Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – Part V: Theology and Revolution

For non-Christians, this is intended as a useful backgrounder to Hugo Grotius’s Christianity and a preparation for my final blog on Grotius. Some Christians who are not Calvinists might find it useful as well. I welcome corrections from my Christian friends.

As I have written, unlike Galileo Galilei, Hugo Grotius (Huig van Groot) (1583-1645), who was twenty years younger than Galileo, was intimately involved with Jews, and with one Jew in particular, Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro 1604-1657). Like Galileo, Grotius was an amateur theologian. Again, like Galileo, he was aligned with one faction of Christianity opposed to another, but instead of being aligned with Catholic anti-Aristotelians versus the Aristotelian Jesuits, Grotius was aligned with a Calvinist Protestant faction, the Arminians against the Gomarists,  

Jacobus Arminus (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian. His followers were known as Remonstrants, a faction of Calvinists, that is, Augustinians as opposed to Thomist Aristotelians. In particular, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the University of Geneva, introduced the soteriological variation to Calvinism preoccupied with salvation. The Remonstrance (1610) was a theological statement signed by 45 ministers and submitted to the States General of the Netherlands, the Dutch Congress comprising a House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) and a Senate (Eerste Kamer) that so influenced the structure of the nascent republic of the United States of America. The States General in turn convened the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 to consider the five articles of Remonstrance dealing with salvation, namely:

  1. Salvation (and condemnation on the day of judgment) was conditioned by the graciously-enabled faith (or unbelief) of man;
  2. The Atonement is qualitatively adequate for all men, “yet that no one actually enjoys [experiences] this forgiveness of sins, except the believer …” and thus is limited to only those who trust in Christ;
  3. “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will,” and unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will;
  4. The Christian Grace “of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good,” yet man may resist the Holy Spirit;
  5. Believers are able to resist sin through Grace, and Christ will keep them from falling; but whether they are beyond the possibility of ultimately forsaking God or “becoming devoid of grace … must be more particularly determined from the Scriptures.”

In other words, salvation, deliverance or redemption, the saving of an individual from eternal suffering and from a separation from God, depended on faith and not works nor the rulings of any institution – God alone would be the judge of human innocence or guilt. All Christians, not just Arminians, not just Calvinists, not just Protestants, but all Christians could atone for their sins, for Jesus had died on the cross to atone for the sins of all humans, but only those who had accepted this proposition, that Jesus had died on the cross so that they could be forgiven, could garner atonement in this way.

Thus, though salvation was open to anyone, atonement, or forgiveness of sins, was only open to Christians. Depending on the sin, they had a ranked order in terms of degrees of depravity. Various Christian sects differed on what was or was not to be considered a depraved state and to what degree. This led to at least five different theories of atonement: ransom, Christus Victor, recapitulation, satisfaction and moral influence. Recall that Catholicism had demarcated three forms of required atonement: penance, alms and satisfaction.

Arminians were Calvinists who believed that saving grace was a prerogative of the divine spirit and nothing that humans did of their free will could determine whether they could be saved, but only the Holy Spirit. But even if one was chosen, humans could remain closed to receiving that Holy Spirit. Grace, however, could even overcome that resistance.

Who were the Gomarists? They were followers of Franciscus Gomarus (François Gomaer 1563-1641) He had been educated in Strasbourg, Oxford, Cambridge and Heidelberg. Like most Calvinist theologians, he was fluent in Hebrew and was named a Professor of Hebrew at the University of Leiden, the main competitor in continental Europe to the University of Padua as the Princeton of its age. There, Jacobus Arminius was a colleague. Gomarus accused the latter of teaching Pelagian doctrine, namely that a person from his own free will was capable of doing good or evil and choosing God without the aid of divine intervention – in direct contradiction to the basic precepts of Calvinism.

Arminius, however, insisted that election was solely a matter of faith and predestination determined that faith. Gomaris and Arminius came to direct intellectual blows in the assembly of the States of Holland in 1608 and 1609. Then Arminius died. Against Gomarus’ will, Konrad Vorstius, one of the Arminians, took his place. Gomarus was so offended he resigned his professorship and became a professor first at Saumur and then at Groningen.

Unlike Arminius, Gomarus advocated that restrictions be placed on the Jews. Why did Arminian doctrine remain open to the equality of Jews while Jews remained suspect to Gomarians and required limitations on where they lived, how they dressed and on their interactions with Christians? In Arminian theology, election depended on faith; predestination determined that faith. For them, that was the central message of the Bible. But in life, humans were free to do good or evil whether or not they were open to being saved.

For Gomarists, God, not humans, was the author of all sin; ironically, this was similar to the position of Spinoza, a liberal. But the principle for Gomarists had a particular Christian twist. The Fall of Man was decreed by God. So was the Fall of Jews and their failure to accept Jesus as their saviour. Thus, Gomarists, unlike Arminians, opposed tolerance not only for Jews but for Roman Catholics as well. As long as Jews believed that their salvation depended on following the rules of biblical law, they not only could not be open to salvation, but could influence Christians, namely Calvinists, to close their hearts to faith. Jews themselves could never be saved. However, Arminius left open the possibility that Jews could be saved by other means than faith, but only those who became Calvinists were eligible for grace being bestowed upon them.

