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.

Continue reading “Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought”

Listening in on a Discussion of the Coronavirus and the Church

What some might see as a threat to the vitality of Christian community, others see as opportunity to advance the kingdom of God.


I am reading through the Bible chronologically this year and paying attention to themes that sweep from beginning to end. One great theme is the promise to Abraham and his descendants, that God would bless him and make of him descendants that would be too numerous to count, and by them God would bless all the nations of the world.

I just got done contemplating why, when God entered the world as a human being and came to “His own” His own people didn’t recognize or receive Him. They had developed their own expectations that were very focused, understandably, on the nation of Israel and the promised land, and Jesus didn’t meet the expectations they had. (See What We Can Learn from Expectations about What God Is Doing.)

Expectations are good. It’s good to be expectant about what God is doing, but the danger is that we anchor those expectations in our own perspectives, which are unavoidably limited. Our expectations should be shaped by Scripture and relationship to God alone, but (being human) we tend to superimpose our own personal, community, societal, cultural and philosophical models on top of that foundation. Sometimes we even import biblical principles on top of a foundation that is not biblical.

American Christianity is no different than any other cultural expression of Christianity in that regard. Perhaps, American Christianity is even super-sized in that tendency, however, because of our historical sense of manifest destiny and extreme confidence in the rightness of the great American experiment in Democracy, capitalism and constitutional framework that has allowed the United States to thrive and become the dominant country in the world.

Because of the human tendency to filter everything through our unique perspectives and miss what other people with different perspectives can see, I spend time listening to and reading Christians and people with other perspectives from other parts of the world. For that reason, I listen to many of the episodes of the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierly, a British Christian, who interviews people from various parts of the world from various viewpoints, including Christian and non-Christian worldviews.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a confluence of varying viewpoints in the Church global, the American Church, and communities in and out of the Church and societies all around the world. That global pandemic has, perhaps, heightened the degree of angst that comes to bear on other issues in the world and locally, such as the current racial tensions in the US and particularly acute response that we have experienced as events have unfolded that have opened and exasperated old racial wounds that have not yet healed.

How we respond to these things as Christians is critical. It affects the effectiveness of our mission to carry out the Great Commission – the marching orders Jesus gave to His followers to spread the Gospel throughout the world. The pandemic means that we can no longer carry on “business as usual”. Indeed, God often used catastrophic and extreme measures to accomplish His purposes throughout Scripture and (certainly I believe) continues to do so today. There is opportunity in these times to adjust with what is happening, listen for what God is saying to the Church and advance His kingdom.

I think of these things as I listen to the recent interview by Justin Brierley of three Christians talk about the coronavirus: Mark Sayers from Australia, AJ Roberts from Los Angeles, Ruth Jackson from Great Britain. Continue reading “Listening in on a Discussion of the Coronavirus and the Church”

What Does God Want from Us?

This question gets at the whole point of Scripture….


If God is the creator of the universe, of everything seen and unseen, as the Bible says, if God was intentional in His creation and made us in His image as the centerpiece of His creation, what was His intention for us? What does He want from us?

This question gets at the whole point of Scripture, but I think we miss the point among all the words sometimes.

Even people who believe that God exists and acknowledge God made us get lost in the words sometimes. We see in Scripture lists of “do’s and don’ts” and rules and warnings, and we fail to see the big picture, the purpose of God. We fail to see God’s character and heart.

The Law was intended by God to show us what is right and, more importantly, to reveal to us that we are incapable of doing what is right in and of ourselves. (Rom. 7:7-25) We all fall short (Rom. 3:23), and we fail to do what we know we ought to do. (Rom. 7:18-19)

Anyone who depends on doing right to make themselves right with God are cursed (Gal. 3:10). If they fail at one point, they fail at everything. If a person refrains from killing anyone his entire life except for one time, he is still a murderer – not because of all the people he didn’t kill, but because of the one person he did kill. If a person lies only once, he is a liar.

