© 2017 Thermidor Magazine.

Designed by Jonathan.

Be Thou my Dignity: A Reformed View of Human Dignity

The dominance of human dignity-talk stands firm in Western public discourse. Both the religious and non-religious deploy “dignity” with ease and confidence, proudly proclaiming the universal, invariable, and immutable value of man. All things must conform and contribute to the affirmation and actualization of each person’s dignity, and no acceptable system of thought can subordinate or neglect its central importance.

But strangely, the discussion on the nature of dignity itself is largely absent in public discourse. Indeed, it seems that what matters most is not what dignity is, but what it demands. It is less about “what I am” and more about “what I am due.” The word, as it is typically used, seems to mean nothing concretely at all; it serves rather as a powerful rhetorical addition to any rights-claim, adding credibility to it and placing one’s interlocutor on the defensive.[1]

There are of course serious thinkers who take human dignity seriously. Many philosophers see it as an alternative term for human autonomy or rational agency, an inherent or innate quality (or faculty) possessed in virtue of one’s humanity. In this way, persons possess human dignity apart from and prior to community, though it functions as the basis for a claim on others’ resources for one’s personal development. As the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights put it (Article 22),

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Human dignity demands, according to this view, that each person is ensured the freedom to become or be whatever he or she wants to be or become (within the limits of what is possible in any given circumstance), which typically requires the redistribution of resources or some means of clearing away various hindrances (e.g. one’s original socio-economic status). Communities must, therefore, recognize certain political and social rights purportedly conducive to the full and free exercise of one’s autonomy and development of personality.

Christians today have their own dignity-talk: human dignity is the image of God in man. It is humankind’s worth, or “infinite value,” [2] as some claim. To strike man unjustly is to strike at God. But Christian dignity-talk is, as to its underlying principles, not much different than the rest of Western discourse on the subject. They see the divine image as a depository of a robust set of natural or human rights possessed prior to civil community that deserves both civil recognition and support. The “equal, innate and inviolable dignity” of human beings is an essential principle of the American Solidarity Party , for example.

Though conservative Christians would limit the extent of man’s autonomy, they nevertheless consider dignity to be the principle and end of civil action; and civil society, as a commonwealth of resources, is the means to achieve the end. That is, each person’s dignity is actualized by means of the distribution of a common pool of resources to achieve an equal ability to be or become whatever he or she wants to become.

Both Christians and non-Christians today are individualists, despite their denouncement of individualism. The community for them is simply a resource-pool in the service of each individual’s self-assigned personality goals. The “common good” is measured, not according to the health of the community as an entity itself, but by the extent to which each individual, separately considered, is afforded equal opportunity to develop his or her person. Ironically, the common dismissal of “individualism” serves only to support a greater and more intrusive individualism: one that emphasizes the importance of the individual not as a member of a common way of life, but as the entity to which the whole community must conform.

An Alternative view of dignity

It is time to challenge this individualist view of human dignity and offer an alternative, and we do this by appealing to the Reformed tradition. We begin by arguing that human dignity was principally located in what post-Reformation Reformed theologians called “original righteousness,” the gift of God to man that ensured his moral rectitude and integrity and oriented him to the promised heavenly life. This was also called the “divine image.” It was lost, however, and so man’s dignity was lost. But man retained certain gifts essential to man as man that, while in themselves only secondary, supportive, and ancillary to the achievement of his ultimate heavenly end, are still parts of the image of God and therefore dignifying of man in relation to the rest of creation, and this leftover image constitutes the natural equality of all humans.

But we understand this remaining dignity in a non-liberal sense and in the context of civil community: the dignity of man provides the right to be recognized as one with a capacity to contribute to community but does not directly demand any duty from society to provide individuals the autonomous space, supports, and resources to become the person of their choosing in that society. In other words, individuals deserve recognition for their formal capacity, whose expression is made possible only by membership in a particular community. But the content or particular nature of that membership—the decision concerning one’s place in the social, economic, and political order—is shaped by a combination of the natural ends of the community itself and contingent historical character of it, not according to the natural ends of the individual. Since it would behoove a community to arrange itself in such a way to collectively flourish, positive rights would arise consequently for that end, which could be the right to education, work, unionization, fair wages, political participation, etc. But these positive rights are connected to human dignity indirectly (hence, they are not natural rights) and are subject to the prudential reasoning of the community.

This view recognizes three species of post-lapsarian human dignity: the antecedent natural capacity for man to contribute to community, formal capacity to exercise that capacity made possible by membership in a particular community (which grounds natural equality), and consequent dignity referring to social station as to one’s worth in the community (the basis of hierarchy and distinctions in privileges and civil honors).

