Malthus or Althusius? An Introduction To A Pioneering Reformed Social Theorist (Part 1)

We seem to live in a Malthusian age—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 overpopulation (whose ideas were influential in the 1970s during the Carter “Malaise” years) was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834). Malthus’ theory of future scarcity and overpopulation helped to prepare the ground for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Malthus’ fears, in the context of Darwin’s theory and 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.” The combination of these idea helped to propel the modern creation of the 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.

There was an alternative to this dark picture that was informed by an Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine of postlapsarian human depravity, but which distinguished between various spheres and webs of human relationships in a series of concentric circles. The advocate of this alternative we might call 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. Those tensions and that war left their marks.

An orthodox, confessional Reformed Christian, Althusius was a legal scholar who taught first in the Academy in Herborn (whose first rector was Caspar Olevianus, 1536–87, though the academy is sometimes dated from 1592). He 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 eighteenth-century political federalism.1 In 2004, the English historian John Coffey offered this summary of Althusius’ “relational” political theory.2

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 1604–14 and was published in an abridged English translation by Frederick S. Carney in 1964.3

It has 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 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 seventeenth century, on the cusp of the early modern world. He benefited from the earlier work by Theodore Beza (De jure 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.4

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. Then he reasoned outward from that natural unit of association 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 will 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.

Althusius: Pioneer Of Reformed Natural Law Theory

Thanks to HB reader Mark for reminding me about the terrific chapter in John Witte Jr.’s volume, The Reformation of Rights, on Johannes Althusius.5 Witte 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 twelve thousand Reformed Christians were martyred for the gospel. The problem the Reformed faced in the French Wars of Religion (from 1562) and also 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.6 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 as the basis for their right of self-determination over against Spanish and Romanist civil and religious tyranny.7

Witte provides a brief but helpful biographical sketch of Althusius. There is a minor error in the date of the Heidelberg Catechism.8 It is 1563, not 1568. He notes that Althusius drew from the Protestant resistance theory including from Beza, the pseudonymous Brutus, and various Dutch writers. He was also well read in classical legal sources. He thought that under the rubric of natural law these legal texts could be harmonized with the biblical teaching of natural law.9

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.10

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.11 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, and ritual laws were understood likewise to have been fulfilled and abrogated by Christ. Thus, not all biblical law is equivalent to “natural law.”12 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 above, 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 (e.g., France as a post-canonical Israel). Althusius attempted to work out a theory of human organizations that was grounded in creation.

According to Witte, for Althusius, “we can know the norms of the natural law if we study both Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason very carefully.”13 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.”14 “God and Scripture have rewritten the natural law for believers . . . [R]eason and experience have rewritten this natural law for non-believers to discover.”15

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.”16 All communities know from nature that certain functions must be discharged, and Althusius saw considerable uniformity in the way the particulars came to expression.17 This uniformity is the ground of “common laws” and the “laws of nations.”18

One more point. Witte notes that, as we will see, Althusius defined civil 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.”19 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 did not 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 “Enlightened” relative to benighted, ignorant pre-Enlightenment folk. He was not a deist. In short, he was not Hobbes. He was not Locke. He was not 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), Althusius began with God and God’s creational order.

The second thing that makes this definition of freedom interesting is that I have encountered some resistance to it. 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 was not what Hobbes thought it was. Hobbes had turned the Reformed view on its head. He had read the dystopia of the fall back into nature. Locke had gone in a more Pelagianizing (and rationalist) direction by downplaying the effects of the fall. Althusius, by contrast, sought to account for nature, the fall, grace, and providence. We will 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.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2012.

Notes

  1. Daniel J. Elazar, “Althusius and Federalism as Grand Design,” in Konsens und Konsoziation in der politischen Theorie des frühen Föderalismus, Rechtstheorie, Beihefte vol. 16 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot GmbH, 1997), 209–18.
  2. John Coffey, “Johannes Althusius,” Jubilee Centre, March 2024.
  3. It is available in hardcover and online here.
  4. Theodore Beza, De jure magistratuum, trans. Henry-Louis Gonin, ed. Patrick S. Poole (1574; Constitution.org). Junius Brutus, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Amsterdam, 1660; Constitution.org)
  5. John Witte Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  6. See R. Scott Clark, “Calvin On Natural Law (1998).”
  7. Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 143.
  8. Witte, 151.
  9. Witte, 156.
  10. Witte, 155.
  11. Witte, 164.
  12. Witte, 163.
  13. Witte, 159.
  14. Witte, 159.
  15. Witte, 159.
  16. Witte, 160.
  17. Witte, 160.
  18. See also Witte, 161–63.
  19. Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes (Frankfurt, 1618), 1.25.7, in Witte, 166.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Part 2


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5 comments

  1. This is spot on! Civil freedom IS the absence of restraint by civil government or non-governmental actors as long as what we do or don’t do is not potentially harmful or restrictive to others.
    This is a fundamental principle of free enterprise economics which historically has resulted in healthy and flourishing economies to the degree it has been free to be practiced.
    Great history re Malthus and his scarcity alarmism that is in fact the current prevailing economic and political philosophy ruining our nation and much of the world.
    R Scott Clark for President!

  2. Dr Clark, re Malthus and Malthusians, within Reformed ranks in the UK, there are still those who oppose contraception. Where do you stand on this.

    • I’m anti-Malthusian and much in favor of Christians having covenant children. The traditional Reformed view is to oppose birth control but I think it is a matter of Christian liberty. I do think, however, that we should be aware of the influence of the Malthusian ideology and be sure that we are not affected by it as think and pray about having children. Certainly we ought to see covenant children as a great blessing and not as a burden.

  3. Every time I see the name “Malthus” I can help but think of the “Malthusian belts” that women wore in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” that were equipped with a variety of birth control products.

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