The Reins of the Body Politic


Part II: The Reins of the Body Politic


 Our problem hinges on the ambiguity involved in, and the inability to come to terms with, the public dimension of life. What is meant by “public?” What pertains to the “public?” The short answer, of course, is that “public” matters are those which concern an entire political body, such as a city or a nation. These groups are all-embracing, the most extensive ones that exist: everyone forms a part of some political unit or other. They extend to everything which finds itself physically within determined geographical boundaries. The ambiguity arises when the question is considered, how something or someone makes up a part of this grouping. It is an ambiguity intimately related to modern conceptions of politics and law. Normally, we consider things to be public which pertain to everyone in common. These are then, in the modern view, state-owned things, under the direct jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. What is public belongs to the state, what is private belongs to private individuals and groups, who by definition form only a part of the body politic.

Modern democracy functions in terms of this simple distinction between public affairs, ruled over by the state, and private affairs, ruled over by the individual. Liberal democracy emphasizes the private sector: it emphasizes individual freedom, economic freedom, the freedom of private association; it strives to restrict the scope of public affairs to as small a sphere as possible. Since the state and the “public” are coterminous, public matters are restricted to the strict administration of justice (commutative justice) and the keeping of the peace. As the function of the state is an essentially negative one, public affairs are also considered in a negative light, a necessary evil to be attended to without allowing the state any further powers than absolutely necessary to this task.

Social democracy strives to bring about exactly the opposite condition. It strives to extend the scope of the public sphere as widely as possible, and deprecates the role of the private sector as much as liberal democracy deprecates the role of the public sector. Social democracy strives to mitigate the social evils it feels are bred by the liberal system, through extending the boundaries of legal justice far beyond what is put forward by liberal democracy. The public sector is considered to play the leading role in society; in fact, its leading role is considered a metaphysical necessity, in that the underlying presupposition of the social-democratic agenda is the overcoming of the conflict of interests felt to be intrinsic to the private sector.

This is the fundamental condition of modern democracy laid bare. It is based on the twin poles of “individual” and “state,” which correspond to the concepts “private” and “public.” It is also woefully inadequate, for precisely this reason: it is far too simplistic. It has worked for the past three hundred or so years, but it is now perilously close to the end of its history.

The fundamental danger lies in the reductionisms through which certain elements which have a legitimate place in a healthy social order are isolated and absolutized. This needs to be emphasized: both of the current forms of democracy, along with democracy itself, contain moments of truth which have been absolutized. And having been absolutized, they have become perversions of justice and of truth. They become ideologies.

The privatization of the church, to which all parties ranged along the democratic spectrum agree, brought this in its train. The church provided the transcendent focus by which these particular aspects could be integrated. The loss of the transcendent reference point led to the taking-up of what Dooyeweerd has termed immanence standpoints: aspects of created reality are absolutized into “the meaning of existence.”[22]

These two alternatives are continuations of aspects of a preexistent tradition, the tradition of the Western Christian polity. From the vantage point of tradition and history, they can be seen for what they are, whereas from the vantage point of men without history – modern man – they seem absolute and irreconcilable foes. It is from the heights of theological/historical awareness that a perspective may be gained on this predicament, and wisdom as to how to proceed beyond it.

As stated in the previous section, the tradition of Western Christian justice was abandoned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in favor of what would eventually become our materially rich, morally bankrupt nirvana. This tradition was paired with a theocratic conception of government which was likewise lost. Although largely forgotten, this tradition has by no means wholly disappeared. We may even live to see its revival among the nations.

The essence of this tradition of law and government was captured and distilled by the distinguished German Calvinist jurist Johannes Althusius, in his Politica Methodice Digesta, “Compendium of Politics Methodically Explained,” who in this work traced a comprehensive outline of a Christian polity, specifically greater Germany – the Holy Roman Empire of his day.

The distinctions “public” and “private” were foundational to Althusius’s vision of a social order. A public association is built of private associations: “for human society develops from private to public association by the definite steps and progressions of small societies.”[23] The power of a public association is of a different order than that of a private association. Private associations, the family and the private corporation, are limited in that they are exclusive, and are formed to meet limited ends; in the case of the family, to provide for the economic[24] needs of its members, and in the case of the corporation, to further the narrow interest of the particular group forming it (for Althusius, the prime example of the corporation is the professional guild). These associations are exclusive in that they do not incorporate each other but exist side by side, pursuing like ends.

