What Jefferson Wrote

Sharing Options

Some might want to think it a shame that in my summary of my position on property, I channeled Jefferson, that noted infidel and skeptic. This is what I wrote:

“We are created by God, and it is self-evident that we were endowed by that Creator with certain rights that are inalienable, and that among these rights are the right to life, liberty, and property.”

For my part, I think the Jefferson hat tip is a shame also, but for different reasons. I think it is shame that a noted infidel and skeptic had a far more biblical understanding of these issues than do many contemporary Christians. That really is a shame.

I summarized there what Jefferson wrote, but did not go into why he wrote it. He wrote those wonderful words because he was at the tail end of a long history of Christian intellectual development. Some of the players in that development had their own problematic issues — I’m looking at you, John Locke — but there really was real progress in understanding civil liberty, political rights, property rights, and so on. To point to certain phrases and dismiss the thought because the expressions of Locke or Jefferson can be found in them is to make an exceedingly superficial judgment. Not only is it a prime example of the genetic fallacy, it even gets the genetics wrong. Before Jefferson, there was Samuel Rutherford and Phillipe du Plessis-Mornay and Algernon Sidney.

So that is why Jefferson wrote what he did. He was an infidel worker with Christian materials. So Christians today need to comprehend what was said, and also to comprehend that what was said is the truth of God. Try it this way:

“We are created by God (Gen. 1:27), and it is self-evident that we were endowed by that Creator with certain rights that are inalienable (Gen. 9:6), and that among these rights are the right to life (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 17:6), liberty (2 Cor. 3:17, and property (Ex. 20:15,17).”

Look. Let me spell it out. If my neighbor has no property — and by this I mean property that is actual property; inviolate, protected by God from all comers, including the state — then my neighbor is property. There are no other options. He is either a free man or he is a slave. A man without property is property. A man whose rights to property are not honored and recognized as having been bestowed on him by Almighty God is chattel.

Now it is possible for modern theorists to argue against his rights to property, but it is not possible to argue this without simultaneously relegating that man to the status of chattel. So if you are going to go in that direction, at least have the courage of your convictions. Herding everyone on to the plantation really ought not to be described as liberation.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
45 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Smith
David Smith
8 years ago

Furthermore, as our lives and livelihoods have become more abstracted, our view of what property is in one of its most essential forms (actually most essential form?) has changed, that is, literally soil. For all who have had their senses dulled by HGTV’s endless barrage of real estate/decorator porn, where property is nothing more than a “space” for realizing one’s fondest dreams of ultimate fulfillment, or for those in the local chamber of commerce who see it as merely one more source of tax revenue, the kind of property I’m referring to here is, in God’s earthly economy, the literal… Read more »

Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen
8 years ago

The problem isn’t that you quote Jefferson, but that you, a la van Til, claim his writing is axiomatic. That you now tack on a few proof texts–that no one disputes, the debate is not whether theft is wrong, but what wealth and property are–to a system that is manifestly Jeffersonian, without interacting with, say, Augustine, does not improve anything.

Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen
8 years ago

Ug, theft now wealth.

TKyle
8 years ago

I was with you until you said “a man without property is property.” Can you explain how you came to that conclusion? I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’m not going to through that phrase around as axiomatic, either.

Wesley
Wesley
8 years ago

TKyle,

I stumbled over that too initially. How I’ve come to understand the post is that he is not saying that if you don’t own anything then you are owned yourself, but rather if you do not have the RIGHT to own anything, then it is because someone else owns you.

Sorry if that’s not what you were asking.

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

It does not seem as if God has a problem with wealth: His issue is with tiny little grasping and covetous hearts, because envy. “Praise the Lord! Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments! His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever. Light dawns in the darkness for the upright; he is gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice.”… Read more »

David R
David R
8 years ago

Peterson – could you flesh out what Augustine’s view on property are? It may help in getting other’s to engage without talking past each other.

St. Lee
8 years ago

Let’s see Matt, you take Pastor Wilson to task for using something Jefferson said as something self evident, but when he goes all that way back to the Bible to support his claim you again cry foul because he did not seek Augustine on bended knee? Personally, once the word of God has been quoted, I don’t need a more self evident source, whether Augustine agrees with it or not. RFB asks, “How can you be generous and lend what ain’t yours? ” Simple, follow the lead of communism in general and the Democratic Party in particular. They have made… Read more »

TKyle
8 years ago

Wesley, I get what you’re saying. The way I originally read it, it was the property itself that bestowed the dignity of humanity on a person, rather than property being an evidence of the dignity of humanity bestowed upon us by God. In the former, it caused me confusion because it placed this power with the State. But as I read with the latter understanding, if we deny someone’s right to property, then we deny their God-given humanity (with the parade of horribles that follows). I guess it comes down to whether we are talking about the mere existence of… Read more »

