Recently I read an obscure law journal article published in 2003 titled, “Innocent Until Proven Guilty: The Origins of a Legal Maxim,” by a guy named Kenneth Pennington. Why I read this kind of stuff for fun and recreation … well … let’s just say that I’m a nerd. When I was a kid I read the dictionary and the phone book. For real.

You can find amazing nuggets of info during such nerdish excursions.

In this particular journal article, Pennington tracked down and flushed out a detailed account of work that an earlier and even more obscure legal scholar – Paucapalea – did circa 1150 AD.

Paucapalea, he discovered, had been a lifelong champion of the notion that people accused of wrongdoing must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now – I had to kind of step back and recall some European history to put this in context. 1150 AD predates – by several hundred years – some of Europe’s worst witchhunting activities. It predates the malleus maleficarum (infamous guide to witchhunting) by more than three centuries. Perhaps Paucapalea had a premonition about what was to come.

Paucapalea spent his life arguing that the right to a presumption of innocence “originated in paradise when Adam pleaded innocent to [God’s] accusation of wrongdoing.”

In Pennington’s words,

In Genesis 3.9-12, the Lord burst into Paradise and demanded: Adam ubi es? One may note that for a Deity His question was not particularly omniscient. Adam responded to the Lord’s accusation of illegal apple picking by complaining “My wife, whom You gave to me, gave to me, and I ate it.” God had, in other words entrapped Adam when he gave him a wife. Paucapalea’s point is subtle but was not be lost on later jurists. Although God is omniscient, he too must summon defendants and hear their pleas.

Kenneth Pennington, Innocent Until Proven Guilty: The Origins of a Legal Maxim, 63 JURIST: STUD.
CHURCH L. & MINISTRY 106 (2003).

Pennington also pointed out that

“When Moses decreed that the truth could be found in the testimony of two or three witnesses, he pronounced a basic rule of evidence and confirmed the antiquity of a system of procedure accepted by God himself (Deuteronomy 19.15). Most importantly […] the subtext of Paucapalea’s commentary clearly implies that if God must summon litigants to defend themselves, mere humans must also summon them and presume that every defendant is innocent until proven guilty in court.”



So why am I writing about this now?

It’s because I’m worried. I’m worried that in our worldly rush to try to make the world better, we seem to be ready to throw out basic – and maybe even Biblical – notions about what counts as evidence.

Evidence isn’t evil.

Even God wanted evidence, the presumption of innocence, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt before judging a person to be guilty.

Are we representing God well as Christ-followers on Earth?

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