Hugo Grotius and his Ordinum Pietas (1613): a Conference at the Peace Palace Library


Last 13 and 14 June the Peace Palace Library hosted a celebration of the 400th anniversary of one of the most controversial publications of Hugo Grotius, written during the eventful years of the Twelve Years’ Truce.

Guest blog by Hans Blom, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Last 13 and 14 June the Peace Palace Library hosted a celebration of the 400th anniversary of one of the most controversial publications of Hugo Grotius, written during the eventful years of the Twelve Years’ Truce. In 1611, during the rising tensions of the religious conflict between Arminians and Gomarists over the control of the Reformed Church, the University of Leiden appointed – with the support of the States of Holland – a controversial theologian as the successor of Jacobus Arminius: the Steinfurt professor Conrad Vorstius (1569-1622), erstwhile student in Heidelberg and Geneva, whose Steinfurt publications made him to be suspected of the heresy of Socinianism. The Dutch theologian Sybrandus Lubbertus (1555-1625) who had denounced Vorstius, and Socinianism in general, some ten years before, vehemently opposed the appointment. The States of Holland didn’t want to give in, and our Hugo was the one to reply to Lubbertus: this was the tract Der Staten Godsdienstigheid etc. as it was titled in the translation of Johannes Uyttenbogaert.  The book proved to be oil on the fire, Lubbertus replied and the conflict ended with a defeat of the States of Holland, who had to see Vorstius leave Leiden even before taking office.

For Grotius Ordinum Pietas [OP, for short] was the step towards his more theoretical De imperio circa sacra, on the relationship between church and state. The latter, however, was only published posthumously, in 1647. Yet in OP we find Grotius discussing the Church Fathers, i.a. Augustinus on predestination, and in general ideas about the freedom to preach and establishment of the Christian church under Emperor Constantine in 313.  Professor Silke-Petra Bergjan (Zurich University) traces this background in her contribution, and detailing the scholarship that was available to and used by Grotius, she argued that in OP we see how Grotius used these sources – with the help of his friend Vossius – to justify his  semi-Pelagianism (defence of free will), as well as the five fundamental articles of Arminianism.

Professor Bas de Gaay Fortman (Utrecht University) commemorated the Ordinum Pietas in his keynote lecture “Between Principles and Practice. Grotius’s views on Church and State in a Contemporary Context”, discussing the significance of OP for our present times. In his view, it belongs to the foundational texts for a tolerant and respectful integration of religions into modern society, in the tradition of the Edict of Nantes, the Act of Toleration and the American Constitution. 

The conference opened with a personal reflection by the editor of OP, professor Edwin Rabbie, considering the occasion of this edition, as well as the changed technical conditions and editorial principles for early-modern text edition. As professor Rabbie related, in particular Hans Posthumus Meyjes’s discovery of the manuscript of Grotius’s Meletius and its subsequent edition in 1985, mark a renewed interest in Grotius as theologian and writer on church politics in the post-war period. In 1613, an important reason for the composition of OP was to justify the States of Holland before King James, an aim that was partially preempted by a secret action of the president of the States’ College at Leiden University, Petrus Bertius, who provided the English king with a copy even before it was printed. Later English reactions to OP were discussed at the conference in lectures by Dr. Hugh Dunthorne (Swansea University) and Dr. Charles Prior (Hull University).

The discussions between Arminianism and orthodox Calvinism in the 1610s were connected to religious debate in German protestantism, as the Vorstius case demonstrates. Franciscus Junius, one of Grotius’s teachers in Leiden, had been in Heidelberg where Thomas Erastus had developed ideas on church-state relations later known as Erastianism, and another important person involved in the conflict, the Pensionary of the States, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, had been a student in Heidelberg in about the same period. The American Erastus scholar, professor Charles Gunnoe (Grand Rapids University) introduced this Heidelberg context and showed how Erastus became to defend the authority of the state over religion. And some of this is also present in Grotius, although the specific Heidelberg context of whether the religious authorities have a right to excommunicate believers on grounds of heterodoxy did not appear in the Dutch debates (but in practice it did, during the Synod of Dordt, 1618-9). In Heidelberg itself, however, the reactions to OP were those of benign neglect, even though Grotius’s friend and correspondent Georg Lingelsheim provided a continuous intellectual link to the Palatinate as centre of Calvinism in Germany. Dr. Michael Becker (Heidelberg University) specified the question of Grotius’s influence in Heidelberg by looking at a book by one of Vorstius’s teachers, David Pareus – Irenicum (1614) –, which addresses similar themes in a commentary on Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and the ius circa sacra.

The Grotian position on church-state became only later known as Erastianism, mainly through its influence in Great Britain, first during the Presbyterian Interregnum – as Dr. Dunthorne argued – and after the Restoration in a new synthesis as related by Dr. Prior. In the process a new understanding arose of the necessity of religion in order to uphold the political order, peace and civic virtue. ‘Civil religion’ also aims to prevent religious enthusiasm and superstition that might undermine the state’s supremacy. It does so by imposing civil laws that help the natural law to operate in society.

In the Netherlands, however, OP remained a partisan tract, a prolegomena to the later De imperio, as Dr. Harm-Jan van Dam (Free University Amsterdam) showed, and a central asset in the articulation of Arminian identity as Ph.D. researcher Dirk Pfeifer (Leiden University)  related in his story of Arminian re-description of its own past.

Yet with some religious positions even Arminians had little patience, in particular that of the Mennonites or Anabaptists and their conception of the church as a self-sufficient  community of believers, for whom military service and political office are anathemata. Grotius didn’t appreciate the Anabaptists, as Dr. Matthijs de Blois (Utrecht University) related, nor the other way around. But one doesn’t have to appreciate in order to tolerate, and the Tacitean understanding of civil religion (Dr. Prior’s term) allows precisely that.

From the Church Fathers and the Constantine establishment of Christianity as an argument for toleration to the more explicit political support of civil religion is a development that maybe was not fully covered by Ordinum Pietas, but Grotius’s book most certainly played an central role in it. His book would certainly be a worthy reply to the essay contest recently opened by Frits Bolkestein c.s. and their foundation Reality in View (Werkelijkheid in Perspectief) on the question: “Has the demise of Christianity in Europe undermined the faith in European culture?” ['Heeft de teloorgang van het christendom in Europa het (zelf)vertrouwen in de Europese cultuur ondermijnd?'] For Grotius the answer certainly was negative, even if Ordinum Pietas was one of his most contested formulations of this view. The Library of the Peace Palace served a good cause by hosting this conference.

Hans Blom is a Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He also, among many other editorial activities, managing editor of “Grotiana”, a journal devoted to the study of the works of Hugo Grotius. Professor Blom was one of the organisers of the “Hugo Grotius and his Ordinum Pietas (1613)”, a two-days conference in the Peace Palace Library to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of “Ordinum Pietas”.