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The Declaration of Independence: The Necessity and Priority of Rights
The Declaration of Independence attributes the rights of individuals and government to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”47 By virtue of all humanity being created equal,48 all equally are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”49 These rights are integral to human existence, and their description as unalienable means they cannot be removed from the individual. The Declaration orders the rights by logical priority: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”50 Without life, one cannot have liberty, and without liberty one cannot pursue happiness. The order of these rights is no coincidence, and it is by failing to recognize the order of importance in priority that they are often violated. For example, the pro-choice platform argues that “the government should not intrude into an area of intimate, private decision-making … Instead, the government should remain neutral on the issue of childbearing and allow people to make their own decisions.”51 This thinking emphasizes the woman’s personal liberty, which is at first glance a wonderful thing. However, the grave error is that it prioritizes the woman’s personal liberty over the unborn’s right to life. The current Democratic Platform includes this right to choose as an inherent need for the flourishing of women: “We believe that comprehensive health services, including access to reproductive care and abortion services, are vital to the empowerment of women and girls.”52 On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Platform affirms that, “The Constitution’s guarantee that no one can “be deprived of life, liberty or property” deliberately echoes the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “all” are “endowed by their Creator” with the inalienable right to life. Accordingly, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth.”53
The order of these rights matters immensely, and violating the order of these rights violates the Declaration and the Constitution which guarantees and protects the three unalienable rights. Consequently, any violation of those rights represents tyranny, and reasonable justification for peoples to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”54 By implication no governing authority has the right to violate these rights and any authority that does so represents political bands which may rightly dissolved. In acknowledging these bands, the Declaration is asserting that no person has the right to rule over another in a way that violates these rights. Based on self-evident natural law created by God, the three essential human rights are the necessary condition for governmental authority. Natural law supersedes governmental law, as governmental law is (or ought to be) an outworking of natural law.
Because God as Creator supersedes natural law, lack of submission to governmental powers that usurp these inherent human rights imbued by God is no violation of legitimate authority, and thus the Declaration can call upon people to “throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”55 This is revolution without rebellion. The Declaration advocates governmental overthrow, and its authors knew full well Paul’s mandate that “every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities”56 Perhaps they also understood the passage to come with an important qualification. Those who are governing (ὑπερεχούσαις) are not necessarily authoritative. Only those who are governing and actually are authorities (ἐξουσίαις) are subject to this kind of submission. Paul says nothing of tyrannical rulers or those who are usurping authority, but rather he addresses those who actually are authorities as having authority established by God Himself.57 Therefore, the one resisting the authority (τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ) is resisting God Himself.58 Nonetheless, we cannot read Romans through the lens of the Declaration, instead we must view the Declaration through the lens of Romans.
Biblical Assertions of Individual Civil Liberties
It is evident that Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans during a time of tyranny and unjust rulership. He wrote the letter in 56-57,59 during Nero’s rule—one of the most oppressive administrations in Roman history. While he generally set a submissive and respectful tone, the trajectory of his entire ministry was impacted by a continuous civil disobedience on his part. First, before he became a believer in and follower of Christ, he was an enforcer against those who were violating the law in following Christ.60 After his conversion, Paul was proclaiming the gospel of that very Christ, was imprisoned for doing so, and kept proclaiming the good news of Jesus anyway.61 He encountered state and civil sanctions on numerous occasions,62 yet remained undeterred. Like Peter who said, “We must obey God rather than men,”63 Paul’s own actions help provide context and qualification of his exhortation that believers be submissive to governing authorities. Paul understood both the Source and the nature of true authority, and he recognized that those two concepts were intertwined with the idea of individual liberties—both by nature, and in Christ.
Humanity was created uniquely in the image of God, and as such enjoyed a different relationship to nature than the rest of creation.64 Animals were not described as being morally accountable for how they treated each other, but they were held morally accountable for their treatment of human life.65 Further, humanity was mandated to enforce the sanctity of the imago dei in humanity.66 It is in this context that we find the first mandate for human government, and it is directly connected with the sanctity of life for every individual human.
