From The Debate that Changed the West: Grotius versus Althusius (Aalten: Pantocrator Press, 2018), pp. 37–47.

The Question of Church and State

Ecclesiastical sovereignty concerns the first table of the law, the worship of God and the care for the kingdom of Christ. That this is a concern of government goes without saying in a Calvinist commonwealth, just as it did in a Lutheran or Catholic one; but the manner in which it is arranged differs accordingly.

An influential interpretation has it that the Politica prescribes an Erastian form of church government, in which the state administers the church as a department of its own activity. Gierke already pointed the way to this interpretation by alleging that Althusius pursued a secular approach to the grounding of authority, in terms of natural rights and the social contract. As a result, “the Politics of Althusius, with its systematic ordering of the whole life of the State, is a purely secular book in content and purpose,” and the tendency is for the church to be subsumed into the state by virtue of this secular natural law.[1]

Figgis, who held Gierke’s book on Althusius in such high esteem that, for him, “everything else on the subject is but prattle,”[2] made the bald statement that “in Althusius, despite his federalism, we have no hint of any sort of independence for the Church; it is not envisaged as a separate society. Its officers are merely a part of the general machinery of the State.”[3] Indeed, “the author’s view of the State is thus definitely that of Luther, the Anglicans, Zwingli, Erastus, as opposed to that of Jesuits and Presbyterians.”[4]

The appearance that the church is subsumed in the state machinery comes because, as Carney points out, Althusius did not address the issue of the church as an association in its own right, at the level of the commonwealth: chapter XXVIII, the chapter on ecclesiastical administration, stands on its own and, because it focuses exclusively on the role of the magistrate vis-à-vis the church, gives a one-sided view of the matter.[5] Carney argues that this could have been avoided if Althusius had included more substance on ecclesiastical communication at the commonwealth level, in the way he did at the provincial level. Indeed, “if one uses the description of the ecclesiastical order in the province as a formal model for that of the state, he can then make use of all of the material presented in Chapter XXVIIII without being led to the erroneous conclusion that, because of this concentration on the church duties of the ruler, the entire Politica is to be interpreted as offering a ruler-dominated church.”[6]

Another reason Althusius may not have added more to the Politica is that ecclesiastical politics was the domain of theologians, not jurists. His colleague at Herborn, Wilhelm Zepper, wrote a definitive treatment on the subject, Politia ecclesiastica: sive, Forma, ac ratio administrandi, et gubernandi regni Christi, quod est ecclesia in his terris … [Ecclesiastical Polity, or the Form and Method of Administering and Governing the Kingdom of Christ, Which Is the Church in These Countries] (Herborn: Christophori Corvini, 1607), which Althusius cites repeatedly in the Politica. Althusius may simply not have wished to cross jurisdictional boundaries, the definition and maintenance of which was a subject of intense interest at the time, as the preface to the Politica already makes clear.[7]

What can we glean from this notorious ch. XXVIII? It starts by emphasizing the cooperation that needs to take place between civil magistrate and church officer, in the manner of Moses and Aaron. While the magistrate is to inspect, defend, care for, and direct ecclesiastical matters, the “execution and administration of ecclesiastical offices belong to the clergy (personae ecclesiasticae).” The work between magistrate and church officer is reciprocal: “each directs and obeys the other, and each helps the other in the distinct administration entrusted to it.” The magistrate directs the clergy[8] by enjoining them to “[perform] the parts of their office according to the Word of God” and by ordering and arranging for the means necessary to this end. The clergy, in turn, directs the magistrate by “[subjecting] him to the administration and power of the clergy with respect to censures, admonitions, and whatever concerns eternal life and salvation” (XXVIII, §5). The magistrate depends on the clergy to conduct ecclesiastical administration: “the magistrate does nothing [in this area] without the counsel and consent [sine consensu et consilio] of the clergy [ecclesiasticorum] based on the Word of God” (XXVIII, §6).[9]

Already from these texts it is clear that churchmen are the actual conductors of church administration, while the magistrate plays a facilitative and corrective role.