The Dignity of Original Righteousness

The principal part of man’s dignity was his original righteousness. This is a technical term in Reformed scholastic theology (and other theologies) for the gifts of God to man that elevated his being to the promised heavenly kingdom and beatific vision. Though man is an earthly creature, the earth as it was created was not his final, eschatological home. Indeed, the celestial city promised to Christians is the same eschatological destination promised to Adam and his progeny. As Francis Turretin writes, “the received opinion among the orthodox is that the promise given to Adam was not only of a happy life to be continued in paradise, but of a heavenly and eternal life” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology 5.12.3). Turretin argues for this by appealing to man’s original dignity:

The dignity of man himself [Hominis ipsius dignitas] demands the same thing. Since his noblest part is spirit touched with a vehement desire of heavenly goods...he could not obtain on earth his full felicity but must be gifted with it at length in heaven where he can enjoy the fullest and most perfect communion with God, in whom his highest good resides. For although on earth he could in some measure give himself to be enjoyed, it is certain that the immediate and absolute fruition of God is not to be sought apart from the beatific vision which can be looked for only in heaven. (IET 8.6.8)

The dignity of man is this original righteousness whose end is perfect communion with God in heavenly life. It does not refer to man’s essential earthly properties. Nor is it however an adventitious addition or a superadded substance on top of the earthly or nature. There was no supernatural addition to nature at creation. Original righteousness was natural to man as that which is required to perfect man, but not natural as to what constitutes man as man; it is non-essential or accidental. That means it can be removed from man without destroying man as man. It was concreated,[3] or created with, what is essential to form a perfect man.

Furthermore, the dignity of original righteousness is the principal part of the divine image in man, for it is the source of the “inclination to love and worship God,” says Turretin. This inclination to acknowledge and worship God is, says Calvin, our principal distinction from the brutes” (Comm. on Isaiah 44:9). The act of worship is the greatest expression of the dignity of man. So crucial was original righteousness to man as image-bearer that Turretin identified the divine image with original righteousness itself, relegating the gifts left after the fall to a far inferior status:

By the divine image, we do not understand generally whatever gifts upright man received from God or specially certain remains of it existing in the mind and heart of man after the fall. Rather we understand it strictly of the principal part of that image which consisted of holiness and wisdom (usually termed original righteousness). (IET 9.8.3).

Additionally, while original righteousness was necessary for man to exercise dominion over creation, it was necessary only consequently. That is, the dominion mandate is not the primary end of the divine image (which is the adoration of God, the “principle of our creation,” and the fittingness for heavenly life); it a consequence of having the image. The true dignity of man is principally vertical and heavenward, not horizontal and earthward. It firstly concerns our communion with God, and by consequence we exercise dominion over creation. As Turretin says, dominion is drawn “after [the image of God] consequently” (IET 5.10.15) The principal end of human dignity is heavenly life; the subordinate end, consequent to the principal one, is earthly dominion.

The earthly-orientation of man—all the features of humans that concern earthly matters (e.g., shelter, food, civil justice)— serve the higher aspect of man, for the lower always serves the higher. In this way, “grace hath use of nature,” as Richard Hooker said (Lawes III.8.6). The earthly side of man is secondary, supportive, and ancillary in relation to the true dignity of man. Everything earthly is but a facilitation of the achievement of man’s eschatological, heavenly end. The dignity of man is horizontal (between men) only consequently, not in principle. Christian and Hopeful in Pilgrim’s Progress are spiritual friends in consequence of their shared pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Their friendship is not the end of the pilgrimage; rather it is mutually supportive of their shared end. Civil justice and peace are therefore supportive goods in service of heavenly life.

The Fall however resulted in “the loss of the divine image (or of original righteousness)” says Turretin. The absence of original righteousness, being perfective and accidental of pre-lapsarian Adam, left man unrighteous and with corrupted habits. Losing his dignity, he was cast adrift, unable to seek and find the true God. While post-lapsarian man gets by in his civil affairs, his vertical relationship to God was almost completely undermined. What remained were those parts of the image of God that were supportive, secondary and ancillary—the natural vestiges of the divine image. As Turretin states, “Adam after his fall had the image still since they are said to be made after the image of God. Yet this must be understood only relatively (as to certain natural remains of that image) and not absolutely (as to spiritual and supernatural qualities which are evidently lost and must be restored to us by the grace of regeneration)” (IET 5.10.16) Despite the principal part of man’s dignity being lost, there remains elements of the divine image that we can identify as man’s dignity from which we can ground just human relations, including civil communities.

From these remaining natural gifts, which includes reason and knowledge of the principles of natural law, fallen man has produced just laws and civil order and peace. The non-Christian, Turretin writes, “can exercise justice and temperance, put forth acts of mercy and charity, abstain from theft and homicide, and exhibit the operations of similar virtues, with the antecedent concourse and general help of God, to which the virtues of the heathen belong” (IET 10.4.3).

Fallen man is also adequately instructed in natural law, by which just laws are enacted and unjust one’s disregarded:

[T]he consent of the nations [is evidence of the natural law], among whom (even the most savage) some law of the primitive nations obtains, from which even without a teacher they have learned that God should be worshipped, parents honored, a virtuous life be led and from which as a fountain have flowed so many laws concerning equity and virtue enacted by heathen legislatures, drawn from nature itself. And if certain laws are found among some repugnant to these principles, they were even with reluctance received and observed by a few, at length abrogated by contrary laws, and have fallen into desuetude (IET 11.1.13).

If it is the case then that fallen, unregenerate man can attain civil righteousness and if spiritual regeneration in salvation necessarily affects a radical change in the one regenerated, then the principal effect of regeneration cannot be civil righteousness, political, social, or anything related to the basic elements of civil or domestic life. This effect must be something else. It must be the restoration of one’s immediate, vertical relationship to God, one’s orientation to heavenly life, the true worship of God, and man’s true dignity—the dignity that makes man fitting for his original heavenly end, not fitting for earthly rights.

