Law of Nations

The Law of Nations, which governs how one nation relates to another, was so much a part of our founding culture that the framers of the Constitution only referenced it once in the Constitution, in which it states: “To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas and offences against the Law of Nations.”[1] Although, only referenced once in the Constitution it was referenced thirteen times, according to Madison’s notes, by Constitutional Convention delegates during the Constitutional Convention and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution referenced it numerous times when expounding on Constitutional clauses dealing with foreign policy. Additionally, one can also see evidence of the Law of Nations articulated in George Washington’s farewell address, the Monroe Doctrine, in every President’s Congressional request for a declaration of war until the Civil War, and in other writings of our founders. The absence of a declaratory statement identifying the Law of Nations as the foundation of American foreign policy should not be taken to mean that its tenants are any less binding today. Just like English Common Law was the foundation upon which the Constitution was written, so too is the Law of Nations the foundation upon which the framers defined the foreign policy powers delegated to our national government from the people.

The Law of Nations theologically grew out of Augustine of Hippo’s Just War Doctrine and was extracted, over several centuries, from observations and “right reason of human nature” by many law minded individuals, which included Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Puffendorf, Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, Cornelis van Bynkershoek, and Emmerich de Vattel. Yet, most notably for our interest, James Wilson, a lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the Constitution, and a major proponent for the Law of Nations articulated its meaning as such:

“The law of nations, properly so called, is the law of states and sovereigns, obligatory upon them in the same manner, and for the same reasons, as the law of nature is obligatory upon individuals. Universal, indispensable, and unchangeable is the obligation of both.”[2]

Wilson clearly explains the Law of Nations is not only obligatory upon all nations, but also universal, indispensable, and unchangeable just like the Law of Nature is upon all men. By this he is saying the Law of Nations is an extension of the Law of Nature to states and sovereigns, it is jurisdictional upon every nation with or without their consent, and no entity in any nation has the authority to change it.  But to better understand the Law of Nature, as referenced by Wilson and the Declaration of Independence, we must return to Wilson’s Lectures on Law in which he states:

“In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce His laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from Himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.”[3]

In this quote Wilson explains that due to the imperfection of human reasoning, man must also reference the moral precepts or laws in the Holy Scriptures, which form a part of the Law of Nature. It is, therefore, from the Bible we can only obtain an unadulterated understanding of the Law of Nations, which is best summed up by applying the Ten Commandments at the national level via the following concepts: nations are an extension of individuals[4], God has a plan for the nations,[5] and all nations are to seek God.[6] He governs the nations[7] by His law[8] via the hearts of His people.[9] He expresses His kingdom through people groups and governments. He governs among the nations and desires no government above the nations. He expects His people to do to others, what they would have others do to them[10] by applying the second table of law[11] through love.  He judges the nations in real time[12] and judgment comes through generational consequences and natural disasters. Judgment among the nations comes through self-defense, self-preservation,[13] and the condition of God’s people.[14]

Just as all individuals are equal before the law, so are all nations; no one nation is better than another and all have equal rights before the law of God. What is true of the group is also true of the individual, because rights only come from individuals as bestowed by God. Since rights are granted by God to individuals, and nations derive their rights as a group from individuals, it stands to reason that all nations, therefore, have equal rights.

From one man, God created every nation of men; He determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live. He did this so men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him. All nations are to seek God, because God created them and eventually all kings will bow down to Him, and all nations will serve Him. God has dominion and rules the nations with justice through the hearts of men, because His law is written on their hearts. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all men to apply God’s Law to their lives, their families, their churches, and their civil government at all levels, so that justice will reign in the world.

God desires no government above the nations, because He did not establish one in His revealed word and to the contrary, He stated He is sovereign over each individual nation[15], so a governmental establishment above the nations is a usurpation of His authority.

God wants all people to treat others as they would want to be treated, which sums up God’s Law dealing with man’s relationship to man. He judges the nations in real time through the hearts of the people, because nations are not eternal and thoughts and ideas are eventually translated into actions which have real consequences. Additionally, God controls all earthly processes and He does so justly, therefore natural disasters may well be a judgment of God upon the people. God will protect nations who honor him, and He will pull His protection from nations who dishonor Him, like when one nation conquers another. This is not to say the victor is righteous in God’s eyes and to the contrary, they will be judged by God for any violation of His Law.[16] It is therefore, vitally important each nation honor God in all they do and to treat others as they would want to be treated, which sums up both tables of law. If every man and every nation on earth adhered to His ten simple commandments, there would be peace and harmony among all men and all nations. Although, every nation should honor God, not every nation or individual will, yet Christians and Christian nations still have an obligation to do unto others as you would have them do unto you and to love their enemies. The meaning of which is an expression of justice, not passivity.

Unfortunately, the sinful nature of man will never allow peace to prevail, therefore, the question becomes how does a God fearing nation determine when to justly use force?

