Human Dignity, Equality, and Liberty in Classic Protestant Perspective

Lat week we profiled some excerpts from John Witte Jr.’s chapter in Carnival Kingdom.

His chapter offers a historical angle on the concept of human dignity as a precursor to contemporary notions of human rights. Luther is not generally known for theologising on such issues, so John Witte Jr. helpfully examines some of Luther’s 16th Century writings to argue that freedom and rights not only have a long-standing tradition in Protestant thought, but find their culmination in God’s perfect law in the new heavens and new earth. Until then, egalitarian notions of equality and liberty still require significant development for a just societal order.

Here are some extracts from his chapter:-

the current ubiquity of the principle of human dignity testifies to its universality. And the constant proliferation of new human rights speaks to their power to inspire new hope for many desperate persons and peoples around the world. Moreover, the increased pervasiveness of these norms is partly a function of emerging globalisation. Since the first international documents on human dignity and human rights were issued, many new voices and values have joined the global dialogue, especially those from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and from various Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, and Traditional communities.

The task of defining the appropriate ambit of human dignity and human rights today must be a multi-disciplinary, multi-religious, and multicultural exercise. Many disciplines, religions, and cultures around the globe have unique sources and resources, texts and traditions that speak to human dignity and human rights. Some endorse dignity and rights with alacrity and urge their expansion into new arenas. Others demur, and urge their reform and restriction. It is essential that each community be allowed to speak with its own unique accent, to work with its own distinct methods on human dignity and human rights. It is also essential, however, that each of these disciplines, religions, and cultures develops a capacity for conceptual bilingualism; an ability to speak with insiders and outsiders alike about their unique understanding of the origin, nature and purpose of human dignity and human rights.

Luther’s Freedom of a Christian thus became, in effect, his Dignitatis Humanae; his bold new declaration on human nature and human freedom that described all Christians in his world regardless of their “dignity or lack of dignity,” as conventionally defined. Pope and prince, noble and pauper, man and woman, slave and free, all persons in Christendom, Luther declared, share equally in a doubly paradoxical nature. First, each person is at once a saint and a sinner, righteous and reprobate, saved and lost, simul iustus et peccator, in Luther’s signature phrase. Second, each person is at once a free lord who is subject to no one, and a dutiful servant who is subject to everyone. Only through these twin paradoxes, Luther wrote, can we “comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian.”

The heart of the Protestant theory of equality is that we are all priests before God. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev 5:10, 20:6). Among you, “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28; Col 3:10-11; Eph 2:14-15). These and many other biblical passages, among Luther’s favorites, have long inspired a reflexive egalitarian impulse in Protestants. All are equal before God. All are priests that must serve their neighbours. All have vocations that count. All have gifts to be included. This common calling of all to be priests transcends differences of culture, economy, gender, and more.

The great American jurist Grant Gilmore once wrote: “The better the society the less law there will be. In Heaven, there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. In Hell, there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.” This is a rather common Protestant sentiment, which Luther did much to propound in some of his early writings. But a Protestant, faithful to Luther’s most enduring insights, might properly reach the exact opposite projection. In Heaven, there will be pure law, and thus the lamb will lie down with the lion. In Hell, there will be no law, and thus all will devour each other eternally. Heaven will exalt due process, and each will always receive what’s due. Hell will exalt pure caprice, and no one will ever know what’s coming.

John Witte, Jr., B.A. Calvin College, J.D. Harvard, is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law, Alonzo L. McDonald Distinguished Professor, and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion Center at Emory University. A specialist in legal history, marriage law, and religious liberty, he has published 220 articles, 13 journal symposia, and 26 books. Recent book titles include: Christianity and Law: An Introduction (2008); The Sins of the Fathers: The Law and Theology of Illegitimacy Reconsidered (2009); Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (2010); and Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction (2012). Professor Witte’s writings have appeared in fifteen languages, and he has delivered more than 350 public lectures throughout the world. He has directed 12 major international projects on democracy, human rights, and religious liberty, and on marriage, family, and children. These projects have collectively yielded more than 160 new volumes and 250 public forums around the world.

2 thoughts on “Human Dignity, Equality, and Liberty in Classic Protestant Perspective”

  1. In heaven, law will be redundant because doing what is right will be second nature, as those who are filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit spontaneously follow the requirements of justice to which laws can only ever point. Evil will be unthinkable so most law will be unnecessary. Law is heaven will be out of place not because it is wrong but because it will be beside the point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s