Junius: The Mosaic Polity

Article by   November 2015
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Franciscus Junius. The Mosaic Polity. Translated by Todd M. Rester. Edited by Andrew M. McGinnis. Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law. Grand Rapids: Christian's Library Press, 2015. $14.95

Everybody knows that when the Protestant Reformers set out to clean house in the dirty overgrown edifice of late medieval Catholicism, one of the first things to go was the unwholesome influence of Aristotle and other pagan philosophers, darkening minds with their unregenerate reflections on everything from metaphysics to morality. Much more comfortable with a divine command approach to ethics, the Reformers, setting aside all ethical traditions derived from pagan natural law theory, set out to reconstruct ethics and politics on a biblical foundation alone. The Ten Commandments alone were to be the starting point, and the other laws of Scripture, whether those of the Old Testament regulating Israel, or those inferred from the New Testament, regulating the church, were to be privileged above all other laws. Catholic apologists and liberal scholars lament or deride this shift, while modern-day theonomists, hard and soft, applaud it. But everybody knows this was the basic narrative. Right?

Thankfully, not anymore. While one can still find versions of this narrative peddled in all corners, perhaps especially among Anglicans who pat themselves on the back for not having succumbed to this "nominalist" tendency, a steady tide of scholarship has been washing away the layers of mythological accretions that distort our understanding of Reformation ethics. One of the finest contributions to this important campaign of demythologization has been Jordan Ballor and Stephen Grabill's series, Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law, a set of relatively short, easily-accessible translations of key ethical and legal texts from both Catholics and Protestants (especially the Reformed). Eight volumes are out thus far, including treatises by Wolfgang Musculus, Girolamo Zanchi, and Johannes Althusius that show these writers unhesitatingly appropriating Aristotelian and Thomistic natural law theories, but the present volume is perhaps the finest contribution to date, and promises ongoing relevance for contemporary Reformed debates.

Franciscus Junius is one of that host of third-generation Reformers who, although a giant in his day, has steadily receded from the memories of his Reformed theological descendants as theological education has grown narrower and shallower, concentrating increasingly on just a few big names. His memorable life took him from France to Belgium to Germany and finally to Leiden in Holland, frequently a fugitive from Catholic authorities, but regularly in contact with some of the leading Reformed scholars of his time. At Heidelberg in the 1570s, he collaborated with Emmanuel Tremellius at Heidelberg on one of the most important 16th century Protestant translations of the Old Testament, and became a close friend of Zacharias Ursinus, author of the Heidelberg Catechism. His greatest work, however, began upon his arrival at the University of Leiden in 1592, with three influential works appearing over the next two years: his Eirenicon, De Vera Theologia, and this text, De Politiae Mosis Observatione. All three of these works languished almost forgotten (except by period specialists) in Latin until the remarkable renaissance in Junius studies this decade. Last year saw the publication of the De Vera, a crucial early contribution to the Reformed doctrine of God, in a fine English translation by David Noe, and Noe is currently at work on a translation of the Eirenicon as well. Rester's translation of the Mosaic Polity, then, stands not merely as a worthy contribution to the Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law series, but as part of an exciting retrieval of this great early Reformed doctor.

I have mentioned already the contemporary relevance of this text, and it is certainly a striking reminder that "there is nothing new under the sun." Although the influence of theonomy and Reformed "reconstructionism" has been on the wane for some time, its influence persists in some quarters, and its basic hermeneutical assumptions are still broadly shared even by many who do not accept its radical conclusions. With our reflexive embrace of sola Scriptura and the long separation of the disciplines of theology and law, many of us have difficulty explaining why we shouldn't feel bound by any law that God himself laid down in Scripture.  We gesture vaguely toward "changing times" and "changing circumstances," but then recoil in alarm, or stutter confusedly, when someone suggests this means we should rethink Scripture's prohibition of homosexuality as well. Few of us want to identify as theonomists, but few of us can offer a coherent hermeneutic for sorting out which Scriptural laws continue to bind us, when, where, and how.

