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A Demonstrative Theory of Natural Law: Johannes Althusius and the Rise of Calvinist Jurisprudence

  • John Witte (a1) (a2)


Early modern Calvinists produced a rich tradition of natural law and natural rights thought that shaped the law and politics of protestant lands. The German-born Calvinist jurist Johannes Althusius produced one of the most original Calvinist natural law theories at the turn of the seventeenth century. Althusius argued for the natural qualities of a number of basic legal norms and practices by demonstrating their near universal embrace by classical and biblical, catholic and protestant, theological and legal communities alike. On this foundation, he developed a complex theory of public, private, penal and procedural rights and duties for his day, to be embraced by everyone, particularly by those who were slaughtering each other in religious wars, persecutions and inquisitions. Althusius' theory of natural law and natural rights was Calvinist in inspiration but universal in aspiration, and it anticipated the political formulations of a number of later Western writers, including Locke, Rousseau and Madison.1



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1 This article is adapted in part from my volume, The Reformation of Rights: law, religion, and human rights in early modern Calvinism (Cambridge, 2007), ch 3, and is used herein with permission from Cambridge University Press.

2 Strohm, Christoph, Calvinismus und Recht (Tübingen, 2008); Strohm, C, ‘Recht und Jurisprudenz im reformierten Protestantismus 1550–1650’, (2006) 123 ZSS (KA) 453493; Grabill, S, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI, 2005); Carney, FS, Schilling, H and Wyduckel, D (eds), Jurisprudenz, Politische Theorie und Politische Theologie (Berlin, 2004); Heise, V, Der calvinistische Einfluss auf das humanistische Rechtsdenken exemplarisch dargestellt an den ‘Commentarii de iure civili’ von Hugo Donellus (1527–1591) (Göttingen, 2004); Gorski, PS, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the rise of the state in early modern Europe (Chicago, 2003); Sap, JW, Paving the Way for Revolution: Calvinism and the struggle for a democratic constitutional state (Amsterdam, 2001); Hall, DW, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lexington, KY, 2003); Ball, DT, The Historical Origins of Judicial Review, 1536–1803: the duty to resist tyranny (Lewiston, NY, 2005); Black, R, Christian Moral Realism: natural law, narrative, virtue, and the Gospel (Oxford, 2000); Kley, D van, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: from Calvin to the civil constitution, 1560–1791 (New Haven, CT, 1996); Strohm, C, Ethik im frühen Calvinismus (Berlin and New York, 1996).

3 See Hunsinger, George, ‘Karl Barth’, in Witte, J Jr and Alexander, FS (eds), Modern Christian Teachings on Law, Politics, and Human Nature (New York, 2005), vol 1, pp 352380 and vol 2, pp 280–306; and Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law, pp 21–53.

4 Friedrich, CJ, ‘Introductory remarks’, to Althusius, Johannes, Politica methodice digesta atque exemplis sacris & profanis illustrata (third edition, Herborn, 1614), reprinted as Politica Methodice Digesta of Johannes Althusius (Althaus), ed CJ Friedrich (Cambridge, MA, 1932), xviii. For Althusius' writings and reputation, see Scupin, HU, Scheuner, U and Wyduckel, D, Althusius-Bibliographie: Bibliographie zur politischen Ideengeschichte und Staatslehre, zum Staatsrecht und zur Verfassungsgeschichte des 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1973), updated in Wyduckel, D, ‘Einleitung, Literatruverzeichnis’, in Althusius, Johannes, Politik, trans Janssen, H, ed Wyduckel, D (Berlin, 2003), vii–lxxxii. Among numerous studies, see Friedrich, ‘Introductory remarks’, xv–xcix; Hueglin, T, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on community and federalism (Waterloo, Ontario, 1999); von Gierke, O, The Development of Political Theory, trans Freyd, Bernard (New York, 1966); Dahm, K-W, Krawietz, W and Wyduckdel, D (eds), Politische Theorie des Johannes Althusius (Berlin, 1988); Antholz, H, Die politische Wirksamkeit des Johannes Althusius in Emden (Aurich, 1955); Wolf, E, Grosse Rechtsdenker der deutschen Geistesgeschichte (fourth edition, Tübingen, 1963), 177219.

5 Althusius, J, Civilis conversationis libri duo recogniti et aucti: methodice digesti et exemplis sacris et profanis passim illustrati (Hannover, 1601; second edition, 1611).

6 Althusius, J, Politica methodice digesta atque exemplis sacris & profanis illustrata (third edition, Herborn, 1614), reprinted as Politica Methodice Digesta, ed CJ Friedrich. See abridged English translation, Politica Johannes Althusius, ed and trans FS Carney (Indianapolis, IN, 1995); abridged German text of the 1614 edition in Althusius, Politik, ed D Wyduckel; and the Latin and English version of the preface to the 1610 edition in Laursen, JC (ed), New Essays on the Political Thought of the Huguenots of the Refuge (Leiden, 1995), 193201. I have used the 1614 Friedrich edition unless otherwise noted, and adapted the English translation by FS Carney in Politica (hereafter Pol).

