Lex Rex: A History of “Freedom”

Today, in most Western societies, we take it for granted that there are certain human rights that are so fundamental that they can and should be applied across all cultures. The first sentence of the Preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence summarizes it well, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The men who crafted this document knew that they were reaching for an ideal, something that they themselves were not even living up to. They were envisioning something beyond what they knew, and striving to lay groundwork for future generations to live into. Most find it difficult to imagine a culture or society that rejects these simple ideas, though many around the globe today overtly do. But where did these ideas arise from? After all, societies were not always ordered around these foundational truths. They arose at some point in the development of human history. But from where did they arise?

It was the historic Christian worldview that gave rise to these fundamental truths. No other culture ever developed such ideals as these for the simple reason that no other culture provided the necessary worldview soil that was capable of producing this type of ethical fruit. Though many great empires have arisen over history each with their own substantial contribution to how society’s were governed and what rights were afforded the individual, no worldview ever provided the basis for the simple idea that all humans are equal under the law. We do not find these values articulated or holistically practiced in the ancient Chinese dynasties, the Greco-Roman empires, the Ottoman empire, the Native American nations, or throughout Indian or African history. Despite what humanists attempt to take credit for, liberty and the right of the individual, is a gift that only Christianity was able to introduce to the world.

In the ancient world justice did not swing equally, nor was it expected to. A King and his cronies always stood above the law. As foolish as this seems to our modern ears, at the time no one could have imagined another world. Kings were above the law. If a King so dictated that a person ought to be killed, they were killed no matter the circumstances or truthfulness of the charge against them. This was the King’s right. The king was the law. While this looked and felt different from culture to culture and throughout various epochs of human history, the same principle held true universally.

The Christian Scriptures, with its emphasis on the imago-dei (image of God) in all people provided a fundamentally different posture towards the role of government and the rights of the individual. According to the Christian worldview, no King was above God’s law, and every individual had God-assigned personal rights. It was the holistic reading of God’s Word that gave rise not only to the premise that all men are created equal, but to the ideals of what an equal practice of justice might look like. As far back as the Mosaic law of the Old Testament we see the early ingredients of our now common mantra, “innocent until proven guilty.”

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

Deuteronomy 19:15

This powerful principle protected innocent people from false accusations. A criminal charge brought against an individual had to be proven in a court of law, rather than assumed based on one person’s claims. The same principle is applied by Jesus in the New Testament in matters of Church governance where believers are given instruction on how to confront one another in issues of sin (Matthew 18:15-17). Today’s Western societies take ‘innocent until proven guilty’ for granted, but in so doing we fail to recognize that it was only the Christian worldview that provided the basis for this kind of consistently applied justice.

What follows is a brief sketch of the major moments in world history that functioned over time to forge the basic ideas of liberty and justice for all, that we take for granted today. My aim in tracing this history is to provide evidence for one of the major ways in which Christianity has impacted the world for the better. Contributions like these do not prove Christianity, but they certainly provide strong evidence that Christianity does work, in a practical sense, over and above other worldviews, both on an individual and societal level. There were certainly other pivotal points and voices along the way that are not sketched in this overview, but what follows were certainly turning points that changed the course of world history.

The Magna Carta

Historians trace the very beginning of the idea of “liberty and justice for all” to the Magna Carta. In England in the year 1215 a peace treaty was signed between King John (Yes—the same King John from the legend of Robin Hood) and what were considered rebel barons who, as a result of King John’s failures, had taken matters into their own hands and seized London. In an effort to avoid Civil War, King John signed what has historically been referred to as the Magna Carta. This document was the very first of its kind in all human history in that it solidified two principles previously never documented or practiced in any serious way by a governing official. The first principle was that everyone, even the King, was subject to the law. In other words, the King was not above the law and did not have free reign over his people. The second principle was that all free men ought to have equal protection under the law, a radical novelty in a world where often the one who ruled dictated what sort of justice one received. The image above is a rendering of the signing of the Magna Carta.