We forge on. There are two duties to be carried out in ecclesiastical administration: promotion of the practice of orthodox religion, and transmission of it to posterity (XXVIII, §13).

The framework for all of this is the religious covenant, which Althusius, following Junius Brutus in the Vindiciae contra Tyrannis, here introduces. This covenant establishes a relation between God on the one hand, and the ruler and people on the other. In this covenant they promise jointly to submit to God, and swear fealty and obedience to Him as vassals (XXVIII, §15). They swear to do all that is necessary for “the conservation of the church and the kingdom of God” (XXVIII, §16).[10] Violations of this covenant are punished by God; violations by the ruler are punished by the ephors in God’s name – or they in turn will be punished by Him (XXVIII, §19).

The first duty requires the establishment of a sacred ministry and institutions of learning – schools. The supreme magistrate’s role in this is as follows: 1) establish penalties regarding violations of true worship; 2) ratify by law the canons of faith, confessions, and forms decided upon by the church; 3) establish ecclesiastical jurisdictions: presbyteries, synods, and consistories, and establish through them the rules by which bishops and pastors are to be established and held accountable; 4) ensure that provincial magistrates support presbyteries in their provinces; 5) ensure that ministers of the Word are rightly called, that they properly administer the Word and the sacraments, that they enforce church discipline, and do everything else they are assigned to do (XXVIII, § 27–31).

At this point Althusius highlights the adjudicatory role the supreme magistrate is to play in the establishment of orthodox doctrine. For with regard to doctrine (doctrinam fidei), the supreme magistrate adjudicates (habere judicium) with regard to the knowledge, discernment, direction, definition, and promulgation thereof, and can exercise that judgment according to Sacred Scripture, and command bishops in accordance with it, as in the case of Constantine and the Arian controversy (XXVIII, §32). Note well: this power is adjudicatory, not directly legislative. Otherwise it would, among other things, contradict XXVIII, §§28 and 48.

Schools teach “piety and the liberal arts” and are established by the magistrate, at all levels – “private, village, town, ordinary, and common schools.” Academies are to be established to nurture those destined for leadership in church and commonwealth. The ephors establish the former, the supreme magistrate the latter (XXVIII, §33–35). The churchmen do the actual running of the schools.

The second duty concerns the conservation and defense of these institutions. To this end, church ministers (ecclesiae ministris) are to hold assemblies and conduct visitations to ensure that ministers are doing their duty and churches and schools are being properly managed (XXVIII, §37–39). The role of the magistrate here is to ensure that churchmen hold these general public assemblies; he is to call them and lead them (XXVIII, §40–41).[11] The magistrate is to execute the decrees stemming from particular assemblies of churchmen: parish presbyterial assemblies, classes, and provincial synods. These assemblies pass judgement over everything concerning doctrine, teaching, education, ministry to the poor, and the publication of books on orthodoxy (XXVIII, §42–43).

Church visitation at the parish and provincial levels is conducted by both churchmen and civil servants. This is to ensure soundness of doctrine and teaching, proper upkeep and maintenance of facilities, churches and schools, proper maintenance of the clergy and their families. The clergy are queried as to whether they require assistance from the magistrate, while “the magistrate should not permit political ministers to impede or disrupt ecclesiastical ministers” (XXVIII, §44–46).

Finally, the magistrate is to decree and promulgate laws in favor of all the various ecclesiastical activities: preaching, sacraments, “adiaphorous matters according to decorum and good order,” catechesis, discipline of wayward ministers and the church generally, calling of ministers, diaconate, management of properties, weddings and funerals, and whatever else the Word of God calls him to ensure by law and decree. In all of this, “the political magistrate should be very careful … not to apply his own hands to these matters, but commit and entrust them to the clergy. He should concern himself only that the external actions of men conform to laws. And all men, even clergymen, are to comply obediently with these laws” (§48). Furthermore, this decreeing and promulgating of laws is not a directly legislative affair on the part of the magistrate but a ratifying of what church assemblies have already decided (cf. e.g., XXVIII, §43).

