Does Man Have "Natural Rights"?
We hear everywhere today about the "rights" of this or that group. There are "civil rights," "women's rights" and "gay rights" to name the ones which have captured greatest news media clamor. On the other hand, there is the "right to life" movement seeking to protect the right to life of the pre-born and those whose "quality of life" is doubted by certain philosophers and social reformers. Some champion the supposed right of each and every human being to an equal share in all goods and services produced, in the socialist or communist manner.
The question of this paper is whether there is in actual fact such a thing as a "natural right" possessed by man in general, or any man in particular. Even an extensive reading of Bible-believing Christian writings of our time yields little consideration of this question. Most assume the factual existence of man's "rights," and that there is good and sufficient biblical warrant for this assumption. Let us examine the matter from the biblical creation perspective.
The listings of "right" as someone's possession in the Bible are not extensive. In the creation record of Genesis (chapters 1 and 2) the noun "right" does not occur at all. However, man's right to eat of all earth's vegetation (Genesis 1:29, only later enlarged to include animal flesh, Genesis 9:3), and of every tree in the garden of Eden except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:1 6-171 is clearly given him by his Creator. Note that these rights are wholly due to God's gift, and bestowed together with a mandate for obedient exercise of responsible dominion under God. Such responsible dominion or stewardship involves the persevering, faithful discharge of God's creation commands: "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28), and the command to Adam to dress and to keep the garden of Eden as well as to abstain from the forbidden tree (Genesis 2:15, 17).
MAN HAS NO ABSOLUTE RIGHTS
According to the biblical creation record, man thus does not possess an absolute "right" of any kind. He does not have a "right to life" in the absolute sense. God's warning about sure death as the consequence of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil denies any such claim. Man's "right" to life itself is totally dependent upon God's good will towards man and upon man's responsive good will towards his Creator and Lord shown by strict and faithful obedience to Him.
Does man have an absolute "right to liberty?" According to the biblical creation record man was not "free" to eat of the tree forbidden him by the Creator, nor was he free to remain in Eden after disobeying Him. Does man have a "right to happiness" or the "pursuit of happiness?" Happiness is not even mentioned in the biblical creation record. However, it is certainly part and parcel of man's originally intended existence by virtue of his creation in the image and likeness of God Himself, for we know that God Himself was happy with His original creation from His own assessment of it as "good" and "very good" (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18,21,25,31).
Does man have a "right" to own property? It is not stated or implied in the initial creation record that man "owns" anything. He is given dominion or stewardship over God's creation and therefore God's property, a legal and ethical situation fundamentally different from outright or absolute title or possession.
Does man have a "right" to a wife or companion-helpmeet? God made Eve for Adam out of His own free and generous will, and not pursuant to Adam's assertion of a "rightful" claim. Thus man has no "right" to human companionship although God.Himself first stated the fact that "it is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). We must remember that we are never alone absolutely, for we are always and everywhere in the presence of God (Psalm 139).
The existence of fellow men and women surrounding all men since God's creation of Eve testifies to God's freely given love for us in principle, and of course also to the eternal bliss of fellowship and reciprocal love between the three Persons of the Trinity which man's social existence is meant to portray as part of man's likeness to God. In no way does the record buttress any supposed absolute human "right" to human companionship.
Why, then, have these and other "rights" of man been considered rooted in biblical precepts? Can it be that we need to rethink our habitual acceptance of supposed "natural rights" of man in the light of the biblical creation perspective? The answer, I believe, is yes
WHAT BASIS FOR LIVING PEACEFULLY TOGETHER?
First of all the supposed "rights" of man, rather than being absolute, must be rooted and grounded in God Himself and His character expressed in His law. Any view of human "rights" omitting the biblical Creator and Lord, including the doctrine of "natural rights" or the "Law of nature" is totally defective. Secondly, the "rights" of man, rather than being absolute, are simply the other side of God's laws. God's law not a declaration of man's "rights" is the foundation of man's peaceful coexistence with his fellow men. To the extent this fact is denied, man's peaceful fellowship with his fellow men is endangered or abolished.
To clarify this point the beautiful argument by Dr. Richard Lamerton against euthanasia ("mercy killing") is worth citing in some detail:
The secret which makes Magna Carta and Moses' Pentateuch great codes of law allowing considerable freedom to the men governed under them is their clear and precise statement of the duties of a citizen. I have rights because other men observe their duties, not the other way about. I have the right to walk the streets of England without let or hindrance only so long as no-one attacks or robs me. If they do, of what value to me is my right? I have the right to secure a home until someone pillages it. If a burglar or an official of customs or excise breaks in, where has my right gone? Rights follow from the observation of duties by the community. Therefore good law tells a man his duties. Weak law speaks of his rights, and is almost unenforceable. . whereas it is easy to prove that someone has tailed in a specific duty.