Jane Dunsworth
Jane Dunsworth
8 years ago

Matt, I hope you understand why people keep telling you you seem to have a chip on your shoulder regarding Doug. Doug quotes Jefferson to illustrate his point. You object. Doug explains that he quoted Jefferson because Jefferson wrote widely recognized words that apply Moses, and that Moses has always been his (Doug’s) starting point. You appear to refuse to consider this as a legitimate (even if incorrect) position, you insist on characterizing it as starting with Jefferson and “tacking on proof texts.” Why not entertain the possibility that Doug really means that the principle comes from Moses, and Jefferson… Read more »

John C
John C
8 years ago

And herding everybody onto the plantation is exactly the direction we’re heading in….. Look at how Egypt was enslaved back in Genesis 35-40…. There was a Famine… The Government made fine preparation and made sure that the people had food – even to the end of the famine… but the CONSEQUENCE is that every inch of property and every soul in Egypt was sold to Pharoh…. That’s how you enslave an entire nation in a period of 7 years…. You know… With this conversation…. We keep focusing on “Things of Caesar’s” and we forget that “Things of God” are being… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

This really makes it seem like you don’t want to hear Doug, you just want to criticize him. The term is “DISQUALIFY” . It happens frequently on internet forums. The point is not to address the argument at hand but to disqualify the person making the argument. It is a common tactic of the political left against the political right. Whenever Matt makes the first comment on a thread, you will note that it is often an attempt to “disqualify” Doug Wilson and not an attempt to engage the subject. A useful technique in countering it is to reply and… Read more »

Jeers1215
Jeers1215
8 years ago

Thank you, St. Lee. David R., I think the Augustinian view being referenced here is the belief that ‘private’ property requires the existence of a State as part of its definition, which is why Matt keeps objecting to Pastor Wilson’s definition of ‘private property.’ It can only be regarded as lawfully owned (affording rights to the owner) in the context of a law enforcement entity. If we’re going to continue with the narrative of ‘human rights,’ Matt may have a point. You can’t have political rights without a State. I think ‘natural rights’ and ‘human rights’ are probably too humanistic… Read more »

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

timothy, In a courtroom, the algorithm used to attack a prosecution is to provide countervailing evidence, either in the form of physical evidence, or corroborated testimony. When that cannot be accomplished (because you lack the physical evidence, or the because the witness testimony is compelling), then the most common tactic is to attempt to impeach the witness(es). This tactic dies not have to ascend to the level of a forensic impeachment; it only needs to suggest enough to create doubt (“Did God really say…”). That is the dynamic being used here. I have yet to see Mr. Petersen stake out… Read more »

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

Jeers,

While I carry no brief against any of our predecessors (Augustine, et al), or Locke etc, I think that before we go to any of them, we should defer to what God says. I must and shall stand in concurrence with St. Lee:

“Personally, once the word of God has been quoted, I don’t need a more self evident source, whether Augustine agrees with it or not.”

“Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar.”

I would really like to see any disagreement with the premise established by Pastor Wilson to refute them with Scripture.

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

@RFB Thx. There is another principle to keep in mind when dealing with an honest man; I don’t know the name for it, but it has these (and other) characteristics: He seeks correction. He asks God to search him out. He asks himself, “What am I missing?, what am I not seeing? Where am I wrong?” . He assumes good faith on the part of his interlocutor. Where there are differences, if able, they are spelled out and acknowledged. In the realm of Science, Feynman spelled this out wonderfully. I think Proverbs has this in our realm, but my Bible… Read more »

Wesley
Wesley
8 years ago

Let me throw an idea out there:

If all things belong to God, and they do, and he gives gifts to men, and He does, so that those men can steward those gifts that really belong to God, then it is incumbent upon me to respect what God has given to other men to steward out of an appreciation for and respect of the Providence of God that deemed fit to give a particular object to a particular man and not to me.

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

timothy, I would label your explanation an attribute that I call “intellectual integrity”. I think that some of what you describe is mentioned here: “He who walks uprightly, And works righteousness, And speaks the truth in his heart; He who does not backbite with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; In whose eyes a vile person is despised, But he honors those who fear the Lord; He who swears to his own hurt and does not change; He who does not put out his money at usury, Nor… Read more »

Robert
Robert
8 years ago

Who controls water access controls everything.

Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen
8 years ago

Jane: What I’ve said is clear, and you’re just dodging the issue. He did not quite Jefferson “to make a point”, rather, he followed van Til by claiming that finite minds need to presuppose something, and them claimed he presupposes Jefferson. It is true that on this thread he proof-texted Jefferson. But proof-texts are as weak here as anywhere, especially, since he merely added back what I showed two threads ago were only question-begging arguments–indeed, it was my argument that this last thread responded to by claiming he didn’t need to argue for Jefferson, since Jefferson is axiomatic. Again, the… Read more »

Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen
8 years ago

David, Or. Wilson needs to argue for his own, enlightenment, view of property and theft. He does not need to select one of the many understandings of property and theft to argue against it. The point regarding Augustine is different: As a Christian, particularly one who has championed going to our elders in the faith (though not uncritically), he has a duty to seek out and listen to the best from the Christian tradition, even if he ultimately rejects it. But he’s doing neither. As to the classic Christian view, you could do worse that reading the link from Brad… Read more »

Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen
8 years ago

Er…”Pr.” not “Or.”

Curt Day
8 years ago

First, I think you were channeling Locke rather than Jefferson. Second, the right to property is not an absolute right. And third, a distinction needs to be made between private property for personal use and private property for business use. This distinction is related to the second point that the right to property is not absolute. As for saying that those without property are property themselves, there is a point but it leaves out a lot. Marx stated that the America of his time experienced the abolition of private property. What did he mean by that? What he meant was… Read more »

Joel
Joel
8 years ago

I grant your points: a man without the right to property is property; to love my neighbor, I must respect his stuff; ergo, my neighbor has a God-given right to stuff. Counterpoint: it seems the right to stuff is neither inalienable, nor inherent in the human condition. Look at ancient Israel, where they both had native slaves (fellow covenant members who did not even own their children) and foreign slaves. It seems to me that the Bible is okay with a decent fraction of the world’s population being property (at least potentially). I suppose the category of “neighbor” must be… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Hi @joel. I suppose the category of “neighbor” must be read to exclude these people? Even granting your points, you still need to make a biblical case that property rights are universal. My layman’s thoughts include. 1. Remember Pastor Wilson’s exposition on Philemon? In it he pointed out that St. Paul was mediating the dispute between two Christians–one slave, the other owner–over property. “property” had two elements–the slave being the property of the owner and the property the slave had stolen from the owner. What Pastor Wilson argued is that Christ changes everything and that the “property relationships” of the… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

If we are going down this line, especially as many of the comments are pointing out, then why not go all the way and declare that all men really do have a right to their own land, the most essential expression of property? That does seem to be the point of the Jubilee, for example. Now, someone could still freely give up their land. But why should we live in a country where millions of people (not least the descendants of slaves) have not had their own fair shot at land for generations and generations?

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

Jonathan,

Please define “fair”, and why fair is a shall/should attribute to be sought, rather than being just (as in justice).

It seems apparent that God’s standard is justice:

“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”

“You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

Joel
Joel
8 years ago

@Timothy – I went back and read the argument I think you were referencing – about the triumph of koinonia? And I guess I find it a little less compelling (on this point) than you do. Doug seems to want to say that although Christianity excludes slavery (or maybe at least pagan slavery? given his arguments now that property and liberty are universal rights, I would think it should apply to all classes), but only gradually; Paul wasn’t an abolitionist picketing the Roman governor of Asia Minor because that would be to oppose evil with worldly means. Rather, the gospel… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

I was using fair colloquially – they have not had a reasonable shot at land. But the other meaning of fair could work in many cases too – many people in this country had their family’s land and labor stolen from them, and have never been given a shot to recover their family’s property. In fact, the very wealth that was stolen is then used in the political system and the courts in order to keep the advantage over those whose land has been stolen. And you don’t have to have had your family’s property stolen by slavery in order… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

RFB – I should also note that what the Bible calls “justice” is far, far broader than what happens inside of a court. The modern use of the word as a legal term doesn’t come close to reflecting how important “justice” is to God.

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

Jonathan, The problem with using terms “colloquially” is granting them an emotional validity that they do not inherently possess. When God speaks of the poor, does He mean people living better than Solomon? 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. (In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.) 92 percent of poor households have a microwave. Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks. Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV. Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and 70 percent have a VCR. Half… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Hi Joel. That’s a very thoughtful response. You summarize the points from the koinonia debate admirably and what you state is what I read.. I will have to give your critique of the analogy a closer reading as I am busy with some work at the moment. The finer points of Paul’s response I will have to leave to the Biblically literate, but I will interject that assuming Paul was a “time to go full martyrdom dude or bust” kind of guy is a weak assumption (imho). Wasn’t it Paul who could switch between milk and meat when feeding the… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

The alternative is to say that property rights are not necessarily inherent and inalienable: if it is possible for Philemon to love Onesimus as a brother, yet maintain him as a slave, then perhaps private property is not essential to human dignity in the way that Doug is advocating here.

Awesome insight, btw. well done.

t

Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen
8 years ago

One thing worth mentioning is that in Israel, inasmuch as land was owned by anyone other than God, it was owned first by Israel herself, then by the tribe, then by the transgenerational family, and only then by the “individual”. This was not anything like our modern private property.