This document is considered a foundational building block of all modern Western society. But where did this historic document arise from? Did the men who drafted, implemented, and sustained this document simply concoct the ideas held within the Magna Carta from thin air and introduce them into world history? By no means. While certainly these British barons had personal and selfish motives to protect their lands and their wealth, the core premises of the document arose out of a Christian worldview. Thomas Andrew summarizes thoroughly how Christianity influenced both the development and life of this historic document.

“If the Magna Carta is, as Lord Denning once suggested, the “foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”, it occupies this place in history only because the Church gave it the required intellectual and practical tools – from the ideas that shaped it, to the practical support of an established body with considerable political authority.” [1]

Andrew Thomas

The breakthrough of human rights and the bounds of civil magistrates posed in the Magna Carta, was a gift bestowed on the world because of Christianity.

The Impact of the Reformation

World history has been forever shaped and changed by the period now known as the Reformation. While there were early men who planted the seeds of the Reformation such as John Huss and John Wycliffe, the true Reformation as we know it today was launched by Martin Luther. Luther was a German monk who had grown fed up with the inconsistencies and corruption within the Catholic Church. He outlined 95 specific grievances against the Catholic Church and nailed these to the door of the Castle-church in Wittenberg. Little did he know at the time that this single act of defiance would launch a global movement of which, God’s Church would be restored, nations would be birthed, and global society would be forever changed.

In the years that followed Luther, deep changes began to swell through Europe. Luther, and other early Reformers like John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Theodore Beza, and John Knox were fanning the flames of the Scriptures across the general public of Europe. The Reformers were adamant that Scripture alone ought to be our final authority on all matters. Until this moment in history, the Scriptures were functionally out of the hands of the common person, as they had never truly been translated into the common language, nor had individuals been encouraged to read them from the clergy. What’s more, sermons were given by priests largely in dead languages making spiritual formation nearly impossible for the average lay person. But the Reformers fought, and often gave their lives, to get the Scriptures translated and into the hands of the people. As individuals began to study Scripture for the first time on their own around their dinner tables, new life began to creep through all of Europe. Old Pharisaical traditions and oppressive doctrines of men, began to crumble. New ideas, rooted in the Christians Scriptures began to take root and mold how communities thought about life, the family, the Church, and the State. Many of the foundational ideas that we take for granted today as those living in Western society, were ideas introduced into the world by Christians reading their Bibles and thinking theonomously for the first time, thanks to the victories of the Reformation.

The Lord used a man named John Knox to bring Reformation to Scotland. Knox was a hard fiery preacher who was unafraid to challenge the cultural norms of his day. His ministry became so powerful that it is reported the Queen of Scotland once said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of England.” John Knox was deeply influenced by John Calvin’s work in Geneva who was attempting to establish a truly Christian society, as well as the writings of other protestants of his era who wrote on the topic of civil magistrates. Knox labored tirelessly to turn Scotland into a Biblical nation and even broke from the other Reformers in unique ways.

“While Calvin had set forth the view that subordiante magistrates had the right to help govern a country and even control its ruler, Knox sought to implement Old Testament covenant thinking by setting up a covenanted nation in which even the “commonalty” had a say in government.” [2]

W. Stanford Reid

As a result of his work in Scotland attempting to apply the Bible into governmental philosophy, Knox is rightly considered one of the most influential men to shape political thought in the sixteenth century. Not only did he pave way for new Biblical foundations for the role and authority of civil government. But he sparked a flame in his home country that turned Scotland into the great producer of intellectual thought that it is today and has been over the last few centuries. The seeds sown in Scotland’s Reformation would eventually be scattered across the Atlantic as a new American Revolution would arise.

Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex

Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) was one of the great Scottish theologians that arose in Scotlands rich history of reformation as begun by John Knox. Rutherford’s legacy is vast but one writing reigns above all his other work as a cornerstone of historic philosophy of government. The title of that work is Lex Rex which might be translated in English as “The Law is King.” The title itself gives away the larger premise which was to establish Biblical grounds to demonstrate that a King is not above the law as was the commonly held belief of civilization at the time. Later philosophers and thinkers who are celebrated as primary philosophers whose ideas paved ground for what would become the American Revolution, men like John Locke and Edmund Burke, are indebted to the content of Lex Rex which spawned the development of their own ideas.

Rutherford, in lengthy and great detail, restored and developed the framework suggested in the Magna Carta. Lex Rex is structured around forty-four questions and their respective Biblical responses. He profoundly argues that Kings and Governors are established by God and through the people. In other words, Kings and Magistrates are not a sovereign to themselves, but rule only by consent of the people. Both the King and the people, therefore, have a responsibility to each other. The King to rule with equal justice underneath the law. The people to hold the King accountable to not usurping his God ordained limitations of authority. This new perspective, though firmly rooted in the ancient Scriptures, was the first of its kind to place limitations upon human government.

In his introduction to a shortened summary of Lex Rex, Michael Milton summarizes well the major claims of Rutherford and the legacy of this book.

“God has revealed the necessity of human government, drawn its limits, defined its purpose, delineated its powers, and demanded both obedience rendered and honor shown to legitimate government. He has shown us what tyranny is and why the unholy beast must be opposed.” [3]

Michael Milton

The Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact was signed on November 11, 1620 by some of the first Pilgrims that came to America fleeing trouble in Europe. Their ship, the Mayflower, had blown off course from its intended landing site in Virginia where they would have been under British law. After accidentally landing in Massachusetts the Mayflower Compact was established to form the basic grounds of government in order to protect lawlessness among the colony. “The document sketched, for the first time in European settlement of the New World, an ideal of self-government based on justice.[4] This famous early American document served as a sort seed that would eventually find its fuller content in the core founding documents of the United States of America. In it we read,

“Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic…”

Cited from The Mayflower Compact

Two important elements must be mentioned. First, notice the core values of the Christian faith that drove the writing of this document. It was the Christian worldview that formed the basis for this type of thinking in the New World, “…for the glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith…” Second, notice the language used to describe their intent, “a civil body politic.” What does this mean? Simply put, it is the express desire to form a society in which the people govern themselves under a set of just laws. “The compact was not the actual American founding, but a crucial pre-founding, informing the beginning of the American republic. It was a rough-and-tumble beginning, with death by starvation and disease awaiting many. But it has rightly been seen as the moment when an idea of true self-government began to take root.[5]

The French and American Revolution

The seeds of the Mayflower Compact would eventually provided the kindling for the fire that erupted in the American Revolution. Great debates have taken place about what role Christianity played in the founding of America. To say that what took place in America as the colonies detached from English rule was a revolution is an understatement. The great American experiment is an experiment in self-government, an idea that was utterly new on the world’s stage. The American founders consistently fell back on two core principles when constructing the framework of American democracy. First, they recognized the fallen nature of man and therefore the need for civil government as a restraint on man’s wickedness. Second, they understood that man in His fallenness can be redeemed.

The framers of America attempted to construct a model of self-government that would honor the value of liberty-for-all. As they constructed the various branches of government, and checks and balances that provide the foundation of American democracy, they did so with the foundational understanding that only a virtuous and faithful people could possibly maintain such a grand experiment. In his book A Free People’s Suicide, Oz Guinness carefully demonstrates that it was the Christian value system that was assumed necessary for this great American experiment to sustain itself. Even those founders that were not themselves Christians, confessed that without the Christian religion as a largely agreed upon moral foundation for the people, this American form of self-government would be impossible to maintain. [6]

“If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion, what would they be without it.” — Benjamin Franklin.

“It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being, and it is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.” — George Washington

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” — John Adams.

“Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance (that a virtuous people require faith), men are certain to shed their responsibility for licentiousness and this great experiment will surely be doomed.” — John Jay

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are violated but with his wrath?” — Thomas Jefferson

“To suppose that any form of government can secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” — James Madison

“The wise politician knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty.” — Alexander Hamilton.

