Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
Human Dignity and the Human Heart
from Human Rights and Human Dignity
|The path we have traveled in search of human dignity began in the realm of jurisprudence; it ends in theology. We have weighed secular philosophies of human rights and other religious options in the balance and found them wanting, and we have provided a solid evidential foundation for the biblical value system. Now, in conclusion, we examine liberal and classical theological approaches, and arrive at the preeminent Christian doctrines of creation and redemption as the keys to human dignity.|
Not Just the Trees
|To appreciate fully the significance of the biblical approach to human
dignity, one must not just consider isolated scriptural texts bearing on
particular human rights issues. The forest has to be seen as well as the trees
(and not only when dealing with third-generation environmental rights!). Our
final chapter therefore concentrates on the general theological themes most
pertinent to human dignity. Treatment of these themes will put in bold relief
the unique value .of the Christian message in solving the most intractable
difficulties of human rights theory and practice.
Theological styles may be roughly divided into two camps: liberal and classical. This distinction, between those who regard themselves as capable of constructing theology de novo and those who maintain commitment to existing biblical and confessional formulations, is today far more significant - even sociologically - than the differences between, say. Roman Catholics and Protestants. Let us begin with a word about liberal theologies and human rights.
|In our previous encounter (this term is de rigueur in any liberal
theological dialogue) with Professor Walter Harrelson on the Ten Commandments,
we observed that liberalism's critical attitude toward the Bible (1) was
inconsistent with Jesus' attitude toward it, and (2) undercut the liberal's own
laudatory effort to find a solid basis for ethics and human rights. Once the
liberal theologian has unnecessarily and unjustifiably reduced biblical content
to mere human opinion, he has so emasculated it that it offers no advantages
over secular philosophies of human rights. The pabulum-like results can be
seen, for example, in an issue of the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical
Review devoted to human rights.
A glance at three influential liberal theologies (process theology, existentialism, situationism) will reinforce this point and make us even more appreciative of the need for a reliable biblical revelation to establish inalienable rights.
|Process theology, represented especially by John B. Cobb. Jr., Norman Pittenger. and Schubert Ogden, derives from the philosophical thought of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. It reverses the ontological position of the Greek philosophy of the Golden Age that Being precedes Becoming, and maintains that change ("process") is the ultimate category of understanding. God himself is interlocked with the world in a panentheistic fashion (though God is not merely to be identified with the world, as in pantheism, the world exists in God and therefore he changes as it changes). In Roman Catholic circles, Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary theology - the world growing into a divine, cosmic "Omega Point" - has affinities with the process orientation, as does the liberal Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann's eschatological "theology of hope."|
|Process theology has a number of crippling deficiencies. Harry K. Wells, endeavoring to shore up Whitehead's view, argued that if process is all, one cannot any longer use traditional, formal logic (based on the static law of noncontradiction): one should shift to Hegel's dialectic logic! But Bertrand Russell, in his devastating critique of Hegel, demonstrated that Hegelian "logic" presupposes traditional logic anyway - as does all meaningful thinking. In logic as in life, one cannot start from flux. Moreover, theologically, process thought pays no serious attention to the biblical doctrine of sin (God presumably sins as the world sins - or neither sins), and it has no room for a meaningful Incarnation (the world is already in God: why should God bother with a distinctive entry into human history?).|
|As for human rights, process theology is a total washout. By definition, it cannot offer inalienable rights - or inalienable anything. Its approach at root denies the "static" category of absoluteness. Rights, therefore, become part of the continually changing process - much as in Marxism, where they are forever conditioned by changing modes of production. But the problem cuts even deeper: man himself cannot be regarded as a constant entity. "In the most concrete terms, according to Hartshorne, there is no permanently or continuously enduring human ego or soul or self." Human rights thus lack all permanence, not only because rights are impermanent but more especially because the very notion of humanity is thoroughly processive. Yet the Bible says Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, is "the same yesterday, and today, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8).|
|Existential theology has very different roots from process theology: its modern progenitor, Søren Kierkegaard, arrived at it in full reaction against the dominant philosophical ideology of his time (nineteenth-century Hegelianism). But in common with process theology, existential theology opposes the static. As process thought rejects Being as a fundamental category, so existentialism rejects Essence. Existence is substituted for Essence (thus the name, "existentialism"). By Existence is meant, not change or any similar abstraction, but personal reality - the subjective perception and creation of meaning in one's innermost self. Theological existentialism is impatient with all formal, abstract, propositional statements of doctrine or ethics, believing, in Kierkegaard's phrase, that "truth is subjectivity" and that one must discover it in the particulars of experience, not in any alleged universal, timeless generalities.|
