As presented to the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, September 16, 2020, with the title The Biblical Origin of Individual Civil Liberties, and Two Competing Views on Their Legitimacy and Implementation.
The Declaration of Independence makes the audacious claim that “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” This assertion of origin is rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview—or more precisely, a Biblical one—and has been embraced by America’s founding fathers and their philosophical progenitors. In contrast, Plato’s ideal of Republic and its implementation in contemporary Marxist theory is rooted in an opposing understanding of the origin and scope of human rights. These two competing socio-political systems underscore the significance of human origin for practical aspects of societal structures and daily life within those constructs.
This paper examines the Biblical roots of individual civil liberties, showing the importance of interpretive method applied to key passages. In literal grammatical historical renderings, the Declaration’s unalienable rights claim is affirmed, while other hermeneutic devices allow for an ecclesiastic advocacy of the Platonic/Marxian alternative. Either system can be championed in the name of God, depending on the hermeneutic employed. This is, in the pursuit of a proper worldview, another key instance in which the importance of interpretive method is discernible, and dispensational conclusions can be seen as having much greater (positive) reach than has been traditionally assumed by their critics.
Plato’s Philosopher King Ideal Versus the Genesis-Revelation Doxology
Plato (428-348BC) asserts that the human psuche is comprised of three parts: appetite, spirit, and mind. The appetite represents the basic desires, and that which might ground an artisan to pursue his craft in order to meet those basic needs. Spirit is the passion that would drive a person toward justice and protection. The mind is that which undergirds a reflective and thoughtful approach to life. Each individual possesses all three elements, but one will dominate. If a person is primarily driven by appetite, that person will (and should) be an artisan—one of the business class. If a person is directed by spirit, that person would be well fitted to be a guardian—one of the military class—in order to help protect society. If a person is more shaped by mind, that person may be well fitted to be at the top of the guardian class as a philosopher king. It is only the enlightened mind-centrics who are qualified to lead society in this way. Because artisans and lower guardians have very limited perspectives and are not predisposed to examine life and understand how it all works, that the philosopher kings are the necessary rulers of society. Only they have the needed enlightenment to rightly govern and direct society. For society to flourish, the “organ of knowledge must be turned around from the world of becoming … until the soul is able to endure the contemplation of essence and the brightest region of being.”1 Only the philosopher kings were able to accomplish this correct understanding of reality. For Plato, then, there was little concern for individual rights—particularly in the oversight of society. His priority was the well-being of the Republic, and that could only be ensured when the philosopher kings were ruling. It is based on this metaphysical understanding that Plato despised democracy, for democracy represented a rule by those who were unenlightened and could not possibly govern well. Plato’s anthropocentric, naturalistic elitism is a direct antithesis to Biblical conceptions of government and rule.
Genesis 1:26-27 records God’s decree for the creation of humanity and the fulfilling of the decree. Unlike any other aspect of creation, the man and woman were created in the image of God,2 and thus possessed the qualification and the qualities needed to govern His world as He prescribed.3 It is evident that those qualifications and qualities were at least altered if not destroyed at the Fall,4 leaving behind a human race imprinted with the image of Adam5—broken and separated from God. This new reality for humanity was one of fallenness and incapacity to fulfill the rule and subdue mandate. The mandate was redacted, or rescinded, and humanity was no longer expected to govern as initially prescribed (hence the concept of redacted dominionism).6 Still God promised to provide a redemptive path for humanity,7 and He fulfilled that promise in the person and work of Jesus the Christ.8 Restoration and reconciliation with God was provided for all through belief in Him.9
While the provisions for redemption were put in place, the rule of humanity over creation was not restored. As Paul puts it, “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now … ”10 One day when hope is fulfilled, the creation itself will be redeemed at His glorification. Christ Himself will fulfill the human mandate for governance,11 as He is the only (untarnished) one with the qualifications and qualities to do so. Until the inauguration of His rule, human government is flawed and doomed to failure.12
God’s redemptive plan for humanity is a central Scriptural theme but is not His highest goal. The redemptive plan serves His doxological purpose—to express His own glory and character.13 The Bible underscores a redemptive plan for humanity’s ultimate restoration, and that plan is designed and executed by God for the purpose of His own glory.
While Plato asserts that only the most enlightened of humanity should rule, and that quality for governance is measured by quality of mind, the Biblical model suggests that human government is inherently imperfect until the qualified King takes His throne. Plato’s ideal is the philosopher king. The Biblical ideal is the Messianic King. Plato’s socio-political system is anthropocentric. The Biblical model is theocentric. It is evident then that a Biblical model for human rights is undergirded by the doxological principle and derives human value not from human achievement, but from Divine design. It is for this foundational reason that the contemporary progressive socialist socio political tendencies reflect Platonic rather than Scriptural thinking, yet Plato’s conclusions are found not only in atheistic elucidations of human rights (such as that of Marx and Engels), but also in some theistic models. It is especially in these cases that hermeneutic inconsistencies lead to socio political inconsistencies.
1 Plato, The Republic, Books VI-X, Paul Shorey, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), (518c), 135.
2 Genesis 1:27.
3 Genesis 1:28.
4 Genesis 2:17.
5 Genesis 5:3.
6 Cf., Genesis 1:17-28 and 9:7.
7 Genesis 3:15, 12:1-3, 15:6, 22:10-18.
8 Romans 5.
9 Genesis 15:6, John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9.
10 Romans 8:22.
11 Revelation 20.
12 E.g., Daniel 2.
13 As expressed in Ephesians 1:5,6,12,14.
Christopher Cone, Th.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, serves as President and CEO of AgathonEDU Educational Group. Cone has served as President of Calvary University and as Research Professor of Bible and Theology, in roles at Southern California Seminary as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology, and at Tyndale Theological Seminary as President and Professor of Bible and Theology. His articles are published at www.drcone.com.