Althusius on the Free Conscience and Free Exercise (3)

Part 2

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.

Next time we’ll review Witte’s summary of Althusius’ theory of associations and then we’ll dive into Althusius’ Politca for ourselves.


  1. I’m wondering about the accuracy of the statement that Jewish people could not build synagogues in the Netherlands.

    The oldest synagogue I’ve been able to find in one of the Dutch colonies, Fort Kochi in what is now the Kerala state of India, but was then under the jurisdiction of the Dutch East India Company and had previously been a Portuguese colony, was built in 1568 and rebuilt in 1662. The Recife synagogue, which dates back to the era of Dutch control of that part of Brazil, was built in 1636. Several other Dutch colonies had synagogues built between the 1640s and 1660s.

    In the Netherlands itself, the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam was built between 1671 and 1675 and the Ets Haim library in that same Amsterdam synagogue dates back to 1616. I haven’t been able to find earlier synagogue buildings but it’s clear that Jewish communities existed long before that date, though they may have worshiped in private homes. Even in the Dutch colonies, the synagogues currently standing may have been predated by earlier buildings.

    Given the history of Dutch Reformed toleration of and sometimes active support for its Jewish community, I’m wondering if there may be a disconnect between official laws on paper and what was actually happening with the toleration of the civil magistrates and encouragement of at least some Dutch Reformed ministers and laypeople. My impression from reading Dutch history of relations with its Jewish community is that personal relationships between Dutch Reformed ministers and Dutch rabbis were far better in the 1500s and 1600s than would have been the case between Christian and Jewish communities virtually anywhere else in Europe, with the possible exception of Cromwellian England where Cromwell aggressively fought to allow Jewish people who were already living in England to openly live as Jews, and it seems obvious that the Jewish community in the Netherlands was treated much better than Roman Catholics considering the history of Spanish Catholic persecution of Dutch Protestants.

    • Darrell,

      The question wasn’t concerning Dutch toleration outside of the NL (in colonies) or even after Althusius’ death. The question concerns the domestic policy of the NL and the world in which Althusius wrote. Of the institutions you mention only the Ets Haim Library seems directly relevant, though it is interesting to know about the colonial practices. They were more pragmatic and tolerant in other ways too I suppose.

    • Here’s a quote from an article that may be helpful. If the author is correct, anti-Jewish legislation was proposed but never officially adopted, and by 1619 the issue was left to local city officials to handle. That may be of some relevance in understanding the context in which Althusius wrote.

      “During the early years of the seventeenth century Jewish settlement in Amsterdam encountered few problems. Unofficially, Jews were permitted to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes. Officially, however, Jews were denied full rights. In about 1615, social and religious tension led to the consideration of legislation restricting Jews. Although such legislation was not adopted, in 1619 it was decided that each individual city and town in the Netherlands was free to decide whether they wanted to admit Jews and, if so, under what conditions. Dutch cities and towns were also free to legally restrict Jews to reside in separate ‘ghettos,’ although in practice this was never enforced.”

      While the Portuguese Jewish emigrations to the Netherlands resulted in the first major permanent Jewish settlement in the Netherlands, and that article emphasizes the influence of the Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands, I’ve found material on the Chabad website indicating that much smaller and much poorer communities of Ashkenaki Jews which existed earlier were allowed to build mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths) as early as seven centuries ago.

      Let’s just say growing up in Grand Rapids, it was obvious that the Dutch attitude toward Jewish people was certainly anything but negative; as an outsider I observed numerous sociological similarities which I only much later realized stemmed from a shared emphasis on Old Testament principles which made the Dutch Reformed act in very different ways from broad evangelicals.

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