|A good example of the ramifications of this approach in legal ethics is provided by the late Resigned Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike (a lawyer before he was ordained). In his 1962 Rosenthal Lectures at Northwestern University Law School, published under the significant title, Beyond the Law, Pike declares expressly that he is an existentialist. He goes on to apply that perspective to the Ten Commandments and biblical precepts in general. He admits that "they give us a very good rule of thumb as to standard situations, thus saving us from the necessity of going through a great moral struggle of repeated contextual patterns." But they are at root conventional, like traffic lights. "One could perhaps make a better case for green being the proper color for stop and red the proper color for go, but it is better for all-round reliability simply to follow the mores and stop on red and go on green. . . . But such rules, whether they be traffic regulations or commandments from Mount Sinai, do not exhaust the full moral dimension of things."|
|A Mess of
|I am not prepared to argue the metes and bounds of "the full moral dimension of things," but I suggest that such an approach leaves one in a moral quagmire. If biblical morality is only conventional, what criteria are to be used to determine when it is applicable, and, if it isn't, what is to be substituted? The existential feelings of the individual as he encounters each new ethical or human rights dilemma? Jesus certainly did not take this view of biblical commandments: for Him, "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matt. 5:18). It should go without saying that in today's life-or-death struggle for inalienable human rights, an existential theological ethic sells its biblical birthright for a mess of subjectivistic pottage.|
|Closely related to the existential theological ethic is Joseph Fletcher's situationism. Its core propositions are: "Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love"; "only the end justifies the means"; and "decisions ought to be made situationally, not prescriptively.'' As in existential theology, there is powerful resistance to the binding, absolute force of scriptural principle. Ethical decisions are to be made, not on the basis of God's prescriptive commands, but out of "love" - and the achievement of a loving end justifies any means to bring it about.|
|In my public debate with Professor Fletcher at San Diego State College in l97l, I stressed the hopeless inadequacy of such an ethic for dealing with practical moral problems. Because love remains undefined in Fletcher's (essentially utilitarian) philosophy, any ethical results can flow from its operation. It should not take George Orwell's 1984 to remind us that human rights violators have always twisted vocabulary propagandistically, so that slavery becomes freedom - and hate becomes love. Essential to an adequate philosophy of human dignity are consistent, binding norms, and an absolute, nonsituational justification of proper ethical standards.|
|The incredible dangers for human rights that flow from situationism are particularly evident when one examines Fletcher's views in the areas of abortion, treatment of the handicapped, and genetic engineering. In his capacity as professor of medical ethics, he has taken positions reflecting a denial of the human personhood of the fetus; he favors unrestrained termination of lives that are allegedly lacking in sufficient "quality of life"; and he has no ethical objections to virtually unlimited experimentation with human genetic-chromosomal material. Without the Bible's unqualified respect for the human person, such aberrations are almost inevitable in a situational context.|
|What all three of the liberal theologies we have just discussed have
in common is endemic relativism. And relativism is the last thing needed for
human rights. Inalienable rights require a constant (nonprocess) human nature,
and norms of human dignity that do not alter with every change of existential
perception or contextual situation. Jacques Maritain might as well have been
speaking of the consequences of liberal theology as of secularism when he
declared that since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment man has asserted
the absolute independence of the human subject and a so-called absolute right - which supposedly pertains to everything in the human subject by the mere fact that it is in him - to unfold one's cherished possibilities at the expense of all other beings. When men thus instructed clashed on all sides with the impossible, they came to believe in the bankruptcy of the rights of the human person. Some have turned against these rights with an enslaver's fury: some have continued to invoke them, while in their inmost conscience they are weighed down by a temptation to scepticism which is one of the most alarming symptoms of the present crisis. A kind of intellectual and moral revolution is required of us, in order to reestablish on the basis of a true philosophy our faith in the dignity of man and in his rights, and in order to rediscover the authentic sources of this faith.
at a Dead End
|The theologian should be doing his utmost to preserve and extend that message of the gospel rather than (as in theological liberalism) diluting it. Where dilution occurs, the result is an inability on the theologian's part to say anything significant about human rights. Characteristically, of the five contemporary theological models of human rights identified by Huber and Tödt, no less than two (including Tödt's) come to the conclusion that "we must give up trying to justify or legitimize human rights on theological grounds" and that "there is no question of seeking a theological foundation for human rights."|
|What of the classical theologies of Christendom, which (unlike theological liberalism) have on the whole sought to remain within scriptural and confessional boundaries? Let us try to discover the particular motifs of three such theologies of human rights, those of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. We shall endeavor to set forth their distinctives vis-à-vis human rights, as they themselves emphasize them.|
|In classical Roman Catholicism, the key human rights motif is the
dichotomy between nature and grace. This scholastic distinction is still
even though in recent decades a more biblically-oriented approach has emerged, bringing with it a more holist outlook, which sometimes shows signs of slipping over into a monist theology. In the traditional Roman Catholic view, however, which is still dominant in its confessional utterances, the realm of grace stands over and beyond the realm of nature. Nature is viewed as relatively immune to the affects of sin. Grace, however, is lost by man's fall into sin, to be restored by the grace of the sacraments. Grace, therefore, does not renew and redeem nature, but complements and elevates it. The realm of nature, the public sector of life, accordingly, is good, but the state of grace is better. Each realm has its own peculiar God-given standards of conduct. In the higher realm of church life the controlling norm is faith. The lower realm of societal life stands under the rule of reason.