The Gospel therefore does not inaugurate a social project. The restored image of God is heavenly in orientation, not earthly. Social reformation is not the end of the Gospel. As Melanchthon said in his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, “Christ did not come into the world to teach precepts about (civic) morals, which man already knew by reason, but to forgive sins, in order that he may give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him."[4]

The Gospel restores the dignity lost at the fall—that righteousness necessary for communion with God in heavenly life. The righteousness of Christ, being the same in substance as the original righteousness of pre-lapsarian Adam, is that righteousness, grasped by faith, inherently restoring and securing the believer’s eschatological, heavenly destination—the same destination promised to Adam. (Here we refer to the “inherent righteousness” infused for sanctification, not the imputation of righteousness as the foundation of justification).[5] Christ, the Second Adam, has restored one’s true dignity. The Gospel dignifies, reestablishing verticality as the primary focus of man’s being.

This restoration by the grace of regeneration does not destroy nature however. Remember, the part lost in the fall was the heavenly, not earthly, part of man. The heavenly part is restored by regeneration. Though the Gospel promises a future heavenly life that is qualitatively different than earthly life, it does not presently transform human relations as to its foundations, either civil or domestic. The “already” is presently invisible and experienced spiritually and the “not yet” is visible yet will pass away by divine action alone. The Gospel does not fundamentally transform civil (or domestic) relations. Furthermore, the restoration of the true dignity of man does not abrogate or destroy the post-lapsarian vestiges of the divine image. The grace of regeneration completes nature.

Still, the Gospel’s work does have earthly effects in all human relations, for it works progressively to correct the corrupted habits resulting from the loss of original righteousness. The main and most important correction involves the restoration of spiritual friendship in mutual support for each other’s spiritual pilgrimage, something occurring most intensely in the ecclesiastical administration (i.e., the institutional church) for the fellowship around holy things. The civil effects are corrective as well, not transformative as to the fundamentals of civil order and justice. The nature of heavenly citizenship and that of earthly citizenship are radically different and ought to be kept separate.

Despite its earthly effects, it remains the case however that the principal part of one’s Christian life is heavenly-oriented, not earthly. One’s public Christianity is therefore accidental to one’s fundamental earthly identity. One is not an American Christian, but a Christian American (for example), for Christianity is a spiritual, not earthly, identity. It elevates one into heavenly life. While it shapes and modifies the earthly, it does not destroy or abrogate it. As Franciscus Junius said, “For to the extent that we may be Christians, we do not cease being humans, but we are Christian human beings” (The Mosaic Polity, 38). Notice here the adjectival focus of Christianity. Christianity does not in principle create an identity in competition with or opposed to or as an alternative to national, earthly identities.[6]

Just as Christianity does not fundamentally transform the family but corrects errors and modifies it with Christian practices (forming a Christian family), so too for national identities. Christianity in relation to earthly things is therefore adjectival and perfective.[7] To say “I am a Christian” is to indicate that you are on a spiritual pilgrimage to your promised heavenly life by means of external helps, such as the ecclesiastical administration. A Christian sets his mind on the things above; a national identity orients the mind on the things below; and a Christian national identity modifies the latter in the service of the former. In this way, grace does not destroy nature, but completes it.

How is this relevant to human dignity? First, the idea of the nation or people is necessary to ground both formal and consequent dignity, which we discuss in the next section. Secondly, it undermines the claim that the Gospel inaugurated a different and fundamentally transformative earthly vision for human flourishing by means of an expansive view of human dignity. The Gospel did no such thing. The Gospel rather is the good news that sinners, who are worthless in themselves to attain their promised heavenly end, are provided the righteousness of grace to attain it. Only secondarily does the Gospel correct and modify the earthly realm, and even here it is with a view to best facilitate the achievement of the man’s heavenly end.

In the next section, we discuss human dignity as it relates to earthly life, which is the divine image apart from its noblest part. (We acknowledge that immortality is also a gift of God, essential to the human soul, and has civil effects, namely, by revealing the penultimacy of earthly life, even to unregenerate people. But since its civil effects are secondary or consequent to its direct object, heavenly life, we’ve chosen not to discuss it in detail here.) The post-lapsarian vestiges that concern earthly life are universal for both regenerate and unregenerate, and while they are secondary, supportive, and ancillary in relation to principal part (that which had heaven as its object), they still serve to ground earthly, horizontal human fellowship.

Earthly Dignity

To understand the nuances of human dignity, we turn to the Reformed political theorist, Johannes Althusius. Althusius never uses the word “dignity” (Latin: dignitatas) to refer to an innate or intrinsic quality of all men, but only to the varying worth of man in the social order. He surprisingly never even appeals to the imago dei to ground his political theory in his most important political work Politica. We agree that worth (or dignity) varies in the social order, but we also see the legitimacy of two additional species of “worth.” We call the three antecedent, formal, and consequent dignity, and we explain these below.

