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There Is a Calvin at the Origin of Modern Law

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:53:11

John Witte’s successful volume represents a significant contribution to the history of juridical thought and its relation with the phenomena of renewal or religious reform in the West. For some time now the author has been following a line of research, which has made the centre where he is the director – the Center for the Study of Law and Religion of the University of Emory, Atlanta – a pole of world excellence. Not unlike his works on Luther and Protestantism, his study of early Calvinism gives an extraordinary contribution to the understanding of the link between the religious history of the West and political events. From the early twentieth century at least, it seemed clear how law and politics in Europe and North America were indebted to religion, insofar as terminology, allusions and concepts were concerned. Witte brilliantly shows how this link is not accidental. The author leads the reader through Calvin’s Geneva, the laboratory where the thinker’s ideas and those of his successor Beza were applied; he then goes on to the classical political thinker Althusius; he illustrates the intellectual contribution of the poet John Milton, at the end concentrating on the Puritan settlements in North America. Witte demonstrates the vitality of Lutheran reform under the political and juridical profile, tracing its expansion fronts. Above all he illustrates how the evolution of ‘political’ Calvinism criss-crosses with the historical events that introduce the West into modernity. Calvin, and then Beza, decline Luther’s thought in juridical terms, giving rise to an experiment destined to be the subject of debate for centuries. Althusius offers an extraordinary ideological support to the fight for independence of the Flemish and contributes, also conceptually, to the end of the great Spain. At a later date, the unheeded John Milton will offer arguments for reflection and ideas from which theoreticians and even politicians will draw copiously: the constitutions of New England are examples of juridical engineering largely influenced by Calvinism. Entire themes of constitutionalism and the general theory of law arose from religious history, in a disorderly and sometimes even intermittent way. Sovereignty, federalism, liberty, the separation of state and church, are concepts of a peculiar wealth and of a polysemous nature as a result of the contribution of the different Christian confessions. Witte’s research on Protestantism and Calvinism has up to now confirmed his intuitions: the origins of modern law must be reconsidered. As far as concerns human rights, the centrality of law and the values of modern constitutionalism, Enlightenment and the French Revolution on the one hand, and the American Revolution on the other, are not in contrast with what preceded them, but are key moments in which the contents of long-lasting political and juridical reflection are reintroduced. The work of the Canadian born scholar, who then settled in Atlanta, has numerous merits of a general nature, and also offers a detailed study of some of the principal currents of Calvinism. Among these stands out the confirmation that human rights and constitutionalism were not born from the liberation of man from religion, but from his faith itself. The value of the work increases if one looks at the effort of the man Witte: he has given an ­objective and sincere look not at any ordinary subject, but at his religious tradition. Without holding back on the stake of Serveto, Witte shows how the keeping to a tradition is not an ­obstacle to research, but a reason to go into it in depth. Like his predecessor Calvin, he too is interested in the search for truth in first person and is convinced that one’s own tradition represents a treasure to be valorised, in the conviction that to completely separate religion from human rights impoverishes both one and the other.