Lehre und Wehre, Vol. 12, October 1866, pp. 297-308
(Note: This position was presented at a preacher conference held in Chester, Illinois. The following article is the substance of this presentation.)
The history of entire peoples, as well as of individual people, teaches that a man who does not find his highest good in God seeks it in himself and in the visible world, and that whoever does not recognize heaven as his true homeland makes this pitiful earth his homeland. “Away with the afterlife, if only we have a happy life here!”— that is the watchword of unbelief, which has reached its apex in materialism. While the man who is sunken in coarse sensuality lives by the popular saying: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” likewise the cultivated and imaginative man endowed with higher spiritual gifts makes himself an ideal of earthly bliss, whether he stops at bare ideas or attempts to bring these ideas into actual life. Whoever does not know the true freedom won by Christ regards political and civil freedom as the highest goal of human endeavors and happiness. Thus unbelief in its various forms has become the fruitful ground out of which the strangest theories of human freedom, human equality, human happiness, and inalienable human rights have come forth.
According to some strange dreams of the heathen philosopher Plato of an ideal state life, and according to some sporadic doctrines and efforts partly of individual persons and partly of individual sects in the early Christian centuries, it was especially reserved for the eighteenth century to systematically develop the ideas of inherent freedom and equality of men and of inalienable human rights, and not only that, but also to bring them practically into political and social life. It was the Englishmen Thomas Hobbes and John Locke with some like-minded men who propagated and sought to establish the theory of an inherent freedom and equality, and the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau transplanted them to the European continent. This doctrine of Rousseau spread itself across the entire civilized world with unbelievable speed; no wonder, because it found the minds there well prepared for it; even men like Kaiser Joseph II set themselves at this man’s feet. One fruit of this doctrine was the French Revolution, after it already had had its forerunner a few decades before in the American Revolution. That the American Revolution is a child of this doctrine, is proven by the Declaration of Independence of 1776, at the beginning of which the following sentences stand:
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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such a form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In France by the proposal of Lafayette who had returned from America and had been an enthusiast for the Revolution that was just completed there, the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was raised up as a decree and incorporated into the Constitution of 1791. These ideas, after they had made way for the political revolutions of the old and new world, also finally began as an unavoidable consequence to exert their influence on social life in the socialism and communism of recent times. We confine ourselves here to the political sphere and will attempt to show how the theory of the inherent inalienable human rights contradicts the word of God and is damned by the same.
We are not afraid to receive the objection that we, as theologians are involving ourselves in political matters. Were that which we are here dealing with only a political question, then we wouldn’t say a word about it. But it is not precisely that. These days politics is all too often misused in order to spread manifestly irreligious, immoral, and above all revolutionary ideas. Then because some take up these ideas in politics, the theologians are compelled to step up against this politics. Or may we be silent when one brings manifest errors among the people in the name of politics? It is our holy duty to bear earnest witness against it so that the ignorant may be instructed and the wavering made firm. Where sin is found, the office of the theologian is also found; where sin stops, there this office also stops. When sin impudently raises its head in the realm of politics, it is the duty of the theologian to stand against it. Of course we cannot put an end to the seed of corruption, but the greater the danger becomes, all the more earnestly must we testify against it, and not just we theologians, but all Christians in general. Christians should be a light of the world because they testify to the truth; but if the Christians cease to testify to the truth against error, how can the world be enlightened? If this witness ceases, then the world can no longer remain preserved against this rot and decay. Without this witness a people will come to ruin. It depends on the right conduct of the theologians whether the blessing of God prevails in a land. If they are silent, then the weeds will gain so much ground in the field of the church that it will not be that the ideas of unbelief are swallowed up by those of Christianity, but those of Christianity by unbelief.
If we stick with our adopted fatherland, then we cannot deny that the ideas of inalienable human rights, of the inherent equality and freedom of all men have deeply permeated the spirit of the American people and bear their wicked fruits in a characteristic arrogance, in an overweening self-opinion, and a tendency to disobedience and license not merely in the adults, but also already in the youth. They also threaten the Lutheran Christians who have made this country their homeland with peculiar temptations, because the political newspapers— with hardly any exception— are the heralds of these ideas and carry them into their homes and hearts. Preachers of the gospel must not only be armed against this for themselves, so that they are not carried away by this Zeitgeist, but they also have the necessity to instruct those entrusted to them about it.