Nevertheless, both men were thoroughly fluent in Hebrew and had a close acquaintance with the Torah. However, only Artimius reached out to Jews, and most particularly Menasseh ben Israel, to help in interpretation of Hebrew words and phrases and for learning different techniques for biblical interpretation.

When Gomarus in the Synod of Dort (Dordtecht) failed in the debate to have Artimius condemned for heresy and fled Leiden, Leiden became an intellectual and financial centre for both Christians and Jews and one of the islands of respect and tolerance in Europe. 

For the new covenant of faith in Jesus and God succeeded, but did not displace or replace the Jewish covenant with God. Jews could have had their own route to atonement and salvation. It was an early form of two-stream theology with respect to the relations of Christian and Jews. It was not for man to determine that Israel had broken the old covenant which gave rise to the new one of salvation through accepting Jesus as one’s saviour. Hence, there was no need to convert Jews or for Jews to convert, let alone to persecute Jews inherently as fallen and needing salvation.

For both versions of religious belief, God alone was absolutely righteous. Only persons pure of sin could approach Him. Only God could decide on reconciliation between man and God, but Jews followed a different path of sacrifice, more specifically, the ritual of the Paschal lamb and the search for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement. Christians required acceptance through faith in the role of “the suffering servant” and the mediation of a divinely sent servant of the Lord who was wounded for man’s transgressions and would bare the sins of the many.

Jews, learned and practicing, did not accept this depiction of themselves, even as they thrived under this form of theological tolerance. For one, forgiveness by God was not a single epiphany in one’s life, but a temporary state very dependent on follow through. Further, korbanot or offerings could only be useful in atoning for minor sins committed in ignorance without intent. They were not transactional exercises; there were no payments for sin and giving the gift to God was the means of transforming a sinful into a sacred act. The sacrifice was only effective if the person making the sacrifice was sincere in his or her repentance. Finally, restitution to the person harmed was required. All of these principles would have a deep effect on Grotius’ conception of the role of law.

One other piece of background, this time political rather than theological. For eighty years, between 1568 and 1648, the northern seven provinces of the Netherlands or the Low Countries (as distinct from what became Belgium and Luxembourg) which were extensively, but far from majoritarian, Calvinist or at least Protestant, were in revolt against the rule of the Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain who was the hereditary monarch for those provinces. His father, Charles, had been born and brought up in the Netherlands and spoke Dutch as well as French, Spanish and German. Phillip II would eventually become heir to the Spanish throne and eventually ruler of the entire Habsburg Empire, of which the Low Countries were an integral part.

However, as head of the most powerful state in the world at the time with its huge empire in the Americas, the Spanish ecclesiastical and corrupt nobility turned out to be no match in the end for the sincere, pious, humble and morally superior Dutch rebels who took advantage of the initially decentralized rule of Charles V and Phillip II after 1555. Phillip, unlike his father, had grown up in Spain and spoke no Dutch.

The Dutch managed to keep the Inquisition at bay and were able to resist and win against the efforts to re-centralize power using a precursor of no taxation without representation. They revolted against a heavy burden of taxation and the heavy hand of repression of Phillip’s de facto governor, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, in 1567 led by William of Orange (senior), but only after initial very severe losses and a retreat to guerilla warfare. Victory would be achieved as the powerful Spanish were weakened by a four-front war – against the Ottomans, against the French, against the English pirates and, finally, against the Dutch.

This was a clash of cultures with deep roots in religion. William of Orange converted from Catholicism to Calvinism in 1573. But under the influence of an intimate knowledge of the Torah, the Dutch developed a nationalist ideology of self-determination influenced by the history of the Jews whom they believed had discovered and become the first nation state. The international law of Hugo Grotius was premised on nation states as the prime entities of the international system with international law governing the relationships between those states. Thus, the revolt led to the creation of an independent Dutch Republic, the United Provinces, under the rule of William of Orange (William the Silent), de facto in 1581 and de jure in 1648. But it was not without great cost. In the Spanish-French rivalry, which we have already seen played out in Italy and in competition for leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, the Dutch had France as an ally, but that meant that large swaths of the Southern Netherlands were annexed by France under Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France.

It was during this period of the revolution that Dutch theology, political and legal theory emerged as the prototype for a modern nation state. Further, the energy and creativity of the Dutch Republic led to it becoming an important sea power with its own colonial empire, a very prosperous merchant class alongside an economic, scientific and cultural explosion. However, two factions emerged in the Dutch camp mentioned above, each rooted in theology, economics, class and distribution of power. There were the well-to-do merchants who became Arminians and were intellectually led by Hugo Grotius. They were opposed by the Gomarists with their much harsher and narrower interpretation of scripture. Though the Arminians won the intellectual debate, in 1619 they lost the internecine conflict. Grotius, initially captured, was helped by his wife to escape in a chest ostensibly filled with books. The mode of escape was itself symbolic.

The significance: secular politics and its sacred ground were seen then as interdependent.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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