The magistrate thus has an ample, yet circumscribed role to play in the religious life of the nation, and in the workings of the church. This is also evident in the attitude toward heresy. Althusius broadly argues that as a matter of public interest, heresy cannot be allowed to flourish, but to a degree it must be tolerated to avoid a worse evil, which is tumult and civil war.

The magistrate is to follow the theologians in determining what degree of contact is allowable with “infidels, atheists, impious men, or persons of different religions;” Catholics are to remain separate and not allowed public worship (XXVIII, §55–56). The magistrate should ensure freedom of conscience, as only God rules in the heart, leaving this to the clergy. Thus, “those who err in religion are … to be ruled not by external force or by corporal arms, but by the sword of the spirit, that is, by the Word and spiritual arms through which God is able to lead them to himself.” They are to be left to the ministers, who apply the Word of God to the heart, rather than magistrates, who rule over the body (XXVIII, §63–64).

This broadly summarizes the contents of ch. XXVIII, which, as we have noted, has been the focus of attempts to pin down Althusius’ teaching regarding the relation of church and state. But there has been little regard for ch. XXX, on the censure of morals, probably because moderns have little sense of the importance that morals, and the policing thereof, have to public life (although the advent of “political correctness” is, like it or not, forcing the subject upon us). The censure of morals has to do with the gray area between civil law proper and private life. In the Reformed tradition, it has played a central role in the life of the church. Althusius extends it to public life, by which it takes its place as another aspect of church/state relations.

The Dutch theologian A. A. van Ruler highlighted the importance of the censure of morals in the Christian commonwealth, precisely in terms of its role in public life.

In terms of principle, the connection between Christianity and culture must be sought here: in the censura morum [censure of morals] of the consistory. One might term that a moralistic solution to the problem of Christianity and culture. Such a verdict, though, would constitute a betrayal of the church, its offices, and its sacraments.… This is no moralistic solution but a sacramental deepening brought in Christian humility to the relation between Christianity and culture. Around and from out of the Lord’s Supper, the church works to bring order into the world. It is the holy order of the satisfactio vicaria which extends itself in the chaos of sin.[12]

Hence, in the theological view, the censura morum is conducted roundabout the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Althusius likewise places it in the hands of the church, from which it forms and shapes public life.

We already know from XXVIII, §5, that the magistrate is subject to church officers with respect to censure. Let us take a closer look at what this actually entails.

Censure involves the punishment of infringements of morality and luxury, things which break no laws but which corrupt subjects or cause them to waste their goods (XXX, §1). Although nothing criminal is involved, neglect of this can lead to serious problems, both for individuals and the commonwealth (XXX, §2). The magistrate appoints censors, moral teachers, inspectors, and guardians to administer this (XXX, §3). In the Calvinist commonwealth such as Althusius envisioned, it is the presbytery which is so entrusted, and infringements are punished with exclusion from the sacraments and excommunication; the magistrate may add to the punishment if this is flouted. Even kings are subject to this censure. It involves two aspects, inquisition and reproof (XXX, §4).

Inquisition involves investigation into bad morals – “depraved actions, lewdness, wantonness, drunkenness, brawls, errors, schisms, heresies, perjury, and anything else that probity and modesty condemn in every age and sex by which subjects are pauperized by the misuse of their goods or depraved and corrupted by vices.” These actions are not referred to the courts because they lack an accuser or denouncer (XXX, §5–6). That there is a public interest in acting against these activities is something that used to be understood by all, but today is utterly problematic.

