Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Nota Bene

Religion a Part of Justice

We haven’t had a Hemmingsen post in a while, and I know how it has made you pine. Fret not; I’m here for you.

In their discussion of the virtues, the magisterial Reformers followed the classical tradition in considering religion to fall under the category of, or to be a part of, justice, which can be conveniently defined as follows:

The first duty that belongs to [justice] is that no one harm anyone. The second is that we render his own to each and every person. The third is that we refer all things to the common welfare. (Niels Hemmingsen, A Demonstrative Method on the Law of Nature)1

“Anyone” and “each and every person” in the first two duties of course include both God and man; that God be honored and receive his due is therefore a matter of justice. Since, in this tradition, God is the end of ends, and therefore the proper end of individuals as well as of corporate bodies, religion (again, as a part of justice) was considered to have direct relevance to both. But religion was important for the third duty as well, because it was believed to serve as the foundation for trustworthiness between men and thus their common fellowship.

In arguing in this way, the Reformers believed that they were following the dictates of revealed law, but they also believed that they were following the natural law, which was of a piece with the moral law as manifested in Scripture. After all, they believed that the law of nature was discernible and that, moreover, all men had a natural knowledge of God (what Calvin calls the sensus divinitatis). Thus they could, and often did, make the argument without any recourse to Scripture, and instead relied on Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly Plato and Cicero.

We see this in the approach of Niels Hemmingsen, mentioned just above. After asserting that religion is a part of justice, he describes its importance as follows:

Religion, θρησκεία, is for Cicero the part of justice that bestows care and reverence on the nature, which they call divine, of a certain superior being. When this has been taken away, as Cicero also says, trustworthiness, too, as well as the fellowship of the human race and justice, the most excellent virtue, are of necessity destroyed. Moreover, that God must be worshiped religiously has been demonstrated above from the law of nature. But I thought that to this ought to be added the laws on the worship of the gods that Cicero lists in the second book of On the Laws:

Approach the gods with purity.

Display piety.

Put away wealth.

As argumentative supports, Hemmingsen uses two passages from two different works of Cicero. The first is from On the Nature of the Gods 1.2. There, Cicero says:

For there are and have been philosophers who thought that the gods had absolutely no direction of human affairs, and if their opinion is true, what piety can there be, and what holiness, and what obligation of religion? It is right that these should be accorded, in purity and innocence of heart, to the divinity of the gods, but only if the offering is observed by them, and if something has been accorded by the immortal gods to humanity. But if they have neither the power nor the wish to aid us, if they have no care at all for us and take no notice of what we do, if there is nothing that can find its way from them to human life, what reason is there for our rendering to them any worship, or honour, or prayers? On the other hand, in an empty and artificial pretence of faith piety cannot find a place any more than the other virtues; with piety it is necessary that holiness and religious obligation should also disappear, and when these are gone a great confusion and disturbance of life ensues; indeed, when piety towards the gods is removed, I am not so sure that good faith, and human fraternity, and justice, the chief of all the virtues, are not also removed.

The other citation comes from On the Laws 2.19; it is worth noting that when Cicero comes to speak of civil law after his discussion of natural law, he gives laws respecting religion the first place, before the respecting magistrates.

Earlier in Book 2, he had remarked:

Let this, therefore, be a fundamental principle in all societies, that the gods are the supreme lords and governors of all things,—that all events are directed by their influence and wisdom, and that they are loving and benevolent to mankind. They likewise know what every person really is; they observe his actions, whether good or bad; they discern whether our religious professions are sincere and heart–felt, and are sure to make a difference between good men and the wicked.

This gives us some sense of the importance of religion for trustworthiness between men, in his view, as expounded in On the Nature of the Gods. After this “preamble,” he continues:


—There are certain maxims of laws, my Quintus, not so ancient as the primitive sacred laws, but still possessing greater authority, and greater antiquity too, than the common parlance of the people. These legal maxims, I shall mention with as much brevity as possible; and I shall endeavour to expound the laws, not indeed in their whole extent, for this would be infinitely laborious, but those which involve the principles and contain the sum and substance of the rest.


—This appears a most desirable method: let us therefore hear the Maxims of Laws.


—Such are the following;—Approach the gods with purity—appear before them in the spirit of devotion—remove riches from their temples; whoever doth otherwise shall suffer the vengeance of heaven—let no one have private gods—neither new gods nor strange gods, unless publicly [90]acknowledged, are to be worshiped privately—let the temples which the fathers have constructed in the cities, be upheld—let the sacred chapels and consecrated groves in country places be protected—let the customs of the fathers be preserved in the families—let the gods who have always been accounted celestial be worshipped, and those gods likewise who have merited celestial honours by their illustrious actions, as Hercules, Bacchus, Æsculapius, Castor, Pollux and Quirinus. Let due honour be likewise paid to those virtues, by which man is exalted to heaven,—as intelligence, valour, piety, fidelity; and let temples be consecrated to them. But with regard to the vices, let no sacred sacrifices be paid to them.

The “maxims” continue after this, but the foregoing citation is enough to give the gist and to demonstrate the background of Hemmingsen’s thought in his claims about religion vis-a-vis justice, which, again, can stand in nuce for the broad Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) position on these matters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

  1. All translations of Hemmingsen are my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.