of This Motif
|There are at least two grave dangers in a theology of human rights that is built on the naturegrace dichotomy. First, because the effects of the Fall are not seen to permeate nature thoroughly (contrast Rom. 8:22), there is a strong tendency to overvalue natural theology and natural law teaching. The result is reliance on immanent, moralistic remedies to human rights problems instead of stressing the need for transcendent, revelational solutions. Secondly, the nature - grace dichotomy tends to encourage withdrawal from the secular realm of human rights to a spiritual, ecclesiastical realm of grace - the monastic failing, where separation from the world and concentration on liturgical holiness and official pronouncements offer a retreat (in both senses of the term) from the agonies of man's inhumanity to man. The ease with which not a few Roman Catholic theologians in recent years have embraced Liberation theology (with its double dose of weaknesses: those of process theology and of Marxism) can in part be explained as a reaction against the inability of traditional, scholastic Catholic theology to cope with the dilemmas of the contemporary human rights scene.|
|Lutherans have been in the forefront of the modern human rights
movement. Pastor O. Frederick Nolde, to take but one example, is singled out by
René Cassin for his "zealous support of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights." Such zeal has clear precedent in the Reformer's own career.
Within six years of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther
was faced with the issue of human rights in a very concrete fashion. Duke Georg of Saxony wanted to ban from circulation the New Testament translated by Luther and stem the progress of the evangelical movement across his land. This gave Luther an opportunity to express in writing his views on secular authority and the limits of the obedience due to it (1523), stressing those limits in vigorous terms: << the soul eludes any form of human ascendancy and pertains to the power of God alone. . . . faith is a divine work which issues forth from the Spirit and consequently shall not be imposed or created by any external power>>. (Weimar Edition, vol. 11. p. 263, 14). . . .What has been termed without exaggeration Luther's "Copernican revolution in theology" centered on the formal and material principles of all truly biblical religion: Scripture alone (as the only final revelational authority) and salvation by grace through faith alone (as the only way human beings, dead in trespasses and sins, could be restored to fellowship with a holy and loving God). From this new appreciation of Bible and gospel came Luther's realization that law (what people ought to do) can never be gospel. i.e., can never save people individually or societally but, at best, will show how far short we fall of God's demands and serve as a "schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (Gal. 3:24). Scrupulous care not to confuse law and gospel gave rise to the correlative doctrine of the "two kingdoms," dramatically expressed in Luther's image of the two hands of God.
Luther spoke of "the two hands of God." The "left hand of God" is a formula meaning that God is universally at work in human life, through structures and principles commonly operative in political, economic, and cultural institutions that affect the life of all. The struggle for human rights occurs within this realm of divine activity. However, no matter how much peace and justice and liberty are experienced in these common structures of life, they do not mediate "the one thing needful." This is the function of the gospel of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the "right hand of God." The scandal of the gospel is that salvation is a sheer gift of grace, given freely by God for Christ's sake, and received through faith alone. It is meritorious for a society to grant and guarantee to all its citizens the basic human rights, but high marks in this area do not translate into the righteousness that counts before God in the absolute dimension.
|The Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms and its underlying
law-gospel distinction have been severely criticized as quietistic' -
productive of inaction in the face of social injustice (Troeltsch) - and
dualistic - limiting Christ's lordship to personal salvation rather than
recognizing his sovereignty over all areas of life and of the world (Calvinist
critics). These criticisms misunderstand the Lutheran view, which does not at
all deny God's action in the secular realm. Though the secular world is the
kingdom of the left hand, the hand involved is, after all, God's hand!
Professor Althaus provides helpful clarification when he emphasizes that
intends to view secular life, insofar as Christians participate in it. as being under the lordship of Christ. In fact he does not claim that Christ is lord within the orders as such but only in the men who act within these orders. Thus the secular kingdom does not stand under the lordship of Christ in the same way that the kingdom of Christ or Christendom does. On this, Jesus and the New Testament agree with Luther. The New Testament itself speaks of the lordship of Christ only as his lordship in persons, that is, in their faith. Such Christians will, in fact, work in the world so that the orders and relationships which God has established to serve human life may be reestablished and set free from misuse and distortions. Even though this is true, however, this goal cannot be defined in terms of "Christ's lordship in the orders" - as though there were a Christocracy.The key to Luther's understanding of social ethics is that the individual Christian serves as the point of contact - the connecting link - between the two kingdoms and has the responsibility (and privilege) of remedying social injustice by becoming a "little Christ" to his neighbors. This is anything but quietism: it is faith active in love, based upon a "theology of the Cross." What Lutherans will not tolerate is a "theology of glory" - a utopian, millennial triumphalism in which God's participation in secular life offers believers the possibility of creating a perfect society. A sinless society must wait for Christ's personal return, when "the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ'' (Rev. 11:15).