We begin by assuming with Althusius (and Aristotle) that man is a gregarious, social being, seeking after civil fellowship with other men. The basis of this drive to fellowship is not merely in the security it offers, which provides merely the continuation of life. Rather, man is driven to society to complete himself, for only in civil community can man fully exercise and communicate his natural gifts (which are unevenly distributed and particular) and receive for himself from others what is required for living well. Man by his very design is meant to live in community, for no one is equipped to provide for himself what is adequate to live well. Anyone who can live outside community is either a god or a beast, as Aristotle says. Althusius writes,

God distributed his gifts unevenly among men. He did not give all things to one person, but some to one and some to others, so that you have need for my gifts and I for yours. And so was born, as it were, the need for communicating necessary and useful things, which communication was not possible except in social and political life. God, therefore, willed that each needs the service and aid of others in order that friendship would bind all together, and no one would consider another to be valueless [floccipenderet].... Since God himself endowed each being with a natural capacity [naturam facultatem] to maintain itself and to resist whatever is contrary to it, so far as necessary to its welfare, and since dispersed men are not able to exercise this capacity, the instinct for living together and establishing civil society was given to them....It follows that no man is able to live well and happily to himself.... For this reason it is evident that the commonwealth, or civil society, exists by nature, and that man is by nature a civil animal who strives eagerly for association (Politica 1.26).

Now, Althusius is not postulating a social contract arising from a state of nature in which individuals who, already having these particular gifts or skills, come together in the interest of individual livelihood. Althusius is not a social contractarian. His claim is that civil society is necessary for the possibility of particular gifts and therefore necessary for one to become fully human. Outside civil society, individuals cannot exercise even the capacity or faculty for particular skills, since particular skills are insufficient in themselves to sustain one’s life. Each human is necessarily dependent for human life on other humans. Since the material demands of living well are diverse and variegated, one can live well only when in a community of diverse gifts in which each person contributes some particular good that others cannot, and one can contribute some particular necessary good to the community only because others in the community supply him the other necessary goods.

By design, the human being has the capacity to communicate with others by means of particular skills and participate in social life for mutual benefit. This is man’s antecedent dignity: his fitness for community due to his natural capacity for membership in civil society. It is antecedent or prior because man’s natural fitness for community is necessary for the naturalness of civil community. In other words, civil community does not make man fit for civil community; man’s natural fitness for civil community makes community natural. Man’s fitness for community is the necessary material of civil community. And this antecedent dignity is a species of dignity because “man is a more political animal than the bee or any other gregarious creature,” as Althusius says (Politica 1.32). God has elevated man above other gregarious creatures. All men therefore have a common dignity or value, for all are fit by design for contributing to and sharing in civil society. In this way alone is man’s (civil) dignity prior to the community.

The direct object of this antecedent dignity is earthly consociation among men, but its ultimate end is heavenly life with God and with others in spiritual fellowship. It drives humans to earthly fellowship to facilitate through outward means the attainment of man’s eschatological end. A. H. Strong reflects this view, writing, “The dignity of human nature consists not so much in what man is, as in what God meant him to be and in what God means him yet to become” (Systematic Theology, II:262-3). Whereas the noblest part of man’s dignity has heaven as its direct object and end, this secondary part of man’s dignity has earthly life as its direct object and yet still in the service of attaining heavenly life. Everything of man has heaven as its ultimate end.

This heavenly orientation makes even antecedent dignity variable by action, meaning that one’s action can attain to the demands of one’s dignity or fall below it. Enemies of the human race are those who seek to undermine the basic, earthly conditions that facilitate man’s ultimate telos, such as just political order; and by warring against these basic conditions such people have a greater affinity with beasts than humans and can be treated to extent that they act as such. But since man’s essential nature remains intact, his antecedent dignity cannot be utterly destroyed, and therefore each always retains the responsibility and ability to conform to basic humanity; and they should be encouraged to do so when possible and when the health of a civil community is not at stake.

Though the individual is prior to the civil community as the necessary material cause of it, the civil community is prior to the individual in that the community makes possible the exercising of man’s natural capacity for membership in a community and it provides, in concrete ways, the person’s means of living well. Put differently, each person is prior to civil society in the sense that civil society requires a composition of beings fit for society (antecedent dignity), but civil society is prior to the individual as that which meets the necessary condition for any individual to exercise his fittingness for civil society. Any human outside civil society is by design still fit for civil society, but he lacks the condition to exercise that fittingness, namely, membership in a civil society.

This condition arises for Althusius because civil society is not a collection of disparate individuals pursuing their own interest, but a thing or entity itself. It is organic, having parts “suitably arranged,” and each part is dependent on the others for its existence. He quotes Gregorius who writes, “Nor can the diverse parts of it endure if each part seeks to perform its own function indifferently and heedlessly by itself” (Politica 1.34, 35). Each part is necessary for the completeness of the whole, making each part equally valuable for the whole’s completeness. In addition, each person’s participation as a part is made possible by the whole, for no part of a civil society, organically understood, can exist independent of civil society. The blacksmith relies on the farmer to practice his craft and vice versa. There must be a division of labor such that each person contributes something necessary that another cannot contribute, which forms a symbiotic relation, each person being, according to Althusius, a symbiote communicating the products of his particular gifts to the common good: “The symbiotes are co-workers who, by the bond of an associating and uniting agreement, communicate among themselves whatever is appropriate for a comfortable life of soul and body. In other words, they are participants or partners in a common life” (Politica 1.6).