It is man's nature to live in communities, to trade, to work, to learn and teach. If a community is to enable the individual to grow, then he must be free. If there is to be freedom in any society, then basic duties must be fulfilled by all. It is evident, therefore, that the duties spring from the Nature of Man.
Nature requires of us that we provide our best care, our greatest concern, our strongest protection, for the infant and for the senile and dying, because they cannot help themselves.
To fail to provide for the needs of the dying is to fail in a basic duty. . If we evade all the difficult problems he presents, and just kill him, we have failed . . . Is this not self-evident?1
There is only one thing wrong with the above chain of reasoning: it does not go far enough. We cannot stop short at basing human relations merely upon "the Nature of Man." We must be explicit about the origin of the "nature of man for arguments based upon it to retain their credibility.
THE "NATURE OF MAN" DEFENSE MUST BE ABANDONED
The battle over man's "rights" derived from laws in society (and never the notion of absolute human rights which is false on biblical grounds) can no longer be fought on the ground of "the Nature of Man." This bastion, still largely defended by C.S. Lewis, which he called the position of "a classical moralist after the style of Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Hooker and Locke" and which he held "basic to all civilization,"2 has become enemy ground. This is the fate of every position or precept ostensibly "neutral" about ultimate commitment to the God of the Bible. We must go all the way to explicit, total reliance upon the Creator God of the Bible and His creation of man in His own image and likeness to prevail against those who would wantonly abuse the worth and dignity of their fellow men.
For the above reason all political and educational precepts based upon eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy cannot stand. This includes such hallowed traditional American premises as the Declaration of Independence's famous statements about "the laws of nature and of nature's God" and the "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal (and) are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights (including) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It is a truism to point out that America's founding fathers were brought up under the pervading influence of Deism underlying the Enlightenment and also of the scientific development of their age. Historical research has shown that the Declaration of Independence is particularly marked by Enlightenment philosophy.2 Enlightenment thinkers sought to anchor the equal rights of all men over against the authority of monarchy and church in "the laws of nature;" "nature's God" seems merely an afterthought added to preserve religious appearances. While many leaders of that generation may have in all sincerity identified the "God of nature" with the God of the Bible, this identification is no longer to betaken for granted with the advent of modern evolutionism.
The pernicious consequences of the ostensibly liberating but fundamentally unbiblical doctrine of the "natural rights of man" for education in America's public schools has been described perceptively by Rousas John Rushdoony in his outstanding work, The Messianic Character of American Education. He writes:
as against the doctrine of man's responsibility and accountability to God, of life as a stewardship, the non-biblical conception of natural rights is introduced into education (by Horace Mann, the father of America's public school system). The pupil is therefore a person with rights rather than responsibilities. Instead of being accountable to God parents, teachers, and society. the pupil can assert that God, parents, teachers and society are responsible to him. In this conception, nurtured by normal school principles and germinating in the 19th century, lie the essentials of Dewey's educational philosophy and progressive education.4
It is undeniable that we see the full fruition of this trend in our public schools today, where anarchy, lawlessness, intentional neglect of actual study and basic educational goals have become the rule rather than the exception, but where the supposed "rights" or "natural rights" of the most unruly students are given highest priority and a status of almost sacrosanct inviolability.
The full fruition of the "natural rights of man" doctrine which sidesteps the God of the Bible and thus effectively denies Him can also be seen in modern politics on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Rushdoony continues:
The doctrine of the natural rights of man involves a democratization of rights which destroys all other standards save the will of man, thus ultimately destroying man's freedom in subservience to the common will.5
It is deplorable that would-be Christian people today cling to the "natural rights of man" doctrine in defending biblically commendable goals such as the defense of private property, the abolition of racial discrimination, abortion and mercy killing. It will not do. Only whole-hearted commitment to the full and literal biblical creation perspective can prevail in the defense, not of man's "natural rights" which are a mirage, but of man's each and every man's -unique and absolute worth as the creature made in the image and likeness of the Personal, Sovereign Creator Himself.
1 Richard Lamerton, M.D., Care of the Dying (St. Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham, England, n.d., Foreword by Cicely Saunders, M.D. dated April 1973), 93, 94.
2 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Ml 1970), 318.
3 Cf. C. Gregg Singer. A Theological Interpretation of American History (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA 1964), Chapter 1 "Deism in Colonial Life," 24-50.
4 Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (The Craig Press, Nutley, NJ 1972), 23.