Creation, the Declaration of Independence,
and the History of Unalienable Rights
BOOK REVIEW - Defending the Declaration by Gary T. Amos
Very rarely a well written scholarly book directed to the general reader not only corrects profound misperceptions of historical persons and events but also shows the true origin of a basic part of human social action. Such a book is Defending the Declaration by Gary T. Amos.1 This excellent book belongs in the library of every Christian church, college, school, history scholar and teacher, pastor, attorney, and family especially when home schooling. It should be required collateral reading in American history courses (high school and college) dealing with the origins of America. Last but not least it makes a wonderful contribution to the history of Western law and liberty, whose ultimate foundation is man's creation in God's own image and likeness.
Defending the Declaration shows that the American Declaration of Independence is a Christian rather than deistic document as alleged by mainstream and, alas, some Christian historians. Beyond this crucial contribution to the understanding of American history the book lays bare the origin of what the Declaration calls the "unalienable rights" of men. These rights were carefully developed over several centuries by conscientious medieval Christian scholars on the basis of mankind's creation in God's own image and likeness. Defending the Declaration as a whole and its Chapter 4, "'Unalienable Rights' Endowed by the Creator" in particular are therefore vitally instructive not only for Americans but for freedom-loving people everywhere.
In his introduction Gary Amos briefly describes his pilgrimage from being ashamed of America in the 1960s to conversion to Christianity in 1971, which led him to re-examine American history in the light of the Bible and of church history. He found that many ideas he now knew as Christian were falsely ascribed by most historians to non-Christian sources. Amos already had a history degree and had read many books about John Locke, supposedly a deist, who had greatly influenced the Declaration of Independence. He now finally read Locke's own writings for the first time and found that Locke was in fact a Bible-believing Christian. Amos felt "tricked or robbed. ... I had been lied to. And Locke had been lied about," In 1983, after three years of intensive study of the original writings of the American founding fathers and of the impact of Christianity on the growth and development of European law and liberty, Amos found that every key term in the Declaration of Independence had its roots in the Bible, Christian theology, the Western Christian intellectual tradition, medieval Christianity, Christian political theory, and the Christian influence on the six-hundred-year development of the English common law. (p.3)
Both secular and Christian historians have overlooked or denied the Christian roots of the Declaration of Independence. Amos cites the influential books Search For A "Christian" America and A Theological interpretation of American History, both written by Christian historians, as examples. He explores the agreement between Christian scholars from the left, right and center that the Declaration is anti-Christian and deistic. Their view of the Declaration "dominates almost every Christian seminary and college in America. It has fueled a growing sense of shame and guilt about America ... among Christian young people ... In other words, the attacks on the Declaration are not only misguided, they are destructive" (pp.5-6).
Amos says that the typical uninstructed person's view of Christianity and the American Revolution goes something like this:
(1) True Christianity was always a "faith" not requiring the use of reason. Reason was important to the Greeks and Stoics. To give reason a role in Christianity is to mix Christianity with paganism.
(2) In the 1200s Thomas Aquinas introduced rationalism into Christianity by merging Aristotle's thought with the Bible, a perversion of the faith.
(3) Rationalism set the stage for faith to be rejected completely if science ever made faith unnecessary,
(4) John Calvin in the 1500s tried to restore Christianity to "pure faith." He made God totally inscrutable and His will unknowable.
(5) Puritans in the 1600s did not stay true to pure Calvinism but introduced rationalistic links between cosmology, a natural rights theory of government, and faith.
(6) Full-fledged rationalism entered with Isaac Newton and his mechanistic model of the universe.
(7) John Locke placed reason above the Bible, At the turn of the eighteenth century, Newton's science and Locke's extreme rationalism led directly to the Enlightenment, which replaced God with reason.
(8) This development led to Enlightenment thought in America as well so that by the time of the Declaration of Independence the colonies were submerged by rationalism and deism (pp. 11-16),
This, in general outline, is the myth taught with many variations in American colleges and universities, both secular and Christian. However, Amos points out, those who believe and teach this myth have usually failed to see what the Bible itself teaches about the relationship of faith and reason. They often do not recognize when an idea is Christian and thus call many Christian and Biblical ideas deistic or rationalistic. Hence they do not recognize thinkers like Cotton Mother or Jonathan Edwards as Christian and falsely attribute their rational inferences from Biblical principles to "enlightenment" or "rationalist" thought. Then supposedly anti-Christian thought is credited for the emergence of political freedoms when the credit really belongs to the Biblical Christian church and world view.