This equality of parts is formal dignity, referring to the equal value of each member of a community by virtue of each being a part of it. Whereas antecedent dignity refers to man taken in the abstract as one possessing the fittingness for membership in a community (without reference to any particular human or community), formal dignity refers to the dignity possessed as a particular, concrete human being as a member of a particular, concrete civil community. It is “formal” because this value does not refer to one’s social station or role or to any particular gift or size or value of contribution (i.e., the content). It is the value of having both the capacity to participate in community (antecedent dignity) and meeting the necessary conditions to participate in community, which is nothing other than being an essential element of some social organism’s completion and perfect health.[8]

Formal dignity is the basis of natural equality: that each person has a place in his or her community’s complete well-being. Each member has the right to be recognized by the community as a valuable contributor to the community and therefore cannot be subjected to arbitrary expulsion or undue injuries. This is a natural right that each member possesses, for a community is by nature made up of contributing members and to attack a member would be irrational, as a sort of self-mutilation. The community has a duty to recognize its members as contributors to an organic whole.

Yet since civil community satisfies the condition for any member to exercise their gifts and because the whole, for its good health, needs each part to function well, the community has a right to insist that each member exercises his or her gifts well. Each member has a duty to the whole. Hence, natural equality or formal dignity gives each person the equal duty to contribute to his or her community in accordance with his or her abilities and role. Natural equality comes with rights and duties, not rights alone. Formal dignity, therefore, is variable, not immutably intrinsic, for it depends on one’s fulfillment of his duty. Like antecedent dignity, it is tied to action, and one can lose it by failing to fulfill one’s duty to his community. (This does not exclude pity and compassion for those who by no fault of their own are unable to properly exercise their gifts or role in civil society.)

It does not follow from the equality of formal dignity that the community must provide the opportunities necessary for each person to pursue whatever role they desire, nor provide the autonomous space and resources to be or become whatever one sets his mind to be or become. Since the community provides what is necessary for one to exercise his capacity to participate in civil society, it governs what is exercised and who exercises it, and in doing so it follows its own principles of order with its own completion and health as the end. The arrangement of individuals serve as the means of achieving civil community’s natural end—an arrangement that includes the distribution of vocations, rights, manners, civic honors, civic morals, etc. Means are always subordinate to the ends, making the material of community (i.e., the symbiotes) subordinate to the end of civil community (i.e., symbiosis). Civil society is not a collection of individuals contracting together according to an individualist principle for an individualist end. Rather it is a civil entity whose material are symbiotes (or individuals) forming a symbiotic relationship that must be in accord with the nature of civil symbiosis. Its principle and end concern the corporate entity itself.

The individual, for this reason, does not enter into any particular community with a natural right to self-determination, equal opportunity, a particular vocation, or a set of civil rights. There is no natural right to vote, to the freedom of speech, to peaceably assemble, to participate in public office, to education, to fair wages, labor organization, to bear arms, to equal opportunity, and other cherished rights of the Western world. These rights do not originate from the demands of human dignity but are consequences of the outworking of community interest and arrangements. This is consequent dignity—the rights, privileges, duties, social standing, standards of manners/morality etc. granted or recognized by positive law and custom arising out of social interactions in a particular civil community forming a tradition. These dignities are variable and not innate or intrinsic to man. They arise consequently from the body politic, it being a deliberative body that arranges itself for its own good in accordance with its own principles. Universal suffrage is, for example, not a natural right, but a positive right of a particular community—a community judging that its health as an organic society is best established with universal suffrage.

Maximizing liberty in accordance with prudence is however usually in the community’s self-interest, so many modern rights could arise from the civil community’s rational deliberation on proper social, economic, and political arrangements. Still, one has a legitimate claim to freedom of speech, for example, not on the basis of his innate human dignity, but on account of his membership among a certain people whose legal tradition has granted to all the freedom of speech. Legitimate rights-claims are those that appeal to one’s particular civil belonging, not to one’s humanity. One can claim that these rights are “God-given” only in the sense that God providentially formed the community from which such rights directly arise and is the One who directs the course of history. Furthermore, an argument for the recognition of this or that right ought to appeal not to individual dignity but to the natural principles of community and a particular community’s corporate health and in light of its historical situation and circumstances. Most civil, political rights are actually products of social relations and interaction (sometimes contentious) among a certain people, generated through rational compromise between different parties seeking peace, tranquility, and mutual benefit.

The Principle and Dignity of Hierarchy

One important principle of civil community is civil hierarchy, a principle remarkably ubiquitous in the Christian political tradition (see here). Althusius is representative of this tradition, writing, “Contrary to this fairness is equality (aequalitas), by which individual citizens are leveled among themselves in all those things I have discussed. From this arises the most certain disorder and disturbance of matters” (Politica 6.47).[9] Following Cicero, he writes, “It is inborn to the more powerful and prudent to dominate and rule weaker men, just as it is also considered inborn for inferiors to submit” (Politica 1.38, 39).

Here Althusius uses the soul dominating the body as an analogy for the body politic, pointing to a natural principle of community, namely, that there must be some hierarchical arrangement for its order, health, and completion. The community is an organism, and no organism is composed of equal parts. Althusius also quotes Gregorius (De Republica 6.1) who said that the social hierarchy, when in harmony between its various levels, is like musical harmony. (Cicero and Augustine state this as well; see City of God II.21). But since this is a principle, there is openness in its application, permitting an array of arrangements satisfying it and the Christian political tradition reflects a diversity of options.

