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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 245–247 

Book Review

Crowned with Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition

Christopher D. Marshall. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2002. 160 pages.

Reviewed by Kenneth Martens Friesen

The phrase “human rights” embodies much of Western notions of individual freedoms and liberties. It is for that reason that it comes as a surprise that usage of the term is barely fifty years old, a product of rebuilding international institutions following World War II. The concept of human rights, however, has much deeper roots. Human rights theorists anchor human rights ideals to the time of the Enlightenment and the experiments in democratic government which followed. Because the language of human rights often remains in the context of the governments and the public sphere, it is rarely noticed that the human rights tradition includes authentically biblical roots. {246}

Christopher Marshall’s book attempts to situate the human rights tradition in this biblical context. His relatively brief but excellent study illuminates the human rights tradition in the context of the biblical story. Marshall, a New Testament scholar at Tyndale Graduate School of Theology, Aukland, New Zealand, who has strong Anabaptist connections, gives a convincing biblically-based defense of human rights principles.

His two introductory chapters give a background on the various epistemological, moral, and empirical questions inherent in human rights discussions. Here he briefly discusses the various existing Christian frameworks for dealing with human rights, from Catholicism’s “nature-grace” to Lutheranism’s “two kingdoms” to the Reformed tradition’s notion of the “sphere of redemption.” The debate over whether human rights is even a concept referred to in the Scriptures is reviewed, and the discrepancy between biblical human rights theory and practice is acknowledged.

Marshall presents his case for a biblical emphasis on human rights by underscoring the importance of the Bible’s narrative and paradigmatic themes. These themes, as applied to the biblical accounts of Creation, Stewardship, Covenant, Incarnation, Church, and Christ’s Return form Marshall’s central thesis. In each of these themes Marshall explores the explicit or implicit links to support the language of contemporary human rights. Marshall states, for example, that the Creation story “establishes the exceptional worth of every human being as a creature made in God’s image, entrusted with responsibilities befitting such dignity and bearing rights that enable each person to remain true to his or her identity as God’s image bearer” (60). Christ’s incarnation is a manifestation of the glory and honor of human dignity. The Church was a movement “that bonded people together into communities of solidarity” to promote reconciliation of people to God and to each other (95). The arguments are concise and thoughtful, the logic clear though sometimes dense for the novice reader.

The irony of a discussion on biblical views of human rights is, of course, that many parts of the Church since the Enlightenment have been vociferously opposed to promoting those rights. In virtually all church traditions, leading voices have supported the “right” of the leadership to impose their will and power on the rest of the Church. The Church throughout the West, especially when bound together with dominant political institutions, has often been complicit in putting its own power and privilege over and against the rights of individuals. Marshall’s work will hopefully contribute to the Church’s acknowledgment of its own past and will point towards a more positive future. {247}

The book will be a great service to those who struggle to bridge the perceived gap between promoting secular human rights and acting biblically. His arguments, though perhaps not as easily accessible to the lay reader as they could be, provide an excellent foundation for those ready to take seriously the question of biblical support for the secular human rights tradition. As a small practical addition, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is included as an appendix.

Kenneth Martens Friesen
Prof. of Political Science and History
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California

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