Now before we come to the matter itself we want to give notice that when we, according to the word of God, deny man these inherent inalienable human rights, we do not mean the rights of the soul and of the conscience, the right to do right, to avoid sin, and to serve God; these are undeniably given by God to man as a rational creature intended for eternal life; man can neither surrender nor allow these to be taken from himself. We also do not mean the rights which a man acquires as soon as he enters into an ordered organic political relationship, but we speak only of political and civil rights which we maintain are neither inherent nor inalienable. As Lutheran Christians, our concern may be less about investigating how those ideas comport with sound reason, and much more about becoming acutely aware of how they militate against the divine word.
1. The first reason why the doctrine of inalienable human rights of inherent equality and freedom of all men must be rejected is that it contradicts the teaching of Holy Scripture about the Fall and original sin and denies it, as if there were no difference between man before and after the Fall or as if there were no Fall. Such inequality as now exists among men, would, however, not have existed before the Fall. Other than the distinction between man and wife, parents and children, such equality would have prevailed that knew no rich and poor, no lords and servants. Love, that diamond in the crown of the image of God, which man originally bore on his head, would not have allowed that others be set back and to exalt itself over them. None had desired more for himself than he needed, and no one would have begrudged him this. There was the most perfect commonwealth, because the most perfect love animated man. It would have occurred to no one to gather riches, everyone would have had enough.
But after the fall it is different. The image of God consisting in holiness and righteousness is not only entirely lost, but also the natural, spiritual and physical powers of man are weakened, corrupted, and brought into disorder, but in different levels and degrees all the way down to bodily deformity and idiocy. Indeed the fall has made all men alike in sin and death, but it is also the reason for which the devil has attained power over men, to harm him under God’s permission in the greatest variety of ways and in the most diverse degrees in soul and body, whereby fallen men naturally became highly different among themselves in strength, health, property and honor. As sin begins with birth, likewise this inequality also begins already at birth, and even if all men were equal at their entrance into the world, inequality would still become more and more apparent in the course of a man’s development. Suppose two persons of different bodily and intellectual abilities possessed each the same sum of money, the more capable would soon gain more with this sum than the less capable, one would become richer, the other poorer.
What a truly ridiculous undertaking is that of today’s humanitarians! If they wanted to establish even some level of equality among men, then they would need to be without sin and have body and soul, life and death, health and sickness, fortune and misfortune in their hands— they would have to be God himself. Who does not see what insanity this idea of equality is? Yea, one could hardly believe that there would be men who presume to propose and realize these ideas if God’s word did not tell us that God punishes those who transgress his commands with a confused heart. The Fall has ultimately brought about such a state among men that resembles a war of all against all. The consequence of the Fall is selfishness, out of which arises ambition, wrath, hatred, envy, lies, deception, greed, theft, robbery, murder, and the subjugation of the weak by the strong. For the correction of this evil, God instituted the government. This is so obvious that even the deist Hobbes could not deny it and from this realization deduced the necessity of the state, which he, of course, only based on a social contract, while Holy Scripture calls it an ordinance of God. Therefore Luther says: politia est necessarium remedium corruptae naturae, “government is a necessary remedy of corrupt nature.” But where there is government, there must also be a reduction of individual freedom and a diversity of status. Where is the inherent freedom and equality of all men here? It was lost through the fall. To insist on it anyway is to deny the Fall and original sin. All humanitarians do this at least indirectly, and when Christians let themselves be fooled into agreeing with them, they are obviously pulling a foreign yoke with the unbelievers.
2. The theory of human rights also militates against the teaching of Holy Scripture concerning the providence of God. On the basis of the fall, Holy Scripture teaches that God appoints different stations to people in social life according to his unsearchable wisdom, justice, and free power partly passively, partly actively, through bodily birth, through different distribution of intellectual gifts and bodily goods, through the linking of countless external circumstances, and although the wickedness of other men is often the proximate cause for one being poor the other rich, one despised the other in high honor, God nevertheless avails himself of the very same as his instruments to carry about the counsel of His providence. If God let his strict justice alone reign, we would of course be equally naked, equally miserable, equally poor, the sentence of death would already be executed for us all in the womb— yea, the entire world, which was originally created for the service of man, would be destroyed and turned into nothing; but according to his mercy and patience and in view of the reconciliation of the world through Christ, God upholds and preserves this world with its population, until the last man who will be saved is born, and he distributes his gifts variously, in order to make known that he is the Lord who owes no one anything— yea, this various distribution of his goods he uses partly as a means through goodness and earnestness to provoke fallen men to repentance and partly as a means of instruction whereby he is wont to exercise his chosen children in faith and in love; for if all had the same fullness of heart, how could faith in God’s fatherly care, how could patience, how could love, which applies itself to the need of the neighbor as its own, be exercised?