These hierarchical social arrangements are part of consequent dignity, referring in this case to the designation of the worth measured by one’s station, office or role as arranged by convention in each society. This is how Althusius uses the word “dignity”. He writes, “Concord is fostered and protected by fairness [aequabilitas] when right, liberty, and honor are extended to each citizen according to the order and distinction of his worth [dignitiatis] and status” (Politica 6.47) Dignity in this sense refers to the honors of individuals determined by his level in the social hierarchy. It provides a “standard of virtue and merit,” say Gregorius, quoted by Althusius. This use of the word “dignity” is by far the most prevalent in Christian literature prior to the last couple centuries. It is “consequent” because these rights, honors, privileges, etc. are the results of the community’s self-arrangement.[10]

We can speak therefore of equal dignity established as naturally constitutive of man as man (though dependent on community for its realization) and unequal dignity established naturally consequent to the community’s sovereignty over its interests. The former provides limited natural rights and the other is an arrangement that produces positive rights. Those in the higher echelons of society are not ontologically higher than others, but accidentally and positively.[11] Still, they are more important to the well-functioning of the community and deserve greater civil honors.[12]

Consequent dignity is also a matter of proper behavior and action. Most of daily life consists of performative actions shaped and determined by habit in conformity to public standards of behavior. As Hegel said, the “habitual practice of ethical living (das Sittliche) appears as a second nature which…is the soul of custom (Sitte) permeating it through and through” (Phil. of Right, §151). Our daily life is not consumed with morality in itself but with the proper set of actions that permit us and others to go about our various activities with ease and without hindrance. We’ve embodied the rules and manners of various places to ensure the possibility of public action. Most of what we do in daily life is only indirectly moral, being habits and products of socialization conducive to civil peace, unity, and collective activity. Indeed, manners contribute more to a community achieving its natural end than do distinguished moral acts.

We do not deny natural law, nor that customs ought to conform to nature. We are arguing that the law, rights, and customs of a people are not the natural law itself, but a particular positive instantiation or expression of it. There is no inherent universal set of public manners, rights, and manners in natural law. Indeed, it does not contain anything that could constitute a particular people. Only a set of positive laws, rights, and manners in conformity with natural law can constitute a people. Furthermore, these customs are proper only because a community recognizes them as proper. Otherwise, the actions would be unintelligible. For example, men ought to honor women in some way, but the expression of honor is intelligible to the public (and to the woman!) only due to a common judgment on the action as an expression of honor.

Dignified behavior, therefore, is behavior in conformity to the community’s particular conception of right action. One’s dignity in public is first a matter of social station and second a matter of proper behavior. Living up to one’s human dignity in the latter sense is conforming to the ethical life of a community (when that ethical life is in conformity to natural law). Human dignity is not a matter of independently conforming oneself to natural law. One cannot live out human morality without performing a particular expression of it in a historical situation among a certain people, for natural law is necessarily mediated by positive law, rights, and customs. Since these expressions could be otherwise (that is, they can be legitimately otherwise), they require a common consent to their rightness and therefore require a community with common judgment on right and wrong actions.

Most people don’t spend their days completing practical syllogisms anyway. We follow the prejudicial judgments into which all of us were socialized from birth, which provide pre-reflective confidence of action and presence, mutual understanding, and the security and delight of being among one’s own. This is no doubt one reason why Calvin said that it is “delightful to dwell among one's own people" (Commentary on Jer. 9:2).

The Incoherence of the Contemporary View

The modern Christian draws a direct logical line from human dignity to particular, specific, and concrete rights and privileges. We are assured, for example, by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC) that immigration is a "human dignity issue":

Pope Francis in an address on 11 October 2017 on the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the catechism argues “that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out.” He grounds this argument on the fact that: “No man ever, not even the murderer, loses his personal dignity.” Human dignity on this conception is invariable and indestructible, and this entails directly a certain penal system or policy which precludes the death penalty.

The attempt to ground the allocation of concrete rights and privileges on the basis of bare natural or egalitarian dignity quickly leads to incoherence. To see this we shall analyse the logic of the Pope’s argument that the human dignity of the murderer entails the abolition of the death penalty in the light of John Calvin’s comments on Genesis 9:6 which says: “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man, shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (found in his Commentary on Genesis).

First, we have to be clear that even though Calvin believes that the verse has a broader application than the purely political, he does accept that the political law for punishing murders is grounded on that verse. He argues:

What I have said must be remembered, that this language rather expresses the atrociousness of the crime; because whosoever kills a man, draws down upon himself the blood and life of his brother. On the whole, they are deceived (in my judgment) who think that a political law, for the punishment of homicides, is here simply intended. Truly I do not deny that the punishment which the laws ordain, and which the judges execute, are founded on this divine sentence; but I say the words are more comprehensive.

Calvin, therefore, accepts that the verse does have a direct political application as grounding penalties against murders. What however does this have to do with human dignity? Further down Calvin discusses the second part of the verse concerning man as made in the image of God:

For in the image of God made he man. For the greater confirmation of the above doctrines God declares, that he is not thus solicitous respecting human life rashly, and for no purpose. Men are indeed unworthy of God's care, if respect be had only to themselves. but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person. Thus, although they have nothing of their own by which they obtain the favor of God, he looks upon his own gifts in them, and is thereby excited to love and to care for them. This doctrine, however is to be carefully observed that no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself. Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries. Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity...