Within the Mosaic Law not only was God concerned with national interests, but He also paid close attention to individual interests. The last six of the Ten Commandments dealt with actions toward individuals.67 In fact, God was so considerate of individual liberties—after establishing the individual’s right to life, that He even protected their “right” to possess, without molestation, their own personal property.68
While God is sovereign over governments,69 He also works through the vessels of human governments, appointing kings and holding them accountable.70 When Jesus instructed His listeners to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s, He wasn’t taking a laissez faire approach to human government, rather He was illustrating how people could recognize the limitation of human government, not of His own. As had been prophesied long prior, there would be no end to His government.71 In that future kingdom economy there is individual responsibility and individual blessing—happiness.72
In the present age individual liberties are expressed in the phrase “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”73 Love cannot infringe on one’s Biblical right to life,74 nor on ones’ personal liberty (or freedoms) except their own freedoms on behalf of another,75 nor on one’s pursuit of happiness—if happiness is defined as blessing, which comes from right relationship with the Lord and proper application of that position in relationship with others.76 Even in the body of Christ which is one, there are many members, and each play a vital role,77 and each have a manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good.78 As Peter later explains, each believer is gifted for the purpose of glorifying Him through serving one another.79 There is an incredible balance between personal liberties and personal responsibilities. Without the one, the other cannot be met.
In taking these passages at face value, we recognize that God first provides a platform wherein we can understand what He has said and what He intends (epistemology), then He has revealed to us the realities of which He wants us to be aware (metaphysics). Once we understand the realities and have confidence that we have understood Him, we can understand what we should do about all this (ethics), and how we should interact with each other (social political thought). For Plato, Filmer, Marx, Engels, and other thinkers who are not beginning with God as authoritative (Filmer begins with God, but enthrones himself as interpreter of Scripture), their understanding of the nature of the individual and their rights and liberties is distorted. On the other hand, with the literal grammatical historical understanding of Scripture, we end up with similar conclusions as Locke, Smith, and the writers of the Declaration—these who recognize that all humanity possesses unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of fulfillment and blessing by knowing God and utilizing that which He has given to us.
47 The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, viewed at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
48 Declaration of Independence.
49 Declaration of Independence.
50 Declaration of Independence.
51 ACLU, “The Right to Choose at 25: Looking Back and Ahead” viewed at https://www.aclu.org/other/right-choose-25-looking-back-and-ahead/
52 The 2020 Democratic Party Platform, 82, viewed at https://www.demconvention.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/2020-07-31-Demo….
53 The 2020 Republican Party Platform, 13, viewed at https://prod-cdn-static.gop.com/docs/Resolution_Platform_2020.pdf.
54 Declaration of Independence.
55 Declaration of Independence.
56 Romans 13:1a.
57 Romans 13:1b.
58 Romans 13:2.
59 Christopher Cone, A Concise Bible Survey: Tracing the Promises of God, 4th Edition (Fort Worth, TX: Exegetica Publishing, 2012), 216.
60 Acts 8-9.
61 E.g., Acts 16.
62 2 Corinthians 11:23-26.
63 Acts 5:29.
64 Genesis 1:26-28.
65 Genesis 9:5.
66 Genesis 9:6.
67 Exodus 20:12-17.
68 E.g., Exodus 20:17b – “or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
69 Job 12:23, Psalm 22:28, 47:8, 75:7,82:8, Isaiah 40:15-17.
70 E.g., 1 Samuel 13, Daniel 4, etc.
71 E.g., Daniel 2:44-45.
72 Jeremiah 31:29-30, 34-35.
73 Romans 13:10.
74 Genesis 9:6.
75 1 Corinthians 11:23-24, 31-33.
76 E.g., Matthew 18:6, 19:14.
77 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.
78 1 Corinthians 12:7.
79 1 Peter 4:10-11.
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.