What Role Has Christianity Played in Shaping the Law?

This is a topic that we will come back to multiple times on this blog, so I will just focus on one aspect of the answer to this question for now.

I think the main starting point is this: for hundreds of years, our laws were made by and for Christians. This doesn’t mean that all of our legal system derives explicitly from Christian doctrine, but rather that Christian beliefs were professed by virtually all of the people involved in lawmaking in England (e.g. monarchs, parliamentarians, judges and lawyers) up to the establishment of the Australian colonies and in Australia after that, until relatively recently. Those who didn’t personally have faith at least lived in a society that took Christian teaching for granted to the extent that it would be almost impossible to come to a moral, political or legal viewpoint on an issue without having been influenced by it. I think that by failing to recognise this context today we tend to study and understand the law in an anachronistic way, as if the fundamental ideas underpinning our legal system came about purely by historical accident and coincidence.

It is not the case that the law was good just because it was produced by Christians, any more than a particular act must be good because it was done by a Christian. There are plenty of examples of laws and judicial decisions in English and Australian legal history that we would not hesitate to describe as unjust, lacking in mercy, or just nonsensical. Human sin has infected and continues to infect, our legal system just like it does everything else, and every human being playing the role of a cog in this machine is fallible.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that our imperfect legal system is by world and historical standards a wonderful inheritance in terms of justice, equality and the recognition of inherent and inalienable rights, and credit for this largely lies with our Christian heritage. Where would we be today without the fundamental idea that Man is created in God’s image? Or that God himself was wrongly accused and executed? Or the famous words of St Paul in Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus?

Although they seem familiar now, there is nothing inevitable or obvious about these ideas in the context of human history. Similarly, there are aspects of our legal system that we take for granted today and which seem at first glance to be primly secular, but which actually have a messy history of being hammered out by Christians trying to make sense of the strange teachings of Jesus Christ, and what that means for how a Christian society should conduct itself.

In future blog posts we will look at the origins of some of those most treasured aspects, for example, the recognition of human rights, parliamentary democracy and the separation of powers.

Rebecca Lynne

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