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A Review of Christian Foundations of the Common Law, 3 volumes. By Augusto Zimmermann.

Mar 20, 2019

Connor Court Publishing, 2018.

Without Christianity the West as we know it would not exist. It is impossible to separate the many goods of Western civilisation and the massive influence of biblical Christianity. This is true of every area of life, including the West’s legal tradition.

Augusto Zimmermann is one of Australia’s premier Christian thinkers and law professors as this three volume-set clearly demonstrates. In nearly 600 pages the Perth-based academic provides us with a tremendously important overview of how the Judeo-Christian worldview became the major foundational building block of Western law and legal theory.

He breaks this down by carefully examining three nations: Volume 1 deals with England; Volume 2 discusses the United States; and Volume 3 covers Australia. While all three are loaded with plenty of detail and thorough referencing, each volume is around 200 pages, making them accessible to all readers – not just academics.

His thesis in these volumes is simple: Common Law as we know it in the West would not have come into being without the Christian heritage on which it is soundly based. Says Zimmermann: “Christian philosophy provided the basic foundation of the common law tradition. . . . It is impossible to grasp the full development of the common law without first exploring its profound religious dimensions, and its motivating faith.”

That is the general argument being made in these three volumes. The rest of the books basically involve copious amounts of historical and intellectual detail, confirming, supporting and illustrating this truth. So let me briefly look at each volume in turn.

England

English law was greatly influenced by Christian philosophy, with America and Australia subsequently influenced in the same fashion. Zimmermann points to numerous historical individuals and activities whose names may be vaguely familiar to us, but we need to learn about the Christian connection.

Consider the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelbert who had become a Christian in the sixth century. He codified English law, seeking to protect the Christian faith, and he drew upon clerics who were the leading legal experts at the time. “The primary goal was to enshrine biblical principles into the written law.” All this became the basis of modern constitutionalism.

King Alfred the Great of the ninth century produced his Law Code, soundly based on Judeo-Christian foundations. While recapitulating earlier codes, it was greatly expanded, and contains numerous biblical citations. In the next centuries we saw the development of Canon Law and the Ecclesiastical Courts.

All this led to the Magna Carta of 1215. Of the 27 barons who put their name to it, 11 were actually clergymen. This vitally important document became the inspiration for modern constitutional advancements, and a benchmark for modern civil liberties and human rights.

Zimmermann also looks at England’s most celebrated jurists such as John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, Sir Edward Coke, and Sir William Blackstone, all of whom were committed to the Christian worldview. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1768) were among the greatest legal documents produced in the English-speaking world. He made it clear that God’s revelation was the basis of common law.

These figures all believed that transcendent moral truths underlie all human law – or should underlie it. As Zimmermann writes: “The greatest jurists in English legal history believed that law is not ultimately a product of human authority, but a product of principles discoverable by reason that operate whether or not they are recognised or enforced by any government.”

By the time of the Enlightenment much of this long-standing dependence of legal theory and practice on the Christian worldview started to crumble. But as he notes: “For over one thousand years Christianity helped shape England, with the law of the land being underpinned by its profoundly rich Judeo-Christian heritage.”

The United States

The US of course originally came out of English culture, beliefs, values and laws. So what was true of England was basically true of America, certainly during its founding: “Christianity was central to the lives of the New World colonists and their faith dominated their society and formed the foundations of their legal traditions.”

While different influences impacted the American Revolution, Christian ideals and principles were chief among them. Zimmermann notes that the three people most cited by the Founders were Montesquieu, Blackstone and Locke. But more importantly, the most oft quoted source was the Bible, making up a full third of their quotes.

Other individuals were of course quite influential, including Calvin and Coke. While some of the Founding Fathers were more deist than biblical Christian – especially Benjamin Franklin – most were explicit in affirming not just any and all religions, but the Judeo-Christian worldview. And Franklin himself actually authored an abridged version of The Book of Common Prayer.

Many – including George Washington – saw the hand of providence on America’s formation as a new nation. Some were less inclined to see things this way, but even Jefferson was not anti-religious as such – he simply was against the establishment of a national church.

The drafters of the Constitution also held to pro-faith sentiments. Alexander Hamilton showed no hostility to Scripture or Christianity, and later in his life became deeply religious. James Madison, John Adams and others also shared a recognition of the importance of Christianity.

