Today I offer an article by guest author Andrew Stebbins.
Christianity has had a profound impact on Western culture. Rule of law in particular has deeply influenced virtually everything that makes the West unique. From the early stages of Western civilization, through America’s founding fathers, and up until recently, the Christian foundations of rule of law have been acknowledged.
One of the beautiful boasts of our municipal jurisprudence is that Christianity is a part of the Common Law.…There never has been a period in which the Common Law did not recognize Christianity as lying at its foundations.1
Rule of Law Defined
To clarify, rule of law exists where all people and institutions in a given society are held equally accountable before the law, and have equal protections under the law. In other words, whether one is king, president, priest, or plumber, one remains both accountable to and protected by the same laws in the same measure.
The societies where rule of law exists are the societies that hold a belief in a divine lawgiver standing over and above his creation as judge and jury. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. Such universal, perfect, and immutable laws equally applicable to all for all time can only come from a divine lawgiver—one who is universally perceived to know what is absolutely right and wrong. Historically, rule of law is a radical idea and one that predominantly prevails where monotheistic Christianity shapes the consensus worldview.
Transition from Rule of Man to Rule of Law
The transition from rule of man to rule of law is fairly well documented, though the Christian influence is too often neglected. The beginning of this transition has to be traced to the early Hebrew covenant with God, found in the Pentateuch, where “by rejecting the idea that law should treat the poor and the rich differently, Israelite law demonstrated a greater ethical awareness and a more humane spirit than other legal codes of the Near East”2 or, I would argue, anywhere else. This idea of impartial law remained largely a Jewish phenomenon until the advent of Christianity.
When Christianity first dawned, Greco-Roman societies regarded the individual as of little value except as part of the collective. Augusto Zimmerman explained, “Among the Romans, law protected social institutions such as the patriarchal family, but it did not safeguard the basic rights of the individual.”3 Legal codes of the day—and still today in more traditional societies—reflected this fact. Rule of law had little place in such a world. In time, this was to change and it did so in step with the steady expansion of Christianity’s influence.
For our purposes, it is sufficient to point to two oft-cited events that clearly evidence Christianity’s impact in this area. In the year 390, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, responded to Roman emperor Theodosius’ slaughter of some 7,000 people by rebuking him until he repented of the act.4 It’s important to remember that in the Roman world, an emperor could do virtually whatever he wanted. In this newly emerging social circumstance, however, the king was admonished and told to bow to some abstract higher authority, where previously there had been none! Theodosius realized that even he could not supersede the authority of God’s law. This represented a seismic shift in worldview from rule of man toward rule of law. From our current perspective, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change.
Moving forward in time to June of 1215, we find the barons of England convincing King John to sign the Magna Carta. This, too, was a pivotal moment in the sense that the king was allowing his subjects to fulfill their God-given rights while forfeiting his right to contravene. The king was no longer able to set himself above the law, which is “one of the oldest means of depriving individuals of liberty and justice.”5 Divine law now ruled and “the absolutist monarch inherited from Roman law was thereby counteracted and transformed into a monarch explicitly under law.”6
Importance of Rule of Law
What is it that makes this shift to rule of law so important? Why is it that we should appreciate this socio-cultural development in the here and now?
Consider, for example, a world without the rule of law where one’s fate, in the truest sense, lies in the hands of some higher human authority, be it a boss, mayor, sadistic relative, or hostile neighbor. What guides this authority’s decision-making other than his or her own self-interest? In that circumstance, the well-being of those under authority is at best a secondary consideration. Citizens and subordinates really have no protection and are constantly at risk of abuse for any reason or no reason at all.
In such a society, what rights would you have with respect to governing bodies? The answer is precisely none, other than the rights granted by those in power—rights subject to change without notice. Your freedom, as well as your life, would be at the mercy of their desires. Rule of man has prevailed virtually everywhere and in every generation, while rule of law has prevailed only in the Christian West. Even today we need not look far beyond our own borders to see the truth of this statement.
For us in twenty-first century America, it is difficult to imagine rule of man being preeminent, but in reality rule of man would probably prevail in our government, too, had our founding fathers not been profoundly influenced by Christianity. In other words, without Christianity’s social impact, there is no reason to believe we would be any closer to freedom and individual dignity than those carrying the yoke of Roman rule.
Our government and justice system is a privileged one based solely on our Judeo-Christian heritage. If we ignore our history, we do so at our own peril.
- William W. Story, ed., Life and Letters of Joseph Story: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, 2, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1851), 8.
- Marvin Perry, Western Civilization: A Brief History (Boston: Wadsworth, 2012), 28–29.
- Augusto Zimmermann, “The Christian Foundations of the Rule of Law in the West: A Legacy of Liberty and Resistance against Tyranny,” Journal of Creation 19 (June 2005): 67.
- Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 248–49.
- Zimmermann, “Christian Foundations of the Rule of Law,” 68.
By Andrew Stebbins, PhD
Dr. Andrew Stebbins received his PhD in sociology from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia in 2009 and currently teaches at the Central Ohio Technical College in Newark, Ohio.