An image of the inequality of men is found in the entire visible nature of things, which would lose all charm and beauty if it were nothing but a vast plain without mountain or valley. And to show that this view is no mere human thought, we will point to the following places in Holy Scripture: “For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor,” writes Solomon in Ecclesiastes 4:14; in which he describes the wonderful governance of God. “The rich and poor meet together: the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2). “He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” (Luke 1:51, 52). “He hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).
What do the enlightened humanitarians do with their theory of equality? They dare to meddle in God’s governance and to censure him for making everything unequal. They level the world to an inhospitable wasteland. They are far too blind to see God’s counsels in the fates of men. They want to cast God from his throne and set themselves in his place.
3. Further it militates against the fourth, sixth, and seventh commandments, which have established diversity of rank and distinction of property. If the Ten Commandments are nothing other than a summary of the law that was originally written on man’s heart, then it follows that according to the fourth and sixth commandments, even in the state of innocence, despite general equality, a distinction between parents and children, man and wife, would have existed even if we admit that this distinction has received a peculiar character through the Fall. Seemingly bodily life is vindicated as an inalienable right to man by the fifth commandment, but even if it is also true that with the fifth commandment God has protected life from harm by other men as well as from suicide, it is still not to be considered an inalienable possession since through the command of love, which is derived from the fifth commandment, man is obligated to offer up his life in service to his neighbor or his government, or insofar as God has given the punishment of death to evildoers. The execution of a murderer would be a murder and unlawful if a man had an inalienable right to life.
With regards to the seventh commandment, God has expressly sanctioned the right to property and with it the inequality of property. Johannes Brenz writes in his catechism:
This commandment: thou shalt not steal, shows us clearly that a difference in possessions and property rights among men is a Godly ordinance. For there would hardly be room for theft if, by God’s ordinance, everything were possessed in common.
The humanitarians by contrast declare all distinction of pof property to be theft, as they cannot do otherwise, driven by their terrible logic. The most extreme practical consequence comes to light in communism, and if this theory has usually confined itself to the political sphere, as in the origins of the United States, then it has only been a felicitous inconsistency.
4. It further strives against the teaching of Holy Scripture concerning the divine ordering of government. Without going deeper into the derivation of government from the fourth commandment, in which it of course has its root and foundation, it will suffice to recall the passage in Romans 13 in which the government is expressly called an ordinance of God. The apostle Peter appears to contradict this when he calls government an ordinance of man in 1 Peter 2:13; but far from conceding to the humanitarians and declaring government to be a pure human invention or a social contract, he merely wishes to say four things thereby:
- that men are commonly the tools whereby governments are set in order,
- that it is men who rule in the governmental office,
- that governments are set in order for the benefit of men and
- that they are occupied with purely human things which serve the preservation of the earthly life of men, and not with spiritual things concerning the kingdom of God.
Reason left to itself can and must of course come to the conclusion that governmental order is necessary among men; but when it bases the government solely on a social contract and not on a divine foundation, we should not be surprised that it speaks in the manner and extent to which it understands. Luther speaks very pertinently about this in the following way:
This passage, therefore, solves the problem that engaged the attention of Plato and all the sages. They come to the conclusion that it is impossible to carry on government without injustice. Their reason for this is that among themselves human beings are of the same rank and station. Why does the emperor rule in the world? Why do others obey him, when he is a human being just like the others, no better, no braver, and no more permanent? He is subject to all human circumstances, just as others are. Hence it seems to be despotism when he usurps the rule over men, even though he is like other men. For if he is like other men, it is the height of wrong and injustice for him not to want to be like others but to place himself at the head of others through despotism. This is how reason argues. It is incapable of coming up with a counterargument. But we who have the word are aware that the counterargument must be the command of God, who regulates and establishes affairs in this manner. Hence it is our duty to obey the divine regulation and to submit to it. Otherwise, in addition to the rest of our sins, we shall become guilty of disobeying God’s will, [which is, as we can see so beneficial to this life of ours]. (Commentary to Genesis 9[:6] [AE vol. 2 p. 142])
From this, the question is easily answered, what is to be thought of the now so highly exalted sovereignty of the people. Even if it is rational, it is not biblical. If it is the case, as we have shown in the above, that there is nothing to the inherent freedom and equality, then there is also nothing to the inherent sovereignty of the people, according to which all power [Gewalt] is supposed to lie in the hands of the people. Holy Scripture knows nothing of this. It declares no existing form of government to be the exclusively right and godly one; on the contrary, it requires the submission of a Christian to any existing form of government. It is a recognized axiom: the gospel does not abolish governments, but affirms them. There can only be talk of a sovereignty of the people, where either there is as yet no government at all or where it is sanctioned by a special state law as in pure republican states. But where there is a non-republican constitution of state, there the people have either never had sovereignty or have entirely or partially lost it, and cannot seize it again without militating against God’s ordinance. To rebel against existing governments, to do away with them and make new ones under the pretext of the sovereignty of the people, is nothing other than a revolt condemned by the word of God.
