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Harm-Jan van Dam, trans. Hugo Grotius: De imperio summarum potestatum circa sacra.

Vol. 1.2 (Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 102.) Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001. xiii + 1101 pp. index, append, bibl. $249. ISBN: 90-04-12027-0.

Harm-Jan van Dam has produced a painstakingly thorough critical edition as well as an English translation of Hugo Grotius' most sustained treatment of the relationship between church and state. The De imperio, completed in 1616/17, last appeared in print in 1780 when it was incorporated into a book published in Naples and devoted to refuting Grotius. That early modern editors did not establish the best text of the De imperio is due not least to the fact that Grotius never sent his text, which exists in several manuscripts, to press. Van Dam's edition rests upon a full collation of the two best manuscripts with the first two editions (1647, 1648) and a partial collation of other manuscripts. Those interested in the complex origins and transmission of Grotius' text will learn a great deal from van Dam's careful analysis of the extant manuscripts and printed editions.

This analysis appears in van Dam's lengthy and detailed introduction. Here he also sets the De imperio within the specific contexts of Grotius' political and literary career and of the religious controversy between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants in the young Dutch Republic. Not surprisingly, Grotius, the Remonstrant, opposed the political interference of the Reformed church, and his De imperio, like its predecessors Ordinum pietas (published in 1613) and Tractatus de iure magistratuum circa ecclesiastica (completed in 1614 but never published), argued that the summa potestas, the supreme power or civil state, enjoyed ultimate authority in religious matters.

In 1679, the De imperio appeared in volume 3 of Grotius' Opera Theologica, but van Dam rightly classifies the work as a political, not a theological, text. The first six chapters deal with rather abstract issues such as the nature, function, and jurisdiction of civil power as well as the exercise of judgment. The power and jurisdiction of the state is all-encompassing. Subjects may not resist the state's commands, even if they violate divine law; they may not resist the state even if it uses force in the name of religion. Grotius rejects Calvinist resistance theory, which allows inferior magistrates to oppose ungodly decrees of superior magistrates. The remaining six chapters examine more specific topics such as the state's authority over synods and over the election of pastors.

Within the context of the legal and political analysis of De imperio Grotius' theological irenicism becomes manifest. He laments the confessional divisions among Christians and, in an Erasmian vein, believes one should define as few doctrines as possible in order to preserve Christian unity (1:309-13). Chapter 11, a lengthy discussion of "offices in the church which are not strictly necessary," is itself not strictly necessary since the supremacy of the state is not the principal theme, as it is in every other chapter. In this chapter, as van Dam observes in his commentary, "Grotius stresses toleration and unity of the Protestant churches" (2:847). Grotius commends both Anglican episcopalianism as well as Calvinist ecclesiastical polity.

The heaping up of quotations from a variety of sources (classical, biblical, patristic, legal, historical, scholastic, etc.) is a conspicuous aspect of Grotius' methodology in De imperio. Van Dam duly advises readers not to dismiss these quotations as textual clutter. Instead, they bear witness to the nature of scholarship common to Grotius' age, which preferred the historical grounding of claims to innovation (1:108). Nevertheless, at the very beginning of his introduction, van Dam warns that Grotius' prolific use of quotations and examples neglects "their context, or the meaning and overall views of their authors." Thus Grotius appeals to Calvin and Roman Catholic authorities to support his positions. (1:5).

The historical elucidation of Grotius' use of sources is one of the tasks that van Dam assigned himself in the commentary, which forms the most important part of the second volume of the edition. The commentary also provides the reader with helpful and essential bibliographical, historical, theological, philosophical, and legal information. Like the commentary, the translations purpose is to make Grotius' long-neglected text accessible to a wider audience. The translation, which faces the Latin text in the first volume, reads well, but in some places, where a more literal or idiomatic rendering would be appropriate, I would quibble with it.

These minor disagreements notwithstanding, van Dam's fine edition has put into the hands of scholars an important text that merits more attention and that should expand interest in Grotius. Clearly, problems other than the freedom of the seas exercised the mind of the renowned Dutch intellectual. Research on the debt of the De imperio to sixteenth-century humanist conceptions of the relationship of church and state as well as the text's anticipation of absolutist discourse of the seventeenth century is now possible and would be most welcome.


Simon Fraser University
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Author:Pabel, Hilmar M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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