First, the goal of the use of force should always be to restore justice not peace, because peace is not absolute and one might have to fight to restore a just peace, so peace should never be the goal, although it is always a desired outcome. Furthermore, if peace is a nation’s goal, that nation will be willing to sacrifice justice to maintain it, which always ends in either warfare or bondage, just like when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared, “peace in our time” prior to the Second World War after he had unjustly sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.

Second, force does not solve anything unless defending God’s Law or restoring its rule. If a nation uses force for any other reason, like vengeance, territorial conquest or economic gain of any kind, that use of force will result in a negative backlash, which will undermine the aggressor nation’s authority and capabilities and usually ends in political or military defeat.

Third, each nation is to be left alone in peace; because a nation only has a right to use force against another nation when its rights are violated by that nation or when requested to intervene by a lawfully elected political body of a nation. Therefore, no nation ever has the right to interfere in the affairs of another nation even if a nation is persecuting its own people. The people of the persecuted nation have a responsibility to obey God’s Law and resist tyranny through interposition under lawful authority. Once they have shown they have the ability to govern themselves, they can request assistance from outside their national boundaries, just like the colonists did during the War of Independence. If they are not following God’s Law or looking to the one true creator of the universe for relief, then the persecution they are experiencing may be part of the generational consequences for the way they have, as a society, chosen to live their lives. Furthermore, a nation is only obligated to respond to a call for assistance from a lawfully elected political body of oppressed people in as far as they determine the opposition’s cause is just and the opposition’s principles and values are in line with their own principles and values.

The Just War Doctrine

The just war doctrine is based on God’s character, which limits nations to only fighting for the right reasons. Prior to a nation going to war they must first determine if they are under the proper authority to do so,[17] which is declared by a predetermined jurisdiction such as the power to declare war given to United States Congress by the Constitution. Lawful resistance to authority must always be under lawful authority, like when the colonists formed the Continental Congress to petition King George III for redress of their grievances.  Nations are only to go to war to maintain or restore justice and the just rule of God’s Law. The nation’s cause, therefore, must be just, [18] like self-defense from attack, restoring what was unlawfully taken, avenging wrongs, or punishing unjust nations for other violations of national sovereignty. The nation must have the right intention[19] in that they desire to advance what is good, according to God, and avoid what is evil. They must also have clear goals and aims[20] in war that are based off of their right intention such that it should be clear that the actions of the enemy are morally wrong, and the motives and actions of one’s own nation in going to war are, in comparison, morally right. War must be the last resort,[21] after all other methods have been tried and it is the only way to right a wrong to restore justice. A nation must, also, have a reasonable hope of success in going to war,[22] because it is unjust to risk the deaths of many in pursuit of a lost cause. Finally, it is not sufficient for a nation to meet only some of these requirements, in order to justly use force they must first meet all of these requirements, otherwise their use of force will be unjust.

After going to war, the nation must uphold a just conduct in war. They must never consent to evil, so that good may come of it. In other words, the ends never justify the means, because it is never authorized to break even one of God’s Laws to achieve what one considers a great good. Furthermore, any good that is achieved through a lawful use of force, must be proportionate to the suffering. No innocent life should be targeted, such that non-combatants have immunity and there is no intention to demoralize the enemy through killing the innocent. Any innocent loss of life must be unintentional or accidental and the lives of the enemy should be spared when possible. A nation should never use more force than is necessary to achieve its goals and they must always weigh whether the use of force is worth the loss of life. And finally, a nation must judge the conduct of soldiers in warfare via trials that are civil and not under military rule or tyrannical.


[1] United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 10

[2] James Wilson, Of the Law of Nations, Lectures on Law 1791 Works 1:148-67

[3] James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature, Lectures on Law 1791 Works 1:137-8

[4] Genesis 10

[5] Acts 17:26

[6] Psalm 72:11 & 17; 82:8; 86:9

[7] Psalm 22:28; 66:7; 67:4

[8] Romans 1:20; 2:15; 3:23; 4:13

[9] Isaiah 42:1-4; a picture of Christ of which the Church is His body and therefore, responsible for applying justice to this world by implementing His Law in their lives and communities.

[10] Matthew 7:12

[11] Commandments 5 – 10

[12] Malachi 4:4-6; Matthew 25:31-46

[13] Deuteronomy 28:12

[14] Psalm 33:12; 1 Chronicle 16:24, 31; 2 Chronicle 17:1-10

[15] 2 Chronicles 20:6; Job 12:23; Job 36:31; Psalm 22:28; Psalm 47:8

[16] Jeremiah 25:12-13

[17] Romans 13:1

[18] Revelation 19:11

[19] Proverbs 21:2

[20] Romans 13:3

[21] Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18

[22] Luke 14:31

6 thoughts on “Law of Nations

  1. D Lively says:

    The website quotes James Wilson: “The law of nations, properly so called, is the law of states and sovereigns, obligatory upon them in the same manner, and for the same reasons, as the law of nature is obligatory upon individuals. Universal, indispensable, and unchangeable is the obligation of both.” This is a direct quote from the article but seeing as how no nation, including the U.S., has ratified, or otherwise, endorsed the Law of Nations how can such a statement be made? That is, unless you consider “offenses against the ‘Law of Nations'” a ratification? [Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 10.]

