The Ancient Law of Liberty
In his refutation of the Gnostics, Irenaeus in the middle of the second century set forth what he called the "Ancient Law of Liberty." Plainly, it does not originate with him. The law is illustrated, he says, by the scripture "How often would I have gathered thy children together, . . . and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37.) God wants men to do right, but he does not coerce them to it. "For," says Irenaeus, "God made man free from the beginning. . . . For God never uses force. . . . He placed in man the power of election even as in the angels. . . . Glory and honor, he says, to all who do good, and it is due them because they could have done evil. . . . Now if God made some men good and some bad simply by nature, there would be nothing praiseworthy in their virtue or blameworthy in their vice, for that being their nature they could not do otherwise. But since to all is given equally the power of doing good or bad exactly as they choose, they are rightly praised or blamed for what they do. . . . That is why the prophets appeal to men to do good and eschew evil."1 Irenaeus further explains that "God wants men to do good, but even the Gospel allows anyone who does not want to do good to do evil. To obey or disobey is in every man's power. . . . God forcing no man. . . . There is a godlike power of judgment in all men, making them envied by angels."2 The ancient law of liberty is that God trusts men while on this earth to make their own choices, while they trust him alone to judge whether those choices have been good or bad.
This second aspect of the law—that God alone shall judge—is well brought out in Peter's apocryphal refutation of the arch-Gnostic Simon Magus, a valuable and ancient elucidation of Irenaeus' statement. Peter begins the discussion by invoking peace on the whole assembly and expressing the desire that everything be peaceably and amicably discussed. This is the signal for the self-righteous Simon Magus to explode with the indignant declaration that champions of truth don't ask for peace, since they are determined to "kick the stuffing" out of error and will only call it peace when the opposition lies helpless before them. It is weakness and cowardice in Peter, he says, to ask for peace for the wrong as well as for the right side. In reply Peter says we must imagine this world as a vast plain in which two cities strive for mastery, each claiming the whole land as its own. The king of one city sends to the other proposing a peaceful discussion in which the matter might be decided without killing anybody. In this he is not weak; he has no intention of giving the other king a single blade of grass that does not belong to him. Now the other king can think of no other course than to take what is his by force, and that, says Peter, shows that his cause is really a weak one.3 Simon Magus then applies his argument against Peter to Peter's God, bringing out the favorite old chestnut of the schools: either God is vicious because he does not want to prevent evil or weak because he cannot. "Could not God have made us all good," he asks, "so that we could not be anything else but virtuous?" To which Peter replies with a statement of the ancient law of liberty: "A foolish question," he says, "for if he made us unchangeably and immovably inclined to good, we would not really be good at all, since we couldn't be anything else; and it would be no merit on our part that we were good, nor could we be given credit for doing what we did by necessity of nature. How can you call any act good that is not performed intentionally? For this reason the world has existed through the ages, so that the spirits destined to come here might fulfill their number, and here make their choice between the upper and the lower worlds, both of which are represented here, so that when their bodies are resurrected the blessed might go to eternal light and the unrighteous for their impure acts be wrapped in a spiritual flame."4 In this work, says Peter, "every man is given a fair chance to show his real desires." To the question put to him in a later discussion, "Did not the Creator know that those he created would do evil?" Peter replied, "Certainly, he considered all the evil that would be among those whom he created; but as one who knew there was no other way to achieve the purpose for which they were created, he went ahead. He did not draw back or hesitate, nor was he afraid of what would happen." Evil is forced on no one, he explains, it is only there for those who want it. No one comes under its sway "save he who of his own free will deliberately subjects himself to it."5
At the end of the discussion with Simon Magus, according to this account, Peter's good faith in this law of liberty was put to the test. Simon had lost control of himself; he had started raving and antagonized and scandalized everyone present. The people accordingly wanted to mob the archenemy of the faith, but Peter vigorously opposed them: "We must bear wicked men with patience, brethren," he cried, "knowing that God who could easily wipe them out, suffers them to carry on to the appointed day in which the deeds of all shall be judged. Wherefore should we not then suffer whom God suffers? Why do we not bear with fortitude of spirit the wrongs they commit against us, when he who can do all things does not avenge himself for the wrongs they do him?"6
In our discussion of "The Prophets and the Plan of Life," we quote other early Christian writers who described this world as a testing ground in which everyone was to be given the choice between good and evil, the presence of evil and the possiblity of a wrong choice being just as essential to the plan as the presence of good. No teaching is more frequently met with nor more emphatically brought home in the earliest Christian literature than the famous doctrine of the "Two Ways," which proclaims that there lie before every human being and before the church itself two roads between which a choice must be made. The one is the road of darkness, the way of evil; the other, the way of light. Every man must choose between the two every day of his life; that choosing is the most important thing he does, and the two ways, good and evil, are absolutely essential to God's plan.7 There is nothing weak or vicious in the arrangement, for every man is clearly given to understand that as he chooses so he will be judged. He will be judged by God in the proper time and place. Meantime he must be free, perfectly free, to choose his own way.