The structure of the argument is the following: the fact that all man possess the divine image entails a duty of respecting their life and being “reluctant” to injure them. When it is objected that the “divine image has been obliterated”, it is pointed out that “some remnant of it” remains, and this entails that man is “possessed of no small dignity”. A general duty to care and respect the life for all man as such is grounded on their retention of remnants of the divine image and their possession of “no small dignity”.

However if this “no small dignity” is interpreted in the liberal egalitarian way, which is the same and invariable for all, and as entailing an equal duty and care for all human life, can it be consistently held together with the fact that it also grounds the shedding of blood of the murderer? (Remember, Pope Francis was explicit in pointing out that the murderer cannot lose his personal dignity, which is the premise to which he appeals to argue against the death penalty.) Let’s formalize the Pope’s argument as follows:

(1) All man possess the same, equal, and invariable human dignity.

(2) All who possess such a human dignity as defined in (1) cannot have their blood shed.

(3) A murderer is a man and possesses the same dignity as defined in (1).

Conclusion: Therefore, a murderer cannot have his blood shed. (From premise 2 and 3)

There are only four possible responses to this argument:

(A) Accept all the premises and the conclusion and acknowledge that this means pacifism. Not only is the state forbidden from shedding blood, no one else can shed blood for any cause whosoever, whether in a just war or in self-defence, because the dignity of man is invariable and simply cannot be diminished according to (1), and the censure against taking the life of all your foes remains in force. (It is perhaps not by accident that a conference held by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi between 11-13 April 2016 has rejected the very idea of a “just war”.)

(B) Reject premise (1) and argue that not all men possess human dignity in equal invariable measure and that a murderer can lose some dignities, and thereby rights, because of his undignified behavior, e.g. murder. This is the variable dignity option.

(C) Reject premise (2) and argue that the murderer retains the same invariable dignity as the innocent victim but that dignity does not entail any specific, particular or concrete rights or privileges, e.g. to not have one's blood shed. This is the abstract dignity option, abstract because the possession of dignity is merely to possess a bare abstraction which does not come with any concrete, particular or specific rights or privileges.

(D) Reject premise (3) and argue that the murderer has ceased to be a man, has become subhuman, and in the words of 2 Peter 2:12-13, "But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong." This is the dehumanising option.

We shall simply assume that we are addressing those who reject (D) as well as those who are not pacifists, rejecting (A). That simply leaves us with option (B) and (C). We’ve argued from the Reformed tradition for a combination of options (B) and (C). If we are speaking of an antecedent dignity, then that merely entails a bare capacity for participation in a community, but not any actual concrete, specific, or particular rights or privileges, such as not to have one’s bloodshed, under certain conditions, e.g. in a war or as a punishment for murder, or access to healthcare, education, entry into a community, etc. This is option (C). When speaking of consequent dignity, however, we take option (B), that the dignity we possess is variable and contingent, determined by our station and vocation in the community, and our actions and deeds. As such, if we commit murder, we deprive ourselves of our dignity or place in the community, a crime so grave as to lead to the permission to have our own bloodshed.


The modern conception of human dignity is thoroughly liberal, for it orients the principle and end of civil community towards the individual and the means towards the social or society. Hence, dignity is individualist, despite the emphasis on social justice, community, and the common good. Its end is the maximization of each individual’s ability to become what he or she wants to be or become, and society is the resource or means to provide and secure the opportunity. Both Christian and non-Christian westerners are committed to essentially the same, liberal understanding of human dignity and increasingly the same view of the role of the state in securing it.

If however our view of human dignity is correct as to what constitutes human dignity, and how the concrete rights and privileges follow from it, then modern rights-talk falsely labels many rights “natural” or “human” when these rights in themselves are positive rights, or natural only in the sense that they naturally arise consequent to the deliberation of a community on its own nature and needs. Human dignity is only indirectly related to most of the cherished rights of the Western world. We are willing to grant that people ought to have all sorts of rights, including for example the right to education. But this right, like many others, is not grounded in human dignity. Rather it is a positive right that arises from a fairly simple consideration of the need for an educated populace, especially a populace in a modern democracy and capitalist economic system.

We want to emphasize that human dignity primarily concerns heavenly life. Christ restores man’s dignity and the verticality in communion with God that Adam enjoyed prior to his fall. In our Christian understanding of dignity, let us give glory to God in Christ who would restore the true, ultimate end of man by the grace of regeneration, an end to which all aspects of human life and his being point. Even our earthly dignity is for the heavenly and we ought to arrange it with prudence to best facilitate that end. Christ did not come to spiritualize the world into egalitarianism, nor to bring heaven to earth, but to crown us with his holiness, making us fit for heaven.

[1] The socio-rhetorical function of “dignity” in popular discourse has changed only in appearance, not in substance, since Schopenhauer declared,

That expression, dignity of man, once uttered by Kant, afterward became the shibboleth of all the perplexed and empty-headed moralists who concealed behind that imposing expression their lack of any real basis of morals, or, at any rate, of one that had any meaning. They cunningly counted on the fact that their readers would be glad to see themselves invested with such a dignity and would accordingly be quite satisfied with it.

