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The Legacy of the Magna Carta


The Magna Carta is 800 years old this month. I was signed 800 years ago on June 15, 1215, (to be exact) at Runnymede, England.

The Magna Carta is a pivotal document. It set a foundation for the Rule of Law in the West unsurpassed by any written document other than Scripture.

The Magna Carta was revolutionary in its time. England was still ruled by a king, as was most (if not all) of western civilization. The Magna Carta introduced the idea that no king is above the law. While the Magna Carta did not affect an immediate change in the Thirteenth Century, England, it set the stage for the revolutionary change to come.

The reason for this revolutionary change is a legacy of the Church. It was concluded that a king is not above the law because the law comes from a source higher than the king. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was the guiding hand. Though the concept of Rule of Law may no longer be viewed as an extension of the existence of God, its roots are found in that theological ground.

Lord Chief Justice Denning called the Magna Carta “the greatest constitutional document of all time – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” The idea of the inalienable freedom of the individual feels like a modern secular construct, but it stems from the same theological root – that man is created free in God’s image. This idea also fueled future rebellions against the arbitrary despotic authority of the State, which at times was linked to the dual authority of the Church.

That Church and State is a bad marriage is taken for granted in our post enlightenment, post modern time. The Magna Carta did not effectuate a divorce of the Church and State when it was conceived, but that was the eventual outcome as any arbitrary violation of the inalienable freedom of the individual made in God’s image, whether from secular or religious power, is equally pernicious.

The Magna Carta has, perhaps, been more observed in the breach, especially in the centuries following its authorship. It was often ignored, amended, and disregarded over its history, but it stands for the fundamental principles on which the nations of the West have been built: that the king is under the law because he is under God, and individual freedoms should be protected because individuals are made in the image of God.

The Rule of Law would have made no sense without this theological truth in Thirteenth Century England. Might had always made right throughout the history of mankind up to the point. Most of the history of mankind can be explained by the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest.

The Magna Carta introduced the revolutionary principle of Rule of Law. The Magna Carta set the foundation for the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. The idea of fundamental and inalienable rights endowed by a Creator is a direct descendant of the Magna Carta.

Today, the western world has largely repudiated the higher power justification for the Rule of Law and individual rights. The underpinnings have been largely removed from modern vernacular, but the legacy of the Magna Carta that the Rule of Law should govern society remains. The question also remains whether the Rule of Law can stand on its own accord without the root of theological understanding. We may know in another 800 years.