    “By this he [Wilson] is saying the Law of Nations is an extension of the Law of Nature to states and sovereigns, it is jurisdictional upon every nation with or without their consent, and no entity in any nation has the authority to change it.” That is one HUGE leap!

    American Founding Principles says:

    This is not much of a leap when put in the proper context. Although it is true no nation has ever ratified the Law of Nations, neither has any nation ever ratified the Ten Commandments and very few Christians would argue that this fact makes the Ten Commandments any less binding to every human who has or will ever live, regardless of their national origin.

    Concerning the Law of Nature, William Blackstone made a statement similar as James Wilson made, “This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.”

    In comparing the Law of Nations to the Law of Nature, Wilson was making the point that the Law of Nations is just as binding as the rest of God’s Law, because it comes from God. The Law of Nations is God’s Law applied to nations and since no entity or nation has the authority to change the laws of God neither can they change the Law of Nations.

  2. D Lively says:

    “It is, therefore, from the Bible we can only obtain an unadulterated understanding of the Law of Nations, which is best summed up by applying the Ten Commandments at the national level via the following concepts: nations are an extension of individuals…” I have trouble getting there from here.

    “From one man, God created every nation of men; He determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live.” I have always had an aversion to the concept that each life is pre-determined. Evidently the author has no problem with it.

    American Founding Principles says:

    This is a hermeneutical issue that can only be answered through proper biblical interpretation. What does this verse actually mean; is it saying what it appears to be saying or is it saying something else? Often humans apply their personal beliefs and desires to the Bible instead of conforming their thinking to what the Bible says. When trying to understand biblical passages, one should always focus on what a passage means and not weather it agrees with an individual’s personal understanding of the world or the way they want the world to be.

    Standard hermeneutics is an in-depth interpretation method that uses the Bible to define its own words and uses easier to understand verses to help interpret harder ones. It generally follows this process: Historical-Cultural and Contextual Analysis, Lexical-Syntactical Analysis, Theological Analysis, and Literary Analysis. Additionally, any interpretation of a passage must be consistent with other passages on a similar topic. I recommend reading Hermeneutics by Henry Virkler to better understand hermeneutics and the hermeneutical process.

  3. D Lively says:

    “First, the goal of the use of force should always be to restore justice not peace, because peace is not absolute and one might have to fight to restore a just peace, so peace should never be the goal, although it is always a desired outcome. Furthermore, if peace is a nation’s goal, that nation will be willing to sacrifice justice to maintain it, which always ends in either warfare or bondage, just like when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared, ‘peace in our time’ prior to the Second World War after he had unjustly sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.” A very interesting way to describe the use of force. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. D Lively says:

    “Therefore, no nation ever has the right to interfere in the affairs of another nation even if a nation is persecuting its own people.” I have a lot of trouble with conclusions like this. I’ll bet that a biblical scholar could refute this scripturally.

    American Founding Principles says:

    I would like to hear a biblical scholar, using standard hermeneutics, make an argument against this concept, but I have yet to hear or see one. Things like this are better understood when applied on a more personal level. Perhaps if someone witnessed their neighbor beating his wife they could intervene to stop the abuse, but does that give them a right to take over their neighbor’s house-hold and run his affairs? Certainly not! When extrapolated to the nation-to-nation scenario the obligation to stop the abuse goes away, because the people of the abusive nation have a responsibility to stop the abuse. If they do not and another nation interferes, who is going to govern the nation after the old regime is toppled? In the neighbor example, there are laws, civil authorities and a jurisdictional court system to handle the matter, but since God forbids entities above the nations, there is no system to adjudicate the nation-to-nation case. Therefore, any interference in the affairs of another state without an appeal from an elected or appointed body from that state requesting assistance is an unlawful use of force.

  5. D Lively says:

    I most certainly agree with the premise that any nation or other political entity should follow the Judeo-Christian understanding of God’s laws. The point is that every nation, every individual, would be better off. However, you get into trouble if you accept the Muslim understanding of God’s laws. That becomes a BIG problem.

    American Founding Principles says:

    The classical logic Law of Non-Contradiction prohibits something from being both true and not true at the same time when dealing with the same context. Accordingly, two contradictory religions like Christianity and Islam cannot both be true, only one can be true or they could both be false, there are no other options. For those who understand that nothing did not create everything the question is, “Is the God of the Bible the one true God, or is the one true God the god of one of the other religions in the world?” To answer this question one must ask how well do each of these “holy books” stand up to scrutiny? Do these “books” contradict historical facts, do they contradict each other and do they contradict themselves. Every religion in the world contradicts the Bible, historical facts, and their own doctrine, but the Bible has withstood the test of time through extreme criticism and proven itself to be very accurate when compared with historical facts and itself. For example, there is no other historical figure that is as well documented as the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Islam, on the other hand, prohibits the Koran to be questioned and anyone who does question it or point out contradictions and issues are seriously threatened with murder or murdered. This is evidence that anyone who accepts the Islamic understanding of law accepts lawlessness and tyranny.

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