Amos devotes a lengthy chapter to the Declaration's key idea of "the laws of nature and of nature's God." He believes that this phrase "may be the most misunderstood words in American legal history" (p. 35). Many people today understand them as deistic rather than Biblical Christian, usually for the following reasons: (1) Jefferson invented the phrase to reject the colonies' Christian heritage; (2) the phrase is a product of deism and Enlightenment rationalism; (3) the idea came from John Locke, supposedly a deist; (4) the phrase was a reaction against Calvinism and Puritanism; (5) even though Christians used the phrase long before Jefferson, they took it from the Greeks and Stoics. The highlights of Amos's well researched rebuttal are:
(1) In The New International Commentary on the New Testament. John Murray shows how "the law of nature" is a Christian concept based on the teachings of the Apostle Paul.
(2) The longer phrase "law of nature or God" was used already in the very early 1300s in a debate between rival Catholic monastic orders (Dominicans and Franciscans).
(3) The simple phrase "law of nature" was already part of Catholic theology and canon law at least as early as the eleventh century.
(4) Thomas Aquinas used this phrase repeatedly in his Summa Theologica in the thirteenth century, and he did not make it independent from the control of Scripture.
(5) The term entered the common law of England already at the time of Bracton (d. 1268). The term meant the eternal moral law God the Creator established over His created universe. It was a technical term for "creation law"--the original scheme of things purposed or willed by the Almighty.
(6) Sir William Blackstone, the great jurist who gave us the Com-mentaries on the Laws of England (1765), was widely read in the colonies and required reading at almost all colonial universities. Amos quotes Blackstone at length to show that for him the "law of nature" was Christian, not deistic and indeed meant the same as "the will of God."
(7) In Romans 1 and 2 St. Paul pointed to God the Creator's general revelation in nature and in men's hearts, To restrict His law to the Mosaic law is to repudiate the law of God. St. Paul did not take his ideas in Romans 1 and 2 from the Greeks and Stoics of his time but rather from the Old Testament, written centuries earlier.
(8) Amos's extensive excerpts from John Locke's own writings show conclusively that Locke was not a deist but a Bible-believing Christian.
(9) John Calvin (Institutes), the Westminster Confession, Samuel Rutherford (Lex Rex), and supposedly deistic Matthew Tindal (Christianity as Old as the Creation) are quoted to show that the Declaration in no way opposed Calvinism or Puritanism.
(10) The Declaration of Independence cannot be traced to Greek or Stoic philosophy because the Greeks and Stoics thought law and nature opposed each other, had no concept of Biblical creation ex nihilo, and believed that nature and God were the same. Even when the phrase "law of nature" was used, it did not mean the same as in Biblical creation-based Judaism and Christianity.
The Declaration's words "self-evident truths" have also been widely held to mean that the Declaration was deistic rather than Christian. Yet this concept appears already in English common law, St. John of Damascus (d. 749), the Bible (Romans 1 and 2), the comments of the well-known contemporary Christian Biblical scholar J. I. Packer on man's creation in the image of God according to Genesis 1:27-31, in the epistemology of the Apostle Paul, and finally in the epistemology of Richard Hooker and John Locke.
All the foregoing already makes Defending the Declaration well worth reading, but Chapter Four, "'Unalienable Rights' Endowed by the Creator" is most important. This chapter is a summary of the history of Western rights. The actual historical truth, which should bless, strengthen and liberate Christian believers everywhere, is that we owe our rights and freedoms in the West today not to the "Enlightenment," nor to Renaissance or modern humanistic rationalism, but rather to Biblical Christianity founded upon Biblical creation. This truth, if more widely known among Christians, might revolutionize our world. It should be shared, for instance, with our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union who are now emerging, in the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's words, "from under the rubble" of socialist-communist totalitarianism, and who are unacquainted with the development of Western rights and freedoms since the separation between the Orthodox and the Catholic (Western) Church in 1054. Here are Amos's principal conclusions in his own words:
Twentieth-century society has lost any foundation for a defensible understanding of "rights," Few today believe that rights are God-given. Most see "rights" as a matter of politics--the government creates rights, and the government can take them away. While there is a great deal of talk about "human rights" and "civil rights," hardly anyone speaks of "unalienable rights." Even in America the concept is all but lost. . ..
Church leaders in America and the West too often disparage or attack any notion of rights. They seem to be unaware that the Bible and the church gave birth to the Western notion of rights. . , .
America was founded on "unalienable rights"-- those that a man may not unconditionally sell, trade, barter, or transfer without denying the image of God in himself. ... For to deny these rights in a man is to deny that he is a human being,. . .
The starting point for a Biblical mode! of rights theory is Genesis 1 and 2. There we find that in the beginning God created the universe. As Creator or Author, God has the inherent right to decide or dispose of all that He has created.... Man is entirely subordinate to God and dependent upon Him for all things. . . .