The public association, on the other hand, is composed of and derived from these private associations; it assimilates and incorporates them into a higher unity. As it is composed of these private associations, it supplements them rather than supersedes them. For example, the public association is not formed to pursue economic activity per se; it is formed to enable and to promote the pursuit of economic activity. There is a cooperation, a symmetry, and a harmony of interests between the public and the private spheres, not an opposition.

In the Althusian social order, more than one kind of public association exists. The basic one is the city, on the next level is the province, and on the highest level is the republic. The basic attributes of a public association are the same at each of these levels, although only the republic as a whole possesses sovereignty. The basic public association is the city; in Althusian terms a microcosm of the commonwealth.[25]

The city as a public association is bound together by, in Althusian terms, the jus symbioticum, the “symbiotic right” or symbiotic law-order, the city’s legal order. The purpose of this legal order is to establish and further the communication of goods, services, rights and concord among its members.[26]

The “symbiotic right” therefore defines the public arena. What comes as a shock to the modern reader is that Althusius then divides this symbiotic right, this public power and authority, among two complementary jurisdictions: the ecclesiastical and the secular. “The administrators of public duties are those who expedite the public functions of the commonwealth or city, both political and ecclesiastical.”[27] The representative of the public ecclesiastical power is the institutional church; that of the public secular power, the state. This juris-dictional division finds its basis in the Ten Commandments, which teach duties to God as well as duties to man, the vertical as well as the horizontal. Its two tables speak to the two axes of human life. The public dimension is as much subject to both tables of this Law as the private dimension.

That two ministers of the public right, the ecclesiastical and the secular, are put forward does not mean that the church is a department of state. Church and State as institutions are ministers of a public law-order which stands over them both, and thus administer a unified public order which recognizes the spiritual as well as the secular and material. Furthermore, in Augustinian fashion the church is recognized as a community sui generis, unique and primary, the direct representative of God on earth. The church is thus an institution of a fundamentally different order than the state. Althusius wrote of the ecclesiastical power in the commonwealth as the power “by which those means that pertain to the public organizing and conserving of the kingdom of Christ (regnum Christi ) are established, undertaken, and communicated according to his will …. to the eternal glory of God and for the welfare of the realm.”[28] The kingdom of Christ is not equated with the realm: it is in the realm but not of it. Christ’s kingdom enters into the nation without ever becoming identical with it.

The power of the church which distinguishes it from all other earthly institutions is summarized in the doctrine of the “keys to the kingdom.” As Althusius put it, “the presbytery receives from God the power of the keys by which the kingdom of heaven opens and closes”[29]: through the ministry of the church, the way to the kingdom of God is opened to the whole of society. According to Calvinists, the keys to the kingdom consisted of the preaching of the Word and the exercise of church discipline by allowing or restricting access to the Lord’s Supper (cf. the Heidelberg Catechism, Thirty-First Lord’s Day).

It is crucially important that Calvinists saw this ministry as a public ministry. This power dealt with the spiritual life of the whole community. That such things as public morality and public spirit exist is perhaps often recognized, but that it requires a public ministry is today not recognized, at least not in any way consistent with democratic ideology. Then, however, this ministry was recognized as crucial to public health. And Calvinists were jealous to reserve this ministry to the church. As Calvin put it, “the whole jurisdiction of the church pertains to the discipline of morals.”[30]

This idea of a public power to supervise morals was a hallmark of states in which Calvinism was established, and was so first and foremost in Geneva. It has been one of the key points concerning which historical Calvinism has ever come in for criticism. In its defense, however, one must in the first place recognize that the moral code put forward in, for instance, Geneva, was little different from the kind of code that was already in existence. The difference was that it was enforced; and that it was enforced by the consistory. Thus sanctions were meted out, even for offenses which were not crimes in the strict sense. It goes without saying that these sanctions applied only to church members, for the consistory only exercised jurisdiction over members of the church.