Together with Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (published the same year, in fact), Junius's Mosaic Polity offers about the best guide one could ask for through this hermeneutical maze. Responding to the agitations of 16th-century proto-theonomists, Junius argues unambiguously against the idea that contemporary polities must adopt the laws of Moses, yet never dismisses these laws as obsolete and irrelevant. Following a fascinating preface on the importance of the subject, and the ways in which theologians should and should not address political matters, Junius offers a crisp and carefully-arranged set of thirty-eight theses that will structure the rest of his discussion. These begin with a definition of law in general, drawing upon Stoic and Thomistic sources, proceed through a set of distinctions about the various categories of law (eternal, natural, human, divine), and thence through a long series of definitions, distinctions, and particular applications of the Mosaic law, particularly its so-called "judicial laws." Todd Rester has organized the exposition of these theses under eight chapter headings, which helps elucidate the structure of Junius's exposition. 

Much of this argument is structured around the binary of "mutable" and "immutable"; as Junius states succinctly on p. 87, 
"there is a rationale of all human laws so that they have their own immutable part and a mutable part; the former always obligates, whereas the latter obligates according to the persons, matters, and circumstances of those who live under them. . . . A part is immutable, which in its principle, object, and end is conformed to the eternal reason, which God adumbrated in nature or expressed in his word. . . [and] if in human laws there is something beyond this . . . then that is mutable."
Most of the rest of the work is spent unpacking this basic thesis with careful attention to which parts of the Mosaic laws are thus immutable and which mutable. Although not all readers will always agree with Junius's conclusions at each point (for instance, when he spells out under thesis 30 which capital punishments from the Mosaic law should still be enforced), his argumentation is always impressive and instructive. In particular, it should be noted that Junius is not guilty of the frequent caricature of the moral/ceremonial/judicial distinction applied to the Mosaic law: namely, that it anachronistically parcels out laws that may have been simultaneously moral, ceremonial, and judicial in their original context. Junius is well aware that his task as a Christian theologian is to sort out, in light of natural revelation and further special revelation, which aspects of a law are which. He does not simplistically examine a particular law and toss it into one or other of the categories, but patiently analyzes it to distinguish its various elements and ends, so that he can determine which elements are wholly obsolete (ceremonial), which are permanently enduring (moral), and which instructive, deserving of re-application, but not binding in themselves (judicial).  

Of course, all of this depends on the foundation laid in the first twelve theses, in which he treats the various categories of law and explains why the law of Moses should be regarded as a form of "human law" in the first place, rather than, as we might imagine, "divine law." In terms reminiscent of Richard Hooker, he argues that it is the object of a law, rather than its origin, that is determinative for the nature of the law. Thus, while all Scripture is God-breathed, not all Scripture functions in the same way. To be sure, he says, the law of Moses comes from God himself, but to the extent that it regulates everyday, radically mutable human affairs (clothing, eating, exchange, property disputes, etc.), it has the same basic character as other human laws, like the laws of France or England. The only difference (an important one, to be sure) is that we can be confident that all its laws were well-made for their time and place. But that never frees us from the obligation of determining how the underlying intent might best be re-applied in our own times and places.

Although this is not exactly pleasure reading (Junius was a humanist but also very much a scholastic, and this treatise abounds in scholastic distinctions and modes of argumentation), the clarity and precision of the prose have a charm of their own for the philosophically-minded. I am not a good enough Latinist to assess at any length the quality of the translation, but I can say that from the work I have done with the original Latin text for some of my research, Rester's translation seems consistently sound and judicious. He generally opts more for literal precision than for eloquent English, but given the nature of the text, this is probably the right decision. His editorial notes, either providing the original Latin or Greek of key terms, or occasionally explaining a key point or citation, are relatively sparse but helpful and sufficient for the task at hand. Most importantly, his thirty-page introduction, co-written with Andrew McGinnis, offers an excellent overview of Junius's life and work, together with a careful walk-through of the key themes and arguments in this text.
Both translator and editor are to be commended for their diligent labors in bringing this important book back to modern audiences, and we can only hope that the renaissance of Franciscus Junius is only just beginning.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

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