S-T-O-P Means Stop

In 25 years of ministry one of the most profound changes I’ve seen is the growing inability and/or unwillingness of Americans to read texts according to the intent of the author. One of the major reasons for this change was the mutation of the Modernism in North America from rationalism and empiricism to subjectivism. Mind you both forms of Modernism have much in common. In both cases the subject of the verb is always the autonomous “I.” For the rationalist “I get to decide what is reasonable and true on the basis of what I can know comprehensively.’ For the empiricist, “I decide what is true on the basis of sense experience.” The subjectivist says, “Truth is what is true for me.” In that sense, the starting point hasn’t changed but in other respects things have changed.

The argument with rationalists and empiricists was not whether there is such a thing as objective reality (that which is true regardless of my experience of it) but whether it is “reasonable” to believe a truth claim on the basis of an authority or source that transcended my intellect or sense experience. Now the discussion has devolved into the question whether there is anything that isn’t me or my imagination or my experience. Do “you” really exist?

The Late Modern Sea Change
All that to say subjectivism was washing over the American university just as I graduated. I heard rumblings but I didn’t pay attention. At seminary we were still largely fighting with the higher critics and old modernists (mostly rationalists) so I didn’t really see it there even though we had some brief discussions about the subjective turn in hermeneutics to “reader reception” and the like. It seemed like a fad. When I got to the UK in 1993, however, I discovered that it was not a fad and I had to catch up. The language of the university had changed while I wasn’t looking.

In the years since the consequences of this turn have become clearer. It is increasingly difficult to get readers to move beyond their subjective experience of the text to the text itself in its original context, to ask when did the author write it? To whom? Why and what did he intend to communicate? These questions, which my 9th-grade Journalism teacher, Mrs Chafee taught us were basic, are now regarded as quaint and outmoded. Are they really?

Consider this example: when a subjectivist author writes a document attempting to persuade us that the reader’s experience/reception of a text is as important or more important than the author’s intention, that subjectivist author necessarily expects us to read his document according to his intention. If we refuse and receive his words as communicating something about cosmic grasshoppers the entire communication process is frustrated. For the purposes of telling us to do to other authors what he does not want us to do to his words, our subjectivist author must rely on the old-fashioned idea of authorial intent. He must rely on the notion that the author had an intent, that words are signals of that intent, and that the intent can be inferred by understanding the words—that there is perspicuity in language, that it is a vehicle for meaning. Only after reading the subjectivist author are we to begin reading other texts as if the reader’s experience trumps all.

In that case then we’re just playing a game that defies the nature of creation, the nature of the created order and pattern. God gave us language not, first of all, to facilitate my subjective experience, to do with whatever I autonomously will, but in order to facilitate communication between the Creator and his image bearer and secondarily to facilitate communication between image bearers. Of course, the fall corrupted the process. Signs are not as easy to read because our perception is corrupted and because our wills, our affections, and our intellects are corrupted. Nevertheless, God has pledged to restrain the effects of the fall (Gen 9) so that life can continue, albeit brokenly, and communication can continue, albeit haltingly, until the end.

Please do not misunderstand. I understand that readers necessarily receive texts and that, in some way, their experience of the text is distinct from that of the author, that the reader may justifiably perceive messages in the text of which the author was not conscious. This is true in the case of the NT reception of the authors of the typological revelation (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament in the broad sense of that term). John understood aspects of Isaiah that Isaiah himself probably did not understand. The NT interprets Psalms 110 repeatedly in ways that David probably did not understand fully.

This process occurs even with uninspired texts. Readers do decode messages of which the author was perhaps not aware but recognizing the power of creative reading is not quite the same thing as ignoring the author’s intent or denying that the author had an intent. Again, you might take this post to be a secret message from a cosmic grasshopper but I’m telling you that it is no such thing. In the nature of the created order, words bear a relation to the things they intend to signify. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter whether that relation is fixed by nature (realism) or fixed by convention (nominalism) so long as the intent of the sign is understood in a substantially similar way by author and reader.