7 Althusius, J, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes (Herborn, 1617; Frankfurt, 1618); I have used the 1618 edition throughout (hereafter Dic).

8 I take this phrase from the Danish protestant jurist and theologian, Nicolaus Hemming, whose work straddled the Lutheran and Calvinist worlds of law. Writing in the later sixteenth century, Hemming developed what he called a ‘demonstrative method of natural law’, which aimed to demonstrate the natural universality and superiority of the Decalogue as a source and summary of natural law. He adduced hundreds of ancient Greek and Roman passages that he saw to be consistent with conventional protestant interpretations of the Ten Commandments and its biblical echoes. See Hemming, N, De lege naturae apodicta methodus (Wittenberg, 1563), and further analysis in my Law and Protestantism: the legal teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge, 2002), 139–140.

9 Dic 1.13.6, 10.

10 Pol XXI.35–40; Pol XXII.1–12; Pol Preface (1603, 1610 and 1614 editions).

11 Pol X.4; Pol XIX.6, 15, 23, 29, 49; Pol XX.18; Pol XXVIII.30–32; Dic I.13.3, 6–8.

12 Dic I.13.10–18; Pol I.32–39; Pol IX.21; Pol XVIII.22; Pol XXI.16–19; Pol XXXVIII.37.

13 Dic I.13.1, 14–15; Pol XXX.16, 19–20.

14 Dic I.13.13–18; Dic I.14; Pol XXI.1–20.

15 Dic I.6.4–6, 26; Dic I.13.16–18; Pol XXI.20–21; Pol XXIII.1–20.

16 Pol VII.7–12; Pol X.3–12; Pol XVIII.32–44; Pol XXI.22–29.

17 Dic I.13.4–18; Dic I.14.1–14; Dic I.35.22–23; Pol VII.7–12; Pol IX.20–21; Pol X.3–12; Pol XVIII. 32–44; Pol XXI.22–29; Pol XXII passim.

18 Dic I.13.11, 18–19.

19 Dic I.14.1–14; Pol XXI.30–40; Pol XXII.1–3, 10.

20 Pol Preface (1610 and 1614 editions); Pol XXI.29. See further sustained discussions of the Decalogue in Pol VII.7–12; Pol X.3–12; Pol XVIII.32–44; Pol XXI.22–29, 41; Dic I.13.10–18; Dic I.14.1–3; and further brief references in Pol XVIII.66; Pol XIX.14, 31, 59, 69; Pol XXVII.18; Pol XXIX.1; Pol XXVIII.32, 38, 77, 100.

21 Pol XXI.25–27, quoting in part from Cicero, The Orator, I.43.

22 See Althusius' proto-Montesquieuan insights into the effects of geography on politics in Pol XXIII.1–14.

23 Pol XXI.33–40; Pol XXII.3–4; Dic I.14.5–11; Dic I.16.9–10; Dic I.101.43; Dic I.115.1–36.

24 Pol XXI.33; Dic I.14.5; Dic I.16.9–18.

25 Pol VIII.72–91; Pol XXI.32–33; Dic I.14.20; Dic I.15.18–21.

26 Dic I.14.1–20; Dic I.15.1–21; Dic I.16.8; Pol VIII.72–86; Pol XXI.30–40; Pol XXII.1–3, 10. An important Calvinist prototype for this theory of the Mosaic juridical laws on which Althusius evidently drew was that of Theodore Beza, Calvin's handpicked successor in Geneva. Trained in law, Beza developed an interesting account of how the Mosaic juridical laws compared with those of Roman law. In his Lex Dei, moralis, ceremonialis et civilis (Geneva, 1577), Beza used Roman law categories to arrange his collection of these juridical laws. I am grateful to Professor Christoph Strohm for alerting me to this tract.

27 Pol VII.9–10; Pol X.5–6; Pol XXI.27; Dic I.25.7; Dic I.106.1–4; Dic I.117.1–2, 6, 17–24.

28 Dic I.25.7. See also Dic I.117.6.

29 Inst Just 1.3; see also Pol XXXVIII.8.

30 Dig 1.5.4.

31 Inst Just 1.3, 1.5, 2.1, 2.12, 2.15.

32 Dic I.25.30.

33 Dig 50.17.144, 197.

34 Dic I.25.7. For crimes and torts against this bodily freedom, see Dic I.117.

35 Inst Just 1.3–6, 1.9; 2.1; 3.8–9; Dig 1.5, 7; 28.1–31; 50.16.10–11; 50.17.4–15, 118, 144, 197; Code 6.37.

36 Dic I.26.21–27. See further Dic I.106.1–4.

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A Demonstrative Theory of Natural Law: Johannes Althusius and the Rise of Calvinist Jurisprudence

  • John Witte (a1) (a2)


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