Now this is a thing which the kings of the world have never been able to see. Trespasses against persons and property are things that can be and always have been settled among men themselves by payment of one sort or another. But the particular concern of despots in every age has been to prevent and punish trespasses against God—those sins which shake the very foundation of the universe, according to the established dogma. Sin is wrong; therefore all possible means should be taken to prevent men from sinning. What could be more logical? From the earliest to the latest times kings have claimed to be what the Roman emperor called himself, the virtutum rector of the world, the magnus parens mundi, whose mission was to force all men to be virtuous. 8 For a man to set himself up as judge and parent of the human race is to usurp divine authority, but the kings of old always had an answer to that: "We are God's representatives on earth," they said, "and whatever we do is, after all, in the name of virtue; we want everyone to be virtuous, and it is our business to see to it that everybody is virtuous."9 In this they were quite sincere.
Satan's plan, you will recall, was to make everybody virtuous, not vicious, and in that he was the model and archetype of those monarchs of old who insisted on abolishing all sin by edict. Time and again the panegyrists hail this or that emperor for having abolished all sin and nonconformity from the world. God was against sin; very well, the emperor would see to it that nobody sinned—he would close the door on sin and make it possible for the human race to walk one way and one way only—the way of light, the path of compulsory virtue. Emperors, sincere and devout men who gave themselves such names as Pius and Felix, sent out their agentes in rebus to teach virtue to the Christians (everybody knew about their immoral doctrines and secret orgies!), and met with a surprising rebuff. "What a splendid sight to God," writes Minucius Felix, "when a Christian stands up to pain, when he holds his own against threats, tortures, and torments! When he smilingly faces the multitude screaming for his death and the grim preparations of the butcher, as he asserts his liberty against kings and princes, yielding it only to God, to whom it belongs!"10 It is not for kings or princes to judge whether a man's course is a godly one or not; it is for God alone.
Yet, a hundred years after this was written, the Christian Roman emperors began their long, futile series of edicts monotonously ordering the whole human race to be good, orthodox Christians on pain of the severest penalities, exactly as their heathen predecessors had called repeatedly on the human race to acknowledge their virtuous rule and follow its example—or else. The Emperor Theodosius in a famous edict declared that all who disagreed with his church's definition of God could only be treated as extravagant madmen. The Emperor Justinian announced his intention of forcing even the devil himself to join the true church and thus achieve that perfect unity "which Pythagoras and Plato taught." To this way of thinking, the church itself was completely converted in the fourth century. No more nonsense about two ways—henceforth there was to be only one way pleasing to God, and the church would see to it that nobody ever got off the track.11 St. Augustine had taught that true liberty was not to be able to sin, forgetting that the angels envy man's right to sin if he wants to.
The Reformation and the wars of religion did not abolish the doctrine of compulsory virtue but extended its application, acknowledging the right of princes to take their choice among a number of religions and binding their subjects to the same—cujus regio eius religio—or at least giving it such preferential treatment as to make it all but compulsory. The system flourished throughout Europe until World War I.
On July 4, 1776, the ancient law of liberty was again established upon the earth. Everywhere in America, says John Adams, the people received the Declaration of Independence "as though it was a decree promulgated from heaven." And well they might, for it was a strange and wonderful thing. "Freedom hath been hunted round the globe," wrote Tom Paine. "Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."12 It was a radical departure from the established order of things. Ancient precepts were renounced, and men disowned an allegiance to which they had taken oaths, however reluctantly. For that trespass a price was paid, and the right to the "new order of things," the novus ordo seclorum that appears on the national seal, was purchased by the shedding of blood.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States contain statements of general principles along with specific and particular provisions for their implementation. The principles are the really important thing. Both documents specifically render back to God those rights of judgment and execution which men had usurped. That is why both have a strongly negative tone. "Hands off!" is the theme—there are certain rights which all men enjoy which the Creator himself has declared inalienable and with which no man or group of men has any right to interfere. Men may check and admonish each other in their little affairs, but where the great decisions of life are concerned, God alone is the judge. That is the key to the whole thing: "In God we trust." The Founding Fathers did trust God. They trusted him enough to give back to him and him alone the right to judge the hearts and minds of men. In the eyes of absolutism, our Constitution is hopelessly soft on sinners. Here, heresy, held for centuries to be the quintessence of subversion and the worst of all crimes, does not fall under human jurisdiction at all; people with wrong ideas are expressly allowed to talk about them and even hold meetings; Congress may never declare one religion more desirable than another (Article VI and Amendment I), or one person more noble than another (Article I, Section 10). God alone knows who is really virtuous and who is not. The king may be right some of the time or even all the time, but that, as Macaulay observes in his "Essay on Civil Disabilities," is beside the point, which, according to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is that men must be free individually and collectively to make their own choices, no matter how bad. That, as we have seen, is the ancient law of liberty.