Inquisition also encompasses luxury, which perhaps can be best characterized as conspicuous consumption. The censor is to protect young people from bad example, and censor books for their unseemly content. He is to act against idleness and sponging, ward off able-bodied beggars, and discourage busybodies. Poorhouses, old folks’ homes and hospitals fall under the censor’s jurisdiction (XXX, §§5–14).

The censor is also to encourage participation in worship and the sacraments, while engaging backsliders and admonishing those with other religions or who go off to foreign countries to partake of the sacraments (XXX, §15).

Luxuriousness has led to the collapse of many empires, for which reason moderation in expenditure and possession is to be encouraged. Money is useful to the commonwealth, but excess wealth is damaging to it, as is excess poverty. The censor should counteract this (XXX, §§16–23).

The other branch of censure is reproof, which is the punishment inflicted for infringements. These include fines, confinement in penitentiaries, exclusion from the sacraments and excommunication. In inflicting punishment, degrees should be observed as per the example of Matthew 18, Leviticus 19, and Galatians 6. In absence of the exercise of censure, the good example of the prince will help to lift the people. And correction should be administered gradually rather than precipitously (XXX, §§24–29).

The upshot is that through this institution of censure, the church gains an important role in shaping the life of the nation and correcting the vices of all classes, even the wealthiest and most powerful. The impact of this in terms of culture cannot have been other than Van Ruler envisioned, while it in like degree reinforced and cemented the grip of the church on public life.

With all of this in mind, can we agree with Gierke that, while “the earlier [Calvinistic] writings take a more or less confessional color from their concrete aim of defense against religious oppression, … the Politics of Althusius, with its systematic ordering of the whole life of the State, is a purely secular book in content and purpose” and that “in spite of its stern Calvinistic spirit the Politics of Althusius shakes off the whole theocratic conception of the State”?[13] Even more to the point, can we agree with Figgis that “the animus of … Althusius … is distinctly political. It is not a Church with civil officers that [he] mean[s] by a Christian commonwealth, but a State with ecclesiastical among other ministers; and in this respect again [he] display[s his] kinship to other German princes”?[14]

The narrative to this point begs to differ, and it has the advantage of actually backing up its claims with chapter and verse, as opposed to Gierke’s and Figgis’ naked assertions. How else are we to understand Althusius’ enthusiastic support of the Gomarists, champions of an independent church, in their dispute with the Arminians leading up to the Synod of Dort? Althusius wrote approvingly to Lubbertus, one of the leading Gomarists, regarding the latter’s defense of the independence of the church against Grotius’ treatise Ordinum Hollandiae ac Westfrisiae Pietas.[15] “Of Grotius in particular he writes that his tract ‘Pietas’ tries to destroy the independent right and liberty of the Church and to transfer these to the government; he likens such doctrines to the opinions of the devil.”[16] In another letter to the same Lubbertus, Althusius wrote,

I have not found anything in your essay which lessens the majesty (sovereignty) and the right of the highest magistrate (chief executive); nor have I found anything which impedes the defense of and care for religion; nor anything which infringes the authority and (legitimate) power of the trustees of Ley den Academy; nothing which is contrary to the orthodox, sane and sincere doctrine as it is expounded in the reformed churches of Germany, France and Switzerland … or the churches of Emden and Geneva in particular in which this doctrine is taught, believed and followed piously without any violation of the rights of majesty (sovereignty).[17]

These are not the words of someone who granted the church no organization independent of the state and viewed its officeholders as civil servants.

