Natural Rights Tethered to the Supernatural

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Natural Rights Tethered to the Supernatural




Natural Rights Tethered to the Supernatural


Peter Lillback

A newspaper headline questioning personhood and the right to life in Alabama in 2024 would likely raise some eyebrows, especially in our current political context with its orientation to identity politics. However, if one were to peruse that article and inspect it more closely, they would find that the issue at stake was not racism, but the so-called status of “clumps of cells,” which is not, so goes the argument, an issue to any comparable degree. In fact, the latter is chiefly a matter of religious belief, which, in the current American framework, is precisely that which should be sequestered to one’s private life; whereas the former is a non-religious matter of human and civil rights and, therefore, that which should govern life publicly.

       In the current discourse, many have recently stated that the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, was “a clear sign that the upper echelon of American legal power was delivering for evangelical extremists.” This sentiment was expressed repeatedly in most of the mainstream media outlets, becoming, as it were, a war horn against a coming theocratic politic propounded by those predominantly on the Right. As Linda Greenhouse recently remarked in her New York Times article, “the nation is awash in religiosity” and America is increasingly becoming aware of the “peril of the theocratic future toward which the country has been hurtling.” In response to this concern, a recent article in Politico written by a former evangelical pastor argued that the notion that life begins at conception is, in fact, a nineteenth-century Roman Catholic invention; it is certainly not a doctrinal tenet of the historic protestant tradition. Thus, we as rational protestants ought not align with the Roman Catholic position, for their position logically prohibits the use of “reproductive technologies.”

       All of this commentary has been prominently circulating since the recent decision pronounced by Alabama justices in a civil case. With regard to this civil case, the story is that in 2020 a patient at a hospital in which a fertility clinic was housed happened to enter into a cryo-preservation unit where embryos were being stored for future use. The patient had removed several embryos, and because of the sub-freezing temperature control of the unit, dropped the embryos, which resulted in their being destroyed. The parents of those embryos had pursued legal recourse against the hospital and clinic, appealing to a state statute called the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, which was first enacted in 1872. After being rejected by the state courts, their pursuit eventually led them to the Alabama Supreme Court.

       At the Supreme Court, the terms “unborn,” “children,” and “sanctity of life” were explored by the justices. This was done with a view to establish whether embryos, regardless of geographical location, were understood, at the time of the enactment of the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, to be relevant to embryos in these peculiar circumstances of 2020. Supreme Court Justice Parker established that Alabama’s constitution understands that “human life is an endowment from God,” which is based upon the common law tradition expounded by the notable jurist William Blackstone. Parker adduces a passage from Blackstone in which it is said that “[l]ife is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual.” Even though, as Parker notes, it is a recent phenomenon in the legal sphere that “sanctity of life” means that one cannot unjustly take a life, he argues that the notion is predicated upon the teaching of the Scriptures concerning the image of God in Genesis. To further support this idea, he cites theologians like Augustine and John Calvin, as well as the seventeenth-century theologian Petrus Van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology. Notably, Parker utilizes Westminster Seminary’s Todd Rester’s translation of Mastricht, particularly his commentary on the image of God, to support the argument regarding the sanctity of life. On the basis of these (and other) arguments, it was ruled that embryos are protected under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. 

       This is one of the many reasons that Christian scholarship is vitally important. Good scholarship generates greater access to Christian texts, texts which can be instructive and formative for future deliberations in church and society. As Justice Parker noted, “The goal of constitutional interpretation is to discern the original public meaning, which is “‘the meaning the people understood a provision to have at the time they enacted it.’” We need scholars who return to the sources of our tradition, so that we might have light for today. And the light shone here in this court case, is indeed light from days past. The world is God’s and declares His glory and power. As such, any claim about that world is necessarily a theological claim; any claim about what it means to be human, is thus, intrinsically religious. And in the spirit of Blackstone, any articulation of natural rights utterly detached from the Supernatural is improper.

       In this case, there was a clear victory of life over death. Christians ought not be ashamed when the truth prevails and the good is promoted. Indeed, one should not only not be ashamed of these changes, one should be eager to see the good flourish. As J. Gresham Machen once wrote, “The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought.” Where Christianity flourishes, all of life flourishes in the light of truth. As another divine in the seventeenth century, namely Johannes Althusius, put it, “what would human life be without the piety of the first table of the Decalogue, and without the justice of the second?”

Peter A. Lillback, President

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