The importance of this power, in Latin termed the censura morum or censure of morals, was laid out comprehensively by Althusius as part of the constitutional order. The censura morum consists in “the inquisition into and chastisement of those morals and luxuries that are not prevented or punished by laws, but which corrupt the souls of subjects or squander their goods unproductively.”[31] That this power was fundamentally different from the power exercised by the state was clearly recognized by Althusius: the censura morum “corrects the things that are not yet worthy of legal punishment, but when neglected or treated with disdain furnish the cause of many and great evils…;” it takes place “with respect to vices that do not come into the courts because of the lack of an accuser or denouncer, and yet offend the eyes of good and pious citizens. For the sake of example, these vices receive a most serious rebuke and notation, even though recourse is not had to legal punishment.”[32]

This significance of this power has not been forgotten, even in modern times. The Dutch Reformed theologian A.A. van Ruler wrote of this against the compelling background of the German occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. Van Ruler described this power as follows: “In terms of principle, the connection between Christianity and culture must be sought here: in the censura morum 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.”[33]

Calvinists recognized clearly that this was no place for the state: the jurisdiction of the state could not extend into the realm of morals, of mercy, of salvation. As Ursinus observed, “The church in the exercise of discipline, looks to the reformation and salvation of the offender; the magistrate to the execution of justice and the public peace…. Christian discipline often takes cognizance of things which the state does not notice, as when the church casts out of her communion those who do not repent, and refuses to recognize them as her members, whilst the magistrate, nevertheless, tolerates them.”[34] There is a public dimension to morality and spirituality; it must be ministered to by the institution ordained by God to that end, the church; the state, exercising the power of the sword, is in no way competent to administer this power, the power of the keys of God’s kingdom, the power over the heart of a nation.

The ministry to the moral and spiritual health of the body politic was thus centered in the exercise of the power of the keys, but it did not end there. Calvin defined the public ministry of the church beyond the power of the keys, although the keys essentially characterized and defined the church.[35] The church was given custody of the poor, through the diaconate; it, and not the state, was also to establish and administer a system of public education. Geneva adopted Calvin’s constitution and thereby became the model for future Calvinist polities. Althusius drew upon the Genevan model for his own outline of the role of the church in public life.

Poor relief was becoming a very real problem in the sixteenth century with the breakdown of the mediæval system of poor relief through the Roman church and its abbeys, monasteries, and churches. Rapid changes in economic conditions along with dislocations brought on by continuous wars had thrown many people onto the streets and onto the mercy of others. The state, which in combination with monopoly capital was the efficient cause of this distress, was busy proclaiming itself to be the solution as well, arrogating to itself this work of mercy, as princes and cities were themselves moving into the vacuum left by the Roman church. Calvinism, in this as in the case of the more direct ministry of the church, demanded that the state leave this ministry to the church, as it was a ministry of mercy and not justice. Althusius follows suit here, when he consistently calls for both a public welfare ministry, and for the right of the church, specifically the diaconate, to administer that ministry.[36]

Why should poor relief be a responsibility of the public power? And why reserved to the spiritual power? Because of the possibilities a dependent proletariat entails for political manipulation, and because of the close relation between material and spiritual condition. Examples from classical history exposed the danger posed by an impoverished, rootless proletariat, willing to throw itself into the hands of any demagogue willing to play to its desires. The result, history taught, was social chaos and the destabilization of government. This lesson was hammered home by later political theorists. The condition of the poor needed to be attended to according to principles of justice which upheld authority and the rights of property, as well as the claims of the unfortunate upon other people’s wealth. The tithe was the primary means of healing this breach in distribution. Poor relief was never considered a branch of distributive justice. It was not a matter of justice at all, but of mercy.

Poverty also exposed the fundamental spiritual condition of man: sinfulness. Jesus said, “the poor you have with you always” (John 12:8); Deuteronomy states that “the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11). Because of sin, poverty would remain. But the causes of poverty are various. Therefore, the Book of Proverbs makes a distinction between the deserving poor and “the sluggard.” This distinction was basic to poor relief until victimization and human rights were substituted as its legitimating doctrine in modern times. In order for poor relief to be effective, however, there must be discernment as to the cause of poverty in a particular case. Some people may need a boost to get back on their feet; others made need permanent help; still others might deserve a swift kick in the pants. No bureaucracy and no blanket theory of entitlement can do justice to this diversity. And if poor relief is not properly performed, not only are the poor shortchanged but proletarianization continues unabated (to the benefit, certainly, of a certain persuasion of political activist). Poor relief therefore requires discernment with regard to the spiritual, inner part of life – precisely the area of the church’s competence.

