Lord of the Law: Part III

Common Law

(Continued from Part II)

Throughout history many philosophers have subscribed to the concept of Natural Law. They thought about it, considered it’s implications, and articulated it’s meaning. Some of the more noteworthy philosophers of this persuasion are Socrates, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson.

lawbooksFor these men, and many others like them, law was a science. It pre-existed in nature every bit as much as biology, physics, and chemistry. They realized man could no more dictate moral absolutes and the content of legitimate laws than he could dictate scientific principles.

Example: The rate at which an object falls is 32 feet per second per second. This is scientific fact. Man cannot declare an object fall any faster or slower — because he has no authority over gravity. None. Science is not ours to define it is ours to discover.

So is the law.

It was the attempt to discover Natural Law that lead to the development of “Common Law.” Common Law is a form of law that develops over time. Where Natural Law was understood to be in force, judges would seek to “discover” the appropriate application of that law when deciding a conflict. They did not endeavor to establish a law from nothing, they sought to find out how nature’s laws applied to their particular situation. Then, in subsequent cases, judges would look back on previous decisions to learn from their predecessors. This is a system of law based on precedent. It’s called case law and it originated from people who accepted the principle of Natural Law.

ladyjusticeOf course, not everyone accepts the principle of Natural Law. Quite the contrary is true. There have always been those who advocated law by decree. Strangely enough, the people who advocated such a system were usually the very people in positions to issue decrees. They were the kings, queens, dukes, duchesses and emperors of their day. They wanted to have their way — and the best way to do that was to have their will declared law.

In the days of the Roman Empire emperors accomplished this by claiming to be divine. They were worshipped as gods and so their word was considered an absolute authority. Later, when kings were regarded as less than divine they still managed to hold claim to absolute authority through a doctrine they called the “Divine Right of Kings.”

While they might consent to being regarded as less than divine, they did claim that their position as a monarch was the will of God. Their right to rule came directly from the will of God and so anyone who defied the king’s will was considered a heretic for defying the very will of God.

And so, through the ages, a conflict has raged — between those who believe the law is whatever they say it is and those who believe the law is a component of creation and is to be discovered and equally applied to all. And, as is the case with most historical conflicts, you have periods of time where one side has held the upper hand and periods of time when the other side has held the upper hand. In this case, Natural Law took a beating for quite some time. Beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing through most of the Middle Ages the Divine Right of Kings held sway. Then, in 1215, things began to change.

magnacartaIn 1215 the Magna Carta was drafted. The Magna Carta, which is Latin for “Great Charter,” is a document drafted by many of the Barons and Lords of England who lived under the rule of King John. King John was one of those people who subscribed to the Divine Right of Kings and acted accordingly. By 1215 the people of England were fed up. In the Magna Carta they declared that they had certain rights apart from the king’s decrees and that even the will of King John was subject to a higher law.

This was the start of a comeback for Natural Law and the beginning of the establishment of English Common Law. The Magna Carta became more and more influential through the years. It influenced John Lock who, in turn, influenced Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, you may recall, is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, a document that is, perhaps, the definitive declaration of Natural Law.

And, of course, the conflict rages on.

So, what’s a Christian to make of all this?

Well, this is where things can get dicey. Some Christians fall solidly into one camp while some fall solidly into the other. I tend to think the Bible makes a good case for the concept of Natural Law. But others say things like…

“Doesn’t Romans chapter 13 mean that Christians must submit to whoever is in power?”

… and…

“When Jesus said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ didn’t he mean we must do what Caesar says?”

Good questions. We’ll tackle those in Lord of the Law: Part IV, Higher Law.


About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

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