The Gift of Bethlehem and the Rule of Law

Since 2007 Peter Johnston has periodically used the holiday season to draw attention to the remarkable overflow of cultural common good stemming from the Gift of Bethlehem two millennia ago. Drawing upon the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, join Peter as he documents the constructive contributions Christ and Christians have made particularly to economic, political, and social liberty throughout the centuries.

The rule of law.

Unquestionably one of the key foundation stones for Western liberty.

But what does the Gift of Bethlehem have to do with it?  What does the life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ and the effects of Christianity have to do with the rule of law?  I thought religion and government were to be two distinct and separate spheres?  Isn’t that one of the lessons that Western history has taught us?

Good questions.  Let’s reflect on historical facts.

The rule of law, in which both the governed and governors are to be subject to the same laws uniformly applied regardless of wealth, status, gender, class or ethnicity of an individual, has general roots in the Old Testament truth of all mankind being made in the image of God and the specific example of Jesus Christ.

The rule of law as applied in the West, has roots in the moral law going back to Sinai, then made known to the world through the spread of Christianity.

The rule of law as applied by the founders our nation was influenced heavily by a higher law.

Those are some bold statements; allow me to elaborate.

Liberty in the West traces itself to a milestone in 1215 AD.  Set in a time period in which the prevailing dictate was might makes right (as it has been for most of man’s history), barons gathered in England in a meadow at Runnymede believing the king should not be above the law.

Those  barons were influenced by universal beliefs captured also in the 13th century by renowned English jurist, Henry de Bracton. Writing in On the Laws and Customs of England, he stated:

And that he [the King] ought to be under the law appears clearly in the analogy of Jesus Christ, whose vice-regent on earth he is, for though many ways were open to Him for His ineffable redemption of the human race, the true mercy of God chose this most powerful way to destroy the devil’s work, he would not use the power of force but the reason of justice.

On that fateful day of June 15, 1215 at Runneymede, King John of England reluctantly, but volitionally, applied his seal to the Magna Carta, historically a milestone in the development of the rule of law.

This reliance on a higher law as a basis for the rule of law echoed throughout the centuries between the Magna Carta and our American Declaration of Independence.  Battling tyranny in the 17th century, in 1644, John Knox,  Scottish Presbyterian and reformer, published Lex Rex  or The Law and the Prince. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, just prior to Independence Day in 2016, David Kopel wrote, “The point of the title was that the law precedes the king; the monarch must obey the law.” Reflecting on Knox’s beliefs, Kopel adds, “The true source of law is not the king’s will, but God’s will. King-made ‘law’ that is inconsistent with God’s law of natural justice and goodness is mere pretend law, not true law.”

The founders of our nation echoed that truth.  The Declaration of Independence appeals to “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” asserting “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.”  It then identifies the primary purpose of government – to secure or protect those unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.

The Gift of Bethlehem, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ provide an example, as Bracton wrote, that “God chose…not to use the power of force but the reason of justice” to overcome Satan’s stronghold over sin and the world.  That example provided inspiration throughout the centuries for the rule of law based on a higher law, one of the foundation stones of Western liberty.

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