|Two related emphases in the Lutheran human rights ethic deserve mention. First, in line with the two-kingdoms doctrine and based squarely on apostolic teaching in Romans 13, Lutheran theology has viewed political revolution as always an evil. Cases such as the generals' plot against Hitler illustrate that usurpation of power may be a lesser of evils; but, being a genuine evil, even such an act will necessarily drive the believer back to the Cross for forgiveness. The Bible regards governmental authority as "ordained of God" for our ultimate benefit, and bad government as preferable to no government at all. Revolution, in other words, can easily produce the worst of all conditions for man as a political animal: total anarchy. Lutherans are therefore especially sensitive to the ethical ambiguity in any struggle against constituted authority and insist that the advocate of revolution discharge a heavy burden of proof.|
Not My Own
|Second, Lutheran theology makes an important distinction between one's
own rights and the rights of others. In his treatise On Temporal Authority,
A Christian should be so disposed that he will suffer every evil and injustice without avenging himself; neither will he seek legal redress in the courts but have utterly no need of temporal authority and law for his own sake. On behalf of others, however, he may and should seek retribution, justice, protection, and help, and do as much as he can to achieve it.From such passages Lienhard concludes: "Luther's ideas are determined by one decisive principle. According to him, a Christian accepts his own rights being endangered, but watches zealously over the preservation of his neighbour's rights." Such an approach is very characteristic of Luther: since the believer has received everything from Christ by grace, his life is to be expended not for himself but in behalf of his neighbor (1 John 4:19 - 21). The great value of this theme for a theology of human rights is that it serves as a counterweight to the egotistic special pleading so common in the human rights movement. The activist obnoxiously pushing for the furtherance of his own rights and interests is replaced by the Christian employing his full energies to defend the rights of others.
|Classical Calvinism begins and ends its theologizing with the
sovereignty of God, who by his eternal decrees established a covenantal
relationship with human beings and makes them office-holders in His
In the beginning [God] covenanted the world into existence, and covenantally defined man's place and task in it. All creation stands in covenant relationship to the Creator, either in a covenant-keeping or a covenant-breaking way. Man as imager of God lives always at the intersection-point of three fundamental relationships: he is servant of God, steward and caretaker of creation, and his brother's keeper (Genesis 4:9), guardian of the human rights of his fellowmen. In the covenant embedded in creation, God holds sovereign rights, charter rights, divine rights. Man holds creational rights, human rights. On the ground of the covenant, we have rights (amazing thought!) with respect to God, and God maintains his rights toward us. We also have rights in relation to others, and others may lay their rightful claim upon us.
|Barth||Calvinist emphasis on God's covenant with man as the source of human rights has easily led to a focus on related themes, particularly among neo-orthodox and progressive theologians of Calvinist persuasion. Karl Barth has argued, for example, that "true Church law is exemplary law," i.e., that the Christian community ought to be a model for society at large. Ideally, God's divinely decreed church order should be exemplary for the juridical ordering of the secular state. In this sense, the church is in a position to offer a human rights paradigm for the world.|
|Moltmann||The most prominent contemporary spokesman for a Reformed theology of
human rights is Professor Jürgen Moltmann of Tubingen. In his "original"
and "definitive" study papers for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, he
utilized the theme of liberation as the key to a theology of human dignity,
associating it with the traditional Calvinist motif of the covenant.
By reflecting the liberation, the covenant, and the claim of God according to biblical witnesses, Christian theology also discovers the freedom, the covenant, and the rights of human beings today, and therefore brings out the pain caused by their present inward and outward enslavements, as well as the struggle for their liberation from these enslavements, towards a life of dignity, rights, and duties in fellowship with God. In a world which is not yet the kingdom of God, Christians cannot leave any area of life without witness to the divine liberation, the covenant of God, and the dignity of human beings. The biblical witness to liberation, covenant, and God's claim leads to a corresponding Christian practice and theology.By 1980, Moltmann's liberation focus had undergone a subtle but significant shift. Now the "biblical witnesses" to liberation and covenant are of less immediate importance than the "praxis of liberation" in "one's own life experience." Indeed, for Moltmann, covenantal liberation moves into the orbit of Liberation theology: "Experience in the praxis of liberation from inhumanity is for Christians and churches the concrete starting point for the commitment to human rights."
