Monthly Archives: February 2022

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom II (What If—22)

The teachings of Jesus about human freedom had a strong impact on the church in the next centuries. The church father Tertullian of Carthage (ca. AD 155-220), the first to write extensively in the Latin language, spoke out strongly in favor of freedom of conscience, even though the Empire was not friendly to the church at the time. A significant moment in human freedom was the altercation between the church father Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and the Christian Emperor Theodosius, around AD 390. After rioting in Thessalonica took the life of the Roman governor, Theodosius responded by sending in the army and slaughtering 7000 civilians who had gathered in the local hippodrome. When he heard about this, Ambrose sent Theodosius a letter rebuking him for this brutality and telling Theodosius that he would be refused communion until he demonstrated repentance. The key point in the letter is Ambrose telling Theodosius that “no one is above the law”. Even kings are subject to a higher court, namely the judgment of God. This concept is crucial to western democracy today. Around the same time, Augustine (ca. AD 400) extended the concept of liberty to pagans, arguing that they should not be forced to accept Jesus.

While developments in the Roman world were important, it was in the British Isles that the fruit of Jesus teaching on human freedom would have the biggest impact on our world today. Through the efforts of Saint Patrick (arrived in Ireland around AD 432), the Ten Commandments became the foundation of civil law in Britain. By the time of King Alfred (ca. AD 890), the Ten Commandments and the golden rule had become the foundation of English law. But the key turn for human freedom was the Magna Carta, a thoroughly Christian document written in AD 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I enshrined freedom under law as a key element of British governance and became the inspiration for the United States Constitution five and a half centuries later. So it was in Great Britain that the early Christian advances in the realm of human freedom were passed on from the Mediterranean world to modern times.

The next key development in the march of human freedom was the Reformation, particular the branch of the Reformation centered in Calvin’s Geneva. John Calvin set up an organizational structure for both the church and the city that was based on the Scriptures, particularly the principles taught by Jesus. The Presbyterian model of church governance that arose in Geneva (and followed to a great extent by the Seventh-day Adventist Church) included government by law and elected representatives that included checks and balances. Based on his reading of the Bible, John Calvin was well aware of sinful human depravity, so he did not trust a government without checks and balances against the abuse of power. This was a very important advance in human governance.

The advances in human governance achieved by the Reformation had a strong impact on the “American experiment”. This impact began with the Mayflower Compact, put together by the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts (AD 1620 and following). These earnest followers of Jesus decided that rule in the new settlement was to be by mutual agreement. All were to be equal under law and there was to be no aristocracy among them, a major step for people accustomed to British nobility. But in spite of the important concepts in the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts Colony was not a bastion of religious liberty. Deviations in theology from the Presbyterian authorities was punishable. So Roger Williams (AD 1636) had to leave the colony and settle in Rhode Island to establish a beachhead of religious liberty on the American continent. Soon after, in Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn guaranteed religious liberty in that part of the colonies. Pennsylvania welcomed people of all religious persuasions from AD 1682 on and in AD 1701 Penn established the Charter of Privileges, which spelled out the religious liberties the colony would protect. So by 1700 religious liberty had established strong roots in the American colonies. But that was only the beginning.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom (What If—21)

I apologize for the long silence. I have been chasing many things lately and these blogs do take significant time to write. Hope they are worth the wait.

People think of Athens as the birthplace of intellectual freedom and democracy, and in a real sense it was. But the freedom that Athens initiated was only for the elites of society, it didn’t apply to the common people. And it was fairly limited even for the elites. The elites of Athens could vote but they had no protection against abuse by the majority, whatever they decided. The state was considered more important than the individual. That meant that the individual of Athenian society was subject to the whims of the collective body. It was the “tyranny of the majority”. There was no idea of “individual liberty” in Athens. The classic example of that was the fate of Socrates, who was condemned to death by a vote of 280 to 220. So Athens made some important contributions to the idea of human freedom, but did not go nearly far enough.

The Jewish world in ancient times contained many examples of abusive leadership in both the political and religious spheres (think Rehoboam and Caiaphas, among others). But the Israelites had a strong love for freedom, grounded in the Exodus experience. They remembered that they were slaves in the land of Egypt and that God had brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21, etc.). The same God also instituted the Jubilee, a once-in-a-lifetime event when liberty was proclaimed throughout the land (Lev 25:10).

An additional Jewish contribution to human freedom was the idea of human equality. After all, if everyone was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), no one is less so than any other. Equality was reinforced by Deuteronomy 10:17-19, where God is declared to show no partiality. His love is not centered on the rich and powerful, He loves orphans, widows, and foreigners, people who can usually offer nothing in return.

God’s commitment to impartiality and freedom is also seen in the law of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:25). We recognize that having two or three witnesses to establish the truth of a matter is a good idea. But the implications of such a law go even further. Requiring two or three witnesses meant that no one, not even the king, could arbitrarily deprive someone of life and liberty. This was a shocking limitation on kingly power in the ancient world. It also meant that no one is above the law, not even the king. This was a radical idea in ancient times.

Finally, it could be argued that the Ten Commandments are the very foundation of universal human rights. The Ten Commandments meant that Israelite law was designed to protect the family (commandments five and seven), to protect life (commandment six), to protect property (commandments eight and ten) and to protect truth (commandment nine). From these flow a high regard for human rights to life, liberty, property, and the family as the glue and backbone of society.

Then Jesus came. Building on the foundation of Judaism, He underlined the importance of freedom, equality and equal treatment of all. In John 8:32, 36 He noted that the purpose of truth is not to restrict people but to truly set them free. Paul underlined this teaching of Jesus when he wrote that wherever the Spirit of God is found, there is true liberty (2 Cor 3:17). In Matthew 22:21, Jesus articulated the importance of keeping the church and the state separate. His followers were to be supportive of the highest goals of state and society while keeping the things of God central to everything they did. He highlighted the character of God, which is exhibited in the sun and the rain, realities that affect all people equally (Matt 5:45-47). He encouraged all to be like God in His impartial treatment, even of those who are opposed to His principles (Acts 10:34-35). There is no more distinction of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Followers of Jesus and Paul were to treat everyone equally, without distinction of gender, race or social standing.

While these principles could be found within the teachings of Judaism, there were seriously absent in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born. One of the first things one would notice about the Roman Empire is that it was not a free place. More than seventy percent of the inhabitants of the Empire were slaves. The Emperor had power of life and death over just about everybody. And slaveholders had power of life and death over their own slaves. The inklings of freedom and democracy that had stirred Athens were long gone by the time Jesus came. As in so many other areas, His arrival was a turning point in human history.