Hugo Grotius

1583-1645. Dutch jurist and statesman. He entered the University of Leyden at the age of eleven and was practicing at the bar at The Hague at sixteen. In 1612/13 he became pensionary of Rotterdam and worked with Oldenbarnevelt in his struggle with Prince Maurice and the Calvinist party. In 1618 he was imprisoned for life by Maurice, but escaped to Paris in 1621, where in relative poverty he produced De jure belli et pacis (1625), the fruit of twenty years' thought, on which his fame largely rests. He served as Swedish ambassador in Paris, and was disappointed that because of religious prejudices he was never recalled to the service of Holland.

Grotius was a man of undeniable piety and prodigious learning, yet in the history of Christianity he has the ambiguous significance of a transitional figure, a humanist placed between Scholasticism and Enlightenment. He sought to interpret the Bible by the rules of grammar without dogmatic assumptions, but he had inadequate philological resources for the task. As a Christian and a statesman he sought to moderate the dogmatic controversies then rife in Europe, praying God in his last testament “to unite the Christians in one church under a holy reformation.” He had tried to get ecclesiastical peace in Holland by preventing preaching on disputed points in the Calvinistic controversy, and he was often suspected-unfairly-of tendencies to Roman Catholicism.

Grotius did not look for a return to the Christian Middle Ages. The truth about him can be seen rather in his De veritate religionis Christianae (1627), a defense of basic Christianity for sailors meeting other religions. It is a simplification of parts of the Scholastic theological tradition, presenting Christianity as the true religion in harmony with God's rationally ordered world. Grotius thus points forward to the writers of Christian evidences in the eighteenth century. His faith in the orderliness of the world is basic to his work in theology as in jurisprudence. He sought amid disorder to realize and extend this order. He believed there was a law of nature deriving from God's will and known by reason. It was both to guide and to be upheld by the processes of law; where there was no judge, as in war, conflict was to be seen as a form of litigation. Thus human strife properly understood was at once limited by law and directed toward its realization. Grotius is regarded as a father of international law. He believed that the law of nature is intrinsic to the social being of man, and that God cannot alter it, any more than laws of number; the skeptical question, whether God therefore is unnecessary to the law of nature, was not pressing at this time and Grotius did not tackle it.

This problem lies near the heart of his defense of the Catholic doctrine of the Atonement against Socinus. He argues that God is free to relax the law that death follows sin, but not in such a way that the fundamental order of the universe, for which he is responsible as Moral Governor, is subverted. The sufferings of Christ are a penal example by which God upholds this order while remitting sin. This theory had considerable influence in Protestant theology into the nineteenth century.

See W.S.M. Knight, The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius (1925).