|Dr. Richard Mouw calls Moltmann's liberation starting-point for a theology of human rights "rather murky." U. Scheuner is even less charitable: "One cannot find the theological justification of human rights in Christian liberty without perverting the very idea. True Christian freedom is liberation from the weight of sin and it occurs through an act of divine reconciliation. . . . No one has the right to receive God's grace." Scheuner's judgment could equally be brought to bear on the Puritan and contemporary supporters of the Calvinist revolutionary tradition (Samuel Rutherford, John W. Whitehead, et al.), who have moved unjustifiably from the liberation passages of the Old Testament (Exod. 3:7-8, 20:2; et al.) to the belief that opposition to constituted authority can be not merely a lesser of evils but actually a positive good. And as for "liberation experience," neither it nor any other existential experience is capable of validating God-talk, theological truth, or absolute values.|
|The most ambitious ecclesiastical attempt to date by traditional
Calvinists to formulate a theology of human rights introduces the concept of
It is a central thesis of this report that a biblically-illumined and biblically-directed view of societal pluralism most faithfully reflects the genius of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It embraces a view of our life together in God's world, of human relationships, and within that context of human rights which captures most clearly and fully the rich insights and wide perspectives of the Reformed worldview. This pluralist view of society has built into it two basic dimensions. First is that aspect called structural pluralism - the idea that by virtue of the creation order we discover the true meaning of our lives within the structured framework of various spheres of activity, each with its own divinely ordained identity and integrity (such as marriage, family, work, worship, play, governance, art, science, journalism, etc.). Second is that aspect known as confessional pluralism - the recognition that as a result of our fall into sin and as a fruit of redemption we now lived [sic] in a religiously divided world with various faith communities (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Humanist, Buddhist, etc.), and that the human rights, the religious liberties, and the freedom of all these groups to express their deepest convictions openly must be assured in an equitable way.
|The careful reader of this somewhat dense passage will observe that the components of societal pluralism - "structural pluralism" and "confessional pluralism" - relate directly to the classic theological loci of creation and redemption. Indeed, it can be argued (and I shall argue) that these two fundamental Christian doctrines provide the common denominators for all the sound human rights teaching which we have met in the classical theologies of Christendom. Let us, therefore, examine in turn the human rights implications of each of these two great core doctrines of biblical revelation.|
The significance of the biblical doctrine of creation for human rights cannot
be exaggerated. Elaine Pagels, professor of history and religion at Barnard
College of Columbia University, locates the very origins of modern human rights
theory in the Book of Genesis.
Where, then, do we get the idea on which contemporary human rights theory rests: that ultimate value resides in the individual, independent from and even prior to participation in any social or political collective? The earliest suggestion of this idea occurs in the Hebrew account which describes Adam, whose name means "humanity," as being created in the "image of God." . . . This account implies the essential equality of all human beings, and supports the idea of rights that all enjoy by virtue of their common humanity.In the New Testament, God becomes man in Jesus Christ, hallowing the human condition anew.
Man has supreme value. This is the first and most important truth that can be deduced from Christ's statements about and treatment of man. Each and every man is, coram deo, a creature of infinite worth. Jesus saw beyond the externals of life, the distinctions of class, the disparities of conditions and the shame of corruption, to the priceless value of human life itself. It was through Jesus Christ that this estimate of man first found revolutionising expression in human history. Herein indeed lies one of the most distinctive contributions of Christianity to civilisation. . . . The canker at the heart of paganism was the absence of certainty that life had any final meaning or permanent value. For Jesus, man was not a creature of passing time, a bearer of borrowed values, a worthless thing whose failures bring no reason for shame or destruction and no occasion for regret.Physicist Donald MacKay of the University of Keele, a specialist on the communication mechanisms of the brain, finds in the Old and New Testament witness the key to human dignity:
What then is so special about man? What is so special about John Smith, about you or me? The biblical answer is that what makes us special, is the amazing fact that our Creator was prepared to do for us all that Christ did and suffered in his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Our dignity has nothing to do with our occupying a geographical hub of the universe, or being the product of a special process, or being constructed of special materials, or being inexplicable at one or another scientific level. We matter simply because he, our Creator, has conceived us in his own image so that he can address us, plead with us, rescue us, and forgive us.Man's status as creature of God has definite human rights consequences. The general principle has been well articulated by Professor Lienhard:
What the Creator thus grants to created man, no man can refuse him or withdraw from him. His aim should rather be to act in accordance with the will of God and, as Luther put it, to help him preserve his assets and improve his means of subsistence. What therefore is freely accorded by God becomes, between men, a right which must he recognized and respected.More specifically, in terms of the issues with which we have dealt in this book, man's creaturehood solves (I) the problem of the entitlement nature of human rights, (2) the issue of equality and the perennial conflict between individual versus collective rights, and (3) the relationship between human rights, the environment, and the future.