Not only did God create man in His own image, thus endowing man with certain faculties and abilities, but Genesis 1:28-29 also records that God gave man a decree, a "creation mandate," God commanded man to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and take dominion over the earth and all its resources--the land, the plants, and the animals.... Endowed with God's image and also with God-given authority, man became a lord (small I) over God's earth.
The idea that man is created in God's image and has lordship over the earth is the key to the modern notion of subjective rights. Subjective rights are those that are inherent in the individual; they are inseparably part of the human personality. Being made in God's image makes man a being of enormous value and inherent worth. This notion was foreign to all ancient systems of thought and accounts for the lack of any strong concept of subjective rights outside ancient Israel or in non-Christian cultures. . . .
MEN'S INALIENABLE DUTIES TOWARD GOD TRANSLATE INTO INALIENABLE RIGHTS BETWEEN MEN (emphasis added), ... As a steward, trustee, and protector under God, a man may resist other men's unlawful interference with the performance of that duty. This is the historical analysis and starting point of the church's doctrine of the right of self-defense and of rights generally. GENESIS 1 AND 2 AND THE CREATION MODEL, THEREFORE, ARE THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR RIGHTS GENERALLY AND FOR INALIENABLE RIGHTS PARTICULARLY (emphasis added). . . .(pp. 103-108)
Next, Amos compares the language of rights and the linguistics of Scripture and concludes that the Bible in both Old and New Testament provides for an objectively revealed moral law which lays down objectively ordered relationships and individual rights,
Amos then examines the beliefs about rights among the ancient Greeks and Romans. This section is important because the paganism of antiquity is now again flooding the West. Amos finds that (1) the Greeks had no clear concept of a Creator or creation in the Biblical sense but believed that all men and things participate in the divine essence or are extensions or emanations of an impersonal divine life force or energy. (2) Having no Biblical concept of creation, the Greeks had no place for an endowment of authority or power from a Creator. (3) Man existed at the whim of the gods and fate. Might rather than right prevailed, and "rights" were a product of society and state enjoyed only by the strong; the weak deserved to be the slaves of the strong. Plato and Aristotle shared these views.
(4) The Greeks had no doctrine of equality and believed, as the Romans did later, that some men by nature were superior to others.
(5) Neither the Greeks nor the Romans saw property as a right, much less as an "unalienable right." Amos comments:
The idea of active and subjective claim rights, not merely passive but prosecutable rights, had to come from something other than a Greek or Roman source. Some change in Western thinking had to mark the shift from passive rights to claim rights, where all rights are juridically identifiable and legally redressable. , . .
That shift was initiated in the entrenched Hellenism of Greece and Rome by the coming of the gospel. Prior to the gospel, the state was the religion. The regime was coextensive with creation, and its purpose was to become the "best regime" by making men virtuous. Redemption was to be brought to men through political action and state activism. ...
Christianity meant that the state was no longer the religion. The purpose of the state became completely transformed in Biblical religion. . . . redemption and virtue in man was to be produced by God's supernatural activity. The state became an administrator of justice under God's divine law . . . Christianity made possible the jurisdictional separation of church and state (pp. 114-115).
Amos places the ascendancy of the Biblical Christian model of rights in the period of 1075 to 1122, the time of the Gregorian Reform and the Investiture Struggle. He leans chiefly on historians Richard Tuck, Brian Tierney and to some extent Harold Berman for his account of the development of claim rights in the modern sense, The "unalienable right to life" is based on man's duty to live his life for God Who gave him life in the first place (and this is why man, under God, has no right to harm himself, to commit suicide, or to waste his life), Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans reasoned that to own property was a gift of God given to man before the fall into sin, and this view was officially approved by Pope John XXII over against the Franciscans in 1329, Calvinism and English common law received the Dominican view.
Liberty became a "right" already between the 1350s and Jean Gerson (1402). "Gerson insisted that at Creation, men's ius (right) was not only an auctoritas (authority) but a focultas (ability). Gerson was then able to 'treat liberty as a kind of dominium' (liberty as a property)" (p. 118). Amos adds that
Once liberty came to be viewed as a right, it quickly passed into the category of inalienable rights for those following Dominican theology. Renaissance humanists, on the other hand, building on Greek and Roman ideas, rejected the notion that liberty is an inalienable right (p. 119).
Amos traces the Declaration's concept of the "pursuit of happiness" as an "unalienable right" given by the Creator to Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), where Blackstone had written that God had "so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former" (p. 120). According to Blackstone, man's happiness meant his sense of blessedness in his earthly existence due to obeying the Creator's laws. The word itself comes from the Latin word beatus, immediately reminding us of the "beatitudes" of Christ's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and it is also found in the Old and New Testaments.