Also, the paradigm case if not coveting is Abraham not coveting Lot’s land. But neither Abraham, nor Lot “owned” the land. And the same goes for theft. If Abraham had subsequently decided to go back to Lot’s land, he would have been stealing it–but neither of them “owned” the land.

Tim Mullet
Tim Mullet
8 years ago

Matthew,
Will you define “owned?”
Thanks

Jeers1215
Jeers1215
8 years ago

RFB, I am agreeing with you. I am thanking St. Lee, because it is so concisely stated: “Once the word of God has been quoted, I don’t need a more self evident source…” Also, I’ll probably use your line in the future: “When God speaks of the poor, does He mean people living better than Solomon?” Jonathan, While our justice system is increasingly in need of repair, we do theoretically have courts for prosecuting specific individuals for crimes. If you can’t point to the specific criminals, the crimes they committed, the two or more witnesses to those crimes, and the… Read more »

Joel
Joel
8 years ago

“But maybe human rights -are- tied to human dignity. Couldn’t it be that it is human dignity that is not absolute? Human dignity is not the chief end of man… is it?” Jeers – I have read this reply several times, and do not know what it means. Can you explain its relevance? I agree that human dignity is not absolute, and that it is not the chief end of man… as if it even could be. I said nothing about “human rights”. My point is that property rights appear not to be synonymous with human dignity, as the latter… Read more »

Robert
Robert
8 years ago

He who controls the water, controls the land. If I dam up the stream, on my land, your land suddenly will not be able to grow anything that is what we did to the Mexican farmers when we built the Hoover Dam. Did we steal those Mexicans livings?

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Good morning Joel. I reread our conversation and I grant your criticism of koinonia as not making the… …. biblical case that property rights are universal. I do think it is an evidence for it and, taken with the straightforward logic of the Ten Commandments I think they are. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that biblically, property rights are not universal. I would then ask, “well, if property rights are not universal, what other rights are not universal?” That leads to another question, “Is it true that a right, by definition is universal? Or, is their… Read more »

Joel
Joel
8 years ago

Timothy, very interesting points. I’m not entirely sure, to be frank, but here are some thoughts. I think that I would shy away from couching anything in terms of “universal rights”, because I don’t think the Bible really deals with ethics in that manner. I would say that everyone has a duty to love God, and love his neighbor, with neighbor generally being restricted to the covenant community, and there are various ways in which the Bible rounds out those things: e.g. we avoid stealing because, as Doug has said, part of loving my neighbor means not depriving him of… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

RFB – in this case I was referring to those who cannot afford their own land. Though there was a side-point about those who do not have fair access to the courts due to not being able to afford equally competent lawyers or the length and expense of the legal process. (Lack of fair access to government could be mentioned too, though that would exclude 90+% of us.) I don’t see poverty defined by degree of technology available. The poor of Solomon’s day had much better carts than hunter-gatherers before them had…but they still were extremely disadvantaged within the society.… Read more »

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

Jonathan, I think that what is more true regarding your position is that you “don’t see poverty defined”, and are approaching it on a sliding scale relative to what someone else has. If someone has a 50 million dollar house, with a private G5, and vacation “cottages” around the globe, it subtracts nothing from me. Absolutely nothing. My emotional response to what that person has is irrelevant (except in possibly making me guilt of envy if it is the wrong response). If poverty does not have an objective definition, then it cannot be defined sufficient to address it according to… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Hi Joel

So maybe, to extrapolate in the direction of your question, I would say that whereas life appears to be something like a universal right; certainly the other two (liberty and property) are not.

This is getting interesting.

I am sure these questions have been addressed by Locke etc and perhaps some folks with a better education than mine can chime in on that tangent.

I am busy again with a work task, so it will probably be tomorrow before I can dedicate any brain-cycles to this question.

Cheers.

t

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

RFB – you’re missing that the whole point of my entrance into this discussion was on the question of land – the exact same thing that David Smith posed in the very first comment. The lack of ability to own one’s own land is a quite specific point to discuss. I want to point out that the rest of what you say is completely irrelevant to the point at hand. You’re demanding that I define poverty, when I didn’t even mention poverty. I suggest you look again at our comment string – not only do I never mention poverty, but… Read more »

David Smith
David Smith
8 years ago

@Robert: “He who controls the water, controls the land. If I dam up the stream, on my land, your land suddenly will not be able to grow anything that is what we did to the Mexican farmers when we built the Hoover Dam. Did we steal those Mexicans livings?” Excellent point! While I believe in absolute property rights, at least in relation to other folks and especially the government, that does not give me an absolute right to do that which proves harmful to my neighbor (And, no, I don’t mean simply that he doesn’t like the fact that I… Read more »