawyers had long taken for granted – a comprehensive body of written rulings supposedly deriving from God Himself”. Holland is struck by the contrast of the Christian notion that God “wrote His rulings on the human heart”.

Holland first picks up that theme in his book with Saint Augustine of Hippo in Chapter 5. Hollands description of Augustine’s words – that “God writes His laws on the heart,” and, therefore, “Love, and do what you like” – is a theme Holland traces as he finds it in the history of western thought.

Thus, Holland observes that Gratian opened his Decretum Gratiani with the statement that all law can be summed up in a single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Gratian called this idea “natural law”, summarized by the statement, “all souls are equal in the sight of God”. Gratian further identified this principal as the foundation stone of true justice.

Holland mistakenly attributes these ideas to Paul (“Paul’s authority on this score was definitive…. [e]choing the Stoics”). but the important point is that Gratian’s syncretism of the law was a decisive departure from earlier ages:

“Much flowed from this compilation that earlier ages would have struggled to comprehend. Age old presumptions were being decisively overturned – that custom was the ultimate authority, that the great were owed a different justice from the humble, that inequality was something natural and to be taken for granted.”

This is the central theme of Holland’s book – “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (its alternate title). His book is an attempt to trace back the roots of modern notions, such as the idea that people have “equal rights” stemming from natural law (“inalienable rights”) that fundamentally inform modern, western thought.  

Holland notes that these ideas do not flow out of Greek or Roman philosophy or law. They were are much foreign to the world of classic Greco-Roman thought. They are definitively Christian – Judeo-Christian – in their origins.

Holland, of course, is an atheist. He comes to these conclusions through his study of western civilization. He is an “outsider” to Christianity, which perspective makes his observations so interesting – the that he picks up on the novelty of these ideas as being a distinctively Christian departure from classical Greco-Roman thought.

He also wrote Dominion coming off the heels of writing a similar work on the history of Islam. The contrast was striking for him. Whereas Islamic scholars attempted to proscribe laws for every detail of human life, including things like how to brush your teeth and dog ownership, Christians distilled law down to a single phrase – love your neighbor as yourself – and rested in the confidence that God writes His laws on people’s hearts (“not in ink” as Augustine said). The influence of Holland’s awareness of that contrast is striking.

It shouldn’t be surprising, coming from his perspective, that Holland doesn’t get things exactly right. When Augustine focused on love, he wasn’t championing anything new, and Paul was not the source of the notion that the law can be summed up in the phrase, love your neighbor as yourself or the belief that God writes His laws on human hearts. While he might attribute these things to Paul and Augustine, the history is much older and deeper than that.

We might forgive Holland for attributing these ideas to Paul, as modern biblical scholars like to date Paul’s writings before the Gospels. Perhaps this is because the Gospels claim that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, which happened in 70 AD, and moderns simply don’t believe those statements were predictive.

Of course, even if the Gospels were written later than Paul’s writings, Paul claims to be preaching the Gospel that Jesus gave him. (Gal. 1:11-12) His preaching is informed by Jesus. The Gospels, even if written after Paul’s writings, claim to describe the things Jesus did and said. Among the things he said were these words:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40

The same words run throughout the Gospel narratives: Matthew 5:44 (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….”); Math. 7:12 (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”); Matt. 19:19; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 6:27 (“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”); Luke 6:31 (“And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”); Luke 10:27; John 13:4 (“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another….”); John 15:12 (This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”)

When Paul says, “For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14), he is repeating the words Jesus spoke. The same theme running through Paul’s great letter to the Romans comes from Jesus: “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 2:1); and “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments … are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:8-10″

Not just Paul either, but John emphasizes the same theme in his letter: “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light….” (1 John 2:10); “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” (1 John 3:11); “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7); and “And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:21)

James, the brother of Jesus picks up on the same theme in his letter: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” (James 2:8) Peter, likewise, echoes the same words: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart….” (1 Peter 1:22)

More accurately, though, the theme of loving neighbor as one’s self can be traced much, much further back. We find it first spoken by Moses as he is receiving the Law from God and relaying it to the descendants of Abraham more than a millennium before Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself….” (Leviticus 19:18); and “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself….” (Lev. 19:34)

Further, the idea that God writes his laws on peoples’ hearts goes back to the Old Testament Prophets.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel     and with the people of Judah…. This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Jeremiah 31, 33

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel 36:26-27

These words were brought forward also by the writer of Hebrews, quoting the prophets:

“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Hebrews 8:10

Holland locates these themes in the history of western civilization and rightly attributes them to their Christian origin, but he is looking through the lens of a secular historian. While he appreciates the novelty of a natural law of divine origin written on the hearts of men and summarized as loving others as yourself, compared to the Greco-Roman world out of which they emerge, he doesn’t fully appreciate the transcendent nature of these things.

By attributing them to Pauline thought and Augustinian theology, he misses the deep and transcendent roots going back to divine revelation from God to Moses and God to the prophets – many centuries before Paul or Augustine. He glosses over the significance that these were the central themes of the Gospel – the good news – that Jesus preached and demonstrated with the giving of his own life for the benefit of humanity.

Indeed, Holland begins his exploration of the roots of the making of the western mind with Darius, the Persian king who reigned from 522 BC, dying in 550 BC. The Prophet, Ezekiel, preceded him, having been born around 622 BC. The Prophet, Jeremiah, also preceded Darius, dying in 570 BC, about 20 years before Darius was born. Moses preceded Darius by nearly a millennium!

The real roots of the radical departure from Greco-Roman thought that informs modern western thinking preceded the Greco-Roman world and the Persian world before it. It dates back to Abraham, and before that to Noah, and before that to the first humans and the creation of the Universe. Before that, even, God’s plans were born “before the foundations of the world”.

2 thoughts on “Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought

  1. Apparently Tom Holland is an agnostic. You would be interested to watch the evangelist Glen Scrivener interview him on YouTube. I’ve not seen it tbh, but I’m familiar with Glen’s great work in an organisation called Speak Life, and am hoping for Tom Holland’s book for a Christmas present! Thanks for the post 🙂


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