The US Declaration of Independence also shows the dependence on revealed religion, with the belief that all men are created equal, being endowed by God with inalienable rights. That concept comes directly from the Christian tradition of natural law. And Zimmermann demonstrates how this is not a secular document as some modern revisionists insist.

Indeed, “of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention – 39 of whom signed the Constitution – not a single one of them can be fairly described as a non-Christian individual.” And the influence of the Magna Carta on the American Bill of Rights was quite profound.

Much more can be said about the American situation, but as Zimmermann concludes, the “undeniable Christian heritage is displayed on nearly every page of America’s constitutional history.” And again, “Whether one subscribes to the Christian faith or not, indisputably Christianity is the religious framework upon which American society was built.”

Image of Christian Foundations of the Common Law: Volume 1: England
Christian Foundations of the Common Law: Volume 1: England by Augusto Zimmermann Amazon logo

Australia

Zimmermann opens this volume as follows: “While the Australian legal tradition cannot lay claim to the historical depth it has in America and England, it was still built on a similar solid Christian foundation. Christian ideology is infused in both the legal and governmental institutions and customs of Australia.”

Once again, plenty of familiar names are found here, and their Christian connection to Australia’s formation is clearly spelled out. Consider for example the establishment of New South Wales under Royal Navy officer Arthur Phillip. He sought to have common law fully established in the new colony. His Christian convictions meant he stood firm against slavery, and he wanted the churches to partner with government.

Lachlan Macquarie, who was Governor from 1809 to 1821, was another important early figure who “encouraged Christianity in a number of ways.” He believed that NSW should “be a land of redemption where ‘convicts would be transformed into citizens’.”

Colonial governor Richard Bourke also sought to infuse the new land with Christianity. As a pious Anglican, he sought to introduce judicial reforms such as trial by jury and lesser corporal punishment for offenders. In 1836 he introduced the Church Act which provided government funding to churches of all stripes: Protestant and Catholic alike.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century constitutional conventions were held, resulting in the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901. Again, Christian convictions were a big part of all this. Zimmermann quotes Sir John Downer of South Australia: “The Christian religion is a portion of the English Constitution without any decision on the subject at all. It is part of the law of England which I should think we undoubtedly brought with us when we settled in these colonies.”

Other significant figures during this period include Edmund Barton who entered politics at the urging of a Presbyterian minister, and Alfred Deakin who believed that Jesus Christ was “the central figure of human history” and saw the Bible as “by far the greatest book of religious revelation.”

All this is reflected in the Preamble of the Australian Constitution which speaks of “relying on the blessing of Almighty God.” And Zimmermann notes how various successful Australian politicians and judges were unashamed of their Christian faith.

As but one example, Sir Samuel Griffith was the Premier of Queensland and was appointed Australia’s Chief Justice in 1903. Born in Wales, publisher John Fairfax and merchant David Jones sponsored his move to Australia. All three were dedicated evangelical Christians.

As Zimmermann says by way of conclusion, “the role of Christianity in Australia’s history is irrefutable. . . . Christian ideology played a central role in the development of the Australian legal system. This is a fact which history fully supports.”

In sum, despite the protests of secularists and their historical revisionism, these three nations all were solidly undergirded by, and grew out of, the Judeo-Christian worldview. These excellent volumes make it clear that the West in general and Western legal tradition in particular simply would not have developed as they did were it not for the revealed religion of the Jews and Christians.

Three cheers to Augusto Zimmermann for producing these three vitally important books.

(Available in Australia at Koorong: www.koorong.com/c/augusto-zimmermann?restrict=%28content_type%3apage%7cavailability%3aavailabletoorder%29

And Connor Court: www.connorcourtpublishing.com.au/Christian-Foundations-of-the-Common-Law-Volume-I-England–Augusto-Zimmermann_p_176.html )

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18 Responses to A Review of Christian Foundations of the Common Law, 3 volumes. By Augusto Zimmermann.

  • Hi Bill,

    Augusto Zimmermann was a speaker at the Church and State summit which was recently held.
    http://churchandstate.com.au/cas19/
    I’m currently working my way through the videos, and I watched his presentation a couple of nights ago.

  • Three cheers indeed for Dr Zimmerman. I have already purchased Volume 3 and plan to read it soon. Christians today really do need to understand the history of Australian law as the law impacts so much on our individual lives as well as on our culture. But, in the meantime, thanks Bill for an excellent review of all three volumes in the set.

