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 and Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. It was an attempt at comprehensive harmonization of those two sources.

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 which he found in the nation of law written on men’s hearts, 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.

So, again, Holland picks up on the fact that Gratian opened his Decretum Gratiani (as it came to be called) 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 identified this principal to be the foundation stone of true justice.

Holland mistakenly attributes the notion to Paul (“Paul’s authority on this score was definitive…. [e]choing the Stoics”) and finds Gratian’s syncretism of the law 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.

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A Progression from Law to Relationship

From over 600 laws, to a couple of dozen to just two principals, the progression in Scripture is from rules to relationship.


A friend recently commented on an article I wrote about hypocrisy in which I referred to “God’s standard” without defining what that standard is. Of course, defining God’s standard of morality isn’t that easy. My friend made this point when he said:

“If you asked 100 self-proclaimed Christians, you will get 100 different answers. There are over 30,000 denominations of Christianity… all bible-based. The notion of a singular Christian ‘standard’ doesn’t really exist. Example… is killing ok?… I can find verses in the bible both for and against.”

He is right on a cursory level, though he overstates the proposition. The World Christian Encyclopedia puts the number of denominations at 33,000, of which there are “6 major ecclesiastico-cultural mega-blocs”.  I would venture to guess, however, that 100% of them hold that murder is wrong.

While we might have virtually universal agreement on some things, and “consensus” on other things (perhaps, killing in self-defense), nuances will generate different answers among those different denominations, and individual Christians as well. We don’t all agree on topics like killing in war, capital punishment, abortion, etc.

Some disagreements are doctrinal (infant baptism or adult baptism). Some of them are conduct related. (Is it ok for Christians to dance? drink alcohol? or smoke?) Should Christians tithe? What is the standard of tithing? Is homosexuality a sin? If I walk past a homeless man on the street begging for money and don’t give him anything, is that a sin?

Most Christians agree on the ten commandments, but disagreement grows from there. We may not agree on the details of “God’s standard”, but virtually all Christians would agree that God has a standard of morality, regardless of whether we agree on what it is.

Still, it’s a fair statement to say that we shouldn’t be so glib as to assume some universal set of rules to which all Christians ought to subscribe – at least a universal statement of rules that we confidently say is “the ” standard.

This got me thinking about morality from a Christian perspective, and it dawns on me that one of our failings is that we put too much emphasis on a set of standards that we can define. Yes, I think it is a failing, and I think Jesus would agree. Such a focus misses the point

According to a recent presentation by Ravi Zacharias, Moses gave us 613 laws. David summarized them in 15 laws. Isaiah reduced the summary to 11 laws. Jesus reduced everything in the Law and the Prophets down to just two principles. I haven’t researched these figures to confirm them, but the point is that there is a progression in the Scripture in respect to the law from an intricate set of very specific rules to summaries of the law that get simpler and simpler – culminating in just two principles.

I believe this progression from many, very specific laws to just two principles correlates to the progression God wants us to make from law to faith.

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Shadow of Things to Come

Photo by Beth Drendel

I’ve been reading through the Bible slowly from Genesis to Revelation. This is something I have not done in many years. I have taken some sidetracks and rabbit hole excursions along the way, but I am still plodding forward.

It’s amazing that circumstances of life arise from time to time of which the particular passage I am reading comes to bear on those circumstances. This is the case in a poignant way in regard to a conversation I had with a very close friend recently.

We were talking about the Catholic Church and a very bad experience that someone very close to both of us had being raised by strict parents in a strict Catholic school setting. I was also raised Catholic, though my experience differed from his. I didn’t go to parochial school, and I didn’t experience the strictness of the Catholic Church like he did, though I certainly saw evidence of it.

In my friend’s case, the strictness and severity he experienced bordered on abuse. I don’t know the details, but his reactions to things religious suggest he might have some degree of PTSD as a result of his experiences.

I don’t mean to pick on the Catholic Church. I have seen the same “spirit” evident in other denominations as well. Certain Baptists and Pentecostals and people we might label “fundamentalists” or other labels have exhibited a similar spirit as the Catholics in the focus on do’s and don’ts and religious rituals practiced in front of foreboding audiences. The Westboro Baptist Church is a very extreme example of the legalism and dogmatism I am talking about.

In the context of this conversation and these thoughts, I read these words the very next day that were penned by Paul the Apostle about two millennia ago:

Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival our new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come,  but the substance is in Christ. Colossians 2:16-17

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God’s Righteousness for My Righteousness

Do not be ignorant of God’s righteousness, seeking to establish righteousness on your own.

Photo by Tim Butterfield

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved for I bear them witness that they have a Zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:1-4)

Paul is speaking to the Romans of the Jews, but this message could apply to anyone who seeks to establish his own righteousness and does not submit to God’s righteousness. Paul had a particular authenticity to be able to say this about the Jews, because they were his people. He was one of them. He was not just Jewish, but trained as a Pharisee by the greatest of the contemporary teachers of the time and zealous for the Jewish law to the point of persecuting the followers of Christ (Phil. 3:6) – before he was confronted by the living, resurrected Jesus.

Paul knew something of the righteousness of his former life and of the righteousness of the Jews in his time. Their righteousness consisted of zealously keeping the law. The Pharisees, the protectors keepers of the law, were the people with whom Jesus had the harshest confrontations. He accused them of imposing impossible burdens on others, burdens that they, themselves, didn’t even keep. Primarily, though, they were attempting to establish their own righteousness in reference to the law.

Anyone who seeks to establish his own righteousness, by virtue of that fact, does not submit to God’s righteousness. Continue reading “God’s Righteousness for My Righteousness”

How Can God Judge Good People: the Problem

Is goodness the key to getting into heaven?

 (c) Can Stock Photo

(c) Can Stock Photo

If good people do not believe in God, how can a good God send them to Hell? If God is good, as Christians claim, how can a good God judge good people? This is a perplexing question to many people.

Some of the difficulty comes from the question itself. The question assumes, as frankly most of us do, that goodness is the standard to “get into Heaven”. There certainly is good reason for that assumption. Christians are always talking about sin and morality. So, let’s take a deeper look at. Is that really what is going on?

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