[2] We should notice however that Reformed theologians use “infinite dignity” or “infinite value” for the person, merit, and suffering of Christ. Francis Turretin, for example, said in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, "for the infinity of his person gives an infinite worth to his sufferings” and "If it [Christ's suffering] was not infinite as to duration, still it was such equivalently as to value on account of the infinite dignity of the person suffering” and "the merit of Christ...[is] of infinite worth and value." Jonathan Edwards used it exclusively for Christ (see here).

[3] As Samuel Willard said, "THIS image [of God] belonged to man's nature at first, considered as a moral agent, under a rule. There is great dispute, whether this image were natural or supernatural, and I suppose it is best reconciled by saying that it was con-natural. It could not belong to the nature of man, merely considered as humanity, for then he would cease to be man upon the loss of it: but consider him as a creature made for such an end, it belonged to his nature, because else he could not be fit for his end: his rule had been in vain, without such a conformity in his nature to it: and for that reason his being without it, hath made him unprofitable, Rom. 3.12. He could never have served God, in conformity to his revealed will, without it; and so the command would not have been holy, and just, and good, and he himself would have been made in vain” (from A Compleat Body of Divinity).

[4] And he writes elsewhere, "Neither does the Gospel bring new laws concerning the civil state, but commands that we obey present laws, whether they have been framed by heathen or by others, and that in this obedience we should exercise love....The Gospel brings eternal righteousness to hearts (teaches how a person is redeemed, before God and in his conscience, from sin, hell, and the devil), while it outwardly approves the civil state" (Art. XVI, Apology of the Augsburg Confession).

[5] "Just as Christ sustains a twofold relation to us of surety and head (of surety, to take away the guilt of sin by a payment made for it; of head, to take away its power and corruption by the efficacy of the Spirit), so in a twofold way Christ imparts his blessings to us, by a forensic imputation, and a moral and internal infusion. The former flows from Christ as surety and is the foundation of our justification. The latter depends upon him as head, and is the principle of sanctification. For on this account, God justifies us because the righteousness of our surety, Christ, is imputed to us. And on this account we are renewed because we derive the Spirit from our head, Christ, who renews us after the image of Christ and bestows upon us inherent righteousness." Turretin, IET 7.3.6.

[6] As Augustine argues in City of God, "This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced" (19.17).

[7] Augustine speaks this way about philosophers who become Christians. He writes, “It is a matter of no moment in the city of God whether he who adopts the faith that brings men to God adopts it in one dress and manner of life or another, so long only as he lives in conformity with the commandments of God. And hence, when philosophers themselves become Christians, they are compelled, indeed, to abandon their erroneous doctrines, but not their dress and mode of living, which are no obstacle to religion” (City of God 19.19).

[8] In Marxian terms, in view is labor-power taken in the abstract—or “abstract labor”—that each provides to the community, not any particular type of labor. It refers simply to membership in a set of social relations.

[9] Calvin writes, “For the system of proportional right in the Church is this — that while they communicate to each other mutually according to the measure of gifts and of necessity, this mutual contribution produces a befitting symmetry, though some have more, and some less, and gifts are distributed unequally” (Comm. on 2 Cor. 8:14).

[10] Christians writers occasionally distinguish between formal and consequent dignity, though they don't use those words. Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex writes, for example: "There is a dignity material in the people scattered they being many representations of God and his image, which is in the king also, and formally more as king, he being endued with formal magistratical and public royal authority. In the former regard, this or that man is inferior to the king, because the king hath that same remainder of the image of God that any private man hath, and something more he hath a politic resemblance of the King of heavens, being a little god, and so is above any one man (Question XIX)." According to Rutherford, the dignity of social/political elevation provides a glimpse of God on earth. Calvin likewise said, “The more eminent any one is, the nearer, we know, he is to God” (Comm. on Zechariah 13:7). Such nearness also comes with greater responsibility: “We indeed know, that they who excel in dignity give a much greater offence when they abuse their power in promoting what is sinful” (Comm. on Zeph. 1:7-9). This consequent dignity is then not merely a matter of civil or human honors, but a displays of God’s governance over civil affairs by means of civil magistrates.

[11] As Calvin writes, “There is some equal fellowship, for we come all of Adam's race; we be all of one kind, and all this imports an equality among men. Nevertheless forasmuch as it has pleased God to set certain degrees, we must hold us thereunto, and keep that order, so as the party which has any preeminence and dignity, may be acknowledged for such a one as is to be honored. And in this case we must not allege, why is he more esteemed than I? For that comes not of any worthiness that is in one more than in another: but of God’s will, who will have them so honored to whom he has given any preeminence.” Calvin is not of course saying that civil merit has little to do with civil office. He is simply saying that while each person in the civil community has a full claim to humanity, that does not preclude social/political distinctions.

[12] The neglected Lutheran jurist Friedrich Stahl put this way in Private Law: “In fact, the essence of man as person requires the equality of rights: that to which one can lay claim because he is a person (image of God) must also be claimable by the other. But the plan of the ethical world requires inequality of rights. Because this plan gives people differing positions and tasks, they must also have different rights. As a person, man is an absolute totality for himself; this is the basis for equality of rights. However, man is also a part and member of organic connections and institutions, and no organism is composed of equal members; this is the basis for inequality of rights.” See Ruben Alvarado’s translations of Stahl here.

Follow Thermidor Magazine: