A 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta. Pubic Domain
In 1215, King John was at war with his barons over the abuse of power. Magna Carta, agreed as a settlement between the parties at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, established that a monarch could not rule as he pleased but was limited by the rights of his subjects.
Church historians tell us that Stephen Langton (c1150 – 9 July 1228), Archbishop of Canterbury between 1207 and 1228 had a dispute between King John of England and Pope Innocent III over his election. This was a major factor to the crisis that resulted in the formation of the Magna Carta legal document in 1215.
Although Stephen Langton had been credited with the birth of the Magna Carta, Professor Alvin J. Schmidt’s book, How Christianity Changed the World, points out how Bishop Ambrose, an early architect of liberty and justice, is largely ignored in secular discussions of the growth and development of civic freedom in the Western world.
In AD 390 some people in Thessalonica rioted, arousing the anger of the Christian emperor, Theodosius the Great. He overreacted, slaughtering some 7,000 people, most of whom were innocent. Bishop Ambrose, who was located in Milan at the time, did not turn a blind eye to the emperor’s vindictive and unjust behavior.
He asked him to repent of his massacre. When the emperor refused to do so, the bishop excommunicated him from the Church. After a month of stubborn hesitation, Theodosius prostrated himself and repented in Ambrose’s cathedral bringing tears of joy to fellow believers.
It is unfortunate that Ambrose’s action against Theodosius has often been portrayed as a power struggle between church and state rather than being the first instance of applying the principle that no one, not even an emperor or king or president, is above the laws of the state. The facts, indeed, support the latter interpretation.
This is evident from one of Ambrose’s letter to the emperor, which shows that he was solely concerned for the emperor’s spiritual welfare in the matter. Bishop Ambrose declared:
If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.
Like King David before him, who deliberately had Uriah killed in battle, the emperor had placed himself above one of God’s laws and committed murder, and for that Ambrose demanded genuine repentance. This was a major factor that could have influenced Langton and his Christian colleagues which reiterated Ambrose’s principle in producing the Magna Carta in 1215.
Today modern democracies take pride in saying that no one is above the law, but they fail to note that this landmark of civilization, which is now commonly imitated in free societies, was first implemented by a courageous, uncompromising Christian Bishop some 1,600 years ago. In a sense, Ambrose also set the stage for the Magna Carta that followed some 800 years later in England.
No One Is Above the Law
One of the oldest means of depriving individuals of liberty and justice was for the top ruler (often a king or emperor of a country) to set himself above the law. Functioning above the law meant he was a law unto himself, often curtailing and even obliterating the natural rights and freedoms of the country’s citizens.
The pages of history are filled with examples of such rulers: Hebrew kings in the Old Testament era and most of the Roman emperors who arbitrarily snuffed out the lives of individuals who were perceived to be opposed to their policies. Whether such individuals were a threat to the welfare of the nation was irrelevant. What a ruler wanted was what he got. These rulers were not accountable to anyone (in Rome, not even to the senate) for their arbitrary and often bloody acts.
King John (24 December 1166-19 October 1216) was probably one of the worst kings England has ever had. He murdered those who stood in his way, seized property, twisted the law to his own ends, imposed taxes without justification and usurped all other legitimate authority, attempting to rule as a tyrant. One historian said of King John, “He feared not God, nor respected men.” (See related video below)
In May 1215 the barons rebelled and an army was gathered to confront the King. This was a battle that John knew he could not win. So at Runnymede Magna Carta was drafted as a peace treaty. It remained in force for a mere ten weeks, but its influence has endured for 800 years. After John’s death Magna Carta was reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 until its impact became permanent.
When the barons forced King John to consent to and sign the Magna Carta (the Large Charter) at Runnymede in Surrey, outside of London, they obtained a number of rights that they did not have before this historic occasion. Specifically, the charter granted that (1) justice could no longer be sold or denied to freemen who were under the authority of barons; (2) no taxes could be levied without representation; (3) no one would be imprisoned without a trial; and (4) property could not be taken from the owner without just compensation.
The Magna Carta, presented by the Barons of England to King John in 1215, opens with this:
Article 1:We have, in the first place, granted to God, and by this our present charter have confirmed, for us and our heirs forever, that the English Church shall be free, its rights undiminished, its liberties unimpaired; and that we wish this to be observed appears from the fact that we of our own free will, before the outbreak of the disputes between us and our barons, granted and confirmed by Charter the freedom of elections, which is considered most important and necessary to the English Church. We have also granted to all the free men of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the liberties underwritten, to have and to hold to them and their heirs of us and our heirs.
These are the other articles of the Magna Carta that are still law today:
Article 13: The city of London shall enjoy all her ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and water. We also decree and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports shall have all their liberties and free customs.