The kings and priests who rush officiously to the defense of God, with hue and cry against the sinners, do not trust God either to fight his own battles or to make his own judgments. When Pope Stephen III wrote Pepin to come to his rescue because "save for thy mighty arm we have only God to help us!" he certainly rated the power of God very low—"only God," forsooth! And do those who offer to do God's judging for him really trust his adequacy as a judge? God has never delegated his power and office of judging to anyone, Tertullian reminded the Roman clergy on one occasion.13 When Christ returns in glory, it will be to preside at the judgment, but while he was in the flesh he said, "I judge no man" (John 8:15). God is not easy on sinners; he says he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, but reminds men that "I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men" (D&C 64:10). "Judgment is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay" (cf. D&C 82:23, Mormon 3:15). "Judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1). "Man shall not counsel his fellow man, neither put trust in the arm of flesh" (D&C 1:19). We could go on, but the point is clear enough: God does not delegate to any man or institution functions which he has reserved to himself to exercise at an appointed time and place. As Irenaeus says, God wants men to do good, but he forces no man. Until the judgment day, he lets his sun shine upon the just and unjust; he who can do all things does not coerce to virtue—is it the business of men to do it in his name? The Lord was crucified as a blasphemer by people rushing to the defense of God, and those who killed the Apostles were convinced that they were doing God a favor. God asks no such favors of men. The power is his alone, and the judgment. But it remained for the Constitution of the United States to recognize that fact and act upon it. The most important thing about a man is what he thinks; the next most important, his contact—giving and taking—with the thoughts of others; last of all come the busy preoccupations of the organism, its bodily and social functions. It is in the first two of these areas that the despots of the past and present have sought to do their most effective work. And these are precisely the areas in which the Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law . . .," thus proclaiming in all its purity the ancient law of liberty.
In 1833 the Lord revealed to a modern prophet that he had suffered the Constitution to be established, and that it "should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood" (D&C 101:77—80).
It is more than Fourth of July rhetoric when the Latter-day Saints declare that the Constitution is an inspired document. It actually is the restoration to the earth of that ancient law of liberty which has been preached by the prophets in every age, allowing every man to act in doctrine and principle according to the moral agency which God has given him, to be accountable for his own sins on the day of judgment. Such acts may never be prescribed or judged by any human agency, the Constitution maintains, and we firmly believe that to be the will of God: it was known to the early Christians as the ancient law of liberty.
1. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses IV, 37, 1, in PG 7:1099—1100.
2. Ibid., 37, 3—6, in PG 7:1101—3.
3. Clementine Recognitions II, 23—25, in PG 1:1260—61.
4. Ibid., III, 26, in PG 1:1294—95.
5. Ibid., III, 59, in PG 1:1307; IV, 24, 34, in PG 1:1324, 1330.
6. Ibid., III, 49, in PG 1:1303.
7. Willem Cornelis van Unnik, Jan Waszink and C. De Beus, Het oudste Christendom en de antieke Cultuur (Haarlem: Tjeenk, Willink & Zoon, 1951), ch. 2, pp. 92—93.
8. Hugh Nibley, "The Hierocentric State," Western Political Quarterly 4 (1951): 231—35.
9. For a general treatment, Hugh Nibley, "The Unsolved Loyalty Problem: Our Western Heritage," Western Political Quarterly 6 (1953): 637—41.
10. Minucius Felix, Octavius 37, in PL 3:367—68.
11. For references, Nibley, "The Unsolved Loyalty Problem," 641—46.
12. Both quotations from Homer Hockett, Political and Social Growth of the United States: 1492—1852, reprinted as Political and Social Growth of the American People: 1492—1852 (New York: Macmillan, 1940), 200—201.
13. Tertullian, De Pudicitia I, 20—22, in PL 2:1031—35, 1074—84: "quis permittit homini donare quae Deo reservanda sunt?"