  • Dear Bill
    I am familiar with Dr Zimmermann through Vision Christian Radio so thank you for your summary. I recall listening to Dr David Mitchell from Tasmania. Also reading a booklet he published(?). Mitchell was a great source if Constitutional wisdom. I look forward to reading Dr Zimmerman. Thank you Bill once again for your generosity with your knowledge.
    Mark Bryant

  • The US Declaration of Independence also shows the dependence on revealed religion, with the belief that all men are created equal, being endowed by God with inalienable rights. That concept comes directly from the Christian tradition of natural law. And Zimmermann demonstrates how this is not a secular document as some modern revisionists insist.

    Indeed, “of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention – 39 of whom signed the Constitution – not a single one of them can be fairly described as a non-Christian individual.”

    The principal author of the Declaration of Independence is, I believe, a man who denied the Divinity of the Our Lord:

    The most interesting, and disappointing, aspect of the Thomas Jefferson Bible is the fact that, as a naturalist, Thomas Jefferson did not believe in the supernatural. He therefore removed virtually all the miraculous events recorded in the Gospels. While some references to angels, heaven, hell, and a future eternal life remain, the accounts of Jesus’ miracles, allusions to the deity of Christ, and the story of Jesus’ resurrection are absent.

    Thank God Thomas Jefferson was sent off to France by the time the delegates signed the U.S. Constitution or else the American people could have got a very different, wishy-washy, Christian-lite or even non-Christian Constitution.

  • Thanks Michael. Of course neither Zimmermann nor I claimed Jefferson was any kind of born-again Bible believing Christian. And yes we all know about the Jefferson Bible – I discuss it here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/03/03/on-reading-jesus/

    At best we can say he was a deist, with a high regard for Jesus – especially his ethics. As he once said, “to the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence.”

  • I can’t remember where I made a part comment that said something like the following, but wherever it was, it needs updating-

    Secular atheistic societies, particularly the far left have corrupted- Marriage, Family, Gender, Sexual Relations, Morality, Human Flourishing, Schools, Universities, The Media, The Church. and Science. Thanks to this article of Mr M’s I need to move the ‘and’. Therefore,

    Secular atheistic societies, particularly the far left have corrupted- Marriage, Family, Gender, Sexual Relations, Morality, Human Flourishing, Schools, Universities, The Media, The Church, Science and The Law we are subjected to.

    Is there anything the far left touches that isn’t defiled or tarnished I wonder.

    Volume One of ‘Christian Foundations of the Common Law’ the one relating to England is £24.66 that’s the price of 4 copies of Mere Christianity. Have you ever worked out how much you have spent on books, Mr M and how did you know of that book to buy it in the first place do you have authors that interest you? like, for instance, if I saw a CS Lewis Book I would buy it, well my dad would do the paying obviously but I wouldn’t have to even turn the cover to decide to get it or not as the author alone would sell it to me. I never go babysitting without a copy of ‘The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe’ and I read that to the children. when I get back home I read The Abolition of Man or A Grief Observed. I think it’s cool CSL could write for such a wide audience and was Christian.

  • Thanks Sarah. Yes I have a few tips or rules about book buying, including the following:
    -Some authors you simply buy whenever you find them. So you always snatch up a Lloyd-Jones or a Lewis or a Spurgeon or a Guinness (Os) to mention four Englishmen.
    -New Zealand Christian teacher Winkie Pratney once had the “ten cents rule” (which now would be the “one dollar rule”): For every dollar you spend on a book, there should be one good idea or one new thing you learn. So a $25 book should offer 25 new insights or ideas.
    -Some new books might be too costly, and might be worth waiting for as they come out second-hand.
    -Some folks might go down the path of ebooks and kindle, etc – a bit cheaper, but heretical in my eyes!

  • Not to mention all the other Christian countries and the fulfillment of the prophecy that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s seed because he was obedient (Gen 22:18). This prophecy was fulfilled through the Christian influence which has affected the entire Earth and this has not occurred through any other doctrine. Everything from the very fundamental belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth to principles of true equality (not the nonsense we hear these days) to property rights to non-violent resistance to universities and hospitals and schools, with a basic belief that these should be available to all, to government that more closely resembles democracy than anything the Greeks remotely imagined etc. etc. etc. You name it and you can point out the Christian contribution and how the entire world has been blessed yet the public broadcasters, in their ignorance and bigotry, are more intent on honoring the claimed “traditional owners of the land.” One thing that Christianity and Judaism before it was clear on is that God owns the land. Every time I see those announcements their deliberate, bigoted, unworkable and blatantly contrived ignorance offends me.