Article 39: No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals and by the law of the land.
Article 40: To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.
In his book, Magna Carta, J.C. Holt, professor of medieval history, University of Cambridge, notes that three of the chapters of this ancient document still stand on the English Stature Book and that so much of what survives of the Great Charter is “concerned with individual liberty,” which “is a reflection of the quality of the original act of 1215.”
The Magna Carta, like many other highly beneficial phenomena that lifted civilization to a higher plateau in the Western world, had important Christian ties. Its preamble began:
John, by the grace of God…” and then it stated that the Charter was formulated out of “reverence for God and for the salvation of our souls and those of all our ancestors and heirs, for the honor of God and the exaltation of the Holy Church and the reform of our realm, on the advice of our reverend [church] fathers.
These achievements were monumental and history making. The era of the king being above the law had effectively come to an end. Commonly, this document is hailed as ushering in English liberty and justice; and some 500 years later it also served as a courageous precedent to the American patriots to establish liberty and justice in the newly founded United States of America. The early advocates of American independence often referred to the Magna Carta in support of their arguments:
That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.—Declaration of Independence.
As a result of the solid biblical foundation from the Pilgrims, these early statesmen signed the Declaration of Independence because they recognized that there was a higher authority—the Creator to whom they could appeal to establish objective moral grounds for their independence. Had they begun the Declaration with, “We hold these opinions as our own” (rather than “self-evident” and “truths”), they wouldn’t have expressed an objective moral justification for their Declaration of Independence.
This would have been their opinion against that of King George. They appealed to their Creator because they believed His moral law was the ultimate standard of right and wrong that would justify their cause—to end the rule of King George in the American colonies. They were convinced that George’s rule needed to be ended because he was violating the basic human rights of the colonists.
Western individual liberties can only be upheld and safeguarded by legal, social and cultural traditions embedded in the ethics of the Bible. Indeed, humanity cannot make a law that will bind the conscience of the people. God alone can make that type of law. Public opinion must be brought up to God’s law; it must never be lowered to suit the unpredictable human nature of mankind. The institution of the state, as God’s minister (see Romans 13:4), must therefore enforce the divine law as it pertains to civil life alone.
The criminal and civil justice systems of Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and many other free countries, employ the Christian requirement of having witnesses testify in a court of law before a sentence is passed. In British and American jurisprudence, witnesses are part of what is legally called the “due process of law,” which is a legal concept precisely because of the West’s biblical roots.
The liberty and justice enjoyed by the people in the Western world and in other countries are increasingly seen as the products of a benevolent, secular government that is the provider of all things. Unfortunately, there is no awareness that the liberties and rights that are currently operative in the free societies of the West are to a great degree the result of Christian influence.
All previous architects of civic freedom and justice drew extensively from the Christian perspective regarding humanity’s God-given freedoms, which had for most of human history never really been implemented.
Christianity’s accent on the individual was a necessary condition for freedom and liberty to surface in the Magna Carta (1215), in England’s Petition of Rights (1628), Habeas Corpus Act, limiting detention without trial,(1679) in the Bill of Rights (1689), used by Granville Sharp to argue against slavery in England (1772) and, of course, in the writing of U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) American Bill of Rights (1791).
Political, economic, and religious freedom can only exist where there is liberty and freedom of the individual. Group rights that determine a person’s rights on the basis of belonging to a given ethnic or racial group, as presently advocated by multiculturalists and by affirmative action laws, nullify the rights of the individual. Christianity in the West has laid the foundation of civil and religious liberty.
Alvin Schmidt said, “In whatever nations where the heritage of Christianity has had a prominent presence, there has been marked improvement in liberty and justice as opposed to societies that have been, or continue to be, dominated by non-Christian religions.
And regarding Western countries outside the United States, the historian Carlton Hayes has remarked, “Wherever Christian ideals have been generally accepted and their practice sincerely accepted, there is a dynamic liberty; and wherever Christianity had been ignored or rejected, persecuted or chained to the state, there is tyranny.
At the present time we are seeing an unprecedented acceleration of tyranny in the history of the United States and the West in general. Some are speculating that we almost now live in a police state that is run by an “elite” group who pass laws for the people but exempt themselves from those same laws.
This is happening because most Christians no longer believe in God’s Word as the basis of justice. Or to say it another way, nothing will restore true liberty to the West unless, and until, there is a return to God and His revealed Word. The West should not abandon the Christian principles that made them great; we cannot continue violating the moral laws of God without any consequences.
We are now at a moment in time at which we Christians and our leaders must devote ourselves to a time of prayer, fasting, repentance for a true revival and a Great Awakening, and to once again acknowledge that we surely cannot survive unless God Himself intervenes.
Part of this article is an excerpt from the book, Reclaiming the Forgotten Biblical Heritage