There is another point to make in this regard, and it has to do with the principle of the Presbyterian method of church government which can be seen at work, behind the scenes as it were, in the Politica. We refer to the principle of subsidiarity which this method of government makes use of, summarized as: That which can be dealt with at the more local level should be addressed there, and not at the more general level. This is a bottom-up, appeals-court approach to government, emphasizing the relative autonomy of the lower or lesser levels. Such a model runs counter to top-down church administration.[18]

Kayayan makes this point very well in his article, “De Calvin à Althusius: L’importance du modèle ecclésiologique réformé pour la pensée fédérale” [From Calvin to Althusius: the importance of the Reformed ecclesiological model to federal thought].[19] Kayayan points out that the Althusian concentric progression of associations parallels the Calvinist subsidiarity-based hierarchy of ascending levels of church government. Writing with respect to this Althusian “federalism,” Kayayan observes the following:

If we find here the principle of subsidiarity such as the synod of Dordrecht ordains for the meetings of churches gathered in major or minor assemblies, it must nevertheless be emphasized that in the public sphere, this principle is expressed by a jus regni placed at the top of a pyramidal hierarchy by the degrees of associations forming the consociatio, who are the representatives (and who, as such, retain part of sovereignty). The universal symbiotic communion respecting the ecclesiastical sphere is subordinate, in its specificity and its own government, to the one and only jus divinum expressed in the normative Word, Word both written (Sacred Scripture) and incarnate (Jesus Christ). But it is precisely this jus divinum that determines the concentric structure of ecclesiastical consociatio. This certainly does not exclude its contact with the jus regni, but qualifies the nature and degree of its interaction with the ultimate stratum of human government.[20]

Church government, then, is directly subordinate to the jus divinum of the Word of God, not human sovereignty, and contact between these two is qualified by this distinction. Straight subordination or subsumption constitutes a direct infringement of the jus divinum. Such sub jure divino Presbyterian government does not fit well with Erastian pretensions.


[1] Gierke, Development of Political Theory, pp. 71, 75.

[2] Figgis, From Gerson to Grotius, pp. 200–201.

[3] Ibid., p. 209.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carney, Associational Theory, p. 170.

[6] Ibid., p. 171.

[7] On Zepper, see Münch, Zucht und Ordnung, pp. 196–207.

[8] It must be kept in mind that the words Carney translates as “clergy” are often actually “ecclesiastical persons” or “ecclesiastics” and refer, as per the Presbyterian form of government, to both ordained and lay church officeholders.

[9] On the basis of this text, Carney (Associational Theory, p. 173) adds an interesting note about the relation of church and state in the Politica. He observes that the language used here – “nihil aget magistratus sine consensu et consilio ecclesiasticorum ex verbi Dei sumpto” – is “amazingly similar” to the language used in a passage about the relation of husband and wife. “The wife, Althusius wrote [in II, §45] ‘sine cujus consilio et consensus nihil agit’ – does nothing without [the husband’s] advice and consent,” just as the magistrate does nothing without the churchmen’s consent. Hence, the magistrate is like the wife, the churchmen the husband – at least in this example.

[10] Is this not already to affirm that the church exists in its own right, apart from the commonwealth and the state mechanism? Here the church stands over against ruler and people. It cannot then also be equated with them. They may join it, but that is something entirely different from it being subsumed in them, à la Figgis.

[11] Such an admonition to the magistrate was not insignificant. The history of the Reformed churches shows the reticence on the part of magistrates to call a national synod. In the Netherlands, the only one ever called was the Synod of Dort.

[12] A. A. van Ruler, Religie en Politiek [Religion and Politics] (Nijkerk: G.F. Callenbach, 1945), pp. 106–107.

[13] Gierke, Development of Political Theory, p. 71.

[14] Figgis, From Gerson to Grotius, p. 209.

[15] Friedrich edition of the Politica, p. cxxix.

[16] Ibid., p. xli.

[17] Ibid., p. xli; the letter itself is on p. cxxx.

[18] In the 19th century, the Presbyterian model was replaced in the Netherlands with a bureaucratic administrative model. This met with vociferous opposition from churchmen such as P.J. Hoedemaker, precisely because it took away the church’s independent capacity to act.

[19] Eric Kayayan, “De Calvin à Althusius: L’importance du modèle ecclésiologique réformé pour la pensée fédérale,” in Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship, 82(2).

[20] Ibid., p. 14.