  • A brilliant summary Bill, even in this short piece you quickly do away with any insidious notion that, the American founding fathers especially, were not mostly deeply religious men, mostly Christians.

    Thanks for the great review and reference material.

  • Sounds good I can’t wait to add this to my library.

  • Dear Mark,

    this happens in Australia as well:

    A woman is fighting to have her Christian brother-in-law accepted into the country for a holiday, after his visa was denied based on his religion.

    Barsoum lives in Egypt, owns a business and has a wife and two daughters.

    He wants to visit Australia for a three month holiday, to visit his brother Rez who he hasn’t seen in 11 years and who’s sick with cancer.

    He also wants to attend a wedding while he’s in the country.

    But his application for a Family Sponsored Visitor Visa has been refused by the Department of Home Affairs.

    Barsoum was told he was rejected because he’s a Coptic Christian, a targetted minority group in Egypt.

    The Home Affairs Department has said:

    “Departmental records indicate that the incidence of Christians from similar circumstances who attempt to change their status while in Australia is high…

    “Therefore I have concerns that the applicant’s background may act as a disincentive to comply with his visa conditions while in Australia or depart within the validity of his visa.”

    Barsoum’s sister-in-law Mary Eskandar says they didn’t expect he’d be rejected.

    “We thought we had all the necessary grounds to have him here on a holiday,” she tells Ben Fordham.

    “We were so shocked to see that… the main reason for him being refused a holiday visa was because he’s Christian.”

    She says they’re considering an appeal, but that could cost them $1700.

    And both countries are meant to have conservative governments.

  • I too prefer real books Mr M to electronic books. I thought audio books would be good if the subject was difficult like old adults read, but of course, it simply meant I didn’t have to struggle to understand the meaning of a word since I could just ignore it, as the narrator continued on irrespective if I understood or not, so I learnt nothing, except there was no short cut to learning. I do listen to some audiobooks and find I get something out of them as the narrator’s tone and delivery helps. The Road to Wigan Pier was one such book. I do use my kindle but mainly in school debates since I can have the many books I require at hand and, of course, being able to get a book in a moment or two is sometimes really useful. I have just about every Bible translation on my kindle and if someone mentions one I haven’t got I get it. In my location, churches do not all use the same translation and sometimes I have to play the Piano at a church I have not been to before, as they are short of a Pianist, I use my kindle at this church so I may use the translation they use, as I like to follow along as the pastor reads the scripture he is going to teach on.

    I understand now why adults read complicated books since if the measure is what you say, then, of course, when I read even basic books I am learning something as its all new to me, but you have read those books extracted what was available and stored that knowledge for future use, so you would understandably have to keep buying more and more complicated books, in the same way, I do not read a book a 8-year-old would read. I think perhaps it’s more exciting for me, as I do not know yet what great books are out there and when I stumble on one of them it’s like finding buried treasure really. I experience this when I read to the children I babysit since they didn’t even know of the existence of ‘The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe’, in the same way, I would not have known at their age. Sometimes I get them to hold the book and tell them what they are holding is going to be the most exciting story they will have heard to date, and I make sure it is, as I think they are very precious. Thanks, Mr M. xx.

  • Bill, I fear you have made a grave error in calling D. Martyn Lloyd Jones and Englishman, sufficient to cause him to turn in his grave. Of course, he was ever a proud Welshman, born in Cardiff and raised in Llangeitho, Cardiganshire, even though in later years he lived and worked in London. My wife and I were privileged to spend two weeks in Wales in 2017 and especially to visit Llangeitho where the village grocery store where Lloyd-Jones grew up still stands. Having bought coffee there, we were delighted to discover a plaque attached to the outer wall in memory of Dr Lloyd-Jones.

  • Yes you are quite right Graeme.

  • Sarah said earlier: “Is there anything the far left touches that isn’t defiled or tarnished I wonder.”

    The answer may be STUPIDITY

  • And three cheers to Bill Muehlenberg for his excellent review. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness.” Bill and Augusto are men of integrity who stand for righteousness in a day when so many of the mighty fall.

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