The third branch of the church’s public power concerned public education. The church, as the custodian of the community’s spiritual and moral life, was to establish a system of schools to train the citizenry into pious and just living. This education was in the first place theological, but also an education into the virtues and the liberal arts. As Althusius described it:

In these schools the seeds of piety and virtue are adroitly poured into the youth from sacred writings and the more human liberal arts, so that good citizens may go forth as pious, manly, just and temperate persons…. Moreover, these schools are the custodians of the keys of science and doctrine, by which the resolution of all doubt is sought and the way of salvation is disclosed. Whatever the quality of rulers and citizens the school produces, of such is the commonwealth and Church constituted.[37]

Not only did the schools provide training in a “pious and just life;” they also acted as the magazine of intellectual defenses against public enemies intellectual and spiritual:

The school… is the armoury of the church and commonwealth. Arms of every kind are produced in it not only for defending the true and sincere worship of God against heretics, but also for defending and conserving the welfare and soundness of the commonwealth.[38]

Through this ministry of education (Calvin considered teachers [doctors ] to occupy one of the four offices in the church) the church exercised a direct impact on culture. Culture involved the cultivation of the moral and intellectual resources of the nation. Sound, healthy polities and laws could only be based upon a morally regenerate people. Rulers needed to be grounded in piety and virtue before they could be expected to function as ministers of justice. Morals could not be separated from religion: ethics were covenantal, expressions of an oath-bound relationship with God. Through its control of education, the church held the reins of the heart of the nation, and held the nation’s future in its hands as well.

Althusius’s Calvinist political system was no anachronism. It was a well-thought-through, historically-grounded development of the constitutional, political and legal tradition of the West. The intricate balance of the parts in the whole and the careful attention paid to their respective roles, from household to king, make this work a fitting culmination to that tradition. It is its wholeness that is so striking. How could such a balance between the myriad facets of social life be found? How so gracefully obtained? Simply put, because of its faithfulness to the tradition of Christendom, of the peculiarly Western conception of the separation of Church and State and of the rights of the church in the nation to the furthering of the public interest. This is especially true for Althusius’s application of the concept of jurisdiction to public affairs. Modern society has lost the distinction between sin and crime, between the matters which can properly be brought to the attention of secular courts and those which can only be dealt with on the level of spiritual engagement. The result? Catharsis via the courtroom. Civil law as instrument of atonement. The politics of guilt and pity.[39]Althusius’s polity is the polity for which modern society at bottom yearns, although it could never admit that, much less act upon it. It would no longer then be modern.




[22] For Dooyeweerd’s philosophy in this regard, see his New Critique of Theoretical Thought, cited above.

[23] Frederick Carney (translator and editor), The Politics of Johannes Althusius (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965), p. 34.

[24] What should be kept in mind here is the more inclusive meaning held by the term ‘economic’ in pre-modern times. The meaning of economy in those days included what we consider economic activity, but was also more than that. All of domestic activity was included in the term, including husband/wive, parent/child, and master/servant relations.

[25] Carney, Althusius, p. 41.

[26] Carney, Althusius, p. 41.

[27] Carney, Althusius, p. 42. Emphasis added.

[28] Carney, Althusius, p. 70.

[29] Carney, Althusius, p. 52.

[30] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 1211 (Bk. IV, ch. xi, [[section]] 1).

[31] Althusius, Politics, p. 173.

[32] Althusius, Politics, p. 174.

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

[34] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Rev. G. W. Williard (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, n.d. [1852]), p. 450.

[35] That is why the doctrine of the marks of the church corresponds so closely to the doctrine of the keys of the kingdom.

[36] It is interesting to note that in his discussion of the role of Church and State in poor relief, Althusius resorts exclusively to the Bible, and especially the Mosaic law. As to the church’s role, he points primarily to the tithe; as for the state, he refers to laws concerning restrictions on collateral for debts, manumission of debt slaves, gleaning, and payment of a fair and prompt wage. Politica Methodice Digesta, ch. 37, [[section]][[section]] 87-89 (not translated in Carney’s version).

[37] Carney, Althusius, p. 71.

[38] Carney, Althusius, p. 162.

[39] Rushdoony’s treatment is still the classic one: R.J. Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978 [1970]).

Part 3: Benedictine Infrastructure