is the Source
|It will be recalled that our study of the complexities involved in
defining human rights (chapter 3) led us to the conclusion that rights are
entitlements, and that entitlements, being relational, necessarily look beyond
themselves to a source of title. Only a transcendent Creator can supply the
needed title for inalienable rights. R. C. Sproul, after linking the biblical
understanding of man's dignity to the Hebrew word "glory," with its root
meaning of "heaviness" (as in Ps. 8:4-8), writes:
It is because God has assigned worth to man and woman that human dignity is established. Man's glory is derived, dependent upon God's glory for his own. It is because mankind bears the image of God that he enjoys such an exalted rank in the nature of things. From his creation to his redemption, man's dignity is preserved. He is created by One who is eternal and is made for a redemption which stretches into eternity. His origin is significant - his destiny is significant - he is significant.Our discussion of the will theory of rights (Hart) versus the interest theory (MacCormick) took us in the same general direction. Interest theory is preferable to will theory, if only to preserve the rights of children and others incapable of appreciating or defending their own rights; but how can one justify the required interests without opening the floodgates to indiscriminate rights for fauna, flora, and even inanimate objects? The scriptural doctrine of creation resolves this otherwise insoluble dilemma by declaring man and man alone to have received the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26-27: 2:7: 5:1-2). The Bible also asserts that man is genuinely human from the moment of conception (Ps. 51:5; Luke 1:15, 4I).412 Thus, we must reject all functionalist definitions of human personhood and the philosophy of Professor Tooley, who argues for the moral legitimacy of abortion and even early infanticide on the ground that an entity is not genuinely a human person "unless it possesses, or has previously possessed, the capacity for thought."
is the Source
The great Eastern church father St. Basil declared, on the basis of clear
scriptural teaching: "By nature every human being has equality according to
nature." The creation account establishes male-female interdependence and the
interrelatedness of all people as their brothers' keepers (Gen. 2:20-24;
4:9-14). "The Bible starts with a solidarity of the race in Adam. And from the
beginning the awareness of the larger unity was strong, based on the belief of
God's creation of humanity in the first man." Christ's role as Second Adam in
the New Testament powerfully reinforces and extends this teaching: all
believers, with their diverse gifts, are equally members of the Body of Christ
(1 Cor. 12:26; 14:12); their oneness in Christ transcends racial, national,
social, and sex differences (Gal. 3:28); indeed, they form, with each other and
with Christ Himself, a single edifice, the church (1 Peter 2:5).
It follows that the biblical approach to human dignity cannot be identified with the barren extremes either of eighteenth-century Western liberal individualism and Nozick's contemporary libertarian philosophy or of Marxist-Socialist collectivisms. Opposed as it is to what the United Nations system of human rights protection terms "consistent patterns of gross and massive violations." Scripture has no less concern with the fall of a sparrow (Matt. 10:29-31): even a single human life is of infinite value in the eyes of its Creator, and thus it deserves every protection. Moreover, rights and duties are necessarily interlocked, for mankind is united in a universal brotherhood (cf. the preamble to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man). Christopher Wright draws out the implications of this biblical stance with great precision:
Now, to what extent we can disclaim guilt for the plight of others - particularly in the realm of international relationships, the world order of which we are inevitably part, which operates unjustly to our benefit and the deprivation of others - is a matter of complex moral debate. There are questions of direct and indirect guilt, of corporate and individual guilt, of inherited guilt, and guilt by association. and of "moral distance." But my point is this: even if we could disclaim all guilt and genuinely say of a given situation "I am not responsible for it [the situation]," that in no way absolves us from our responsibility to God for the persons involved in the situation. Such responsibility, though not implying guilt, nevertheless entails obligations on our part and rights under God attaching to the persons concerned.