Oz Guinness’s point in quoting the founding fathers at length is to demonstrate that the American Revolution was birthed out of a Christian worldview. As has been mentioned in previous sections, this claim is not to say that America’s founding was not without its great scars, the greatest of which is its participating in the historic global slave trade as well as its treatment of native tribes through history. The roots of those evils and the cause for its enduring legacy in American history is a worthy study. In establishing the premise of justice-for-all the American founders were creating a new precedent in the tapestry of human history, an ideal that they themselves though unable to live up to in their day, might bestow upon their future generations as a founding principle. Despite America’s historic stains and scars, the novel effort to develop a self-governed society was built upon the premise that the God of the Bible must be assumed in order to govern a virtuous people.

Over and against the American Revolution stands the French Revolution which took place shortly thereafter. While the American Revolution presupposed God as the cornerstone of truth and the bedrock of society, the French Revolution violently outcast God and presupposed man as the cornerstone of truth and the bedrock of society. The French philosopher Voltaire who inspired the French Revolution famously wrote, “Every sensible man, every honorable man must hold the Christian religion in horror.” Denis Diderot, another French philosopher influential during the French Revolution wrote, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” The French Revolution was largely an effort to replace the ‘God of Christianity’ with the new ‘God of Reason’. While America launched an effort at a theonomous (God centered) revolution. France launched an effort at an autonomous (self centered) revolution. Only one of these two revolutions worked, the other failed miserably.

The French Revolution decayed into a bloody, tyrannical, and godless society at constant war with itself and no hope or basis for lasting liberty for anyone. France quickly descended into a country of paranoia and extreme violence. In the name of “progress” and liberation from God, a bloody slaughter took place. Eventually the revolutionary ideals faded and France accepted defeat by returning to a monarchy and the eventual dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Why did America succeed while France failed? Did America simply have more grit to get the job done? No. France had no shortage of zealots willing to fight for the future of their country, and a much longer history of patriotic fervor and culture to build unity upon. The French Revolution ended in disaster because they forcefully removed God from their revolutionary recipe. They believed they could achieve a morally ordered society without the bedrock of God’s order and design. In their epic failure, they demonstrated the veracity of the Bible’s claims that man is totally depraved and in need of salvation outside of oneself. America succeeded where France failed, because despite America’s inconsistencies in their application of their ideals, their ideals were rooted on Biblical values and a determination to keep God central in all things.

Closing Thoughts

The central thread of this essay is to expose its readers to the true origins of the ideals that Western society takes for granted today. Without Christianity, freedom as we have historically defined it, would not exist. No other worldview provided the foundational building blocks to support such an idea. Today, a variety of humanist groups like to take credit for advancing the ideals of the freedom of the individual. But the fact remains that humanism, and all man-centered thought, lacks the foundational building blocks required to build or sustain the idea of freedom. Only Christianity, through the Word of God, can take credit for these advances.

Christian—take great confidence in your God. You are standing on solid ground!

[1] Andrew, Thomas. The Church and the Charter Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of the Magna Carta. London: Theos, 2015.

[2] Reid, W. Stanford. “John Knox’s Theology of Political Government.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, 1998: 529-540.

[3] Milton, Michael A. Foundations of Moral Government. United States: Tanglewood Publishing, 2019. Page 18

[4] Wood, Peter W. 1620 A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. New York: Encounter Books, 2020. Page 26

[5] Wood, Peter W. 1620 A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. New York: Encounter Books, 2020. Page 33

[6] Guiness, Oz. A Free People’s Suicide. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012. Page 117-118.


Leave a Reply

Should Christians Practice Yoga

Should Christians Practice Yoga

I recognize with a title like this I am inviting controversy

Episode 50: Is the Church Going in the Wrong Direction

Episode 50: Is the Church Going in the Wrong Direction

In this episode Pastor Raef and Josh Fried look at Ligonier Ministry’s

You May Also Like
%d bloggers like this: