Malthus or Althusius? An Introduction To A Pioneering Reformed Social Theorist (Part 2)

Althusius On the Conscience And The Free Exercise Of Religion

According to John Witte Jr., Althusius did consider the question of religious liberty, whether a private person has the right to “alter amend, or even abandon” the duties prescribed under the first table (the first four commandments) of the Decalogue.1 Do civil officials have the authority to “propound, prescribe, or at least prefer one formulation of religious duties over another?”2 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).”3 He saw the “the absolute liberty of conscience as the natural corollary to the absolute sovereignty of God.”4 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.”5 This was no assertion of Modernist, Enlightenment autonomy. “Fides suadenda non imponenda” (The faith is for persuading not for imposing) was the slogan widely attributed to 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.”6

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 eighteenth-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.”7 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, considering 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.8 As “churlish” (Witte’s word) as Althusius’ theory might seem today, it was in its own time, fairly “generous.”9

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 eighteenth century, the principle of civil enforcement weakened and was replaced, at least in the American colonies, with the free exercise clause.

Althusius On 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.”10 He called this a “domestic commonwealth.”11 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.12 Marriage, however, is an act of the will, a “volitional contract” between a man and a woman when they have reached the age of consent.13 This marital household is the “bedrock of law, politics, and society.”14 It is the “first school of justice and mercy, piety and charity, virtue and citizenship.”15 The head of this most basic social unit is the paterfamilias. He leads the extended 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.16 The private, natural (creational) societies form voluntary associations (collegia) with others.

These voluntary associations are businesses, guilds, corporations, schools, and the like.17 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 twenty-first-century America. It simply meant “not overtly religious.” It did not 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.18 The members of these entities have dual roles—that is, as private individuals and as members 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.”19 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.20

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,”21 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.”22 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] to their choice” for a king.23 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.24 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 higher or broader association.25

Entering into a relation with a broader association is not an alienation of the sovereignty of the smaller association “but a confirmation of it.”26 This federal, constitutionalism was his bulwark against the rising tide of royal absolutism and “nationalist sovereignty.”27

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


  1. Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 171.
  2. Witte, 171.
  3. Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 171. See Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae, 1.25.8; Johannes Althusius, Politica methodice digesta atque exemplaris sacris et profanis illustrata XXVIII.62.
  4. Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 171.
  5. Witte, 171.
  6. Witte, 171.
  7. Witte, 173.
  8. Witte, 174.
  9. Witte, 174.
  10. Witte, 184.
  11. Witte, 184.
  12. Witte, 185.
  13. Witte, 185.
  14. Witte, 186.
  15. Witte, 186.
  16. See Witte, 186 for citations to Althusius.
  17. Witte, 186.
  18. Witte, 187.
  19. Witte, 187.
  20. Witte, 187–8.
  21. Witte, 189.
  22. Althusius, Politica, cited in Witte, 189.
  23. Witte, 189.
  24. Witte, 189.
  25. Witte, 193.
  26. Witte, 193.
  27. Witte, 194.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Part 1


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  1. There is a translation of at least part of Althusius’ _De Politica_ available from Liberty Fund. I don’t know if the whole of his work has been translated.

    I’d be a little more enthusiatic about this post had I seen more cites from Althusius himself than from a secondary source. Other writers on him have been a bit misleading (the late Daniel Elazar, for example, inteprets him as part of a wave of covenant theology launched as an anodyne to “Calvinism”–about one of the most egregious misreadings of Reofrmed history out there, but one in which Elazar was not alone).

    Althusius’ chief aim was to justify the existence of a Reformed city (Emden) in a Lutheran Duchy (Oldenburg) of a still heavily Romanist Holy Roman Empire in the years 1603-13 (before the Peace of Westphalia allowed Reformed states in the HRE). Hence, he has a theory of the HRE as a federal entity (which it in fact was) held together by consent of its parts.


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