Consider The Stop Sign
Consider the lowly stop sign. S-T-O-P. In English we add those letters to make a word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s an Old English word derived from Saxon and West Germanic words. It may be used as a noun to refer to a bucket or to something that plugs up something. In the case of a stop sign, however, it would not seem to be a noun. That would make the sign an announcement: “Here is something that plugs up something else.” That’s true in a way. A stop sign does momentarily impede cars but is that the intent of the author (in this case the city council) of the sign? Probably not. So, we move on to the the next possibility: a verb. Again, it’s an Old English word with relatives all across Europe. As a verb it may mean “To fill up, plug, close up.” If it’s a verb, what sort of verb it is? In what voice? If we take it as an indicative (what is) does that work? “Things stop.” Well, they do, yes but why would the city council post signs across town announcing that? It seems unlikely. If, however, we take it as an imperative (“do this!”) then it begins to make sense in context.

After all, these signs tend to occur at intersections where autos must negotiate a limited space at the same time but what sort of imperative? If the noun means “a plug” does that mean that the city council wants us all to congest intersections and impede traffic? Probably not. Why would the council want that? To what end? Why would we allow them to tax us in order to post signs to slow our way home from work? Thus, if it is an imperative it must mean something else. In context, it seems most likely that the intent is to require us to cease moving forward long enough to allow others to move or to make sure the way is clear before we continue. Imagine if we chose to ignore the intent of the city council in posting the signs? Chaos!

Most likely someone told us what STOP on a red sign means but this exercise shows that even if no one told us what the signs meant it is possible to decode messages according to original intent by considering the signal in its immediate and broader context. We are able to infer a likely meaning and confirm that inference by experience. In fact, we would probably make all of those decisions very quickly.

Consider The Constitution
In what follows we will consider a more complicated text because it is longer and its original context is farther away from us but I am confident that we can apply the same principles and arrive at a reasonable understanding of its original intent and sense. I understand that what we are about to discuss is a controversial topic but that is why it needs to be discussed because we have before us a living example of the necessity of reading texts in their original context, according to original intent. To be sure: The point I am making here is first of all about hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts). Whether we should decide to agree with the text in question is another matter.

A prime example is the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution was ratified in 1788 and amended with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. The second amendment says:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

This amendment is usually analyzed to include two parts: a preface, “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state” and an operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

There was debate among the framers as to whether a Bill of Rights was needed. The Federalists opposed the Bill of Rights on the grounds that it was superfluous. The Anti-Federalist argument, however, that a statement of specific rights was necessary to keep the government at bay and to protect individual liberties won the day. The original intention of the framers was that ordinary civilians, who composed the state militias (something like the modern state National Guard units), had to be armed in order to form a regulated militia. For some time the preface more or less dominated the operative clause (“shall not be infringed”)  in the interpretation of the amendment.

Interestingly, this leveraging of the operative clause by means of the preface has the appearance of reading the amendment in context while denying the substance of the operative clause. The reasoning has been to the effect that: “We’re not in the 18th century any longer and we don’t have the same sort of state militias any longer and therefore the second amendment can be re-contextualized and re-interpreted to allow civil governments to ban the ownership of weapons.”

Such a reading, however, ignores the intent of the preface and the operative clause. The intent was that the people should be able to defend themselves. If weapons are banned they are no longer able to defend themselves.

In recent case law, however, the situation has changed. There is a helpful, brief summary of the state of the law at FindLaw. Here are two salient paragraphs:

In Heller, the Court held that (1) the District of Columbia’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounted to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly chose for the lawful purpose of self-defense, and thus violated the Second Amendment; and (2) the District’s requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock also violated the Second Amendment, because the law made it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.

The Court reasoned that the Amendment’s prefatory clause, i.e., “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” announced the Amendment’s purpose, but did not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause, i.e., “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Moreover, the prefatory clause’s history comported with the Court’s interpretation, because the prefatory clause stemmed from the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the federal government would disarm the people in order to disable the citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule.