is the Source
|Though creation establishes man's uniqueness and the rights peculiar to him by virtue of the imago Dei, it also links him to nature and the environment. "The image of God means man conformed to God," and "man must be conformed to God in his relationship to the non-human creation. Man is called to subdue the earth and to live in communion with it, and by virtue of this he has essential economic rights and essential ecological duties." Furthermore, the creation extends not only horizontally in terms of geography but also vertically in history. Therefore, "man must be conformed to God in the succession of generations. He is in this respect a historical being who has temporal rights and duties in the succession of generations." In sum, the scriptural philosophy of human rights, by its doctrine of creation, not only offers an absolute foundation for "third - generation" solidarity rights (a category left awkwardly up in the air in most secular thinking on the subject) but is able to raise such concerns to an eschatological level of significance. For the rights of future generations extend to the very last moment of history, when Christ shall return and we shall all have to account to him for our stewardship of his creation|
|We conclude our discussion of the doctrine of creation with two objections, one secular, the other theological. Non-Christians - particularly Marxists - sometimes suggest that to establish human rights on a revelational foundation is to arrive at a static view of rights, a view lacking the flexibility needed to meet the changing conditions of modern life. If all basic human rights stem from creaturehood, is this the result? Answer: It need not be, and it should not be. True. Christians can become self-satisfied with their biblical knowledge and with long-recognized rights the Bible plainly sets forth - to the neglect of new problems and new discoveries in the Word. But the consistent believer will have such genuine concern for his neighbor's needs that he will be sensitive to new areas in which man's dignity is ignored, and these areas will drive him back to the inexhaustible treasure of Scripture for fresh perspectives.|
is the One
|Our question to the secular critic should be more troubling than his question to us: Without any absolute standard of human rights, how can you justify as rights the entitlements you now claim - to say nothing of identifying authentic new rights were they to come along? Flux still breeds flux. This is truly the time to recall the insights we gained in our survey of existing human rights protections (chap. 2): a nation's deepest convictions as to human worth are far more important than its particular constitutional mechanisms (compare the United Kingdom with the U.S.S.R.), and the greater the shared value system the more effective the human rights protection (contrast the European and American regional systems with Asia). Thus, a stable and solid concept of human dignity is the most important factor for success in human rights, and it would be hard to imagine anything more inalienable than God's creative workmanship as seen in His own Book.|
Didn't Rights Collapse
at the Fall?
|A theological objection to the grounding of human rights in the doctrine of creation is that the original creation is now a fallen creation: does not the Fall destroy or vastly attenuate original rights? The answer, in a word, is No! In the first place, the Fall did not destroy the original creation. It reduced man to a condition of total depravity, thereby making it impossible for him to save himself, and man's self-centeredness threw, as it were, a monkey wrench into the machinery of the natural world. But the Fall did not obliterate the imago Dei, and the imago is the source of man's rights as creature. Second, as Wright well puts it: "The Fall did not destroy responsibility. It has not, therefore, nullified rights. . . . Far from obliterating human rights . . . the effect of the Fall has rather been to sharpen the issue and render the pursuit of rights all the more important." This is because fallen man has become so dangerous to his fellows that the promotion and protection of human rights is now a life or death matter. Indeed, "the Fall has resulted in a situation in which God holds one man responsible to assist another, even at sacrificial cost to himself" (Lev. 25:25ff.). Third, to the extent that the original creation suffered, to the same extent restoration in Christ is available personally and individually (2 Cor. 5:17). But the second and third reasons just given take us to the doctrine of redemption - the other pillar of biblical human rights teaching.|
|Redemption||What is the significance of the doctrine of redemption for human
rights? The Bible leaves no doubt that the panoply of human rights derive from
man's status as creature of God, made in His image. The sun shines and the rain
falls on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45): believers have no more human
rights over against unbelievers than the latter have over against them. In what
sense, then, is Vidal correct in declaring that "human rights can only build on
the proper foundation, the order of redemption"?424 To be sure, believers, by
virtue of their incorporation into the body of Christ, acquire additional
rights vis-à-vis other believers - and even vis-à-vis God Himself
(see, e.g., Gal. 6:10; Rom. 8:28). But these intrachurch rights neither add to
nor detract from the biblical catalog of human rights per se. Philosopher Henri
Bergson offers a tantalizing hint as to the connection between redemption and
human rights when he speaks of the Evangelical motivation behind
The republican motto ["liberty, equality, fraternity"] shows that the third term dispels the oft-noted contradiction between the two others, and that the essential thing is fraternity: a fact which would make it possible to say that democracy is evangelical in essence and that its motive power is love. . . . The American Declaration of Independence (1776), which served as a model for the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1791, has indeed a Puritan ring: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, etc." . The formula of non-democratic society, wishing its motto to tally, word for word, with that of democracy, would he "authority, hierarchy, immobility."