5. The theory of inalienable human rights further strives against the teaching of Holy Scripture concerning bondservanthood [Leibeigenschaft]. Even if the entire present cultured world should shudder and tremble with utmost horror at the name of bondservanthood, or slavery as it is called here, the fundamental law stands nevertheless firm for Christians: what Holy Scripture does not call a sin, that must not be called a sin by them, even if the entire world called it so. The Apostles who were inspired by the Holy Ghost never made it a sin for Christians to possess servants or slaves, although they admonish them to treat them in a Christian manner, and furthermore, they never permit the servants or slaves to emancipate themselves by their own power, but admonish them, if they are Christians, to remain in their unfree condition, to show obedience and patience, and thereby to adorn the gospel.
If there were really inalienable human rights, and if political and civil freedom were among them, then it would be robbery to possess slaves, and every slave would have the right and the duty to assert his rights and to emancipate himself. But where is there anything of the sort in Holy Scripture? Abolitionism, the child of that doctrine of the rights of man, must of necessity strike out at the face of Holy Scripture, as it does in its fanatical representatives and dares to throw away Holy Scripture merely on the basis that it does not stand on its side, or it seizes upon hypocritical ways to twist the places in scripture that deal with slavery and declares that when scripture teaches differently than it imagines, it is permitted to ignore it. Proof enough what spirit’s child abolitionism is.
6. It is the aping and disfiguring of the evangelical teaching of freedom and equality in Christ. Whence the manifest unbelievers, deists, and materialists may have borrowed their ideas of freedom and equality, whether from biblical reminiscences or from Plato, or from their own mind, we are little interested to discover; but it is a fact that many who confess the Christian name have taken up these ideas for themselves, in the delusion of finding harmony between them and the teaching of the gospel regarding freedom and equality in Christ. It is known that in the year 1525 the peasants in Thuringia demanded freedom from serfdom [Leibeigenschaft], supposedly because they had been made free through Christ, and the puritanical zealots [Schwärmer] in the Old and New World repeat this abolitionist reference to Christian freedom to the point of disgust; even Germany’s well-known Lutheran theologians know of no more striking reason to oppose American slavery than Christian freedom. Such an uncouth mistaking of Christian and civil freedom would be inexplicable if we did not know that the natural man does not accept what is of the spirit of God. Just as the Jews made the kingdom of their messiah into a worldly kingdom from which they expected nothing other than bodily relief from the yoke of the Romans, these enthusiasts [Schwärmer] likewise drag the evangelical freedom and equality in Christ down into earthly political things and show that they have no idea of the spirituality and splendor of the kingdom of Christ.
It is a precious, comforting truth that whomsoever the son makes free, is free indeed [John 8:36] and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female [Gal. 3:28]; but this freedom and equality in Christ in no way implies an equally free position in civil and political life, just as the poverty of the latter in no way removes or diminishes the former. The freest man in the world, if he is no Christian, is the most miserable slave to himself and to sin, to say nothing of the devil, and the least free slave, if he believes in Christ, is a freedman of the Lord and possesses a freedom which infinitely outshines all civil freedom and bondage. Luther expresses this very beautifully:
Christians are all alike in Christ. Before the world inequality must remain, that the father is more than the son, the lord more than the servant, that the king and prince are more than their subjects. God will have it so, who has prescribed and ordered the estates in this way. Whosoever would make equality here, that the servant should be worth as much as his master, he will set up a very praiseworthy rule, as was seen under the riotous peasants. Even if things in the world were as unequal as they possibly could be, we should nevertheless take comfort that, however high or low our estate is, that we all together have one Christ, one baptism, one gospel, one Spirit, that nobody has a better gospel, a better baptism, another Christ, than the lowest servant and the lowest maid. (Hauspostil for the Sunday of Septuagesima)
And to the rebellious peasants claiming Christian freedom, he replies:
There should be no serfs [Leibeignen] because Christ has made all free? What is this? That would be to make Christian freedom entirely carnal. Did not Abraham and other Patriarchs and Prophets also have bondservants [Leibeignen]? Read St. Paul, what he teaches about the servants [Knechten], who were all bondservants [Leibeigne] at that time. Therefore this article is directly against the Gospel and it is robbery, that everyone takes away his body, which has become property, away from his master. A bondman can very well be a Christian and have Christian freedom, just as a prisoner or sick person is a Christian, and yet is not free. This article would make all men free, and make a worldly external kingdom out of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, which is impossible. For a worldly kingdom cannot exist unless there is inequality in persons, that some are free, some imprisoned, some are masters, and some are subjects. (Refutation of the 12 Articles of the Peasantry)
From this last piece it is as clear as daylight how unjust and absurd is the accusation by the Romanists and by some Romanizing Protestants, which even Leo in his textbook of universal history gives, that the development of revolutionary civil rights theories has been the entirely necessary and inevitable consequence of the Reformation. Nobody has taught to respect the estate of government higher than Luther himself. The cause of revolutionary theories and movements is to be sought not in the Reformation, but in the apostasy from it.
