On September 17, Biblical Seminary commemorates Constitution Day with a call to prayer on that day for the USA and for all countries around the globe.
What Is a Constitution?
4: the mode in which a state or society is organized; especially : the manner in which sovereign power is distributed
5a : the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it ; b : a written instrument embodying the rules of a political or social organization (Merriam-Webster)
Despite being a relatively young country, based on 5b of this definition (which refers to a codified constitution) the USA actually has the world's oldest existing constitution; even given the broader version of the definition (which includes uncodified constitutions) it’s still just third in line, after Britain and San Marino. As you can see from the chronological lists provided by Wikipedia and the Comparative Constitutions Project, writing up a formal, systematic organization of government is a relatively new endeavor.
Although some of the earliest historical documents we have include descriptions of laws, and a few touch on certain aspects of government, none of them are concerned particularly with “the mode in which a state or society is organized”, let alone “the manner in which sovereign power is distributed”. Rather, they’re concerned with civil, criminal, and religious law—the daily running of life—with the governing body simply assumed.
- Reforms of Urukagina: Although this is likely the earliest legal document we’re aware of, we don’t have the actual text—only descriptions of it. It apparently covered topics such as tax exemptions and certain expenses to be paid by the city-state, but was not an organizing document, merely lists of individual laws.
- The codes of Ur-Nammu and Code of Hammurabi are both concerned with criminal and civil law, but neither touches on the government generating and enforcing these laws.
- Of the various ancient legal codes surveyed while writing this section, the Deutronomic code actually comes the closest to functioning as a constitution: although it’s primarily concerned with religious, civil, and criminal law, ch. 17 does briefly discuss the mode of ancient Israel’s government.
How Did the US Constitution Get Written?
If the US Constitution was such a novelty at the time, how did it even come into being?
After the American War for Independence, the colonies were a loose confederation, acting more like independent countries than a united nation. They were governed by the Congress of the Confederation, a weak legislature that controlled foreign policy, war, and currency, but which still allowed for individual colonies’ sovereignty in an effort to avoid the tyranny of a dominant few.
But the instability of the Union’s early years made it clear to the Congress that a more centralized government based on a revised constitution was necessary. Thus, the states sent delegates to a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from May 25 through September 17, 1787.
Throughout the summer, the Convention did not just revise the Articles but created a completely new form of government with three branches: executive, judicial, and legislative. Checks and balances were codified so that no branch would have more power than another. The important question of states’ representation was solved by creating a bicameral Congress, with proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate.
On September 17, 1787, the state delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they had created. Following this, the Congress of the Confederation distributed the Constitution to all the states for each to ratify by popular vote.
One issue that was rejected by the Convention but which became a sticking point during the ratification process was the need for a bill of rights, outlining restrictions on the government as it concerned people’s rights. James Madison, a member of the House of Representatives, wrote 19 constitutional amendments in 1789, 12 of which were ratified by the states on September 25 of that year. The first ten were called the Bill of Rights and became part of the Constitution in 1791, outlining the rights of the people to protect them from the state (“Congress shall make no law…”).
Benjamin Franklin, the oldest signer of the Constitution at 81, and a Pennsylvania delegate, spoke to the Convention after the Constitution was signed, saying,
“…I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us… I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies… Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
What Does the US Constitution Say?
- The Heritage Guide to the Constitution - Contains the entire Constitution, divided by articles and amendments. You can hover over the amendment number to see a brief description of it. Once inside an article or amendment, you can read essays pertinent to each component.
- The Constitution @ The Charters of Freedom - An extensive archival website for the major charters from the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In addition to downloadable images of the original documents, you can read more about the inspiration, creation, and impact of these charters.
- ConstitutionFacts.com - Includes the Constitution and Amendments, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation. It also profiles the Founding Fathers and includes an interesting page on the Founders Library, which examines the wider popular and intellectual culture at the time of the Constitution. Or you can have some fun testing yourself with some quizzes or face off against friends with the Constitution Challenge.
- The founding fathers @ ConstitutionCenter.org – In addition to biographies of the men who wrote and signed the Constitution, this contains a wealth of information about the document itself, including news and debates related to how it’s applied today.
- The Constitution @ WhiteHouse.gov - Profiles the three branches of government and their specific duties and powers. It also has a slightly more detailed history of how the Constitution came to be, and provides a brief summary of each of the amendments.
- Smart Songs offers easy-to-memorize synopses of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
- The official Constitution of the United States of America as amended, including unratified amendments and an analytical index.
Why Does This Matter to a Christian Seminary?
The most obvious answer to this question is found within the 1st amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Our ability to operate openly and freely as a religious educational institution rests on this amendment, and we ought not to take it for granted, but should instead seek to understand how the amendment operates within the framework of the constitution as a whole—and be capable of explaining its application to the seminary if necessary.
But aside from that, as Christians we are called to function as citizens within civil states. As Paul exhorts us in Rom. 13:1-7:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (NIV)
How can we fulfill the instruction in verse 7 if we don’t understand what is actually owed? And since we live in a constitutional republic, understanding our country’s constitution and how it functions is a vital part of figuring that out.