If you sin once, you are sinner. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

The point of the law is to help us understand that we can’t achieve righteousness by our own efforts. It’s impossible for us. We must depend on God for it. The Law was given alongside the promise of God to show people their sins to that we would receive the grace that God offers us through Jesus. (Gal. 3:19)

Salvation (from sin and death) is a gift God gives us by His grace; God gives us salvation by grace so that none of us can boast about having earned it. (Eph. 2:8-9)

But is this all God expects from us? Is this all God wants from us – to be saved from sin and death? If salvation from sin and death was all God wanted for us, He could have made us without the capability of sinning, and He could have made us eternal from the beginning.

Continue reading “What Does God Want from Us?”

A Christian Perspective on Black Lives Matter and White Privilege

We can’t help but notice the pain in the faces and voices of our black brothers and sisters… if we are looking and listening.


I could have called this article, Black Lives Matters and White Privilege from a White Guy. I was born white, and I can’t change that, just like my black brothers and sisters can’t change the color of their skin. None of us can change the circumstances we are born with, but we can take personal responsibility for the way we deal with our circumstances.

“Black lives matter” and “white privilege” are phrases that have exploded into our consciousness in the two weeks following the death of George Floyd, the latest in a long litany of examples of disparity in treatment between people of color and the rest of us. The resulting maelstrom is an indication (maybe) that we get it and have finally had enough of it.

But what do we do about it? What does a white guy like me do about it? What does a Christian, a Christ follower do about it?

I am not here to lecture or speak for people of color. I don’t know their pain. I don’t know what it’s like to live life in their skin. I can only imagine what it’s like, but I don’t know really what it’s like.

I can only speak for myself and speak to what I know about Jesus and how he informs us to live in a hostile world full of injustice. I can only speak to people like me. And so, I want to address these phrases and what I think Jesus says to people like me (white Christians) at this tipping point in our history in the United States.

I want to address the phrase, “black lives matter”, not the organization.

To acknowledge that black lives matter is like acknowledging that a house is on fire. When a house is on fire, we call the Fire Department, and no one says, “What about all the other houses?” They don’t need the our attention in that moment.

To acknowledge that black lives matter, we are saying that someone is sick and needs help. When a family member is sick and needs medication, we don’t say, “What about the other people in the family?” They don’t need our help at the moment.

To acknowledge that black lives matter isn’t to deny or ignore the fact that other lives matter. The problem being addressed is that black lives haven’t mattered enough.  We need to give our attention to the issue of racial disparity because our history shows us that black lives haven’t mattered nearly enough!

When we talk about white privilege, I know many people who don’t feel very privileged. Many white people are born into poverty, with physical or mental disability, or into dysfunctional homes and other socio-economic, personal and other circumstances that are difficult. White privilege doesn’t discount those things.

White privilege simply means that white people don’t have the added disadvantage of being a person of color. White privilege means that our difficult circumstances have nothing to do with our skin color. We don’t suffer the added difficulty of racial disparity.

We can acknowledge and agree with our brothers and sisters of color that black lives do matter and that white privilege does exist. Simply acknowledging that (instead of responding that “all lives matter” or that white people suffer difficulties too) is a big step in the right direction. It means we are listening. It means that we care.

Now for the following Jesus part. How might a Christian find direction on these things in Scripture?

Continue reading “A Christian Perspective on Black Lives Matter and White Privilege”

Continuing to Love Our Neighbors During a Corona Virus Outbreak

Originally posted on Navigating by Faith:
via Loving Our Neighbors During a Corona Virus Outbreak

Man in mask . Protection against coronavirus, infection.Over a month has passed since I wrote and published Loving Our Neighbors During a Corona Virus Outbreak on March 17, 2020. Washington was the first state in the US to declare a state of emergency (in February) followed by a handful of States in the next couple of weeks. Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 16th. By March 17th, the day I published the article, 48 states had officially declared a State of Emergency.[1]

When I began tracking the global number of cases, deaths and recovered patients on the Johns Hopkins site[2] as of 2:50 PM on March 16th, only 4,200 cases and 73 deaths were reported. A Business Insider article the following day reported 4,600 cases[3]. As of 1:10 PM on March 17th, the number of cases had risen to 5,702. There were only 94 deaths reported in US as of that time, but anyone could see that the numbers were going to rise exponentially.