Philosophies Leave Man's
|Let us pursue Bergson's hint by looking behind the formal expressions of human rights in covenants and in ethical systems, and focus on the question of human motivation. Professor Bassiouni, it will be remembered, spoke of the effect of human rights activity in "thickening the veneer of civilization." Now we must penetrate beneath that veneer. What do we find? That not a single major philosophy of human rights is able to supply the motivation needed to carry out even its own best ideals. Utilitarianism, were it to identify and prove what is truly useful for human beings (which it does not), would still not be able to motivate them to choose the useful. Neo-Kantian rights theories tell us, inter alia, that we ought to act in accord with the generic rights of the recipient as well as of ourselves (Gewirth); but we are given no inner stimulus to ethical universalization. Policy orientation is incapable of motivating the individual or the society to carry out what it claims (and, incidentally, has not proven) to be desirable policies. Marxism is caught in the vicious conceptual circle of believing that external economic factors are the ultimate source of all violations of human dignity; its refusal to face the dark side of human nature leaves it powerless to find any means of changing human beings from within so that they will no longer exploit each other.|
|We noted in passing that Buddhist human rights theorists realize man's lack of "internal self-control." Jesus expresses this truth with maximum generality: "There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man" (Mark 7:15; cf. Matt. 15:16-20). McClosky and Brill's recent study of tolerance concludes that intolerance is natural - an innate characteristic - reminding me of a young, highly cultured French medical specialist who told me that "Algerians are just like Blacks in your country: you can't educate them, and when they move in, the property values go down." Unitarians and religious liberals to the contrary, even Jesus' high ethical teachings - even His human rights standards - carry no built-in guarantees that people are going to be motivated to follow them. As someone has said, what the world needs is not more good advice but good news.|
And this is precisely the message of the Incarnation ("gospel" means "good
news"). Karl Barth expressed it elliptically in his aphorism, "From the moment
God himself became man, man is the measure of all things." Roland de Pury is
In Jesus Christ divine and human rights are conjoined and become inseparable. To violate the rights of a creature of God in the name of divine right is thus to serve another god - to commit idolatry.Motivationally, as René Coste recognizes, this incarnational fact is of paramount importance: "The more one believes in the mystery of the Incarnation, the more one's commitment to human rights becomes a matter of motivational urgency.
|Jesus came to earth "to seek and to save that which was lost" and "to
give his life a ransom for many" (Luke 19:10; Mark 10:45). The purpose of the
Incarnation was to redeem fallen mankind. Jesus' sacrificial, atoning death
provides redemption for all and is personally appropriated by faith in Him.
Let us further note, with Huber and Tödt, how the theme of justification by faith provides a set of criteria determining the interrelations between the Christian faith and human rights:
Point (c) is the operative consideration. Only when an individual has been
liberated from self-centeredness is there freedom to serve the needs and
protect the rights of others. "Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you,
Whoever commits sin is the slave to sin. . . . If the Son shall make you free,
you shall be free indeed" (John 8:34, 36). God's grace in Christ touches the
world at the point of the redeemed sinner, and spreads out from him to those
whose God-given rights have been violated and whose wounds need to be bound
Again to use Luther's felicitous expression, the redeemed man becomes a "little Christ" to his neighbor. Thus is the problem of motivation solved: God Himself takes up residence within the believer's heart and supplies the motivation personally. Old things pass away; all things become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
Other philosophies of human rights attempt to realize the goal of inalienable human dignity by climbing, as it were, from earth to heaven. Inalienable rights escape their grasp for the very same reason that the builders of the Tower of Babel failed to reach their goal. Transcendence, as Wittgenstein taught us, cannot be attained from below. "No man has ascended up to heaven," said Jesus, "but he who came down from heaven, even the Son of man" (John 3:13).
|Divine revelation informs us that human rights exist - paradoxically -
by grace alone. "Man's dignity does not rest on itself but on the grace alone
of the God of redemption. Man has no claim to it whatever: he receives pardon
not by virtue of his merits but as the gracious gift of God."435 Ultimately, it
could be said that one has no "right" to human rights! But this realization is
the sine qua non for a truly adequate philosophy of human dignity. If people's
rights were of their own making, they could as easily unmake them. Since rights
come as a divine gift from above, their inalienability is sure. "Every good
gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of
lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17).
And because our rights come as a gift and not by merit, the only hope lies in
placing ourselves and our society in the hands of the Giver, to be changed into
The Christian, then, in his concern for the neighbour, must put his full support in the social and political realm behind the Declaration on Human Rights; but his greater concern will be to bring men and women to such an inner attitude of mind and orientation of feeling that their ideals can be embodied in laws and customs, translated from aspirations into actualities.
|Swiss jurist Dr. Peter Saladin sums up the dilemma and the challenge
of human rights on the eve of century twenty-one.
Last, but most important, it has to be realized that the philosophical bases traditionally underlying the idea of human rights - the philosophical systems of the Enlightenment, of liberalism, of utilitarianism - are now crumbling and no longer credible. After two world wars and numberless demonstrations of inhumanity we can no longer cling to the anthropological optimism on which those systems rest without sacrificing our intellectual and moral honesty. But the whole idea of human rights is then left in the air; and the flagrant lack of basis is bound to result in a loss of credibility if a new basis cannot be laid down. . . So it is especially incumbent on Christians and the Christian churches to seek urgently for this new foundation.
| Only One
|The present study has been an effort to lay such a foundation. More accurately, I have tried to direct the reader to the already existing - and the only satisfactory - foundation for human dignity. "No other foundation can a man lay than that which is laid, even Jesus Christ."|
Taken from Human Rights and Human Dignity, copyright 1986. You can order Human Rights and Human Dignity for a total of $25 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.
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