"As it is apparent to all that a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard of life to defend and preserve them. And when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects are to consider him in no other view." ~ Act of Abjuration 1581-The Dutch Declaration of Independence
By 1566 the Calvinists of the Netherlands had just about enough oppression as they could stand from Philip, King of Spain, and the Duke of Alva, his henchman. As a result, many fled the Netherlands to Germany and began regrouping as resistance fighters under the leadership of William of the House of Orange. The Dutch Revolt was then poised to commence in actuality.
In 1581, the Dutch drafted what is known as the Act of Abjuration and declared their independence to the known world. Even though the Dutch had always accepted princes and rulers to govern them, they required them to hold to a covenantal contract of set conditions in order to insure their liberty.
A Political Covenant
The contract held the prince and his nobles responsible to a very particular law-standard. They were required to "govern by law and reason, and protect and love them as a father does his children" in accordance with Scripture. The contract was a binding covenant agreement between the prince and his people created to insure that all rule would be in accordance with God's law and His Holy Word, and would remain in conformity with the Dutch "chartered privileges, ancient customs, rights and liberties." This contract was a comprehensive Christian covenant theory of law, society, and politics drawn together from Scripture and the Calvinistic political teachings of that day. To neglect the contract and its stipulations was to negate the princely office of the king, identifying and declaring him a tyrant. This was the situation in the Low Countries by the mid-sixteenth century.
The many offenses leveled against the Dutch Calvinists by Phillip included high property taxation, quartering of soldiers in individual households, confiscation of private property, and various other assaults on freedom. However, it was not only the Calvinists who were in the crosshairs of Spanish tyranny, but also the Catholics. This led to a temporary federation by the two groups against Spain. As Philip's tyranny escalated so did the rebellion, and by the mid-1570s the Dutch Calvinists took the lead with the aid of Genevan advisors.
The Genevan advisors consisted of Calvinists among whom was Theodore Beza, whose writings on the rights of rulers gave concrete direction as to what a ruler should be if liberty was to survive. Other men such as Hotman, Mornay, Coornhert, Viret, and Johannes Althusius, taking the writings of Calvin and Beza to their logical conclusion by applying them, were also very profitable to the Dutch for the reformation and reconstruction of the culture. Coupled with this counsel of the Genevan advisory team, and through a deluge of pamphlets, sermons, and position papers, the Dutch gained wide support in the fight against the tyranny of Spain. That support was necessary to gain a foothold against Philip's encroachment on Dutch liberty.
Author John Witte explains these historical developments.
Initially, many apologists saw the Revolt as a proper vindication of the people's ancient rights, liberties and privileges that had been set out in hundreds of medieval law codes and charters that still governed them. The most important of these documents were the so-called Joyous Entry of 1356 and the Grand Privilege of 1477, both of which came in for endless recitation and discussion. These old treaties ... provided something of a digest of the rulers' duties and the peoples' rights, including their right to civil disobedience and organized self-defense in the event of tyranny.1
To give Spain clarity as to what the Dutch desired and what God had commanded of the prince, William of Orange demanded that the "privileges, rights and freedoms that have been handed down to us" be restored.2 William called the rights of the people divine and natural, given directly by God. He made it clear that "God has created men free and wants them to be governed justly and righteously and not willfully and tyrannically."
Legal scholar and theologian, Johannes Althusius gave the Calvinists of the Netherlands additional concrete strategies and tactics through his writings. It is interesting to note that most of the passion for liberty and justice came as a result of sermons and pamphlets. It was through the medium of the verbal and written word that the people were educated as to what was right and just according to the Word of God and how the magistrates had violated those Divine Standards. Althusius' two-volume work on Civil Conversations of 1601 codified a system of ethical techniques on how to speak and listen. This was a detailed Christianized work on rhetoric designed, no doubt, to aid in the articulation of liberty and the truth of God's law for speeches and sermons, but also for the writing of tracts and pamphlets. His work was used as a training guide for the masses so that they would be better able to argue effectively on various social matters, most notably the church and the state.3 He also wrote a massive work on politics in 1603 (Politica) and a three-volume work, A Theory of Justice, in 1617. In these books Althusius set forth a comprehensive theory of legal, political, and social order and how they were to be understood in light of the sovereignty of a ruler and the liberty of the people.