Amos shows that it is a mistake to trace the rights theory of the Declaration not to the Catholic canonists but to the Renaissance humanists, for "the humanists of the Renaissance did not believe in the creation account, natural law, or rights from nature or creation. They rejected the Catholic ideas, based on the Biblical account of creation and society (but) simply accepted the classical Roman view" (p. 121). While Calvinists and Spanish Dominicans continued to link natural rights to "the laws of nature and God," the humanists "insisted that all rights were state-created, not God-given.... (They) were true naturalists in the secular sense. . . . Law was whatever a particular society determined it to be, They did not believe in a transcendent moral order that binds human laws" (p. 122). Amos quotes Tuck as follows: "The Renaissance concept (of property) belonged to a theory in which the natural life of man was right-less and therefore property-less, while the Thomist believed that by nature man did possess certain limited rights" (p, 123). Amos then quotes Brian Tierney on our precious and for the most part ignored medieval Christian-rights heritage:
The doctrine of individual rights was not a late medieval aberration from an earlier tradition of objective right or of natural moral law. Still less was it a seventeenth-century invention of Suarez or Hobbes or Locke. Rather, it was a characteristic product of the great age of creative jurisprudence that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, established the foundations of the Western legal tradition (p. 124).
Amos rightly adds that "If Tierney is right. . . then much of what passes for the history of political theory and rights development being taught in colleges and universities in America needs to be tossed in the wastebasket." He also concludes that
Although the West received the bulk of its political freedoms and scientific vision from the impact of Christianity and the church, the church rarely gets credit for its role in the development of Western political freedoms or science. . . .
. . . modern society is trying to act on occidental secular concepts, as well as attribute Western achievements to them, That is why Western society is in the same early stages of dysfunction that preceded the fall of Greece and Rome, Having denied both the source and the rationale for the best in Western culture, we are quickly moving into the twilight era of Western freedom and the ultimate demise of free Christian society. . . .
Personal rights and freedoms are God-given and inalienable;
they do not exist merely for civil convenience or at the
discretion of those who hold civil power. This is why only Biblical ethics maintain a proper balance
between order in public life and individual freedom (pp.
There are two more excellent chapters on the Biblical origin of the
phrase "Government by the Consent of the Governed" and on "God
as Supreme Judge and Divine Providence," The latter contains a
challenging essay on the nature of language, which refutes the current
misconception among historians that the church fathers. St. Augustine,
Thomas Aquinas, and even the Apostle Paul adopted Greek or Stoic
concepts because they used the Greek language. However, Amos
says, the Bible's picture of God, the world, man and nature is entirely
different from Greek philosophy and pagan religion, and St. Paul, the
church fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and the Reformers
transformed the Greek words they used with Christian worldview
concepts. "The miracle of the New Testament," Amos concludes, "is
that God in His providence chose to use Greek, one of the most
religiously and philosophically corrupt languages in history, as the
vehicle by which to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . The
gospel stands for the proposition that God redeems and restores even
man's fallen vocabulary" (p. 163). When you read the Declaration of
Independence in Appendix A immediately following Amos's spirited and
thorough defense, you read it with new eyes and new gratitude. We
received it not from secular-minded deists or rationalists but rather from
Biblical, creation-based Christianity.
There are two more excellent chapters on the Biblical origin of the phrase "Government by the Consent of the Governed" and on "God as Supreme Judge and Divine Providence," The latter contains a challenging essay on the nature of language, which refutes the current misconception among historians that the church fathers. St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even the Apostle Paul adopted Greek or Stoic concepts because they used the Greek language. However, Amos says, the Bible's picture of God, the world, man and nature is entirely different from Greek philosophy and pagan religion, and St. Paul, the church fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and the Reformers transformed the Greek words they used with Christian worldview concepts. "The miracle of the New Testament," Amos concludes, "is that God in His providence chose to use Greek, one of the most religiously and philosophically corrupt languages in history, as the vehicle by which to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . The gospel stands for the proposition that God redeems and restores even man's fallen vocabulary" (p. 163). When you read the Declaration of Independence in Appendix A immediately following Amos's spirited and thorough defense, you read it with new eyes and new gratitude. We received it not from secular-minded deists or rationalists but rather from Biblical, creation-based Christianity.
Be sure you read this outstanding, pioneering book, including the extensive, most instructive end notes. Highest recommendation.
-- Reviewed by Ellen Myers
Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration (Brentwood, TN 37027; Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1749 Mallory Lane, Suite 110; Hardcover, 235 pp. incl. 2 Appendices, End Notes and Bibliography). $14.99 single copy ppd. Quantity prices available from Word, Inc., 1-800-299-9673,