Private Individuals have a constitutional right to keep and carry firearms in order to prevent tyranny. As the founders looked at the world, according to their intention in framing the second amendment, to infringe upon that right is an act of tyranny. The constitution did not specify which weapons lawful citizens could keep and carry. It did not envision that law-abiding citizens should even have to apply for a permit to own or carry a firearm. The historical fact is that people kept and carried military-style weapons in the 18th century, when this amendment was adopted. Therefore, it cannot be unconstitutional to keep and carry military-style weapons. We know they did so because that’s what it takes to form a well-regulated militia.

One of the challenges we face in interpreting texts is that of de-contexualization. This is the removal of the text in question and setting it down in another context altogether. In university we did this by only discussing the second amendment in terms of whether people should be allowed to own firearms for the purposes of hunting. We never discussed the second amendment in its original context, according to its original intent. The great difficulty with such a procedure is that hunting has nothing to do with the language or original intent or original context of the second amendment. The only purpose stated in the amendment is the purpose of self-defense.

Reading the amendment against the backdrop of the original setting we can understand why this would be. The United States of America was formed out of a rebellion against a colonial power that was believed by the rebels to by tyrannical and contradictory to the nature of civil government. Were the colonialists unarmed there could have been no rebellion.

The other flaw in de-contextualizing the second amendment and re-contextualizing it in terms of hunting is that it creates a misleading picture of the nature of the weapons that were possessed by the colonists. They owned and carried military grade weapons. Their ownership of military grade weapons was essential to their liberation from British tyranny.

If “tyranny” seems like a strong word, consider just some of the complaints we Americans lodged against the British crown in the Declaration of Independence (1776):

  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
  • For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

“Tyranny” was the word used by the founders in the Declaration:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

It is against these complaints that we must understand the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They were thinking of the instances in which British crown had denied the same to the colonists.

The third argument I used to hear in university was, “Society has changed. We’re a densely populated urban society and the constitution was adopted by an agrarian society.” One is  hard pressed to see how the urbanization of the USA changes the intent or force of the constitution. Could not such an argument be used to obliterate more than just the second amendment? If so, how is this a valid argument? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not contingent upon whether we live in urban, suburban, or rural settings. Either we are free or we are not.

The fourth argument: “the founders never envisioned x type of weapon.” Let’s test the validity of this sort of argument by applying it to the first Amendment. When the Bill of Rights was ratified the main forms of mass media were newspapers and pamphlets. We’re now witnessing the extinction of print newspapers and pamphlets. On this argument should we suppose that the first amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press only applies to print newspapers?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

My grandparents couldn’t have envisioned the internet and they were alive for the invention of the airplane and the moon landing. We can be sure that the founders, who rebelled more than 130 years before my grandparents were born never envisioned the internet but they did understand the propensity of government to encroach on the natural liberties granted by God to citizens.

This is why the founders wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Is there any reasonable doubt that the rebels who wrote these words thought that the people, in whom they believed to reside original authority to form a government and even to rebel against the existing government, should not be allowed to arm themselves in order to preserve the liberty for which they were about to die?

The point is this: if we read the Bill of Rights in its original context, according to its original intent, neither the creation of the internet nor the development of firearms from muskets to semi-automatic firearms makes any difference. Their intent was that Americans would be free to publish dissent from the government and that they would be sufficiently well-armed to keep the government in check.

The second amendment, read in context, according to original intent, has nothing to do with sport or hunting. The founders never envisioned that the government would restrict hunting since, in the 18th century, that would have meant starvation. Sport shooting was simply a correlate to hunting. They didn’t have to stipulate these things. They were essential to existence and that had been established, for the purposes of the formation of the Republic, in the Declaration.

As a well-known pundit has been known to say, “words mean things.” Indeed they do. They are signals of intent. Readers of words may disagree with the intent and they may want to change the words or persuade others to use different words with different intent but before any of that can happen we must first recognize the intended sense of the words before us.

Places In The New Testament Speaking Directly About The Civil Magistrate

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course (Luke 13:31–32; ESV)

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21).

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36; ESV).

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for she is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, tan avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1–7; ESV).