The Sanctuary of the Conscience
Together with the work and advice of the Genevan authorities, the Dutch were able to claim their liberty, setting the stage for the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was from the document of the Dutch that Thomas Jefferson drew both his ideas and his writing of the American Declaration of Independence. Religious rights were always yoked to general liberty and especially liberty of conscience. If a magistrate were to violate any of these rights, it was to signify a tyrannical move to total oppression.
For the magistrate or anyone else to invade the sanctuary of conscience is to impugn the sovereignty of God. For the magistrate to impose a penalty on the thoughts of men is to obstruct the work of the Holy Spirit.4
Quoting Beza, Althusius wrote,
Rulers were made for the people, not the people for the rulers. The people can exist without the ruler but the ruler cannot exist without the people.5
While a single act of violation was not immediately met with resistance, it was an indication to the faithful that a pattern may be emerging. That in turn invoked a verbal and written outcry lest the rulers imagined that the oppressive move was acceptable. If the oppression was not remedied by the verbal outcry and the tyranny continued, then resistance was permitted and even encouraged.
The Dutch were not lawless libertines. They were peace-loving Calvinists and therefore understood the rules of resistance, which were patterned after Calvin's doctrine of interposition. Interposition, commonly known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, is what prompted the Dutch to call upon the Duke of Orange, William. Under the leadership of lawfully elected magistrates, resistance took on a completely legitimate form.
These resistance paradigms were basic for the American War for Independence of 1776. John Witte refers to Thorold Rogers' review of John Lothrop Motley's three volume work, The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History, and George Henty's By Pike and Dyke: A Tale of the Rise of the Dutch Republic.
I hold that the revolt of the Netherlands and the success of Holland are the beginning of modern political science and of modern civilization ... To the true lover of Liberty, Holland is the holy land of modern Europe.6
The analogies between the Dutch revolt and American Revolution still remain striking to historians today, and it remains undeniable that the Dutch experience was inspirational to a number of American founders. John Adams, for example wrote, ‘the originals of the two republics are so much alike, that the history of one seems but a transcript of the other.7
Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration was almost a carbon copy of the Dutch declaration with only minor adjustments to address the specific charges of tyranny by England's King George III. James Madison argued that the "example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects dissenting from the established sect was safe and even useful."8 That the American idea of independence, albeit eclectic as it was, gained its basic tenants from the Dutch Calvinists is without debate.
By the mid-1600s John Milton had taken the lead for liberty, setting forth a plethora of tracts, pamphlets and various writings. Among the pamphleteers of Milton's age were Sir Edward Coke, John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn. While many of these men have been long forgotten, their work stands as the foundation of English and American liberty.
What the Dutch sought during this tyrannical period of history was a redefinition and reconstruction of society along the lines of Biblical truth. It would be a mistake to define these men as anything but Dutch Calvinists who were advancing the ideology of Christian Reconstruction in Europe. Using God's law as the standard for cultural transformation, these reformers were mostly theonomic, especially in holding princes and magistrates to their political covenant obligation.
Their strategy was simple: resist the tyrant by educating the masses, to gain more and more support for liberty under God. They accomplished this through sermons and pamphlets. These were not just any kind of sermons, nor were they simply gospel salvation tracts. These were cutting expositions of what God had ordained for princes and people and what was actually taking place in Holland. There was no mincing of words. These Calvinists wrote with passion and were so persuasive that, even after two hundred years, the American colonies were affected by their work.
Our strategy should be similar. God has already given us the pattern for our generation by the successful pattern of past generations. Christendom must renounce the two-kingdom doctrine and its monastic pietism that has infected too many churches, and band together in order to advance the Calvinistic view of liberty under God. Perhaps we Christians who are committed to the comprehensive scope and meaning of the Great Commission can use the successful patterns of the past so that our nation can once again regain its rightful place as a godly city upon a hill.
1. John Witte, Jr. The Reformation of Rights (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 145-146.
2. Ibid., 148.
3. Ibid., 152-Civilis conversationis libri duo recogniti et aucti by Johannes Althusius.
4. Johannes Althusius, Politica, VII. 4-7 XI.33-45, XXVIII.14, 37-73.
5. Politica, Preface; Pol IX.3-4; Pol XVIII.8 18-20.
6. Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 203; See footnotes 149-150.
8. Ibid. See also Church and State in the United States in 3 vol. by Anson P. Stokes.