By Rev. Nate Atwood
Last week, I posted the first part of a sermon by Rev. Atwood. He shared the importance of relearning our whole national history. Those aspects that modern education censors out. As he pointed out, scripture was an important part of the rise of political freedom, which resulted from the rule of law. That is God’s law applied through human law. The founding generation emphasized the great value of knowing facts of history because those facts taught them about the causes of oppression, corruption, and failure as well as the means to a good and prosperous society. Therefore, our ancestors created states and bound them together in federation based on their belief in God and on their knowledge of covenantal and world history. To forget what they and their ancestors learned and achieved the hard way will enable tyrants present and future to repeat the same evils that robbed people of God’s gift of life and liberty.
This second part of Rev. Atwood’s sermon focuses on the Declaration of Independence and the role Scripture had to play in its writing.
If we Americans have wandered out of history, let’s wander back into it.
Speaking as a Christian, a teacher of the Bible, and an American citizen, I’d like to make these basic observations with regard to the Declaration of Independence. This isn’t, first of all, a political document. First of all, and primarily, the Declaration of Independence is a religious document. Let me ask you this series of questions, . . . why did the signers of the Declaration think they could declare independence? Why did the signers of the Declaration think that it was morally permissible to rebel against England? Why did the signers
of the Declaration think they, as an upstart, rag-tag, largely impoverished group of people, could defeat the greatest military power on the face of the earth? After all, wasn’t their setting a bit like the Taliban thinking they could defeat the United States? What motivated these men? Even more to the point, . . . what was their authority for making these claims and choosing this course of action? Where did they think human rights came from? How did they understand the role of government in human affairs?
The answer, of course, is contained in the Declaration itself. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . . .” As you read the Declaration of Independence, it is very clear that the moral authority for the drive for independence was found in
God Himself. Even more to the point, this moral authority was found in the Bible itself.
John Adams, in a letter written late in his life to Thomas Jefferson, remarked that the Founding Fathers found their agreement in the “basic principles of Christianity.” This is a remarkable statement, and scrutiny of the Declaration itself suggests just this. Let’s take a moment and step inside the Declaration and “connect the dots” between the various phrases and thoughts found therein and the teaching of the Bible. In fact, let’s begin with the idea of “rights.”
Where did the concept of “rights” come from? Well, it is taught in the Bible. For example, Psalm 82:1–4 refers to the concept of “rights.”
God presides in the great assembly; He gives judgment among the “gods”: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Selah. Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
What we must grasp is that the Founding Fathers lived in an era profoundly shaped by the Bible. As inheritors of the Reformation, they lived in a time when it was simply taken for granted that society was to be structured around the teaching of the Bible.
Additional thoughts and phrases in the Declaration of Independence are clearly Biblical. For example, there is a clear definition of the role of government contained in the Declaration. . . . “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . . .” Did you know that this is precisely what the Bible teaches as the role of government? Psalm 82 is written to an assembly of governmental leaders (these are the “gods” referred to in the psalm). Romans 13 similarly sees that the government’s use of force is based upon a commitment to protect the innocent. The Founding Fathers justified their rebellion against the British crown because it was a government that no longer upheld the rights of the citizens. Their logic was that the British were in rebellion against God by this failure, and thus were no longer a legitimate authority. Four times the Declaration of Independence directly refers to God. Each of these references is
completely consistent with what the Bible teaches to be true about God and is, in fact, the same language the Bible used to describe God. The first reference is to “Nature’s God.” The concept therein is that the idea of justice and law can clearly be deduced from the natural order created by God. This is precisely what the Bible teaches in Romans 1. The second reference is to God as “Creator.” The Bible teaches this in Genesis 1. (I realize it may seem obvious to us that God is Creator, but if you study world religions and philosophies you’ll learn that this is a distinctly Biblical thought. For example, Eastern religions and even Greek thought viewed the universe as eternally pre-existent—at least in the form of matter if not structure. The idea of a “Creator” is not so universally held as we might surmise.)
The last two references to God are found towards the end of the Declaration of Independence. He is referred to as “the Supreme Judge of the World.” Yes, again and again the Bible teaches us that God is our Judge (“There is One who seeks and judges,” John 8:50). The final reference to God is an appeal to “the protection of Divine Providence.” Here is a profoundly Biblical concept—the idea that God is active in the affairs of men, that God rules in those affairs, that God orders those affairs so as to ultimately protect His interests, and that in so doing He protects those who ally themselves with His causes. (“The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run unto it and are glad,” Proverbs 18:10, and Romans 8:28, “For we know that in all things God works for the good of those that love Him and are called according to His purposes.”)
Now let’s return to my earlier premise that the Declaration of Independence is first of all a religious document and only secondarily a political document. Do you now see why I hold this position? My point is that we must look deeper than the course of action our Founding Fathers took. We must examine the reasons for that course of action, and those reasons were clearly religious. Their appeal was simply to God as their moral authority and their protection. Their actions were political, but their motivations were religious.
In other words, before America was conceived in liberty, America was conceived in God. Now isn’t it true that a law of nature is this: “He who conceives is the father”? You might call the Declaration of Independence our national birth certificate. Every year we remind ourselves that this is the day our nation was born. And—if we have a shred of common sense—we honor our founding fathers. But according to this—our Birth Certificate—we were conceived in God and His Truths.
In other words, the real Founding Father is the Lord of Hosts. And so on the 4th of July, our national birthday, we should honor our ultimate Founding Father … our Father in heaven.
Reverend Nate Atwood has been in the ministry for sixteen years as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. He has been Senior Pastor at Kempsville Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, since Palm Sunday, 1999.