Anti-Biblical Theories of Rights

by Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898)

Robert Lewis Dabney

Publication Date: 1888

When the friends of the Bible win a victory over one phase of infidelity, they naturally hope that there will be a truce in the warfare and they may enjoy peace. But the hope is ill-founded. We should have foreseen this, had we considered that the real source of infidelity is always in the pride, self-will and ungodliness of man’s nature. So that, when men are defeated on one line of attach, a part of them at least will be certainly prompted by their natural enmity to God’s Word to hunt for some other weapon against it. Rational deism, from Bolingbroke to Hume, received a Waterloo defeat at the hands of Bishop Butler and the other Christian apologists, and well-informed enemies surrendered it. But neology raised its head, and for two generations opened a way for virtual infidels. History and biblical criticism in the hands of the Bengels, Delitzschs, Leuthards, have blocked the way, and Tübingen is silent, or at least discredited. Then came the anti-Mosaic geology and evolution—the one attacking the recent origin of man, the flood, etc., the other presuming to construct a creation without a creator. These two are now passing into the "sere and yellow leaf." More correct natural science now points with certainty to a deluge, to the recency of the last glacial epoch, the newness of the present face of the continents, and consequently to the late appearance of man upon the earth. Agassiz, M. Paul Janet and Sir William Dawson reinstate the doctrines of final cause and fixed genera of organic life upon their impregnable basis.

But we may expect no respite in the warfare. Another hostile banner is already unfurled, and has gathered its millions of unbelievers for a new attack upon God's Holy Word. This assault proceeds from the side of professed social science. It appears in those dogmas of social rights which are historically known as the Jacobinical, and which have been transferred from the atheistic French radicals to the free Protestant countries. The object of Scriptures is to teach the way of redemption and sanctification for sinful man; yet incidentally they teach, by precept and implication, those equitable principles on which all constitutional governments are founded. So far as God gave to the chosen people a political form, the one which he preferred was a confederation of little republican bodies represented by their eldership (Ex. xvii. 25, 26; Ex. iii. 16; Num. xi. 16, 17; Num. xxxii. 20-27).

When he conceded to them, as it were under protest, a regal form, it was a constitutional and elective monarchy (1 Sam. x. 24, 25). The rights of each tribe were secured against vital infringement of this constitution by its own veto power. They retained the prerogative of protecting themselves against the usurpations of the elective king by withdrawing at their own sovereign discretion from the confederation (1 Kings, xii. 13-16).

The history of the secession of the ten tribes under Jeroboam is often misunderstood through gross carelessness. No divine disapprobation is anywhere expressed against the ten tribes for exercising their right of withdrawal from the perverted federation. When Rehoboam began a war of coercion he was sternly forbidden by God to pursue it (1 Kings, xii. 26-28).

The act by which "Jeroboam made Israel to sin against the Lord" was wholly another and subsequent one—his meddling with the divinely appointed constitution of the church to promote merely political ends. (1 Kings, xii. 26-28).

Thus, while the Biblical history does not prohibit stronger forms of government as sins per se, it indicates God's preference for the representative republic as distinguished from the levelling democracy; and to this theory of human rights all its moral teachings correspond. On the other hand, it constitutes civil society of superiors, inferiors and equals (see Shorter Catechism, Question 64), making the household represented by the parent and master the integral unit of the social fabric, assigning to each order, higher or lower, its rule or subordination under the distributive equity of the law. On the other hand, it protected each order in its legal privileges and prohibited oppression and injustice as to all.

In a word, the maxim of the scriptural social ethics may be justly expressed in the great words of the British Constitution, "Peer and peasant are equal before the law," which were the guide of a Pym, a Hampden, a Sydney, a Locke, a Chatham, and equally of Hancock, Adams, Washington, Mason, and Henry. Their theory assigned to the different classes of human beings in the commonwealth different grades of privilege and of function, according to their different natures and qualifications; but it held that the inferior is shielded in his right to his smaller franchise, by the same relation to the common heavenly Father, by the same Golden Rule and the equitable right which shields the superior in the enjoyment of his larger powers. The functions and privileges of the peer are in some respects very different from those of the peasant; but the same law protects them both as to their several duties. This theory thus established between all men a moral, but not a mechanical equality. Higher and lower hold alike the same relation to the supreme ruler and ordainer of the commonwealth, God; yet they hold different relations to each other in society, corresponding to their differing capacities and fitnesses, which equity itself demands. Job understood this maxim of Bible republicanism, as he shows (chap. xxxi. 13, 14, 15): "If I did despise the cause of my man-servant or of my maid-servant, when they contended with me; what, then, shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth me, what shall I answer him? Did not he that made me in the womb make him?" So Paul, two thousand years later (Eph. vi. 9; Col. iv. 1). Kύριοι [masters] give to your δούλοι [servants] those things which are just and equal. The two teach the same doctrine. On the one hand, they assert the relation of the superior and inferior; with their unequal franchises; on the other hand, they assert in the same breath the equal moral obligation of both as bearing the common relation to the one divine maker and judge.

The radical social theory asserts, under the same name, a totally different doctrine; its maxim is "all men are born free and equal." It supposes that social fabric constituted of individuals naturally absolute and sovereign as its integers, and this by some sort of social contract, in entering which individual men act with a freedom equally complete as to God and each other. It defines each one's natural liberty as freedom to do whatever he wishes, and his civil liberty after he optionally enters society, as that remainder of his natural prerogative not surrendered to the social contract. Consequently the theory teaches that exactly the same surrender must be exacted of each one under this social contract, whence each individual is inalienably entitled to all the same franchises and functions in society as well as to his moral equality; so that it is a natural iniquity to withhold from any adult person by law any prerogative which is legally conferred on any other member in society. The equality must be mechanical as well as moral, else the society is charged with natural injustice.

Every fair mind sees that this is not only a different but an opposite social theory. Yet its advocates are accustomed to advance it as the equivalent of the other, to teach it under the same nomenclature, and to assert that the difference between them is purely visionary. So widespread and profound is this confusion of thought, that the majority of the American people and of their teachers practically know and hold no other theory than the Jacobin one. They assume, as a matter of course, that it is this theory which is the firm logical basis of constitutional government; whereas history and science show that it is a fatal heresy of thought, which uproots every possible foundation of just freedom, and grounds only the most ruthless despotism. But none the less is this the passionate belief of millions, for the sake of which they are willing to assail the Bible itself. . . .




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