But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”

So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in (Acts 25:21–23; ESV)

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13–17; ESV)

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior (1 Timothy 2:1–3; ESV)

Johannes Althusius (1557–1638): A Brief Introduction To A Pioneering Reformed Social Theorist

We seem to live in a Malthusian age, i.e., an age of increasing scarcity or perhaps fear of scarcity, where concern over how to divide an economic (and environmental) pie of limited size (called a “zero sum game”) has replaced the idea of expanding the economic pie, as it were.

The original modern theorist of increasing scarcity and over population (whose ideas were influential in the 1970s during the Carter “malaise” years) was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834). Malthus theory of future scarcity and over population helped to prepare the ground for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Malthus’ fears, in the context of Darwin’s theory, with the ugliness of early urban industrialism, combined with Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) theory that without a powerful central state (a “leviathan”) life would devolve into a dystopian “state of nature,” a state of war of “all against all,” in which life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” helped to propel the modern creation of centralizing state. Hobbes and Malthus’ theories were united by a common fear about the future. Hobbes explicitly rejected the Christian account of God and man and intentionally turned the covenant of works on its head.

Malthus or Althusius?
There was an alternative to this dark picture that was informed by an Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine of post-lapsarian human depravity but which distinguished between various spheres and webs of human relationships in a series of concentric circles. We might call him the original Reformed theorist of sphere sovereignty. That theorist was Johannes Althusius (1557–1638). Born in Westphalia (Germany) just after the Peace of Augsburg, Althusius spent his life under the shadow of religious and political tensions which finally broke out into open warfare in 1618. He died a decade before peace came to Europe but those tensions and that war left their marks.

An orthodox, confessional Reformed Christian, Althusius was not a minister. He was a legal scholar who taught first in the Academy in Herborn (whose first rector was Caspar Olevianus, 1536–87, though the academy is sometime dated from 1592) and served for many years as a (ruling) elder in the Reformed church in Emden (Friesland) and as a political leader there. A great deal has been written about Althusius in the last few decades. Alain de Benoist has written a helpful survey of the literature and Daniel J. Elazar and Charles McCoy and others have pointed to Althusius as one of the sources of 18th century political federalism. In 2004 the English historian John Coffey offered this summary of Althusius’ “relational” political theory.

In 1603 Althusius produced the first edition of his great treatise, Politics Methodically Digested and Illustrated from Profane [secular] and Sacred [biblical] Examples(Politica methodice digesta atque exemplaris sacris et profanis illustrata). The work would go through three editions between 1604–1614 and was published in an abridged English translation by Frederick S. Carney in 1964. It’s available in hardcover and online here and here.

It’s been a while since I read Politica but I thought that, in the wake of the election, and in light of the sense of confusion and uncertainty that I am hearing from people (via email and phone calls) it might be well to look at Althusius to see what we can learn from him. He is interesting and useful because he illustrates the relative sophistication of Reformed political theory at the turn of the 17th century, on the cusp of the early modern world. He benefited from the earlier work by Theodore Beza (De iure magistratuum; 1574) and the pseudonymous, Vindication Against Tyrants (1579) but he moved beyond their occasional tendency (their theology not withstanding) to treat the post-canonical state as if it were equivalent to national Israel.

Althusius actually attempted to formulate a theory of human relations on the basis of the natural, created, divinely established order. He attempted to establish from nature (and confirm from Scripture) what the most basic social unit is and then he reasoned from that natural unit of association out to other social associations. He did his work in light of medieval legal texts and theories, the Reformation (e.g., Calvin), the development of covenant theology (Olevianus et al), and all this during the time Reformed orthodox theology was becoming more sophisticated.

We’ll be taking a look at Althusius’ Politica in the coming weeks as an antidote to some of the angst to which one might be tempted. As a Reformed theorist who appreciated natural law Althusius will be an interesting alternative to some of the approaches being touted today.

