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).