Natural law and the Declaration of Independence

[Some readers may have noticed my slackened activity over last weekend.  Thursday thru Sunday I participated in a conference at Princeton University.  The conference had to do with the natural law basis of the American founding, with special focus on the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment.  I spoke about the thought and action of the patriot pastor, John Witherspoon, an early President of Princeton University.  I just replied to a comment from one of the folks who attended the presentation I delivered at the Conference on Saturday afternoon.  I thought it would interest readers curious about the thinking behind my deep commitment to the principles and logic of America’s Declaration of Independence.]



It was a great pleasure meeting you on 9/8/2012 at the Princeton Theological Seminary Bicentennial Conference “Common Sense, Natural Law, and Contemporary America”. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question after your speech. Your lecture and the debate was an inspiring learning experience for me, and even my 11 year old daughter asked me questions about G-d and the Declaration of Independence.

During debates Dr. R. told you that role of Christianity in our society is not so important because “dead Romans and Greeks” who lived before Christianity created base for society we have today. I believe it is incorrect because Ancient Romans and Greeks did not believe that “all men are created equal and free” and this is the main principle of our society. Did I miss something here?

Also during the discussion I asked a question: All men created equal – immortal declaration – established by G-d, not a man. Why today, in our country, have a group of humans taken away “creator” from their party platform? Is it because they wanted to replace G-d with themselves to take the place of G-d?

Could you please explain to me?  Also, Am I wrong by taking away Christianity from my question? While the Declaration of Independence is based on Judeo-Christian religion concept, I took away the religion aspect, for both Christianity and Judaism. I think it can be done because “all men created equal” is religion concept, but it is also a Natural Law. And I did not want to be distracted by atheistic or other religion beliefs.


Your question at the conference was right on point. When the debate moderator referred to the ancient Greeks, I spoke up to remind him that America’s founders, though thoroughly familiar with Athens and the Greek experiment with democracy, rejected ancient democracy as unstable and self-destructive. (Since I did not have the floor, I’m not sure anyone took note of what I said.) The Declaration of Independence is written in language that has resonated with the common sense of people around the world. Starting from a basic premise of justice that articulates and respects humanity’s natural piety, the Declaration develops and logically applies its consequences. The premise of piety had been used and abused to ease the task of despotic or tyrannical regimes of every kind (but mainly monarchic or oligarchical ones) from time immemorial.

The Declaration begins by seeing it in terms of the relationship between God’s will for human nature, and its effect on each human being He creates. This view leads to the recognition of human equality, arising from the fact that every human being may, by God’s will, lay claim to the title of humanity. Each individual is therefore entitled (authorized by the Creator) to engage in all the activities consistent with realizing and preserving their existence as human beings, i.e., their nature.

But what preserves their nature also defines what is naturally good for them. So the Creator, in the act of making them what they are, determines what is by nature good for them and what is not. He is their natural Sovereign. Assuming, as we must, the existence of a human being ( for how else can we take or give any account of ourselves), we assume the endurance of this being, along with everything such endurance requires. We assume that it is right to take actions arising from those requirements. We assume this as right because, having authorized (been the author of) our being, the Creator must have authorized all the activities required for our existence. We have the right to be (i.e., engage in the ongoing activity of being what we are) here. But since it comes from the Being whose authority makes Him sovereign over us, the Creator’s authorization takes the form of a command (a compelling instruction). This is the formal description of the natural law.

Because our right to undertake all the activities required to preserve our nature arises from this law, we have natural rights only insofar as we acknowledge and accept the obligation to follow the Creator’s instructions. Because it relies upon this acknowledgement, the Declaration’s concept of rights is connected with an assumed obligation of obedience to the natural law. Since only those willing to assume this obligation may lay claim to the rights, the exercise of right is necessarily subject to the discipline of natural law.

This connection between natural rights and the assumption of their origin in natural obligation is the heart of the thinking whereby the logic of the Declaration addresses and corrects the defects that doomed ancient experiments in democracy to failure. But by itself, logic is not enough. To translate the Declaration’s logic into practice there must be, in each individual whose nature authorizes a permanent claim of right, a correspondingly permanent inclination to accept and follow the obligatory instruction that is the basis for that claim.

As I tried to make clear in my talk, John Witherspoon’s thinking reflected the view that was prevalent among the founders. According to this view the transformation of heart and will that results from an authentic experience of faith in Jesus Christ produces, among other things, just such a permanent inclination to obey the provisions God has made for our nature, the provisions of the natural law.

This does not mean that every American must be a Christian. It does mean that every truly faith filled Christian will be, on the whole, an example of the character required successfully to translate the logic of the Declaration into action. As I reminded the audience during my talk, the Christian Scriptures themselves (e.g., Romans 2:14-15) point to the fact that people who know nothing of the Bible may nonetheless be inclined to follow the law which God has written on their hearts, that is, in the very substance of their being. Encouraged by the example which the fellowship of Christians ought to provide, such people of good conscience may step forward in order to join them in forming a more general fellowship of people inclined to do what is right.

This is the basis for the civil society of human beings who will establish and maintain the practice of justice, implemented in the form of a just constitution, such as the U.S. Constitution is supposed to be. (Note that, though many people today refer to civil society and civility, etc., few pause to reflect that this implies a distinction from uncivil society and those who represent it. Just government is not instituted or maintained by unjust people, and the unalienable rights referred to in the Declaration are rights the unjust are not reliably inclined to exercise or respect.)

In light of this reasoning I would respond to the question of Christianity’s role in a polity based on the Declaration’s logic in this way: The Declaration’s idea of liberty can be understood by all human beings.  But without the example and activity of those truly transformed by their relationship with God through Christ, a political constitution which implements the Declaration’s understanding of equal rights and justice for all is unlikely to be established, and will not long endure.

Because so many Americans who claim to be Christians have forgotten their critical role in establishing and maintaining civil society, America declines, more and more each day, into a condition likely to confirm the bitter truth of this last observation. To which I say, “Sleepers, awake.” (Isaiah 60:1, Ephesians 5:14-16)


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