Athusius’ Use Of Natural Law
Thanks to Mark for reminding me about the terrific chapter in John Witte Jr’s volume The Reformation of Rights on Johannes Althusius. He places our author in the context of the Dutch rebellion against Spain. The crown was waging a bloody war of religious repression against the Reformed in the Netherlands, during which time about 12,000 Reformed Christians were martyred for the gospel. The problem the Reformed in the French Wars of Religion (from 1562) and by the Reformed in the Netherlands was how to justify resistance against tyranny. Calvin had theorized (Institutes 4.20) that “lesser magistrates” had divinely endowed authority to put tyrants in check. Can that right be transferred or does it belong in some way to a broader body, even to the people? In the Netherlands, nearly two centuries before the American Revolution, the Estates General invoked natural law (143) as the basis for their right of self-determination over against Spanish and Romanist civil and religious tyranny.

Witte provides a brief but helpful biographical sketch of Althusius. There’s a minor error (151) in the date of the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s 1563 not 1568. He notes that Althusius drew from the Protestant resistance theory including Beza, the pseudonymous “Brutus,” and various Dutch writers. He was also well read in classical legal sources. He thought that under the rubric natural law they could be harmonized with the biblical teaching of natural law (156).

Althusius offered: (1) a ‘demonstrative theory’ of natural law that focused on the concordance between Christian and classical, biblical and rational teachings of law and authority; and (2) ‘a symbiotic theory of human nature’ that focused on the natural and necessary attachments of the person to God, neighbor, and society (155).

The Reformed had universally accepted the divisio triplex of the Mosaic law: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The moral law of Scripture, summarized in the decalogue (ten commandments) was regarded as an expression of the natural law. They are universal (164). The Israelite civil laws were temporary, typological expressions of that law for the Israelites. Hence they were regarded as “expired” and “abrogated” (WCF 19) except insofar as they serve as a witness to universal natural civil principles (“general equity”). Of course, the ceremonial, religious, ritual, religious laws were understood likewise to have been fulfilled and abrogated by Christ. Thus, not all biblical law is equivalent to “natural law” (163). The Mosaic civil laws were the “positive law” of the Jewish state. Althusius picked up this distinction and attempted to work out a theory of civil life that was more consistent with this notion than had been expressed by the earlier theorists.

As I mentioned in Part 1 the earlier resistance theorists had articulated the threefold division (Beza wrote a treatise defending the distinction) but they had not always been consistent in treating Israel’s civil polity as a temporary, typological (and in that sense unique) civil polity. In their zeal to urge the civil magistrate to restrain themselves from persecuting the Reformed they drifted into treating the magistrate as if he were a new David and e.g., France as a post-canonical Israel. Althusius attempted to work out a theory of human organizations that was grounded in creation.

According Witte, for Althusius, “we can know the norms of the natural law if we study both Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason very carefully” (159). The Scripture gives a fuller account of the natural law but it is substantially the same as the natural law. What is in Scripture “cannot be a new form of natural law, for God would not and could not contradict the natural law that he already revealed to us in and through our human nature” (ibid). “God and Scripture have rewritten the natural law for believers…reason and experience have rewritten this natural law for non-believers to discover” (ibid).

For this reason a common body of law is found across time and in various communities, even those who “have had no contact with each other” (160). All communities know from nature that certain functions must be discharged and Althusius saw considerable uniformity in the way the particulars came to expression (ibid). This uniformity is the ground of “common laws” and the “laws of nations.” (see also pp, 161–63).

One more point. Witte notes that, as we will see, Althusius defined freedom in terms of the absence of restraint.

There is a freedom of the body by which the civil law allows a person to use his bodily members to do or conduct anything in a way that is both agreeable and permissible. This is given to us as a natural right, unless obvious exceptions are made. (Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes [Frankfurt, 1618], 1.25.7) in ibid, 166.

It is significant that, for Althusius, freedom relative to civil authorities is defined as the relative absence of restraint. I have heard it suggested that such a definition of freedom is an Enlightenment conception. Althusius, however, was not an Enlightenment figure. He was a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment figure. He didn’t assume the sort of autonomy of human reason that the Enlightenment figures tended to assume. He did not place himself over Scripture. He did not regard himself as a “Enlightened” relative to benighted, ignorant pre-Enlightenment folk. He wasn’t a deist. In short, he wasn’t Hobbes. He was not Locke. He was Rousseau or Franklin or Jefferson. His roots were in Christian (medieval and Reformation) understandings of God and man. In contrast to the Enlightenment he did not begin with an autonomous self. Where Descartes (d. 1650) would begin with “I” (cogito) but with God and his creational order.

The second thing that makes this definition interesting is that I have encountered some resistance to this definition of freedom. Some have suggested that the only way Christians can define freedom is something like “conformity to the divine will.” That definition may work in some contexts but does it work in the civil context? Does it account for the distinctions that Althusius assumed?

The intellectual framework behind his attempt to describe the divinely established universal pattern of human relations was the Christian account of creation. There is a state of nature but it wasn’t what Hobbes thought it was. Hobbes had turned the Reformed view on its head. He had read dystopia of the fall back into nature. Locke had gone in a more Pelagianizing (and rationalist) direction by downplaying the effects of fall. Althusius, by contrast, sought to account for nature, the fall, grace, and providence. We’ll see how it plays out in Politica but it will be interesting to find out whether and how Althusius employed the Reformed distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, between law and gospel. At the very time Althusius was working out his theories the Reformed orthodox were polishing and elaborating the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. These doctrines would have been in his ears regularly in church and, as an elder and a teacher in the university, he would have worked with them.

Free Conscience And Free Exercise
According to John Witte Jr., Althusius did consider the question of religious liberty, whether a private person has the right to “alterm amend, or even abandon” the duties prescribed under the first table (the first four commandments) of the Decalogue. Do civil officials have the authority to “propound, prescribe, or at least prefer one formulation of religious duties over another?” (The Reformation of Rights, 171). This was not a purely theoretical question. The Spanish crown was vigorously seeking to subdue his Dutch subjects and to impose upon them all strict adherence to the dogma and decrees of the Council of Trent. If God has established the magistrate (and about that there was no debate) and if Christian citizens must submit to the magistrate, even an evil one such as Philip II (again, about which there was no debate), then how could Althusius avoid the apparently inescapable conclusion that Spain had the authority to impose Romanism on a reluctant Dutch population?—and it was not only Protestants who were reluctant, some Dutch Romanists resented Spain as well.

Althusius resolved these questions by defending the absolute liberty of conscience (libertas conscientiae) but insisting on only a qualified right of religious exercise (ius relgionis exercitium (ibid, 171). See Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes [Frankfurt, 1618] 1.25.8; idem, Politica, 28.14, 37–73).

He saw the “the absolute liberty of conscience as the natural corollary to the absolute sovereignty of God….” (ibid, 171). Only God is Lord of the conscience. No magistrate can usurp that authority. He drew that inference from the prologue of the Decalogue. Only God can change the heart. No human may coerce another to act against his conscience. As Witte has it, “faith must be persuaded, not commanded.” This was no assertion of Modernist, Enlightenment autonomy. “Fides suadenda non imponenda” (The faith is for persuading not for imposing)) was the slogan of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153).

The magistrate has a duty to preserve this natural, divinely given liberty (relative to the state), this “libertas animi.” In so doing the magistrate is not threatening Christianity but rather “testifying to its “cogency” (ibid).

Freedom of conscience was not, however, the same as free exercise. That, for Althusius, would lead to the erosion of the integrity of society. Once more, Althusius was not an 18th-century, Enlightened advocate of the free exercise. Nevertheless, he was aware of the religious pluralism of the Netherlands. Some provinces had a strong Romanist presence and others a strong Arminian contingency.

Witte observes, “Althusius was all for the state establishment of Calvinism…. This gave Calvinist churches special political protection and patronage and gave Calvinist ministers special privileges and prerogatives in the community” (ibid, 173). This was his application of the first table. Jews, Romanists, and others, however, were to be tolerated. Jews could not build synagogues. They had to remain segregated from the Christian community and had to wear badges. This was only better by degrees from pogroms, banishment, and worse. Roman Catholics, Witte notes, fared a little better. They were to be tolerated but could not have their own buildings or Roman worship. Of course, in the case that Philip had been bent on re-imposing Roman worship by force it is easier to see how the Reformed might be less tolerant of the re-introduction of Romanism where it had been eliminated. Only those heretics who are “open and notorious” should face civil punishment (ibid, 174). As “churlish” (Witte’s word) as Althusius’ theory might seem today it was, in its own time, fairly “generous” (ibid).