Most of us, I believe, had been only vaguely paying attention to the reports from China. We perked up a little more as the first scary reports began to come out of Italy. Still, we were largely nonplussed by the news, going about our daily business until maybe the second week in March, after a growing murmur of the impending threat, when President Trump declared a national emergency. 

Many of us were skeptical, me included. We wanted to believe the President when he said it was “under control”, and we didn’t have to worry here in the US. Others (primarily of the other political stripe) were becoming shriller by the day in their complaining that we/the President should be doing more. Many political inbetweeners, like myself (not that there are many of us), were skeptical of both sides, but there was enough credible reporting from hard hit areas of the world that it seemed to make sense to take the threat seriously.

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom conference on March 14th with a virologist who researched the SARS-1 virus for the National Institute of Health in the early 2000’s that I realized this was no typical flu virus. I began tracking the numbers on March 16th, and I wrote the article the next day.

One month to the day later (at 11:56 AM), on April 17th, Johns Hopkins reported 641,166 cases in the US and 31,590 deaths – the most confirmed (and reported) cases and deaths of any country in the world.

While these numbers may rival a bad flu season, we need to keep in mind that these are the numbers after we have lived under stay-at-home orders for a month or more in most places in the country. What would the numbers be like if we had not done that? No one knows.

The flu typically infects more people each year, but the death rate of the flu is a little over .01%. As of the date of this writing (April 21, 2020, at 12:47 PM), COVID-19 has resulted in a death rate of 6.89% worldwide, a 13.40% death rate in Italy (which has been particularly hard hit) and a 5.37% death rate in the US. That is over 50 times the death rate of the flu (in the US) .

As of the today, the numbers are all still climbing in the US. We haven’t peaked yet, though we hope the peak is right around the corner, maybe even by next week.

The numbers are flattening out, like we hoped, but they are still climbing. We aren’t out of these woods yet.

If the numbers flatten out soon, the number of cases and deaths will continue to rise, though the percentage of new cases will start to level out or come down. The death rate will also level off and might come down as the number of people recovering will begin to pace and then outpace the number of new cases.

But here’s the thing: no one expects for the virus to go away.

Flattening out just means that the numbers will stop increasing exponentially. When we flatten out, we will still experience a certain number of new cases and deaths every day. Every day.

The world as we knew it isn’t going to be the same for quite a while.

We are seeing quite a tension lately between continuing the stay-at-home orders and opening the country back up for business. Some people are even protesting in the streets, and others are calling them ignorant, potential killers of vulnerable people in our society.

As Christians, I submit that we should be focused on loving our neighbors through this pandemic. We should be sensitive to the vulnerable people in our midst. While most people will recover, we know that COVID-19 hits certain people very hard – the elderly and people with certain conditions, like diabetes. The death rate for those over 60 is much higher than the death rate for people under 60, and the death rate for people over 80 is double the death rate of people over 60.

As I type this, I am very aware of the devastating economic toll the State of Emergency is taking on our economy – especially small businesses and people who work (or no longer work) for them. We haven’t experienced unemployment at this level since the Great Depression. I own a small business myself and squirm at night wondering how we are going to hold on. What are we to do?

The Federal government has pumped billions and billions of dollars into the economy to try to prop it up (at no small cost to the future taxpayers), and it isn’t enough. More small businesses have been turned down for the Paycheck Protection Program loans than received them. Many of those small businesses won’t survive another thirty days of lock down.

While people that don’t own businesses may not feel particularly bad about the business owners who are suffering, those small businesses employ hundreds of thousands and millions of people. Every business that can’t open back up when the stay-at-home order is lifted represents an exponential number of people who will not return to work.

How do we balance between keeping people physically safe from the virus and keeping people employed and self-supporting? That’s the challenge.

Where is the right tipping point when people can open their doors for business again? What does that look like? Do we open up immediately, or should we do it gradually? What does that even look like?

We have to rely on the experts for that.

I have seen no end of the articles and videos on social media by self-proclaimed experts. Some of them have degrees (not always in the relevant areas), and many of them don’t. We all gravitate toward what we are inclined to believe. My “friends” on social media are a diverse mix, so I see nearly equal numbers of articles pushing to both extremes.

They can’t all be true!

I have read a fair number of them. I am smarter than the average bear (if you go by IQ, college and law school performance), but I can’t sort it out. I don’t have the right background, education or experience to be able to decipher which “experts” I should be listening to, and neither do 95% (or more) of the people reading those articles.

We do have some experts that are chosen to provide guidance on these issues with the right kind of backgrounds, education and experience. If we believe that God puts governing authorities in place to which we should submit[4], then we Christians should honor those authorities, right?

We often think we know better (and maybe some of us do, though I submit we don’t know it at the time), but subjecting ourselves to governing authorities, as Paul says we should in Romans 13, means that we don’t substitute our judgment for those in authority above us – even when we disagree.

Of course, we can all think of examples of things governing authorities might order us to do, like renouncing God, that we should not follow. Stay-at-home orders don’t fall into that category.

A stay-at-home order is not clearly against any Scriptural mandate.

Though we may think that we know where that tipping point lies between saving lives and saving people from economic disaster, we are not in positions of authority to call those shots, and we need to honor those who are. It doesn’t matter if your governor is Republican or Democrat, God has established them in authority (if we are going to be consistent in our reading of Scripture).

David honored Saul even when God had spoken through the prophet Samuel that God would be taking the kingdom away from Saul and giving it to David. Even when Saul was seeking to kill David in paranoia and jealousy, still David honored him. David refused to take Saul’s life multiple times when he had the opportunity, and David even honored him in his death – because God had established him as King.

If you are Christian and disagree with the continuation of the stay-at -home orders, you certainly have a right to your opinion, but God expects you to honor the authority He has established. You can speak your mind, but do it (as Peter urges) with “gentleness and respect”. (1 Peter 3:5) When you think about your constitutional rights, take some time to consider the well-being of others, including the threat to people who are vulnerable to the virus. 

I should point out that the COVID-19 outbreak has affected certain areas of the country more acutely than others. The president declared a national emergency before most states did. The President may lift the national state of emergency before some state governors do. Because emergencies and disasters affect some areas harder than others, control of the state of emergency for states falls on the shoulders of state Governors primarily. Not the President. 

Whenever the stay-at-home orders are lifted, though, we need to continue to love our neighbors, including the vulnerable people among us. The virus isn’t going to go away overnight. Experts are warning that it is likely to “bounce back”.

Wash your hands. Wear masks. Keep your distance from people. Use care in making sure you aren’t spreading the virus.

Don’t do it just because you might contract the virus. Do it because you might give it to others. Chances are that you will survive it, especially if you are young, healthy or both, but you could be someone else’s death sentence. Loving your neighbor means treating them as you would want to be treated. Conduct yourself as if you were vulnerable and the virus would be deadly to you, and you will be loving your neighbor as yourself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] See Almost all US states have declared states of emergency to fight coronavirus — here’s what it means for them, by Rosei Perper, Ellen Cranley and Sarah Al-Arshani for the Business Insider March 17, 2020.

[2] See the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center home page.

[3] See the Perper, Cranley and Al-Arshani article above.

[4] See Romans 13:1-2 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”)

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