7. It is the offspring of unbelief and of human reason tearing itself away from God’s word. It will suffice to point to the biographies of those who invented, developed, defended, and disseminated this theory. To say nothing of the worldly-wise philosopher Plato, who is to be regarded as the forefather of this theory, although he wanted rather to give a fantasy painting of the state rather than an seriously intended doctrine of state, but just with this he proved how far human reason left to itself can go; but it was especially the deists, atheists, and materialists of the last three centuries, who have hatched this basilisk egg and raised the spawn to maturity. The English deist Thomas Hobbes, who died in 1679, who declared the gospel of Christ to be an oriental fantasy and a mere tool of politics was the one who, in his famous Leviathan, laid down the statement out of which he deduced the origin of the state: Nature gave everything to everyone. From this principle— already in itself false— he reasoned further: there are two undeniable postulates of human nature, one is natural greed according to which everyone seeks to make his own that which is for all in common, the other is natural reason, according to which everyone seeks to avoid a violent death as the greatest evil of nature. Thus the original state of men is a war of all against all. In order to end this war, the head of the state exists, whose will must be held to be the will of the men themselves on account of the contract of several men so that the powers and abilities of individuals may be used for peace and common defense. It is remarkable that Hobbes was a defender of absolute monarchy and also wanted to have the church subject to the will of the head of state.
John Locke, who died in 1704, the author of the piece: The Reasonableness of Christianity, with which he paved the way for deism, was the one who, in his Two Treatises on Government which appeared in 1690, laid down the statement: all power has its source in the people; but by the people he understood the individuals in their atomistic state as a numerical mass. It has been said, not without reason, that the Koran has not spread greater misfortune over the earth than this work of Locke’s. Anthony Collins, who died in 1729, the English Freethinker, who was occupied with refuting the proof of the truth of the Christian religion from the prophecies, was Locke’s friend and successor in his theory of the state.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, who died in 1778, the nature-idolizing hater of all positive religion, who praised himself happily at his end, that he was aware of no sin, was the one who in his writing: The Social Contract, which first appeared in 1772, further developed Locke’s lie, and became the father of modern humanitarianism and thus giving life to a host of theories of human dignity, human rights, human freedom, human equality, human brotherhood, and human happiness.
We could enumerate a long list of such men; but it suffices to say that the very fact that it has become the creed and watchword of all contemporary unbelievers of all shades and gradations, from rationalists down to materialists and atheists, must arouse the most serious prejudice against this doctrine of human rights. So closely are unbelief and this doctrine connected with each other. Proof enough of what esteem it deserves. Given a bad tree, the fruit will also be bad, says the Lord (Matt. 12:23).
8. Finally, this theory, when put into practice, is the fruitful mother of uprisings and revolutions, as is taught by the history of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, of the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century and the German Revolution of 1848; for, that these upheavals were not mere outbreaks of the wrath of the people against an unbearable tyranny on the part of the aristocracy, but primarily fruits of the seed of revolutionary humanitarian ideas of revolution sown among the people, is easy to prove from the history of those times. In direct contradiction to its own promises of happiness, it destroys precisely the happiness of humanity. If the happiness and life of only one person or one family would suffer as a result of revolution, then the harm caused would already be disproportionately greater than the supposed advantage that it would bring, which is really just an empty fantasy; how much more so, when thousands and millions lose their property, happiness, and lives by it?
That great advantages for the land and especially for the later generations have grown up out of the American Revolution, cannot in itself justify the Revolution. God has not sanctioned the revolution thereby, but has only proven that according to his wonderful goodness and wisdom he can create something good out of something evil. And what bitter fruits the ever-growing unchristian ideas which lie at the root of the American Revolution are yet to bring forth according to God’s righteous judgment, perhaps only the future will teach.