There was in Althusius’ relatively liberal (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) approach to religious liberty and the application of the first table a certain tension. The potential for free exercise seems to have been implicit in Althusius’ theory but he still saw the application of the first table through the eyes of Constantine, as it were. After 1648, after the Peace of Westphalia, and through the course of the 18th century the principle of civil enforcement weakened and was replaced, at least in the American colonies, with the free exercise clause.

The Most Basic Social Unit
According to John Witte Jr, for Althusius,
the “most elementary and most essential association of any commonwealth is the marital household—husband and wife, parents and children, who are sometimes joined by servants, grandparents, grandchildren, and other relatives” (p. 184). He called this a “domestic commonwealth.” This is the association or society on which every other society is built and it is grounded in creation, in the divinely established order, the nature of things.

The family is also a voluntary association. We were created to be social, to be relation to other image bearers (humans), to be attracted (male and female) to each other, to procreate (185). Marriage, however,is an act of the will, a “volitional contract” (ibid) between a man and a woman when they’ve reached the age of consent. This marital household is the “bedrock of law, politics, and society” (186). It is the “first school of justice and mercy, piety and charity, virtue and citizenship’ ibid). The head of this most basic social unit is the paterfamilias. He leads theextended family, which is still a private association.

As a member of the family, each has certain rights which are theirs by divine intention—the right “to enjoy affection, love, and good will” (Althusius) of the family and to be assured of natural affection and support when needed (see p. 186 for citations to Althusius). The private, natural (creational) societies form voluntary associations (collegia) with others.

These voluntary associations are businesses, guilds, corporations, schools and the like (ibid). These voluntary associations may be “secular” or “religious.” For Althusius, the word “secular” did not carry the negative connotations it has come to carry in 21st century America. It simply meant “not overtly religious.” It didn’t mean “rebelling against God” or even “not under God’s sovereignty.”

For Althusius everything occurs under divine sovereignty but not everything is administered under the same heading or in the same sphere. These private associations are governed by the creational pattern ordained by God. Althusius described this pattern as “natural law.” He assumed that it was discernible in the nature of things. These associations are corporations, or corporate persons
(187). The members of these entities have dual roles, that as a private individual and that as a member of the corporation. The responsibilities in these spheres are complementary. Civil associations result when “groups of private (natural or voluntary) associations covenant together to form public (political) associations.

The simplest such publication associations and the earliest to develop are hamlets and villages, then larger towns,counties, and cities” (187). These smaller civil associations “eventually covenant together” to form larger associations (e.g., provinces or territories) and, in turn, they may form even broader associations such as commonwealths (ibid, 187–88).

Althusius appealed to the development from the Abrahamic household to the civil polity of Israel as an example of the formation of such political associations and commonwealths. He appealed to that history to justify his doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” (189), the notion that the people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” (language is from the Declaration but exactly what Althusius was saying) and one of those is the right to elect representatives to govern themselves.

This means that, insofar as any commonwealth is divinely instructed by the law of nature has civil power, it can transfer this power to another or to others, who, under the title of kings, princes, consuls, or other magistrates, assume the direction of its common life (Althusius, Politica cited in Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 189)

Althusius argued that even God respected this right to popular sovereignty when, even though he had every right to govern them directly himself, as he had done for hundreds of years, he “yielded [as it were-rsc] to their choice” for a king (ibid, 189). God administers the civil realm through the people and through their elected representatives. The people, Althusius wrote, following Beza and Calvin, can exist without the sovereign, but the sovereign cannot exist without the people (ibid). Thus, the formation of these civil associations never alienates the people from their fundamental, creational, divinely endowed right to rule themselves. Each association retains its right of self-rule relative to the higheror broader association (ibid, 193).

Entering into a relation with a broader association is not an alienation of the sovereignty of the smaller association “but a confirmation of it” (ibid). This federal, constitutionalism was his bulwark against the rising tide of royal absolutism and “nationalist sovereignty” (194).