In the mid-17th century, a remarkable man rose to the surface of academic life in Europe.
His name was Gerard Noodt. Born in 1647 in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, he was the fifth child of Peter Noodt and Gijsbertje Biesman. Nijmegen, originally a Roman city that became a royal domain and imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire, was later pawned to the Duke of Guelders. Still, like a number of other Dutch towns, it considered itself a kind of semi-autonomous city republic. As such, it was unwilling to bow to principalities from within or without—a typical Dutch character trait.
This spirit of independence didn’t sit well with the central government of the Seven United Netherlands Republics to which the city belonged. That was particularly evident in the attitude of the Republic’s Stadhouder or Lieutenant, who acted as the bonding agent in the loose federation of independent republics. Just as the city was used to crossing swords with the Spanish, Germans, and French, so it often clashed with the Stadhouder himself.
A second battleground existed, this one on the religious front. The city was originally Roman Catholic and had supported the King of Spain. But when the Reformation got underway, its government became divided. So in the early days of the so-called Eighty-Years War of Independence, the city vacillated back and forth between the king of Spain and the Prince of Orange. And if that wasn’t bad enough, hostilities arose during the Twelve-Years Armistice in the early 17 th century, the period in which Gerard Noodt was born.
While the government of the new Netherlands Republic relied heavily on the support of the Calvinistic Reformed Church, another religious movement had started spreading, based on the doctrines of a Dutch minister named Armenius. Calvin had proclaimed the “absolute doctrine of predestination.” God’s hand not merely ruled humanity, he claimed, but each individual was destined beforehand to go to either heaven or hell—not because of a person’s works, but simply as the wind of God’s grace would blow. Arminius strongly contested that idea, saying it was not grace alone but grace in combination with works that determined a person’s eternal destiny. The upper bourgeois, to which Gerard and his family belonged, especially tended to follow Arminius. Freedom of choice appealed to them more than man’s unconditional fate as touted by the Calvinists.
Fearing that internal religious contention would hamper the Republic’s ability to withstand Roman Catholic Spain when the Armistice was over, the Stadhouder decided to throw his sword in the balance, tipping it in favor of the Calvinists. From then on, Calvinist ministers made short work of Armenius’ church. Its ministers had to either publicly renounce their liberal beliefs or they and their families would go to jail Such was the world in which Gerard Noodt grew up—political struggles, warfare, and religious intolerance.
Gerard studied law and lectured at a number of Dutch universities, where he developed his ideas about the nature of man and humanity’s inalienable rights. In 1706, while serving as a professor at the renowned University of Leiden, he gave an address that rocked Dutch academic society, and later, European society as well. This was a time when the “conscience europeenne,” as a French scholar called it, was in crisis. Others before him had tackled the subject of freedom of conscience and religion in public, but from more emotional and extremists’ points of view.
Noodt’s courageous address had come from a scholar of law, a recognized student of Roman law in early modern Europe; and his address was given at the renowned University of Leiden. He had approached the subject from the standpoint of natural law, and the principles he set forth represented a hallmark in the history of ideas. He illustrated how the political and religious tolerance the world around him had exercised in the emergence of the Netherlands Republic was based on the natural law of nations. It was the primary duty of every Christian government, he declared, to sustain this same tolerance toward all.
Using this universal approach, Noodt was able to avoid the government turning against him for undermining its authority. And his main message had come across: Freedom of conscience or religion was not merely a matter of tolerance—a favor, so to speak, by any government. It was an inalienably right of humanity, a “self-evident truth,” as the founding fathers of the American Constitution called it decades later. Among the points Noodt laid down was that each individual had the right to ascertain his own religious beliefs. God had created man with a natural inclination to seek what he deemed good and to avoid what he deemed evil. Man, therefore, was possessed of an inherent freedom to compare and to choose—to decide for himself, even in matters of religion.
Man thus also had freedom of association. He had the right to join any church, and also to leave it again if he wished. Religion was ultimately free from the influence of civil authority. As no one in his natural state had the right to pronounce judgment on God, so no prince had the right to judge in matters of religion. Although Gerard didn’t elaborate on the implications and possible consequences of his thesis, he made his main points well. They refuted the idea that it is legitimate to use force in matters of conscience.
Shortly thereafter, Gerard Noodt’s address at the University of Leiden was translated into French under the title, “Discours sur la liberte de conscience,” into German as “ Rede von der Freiheit des Gewissens,” and into English as “The Right of Liberty of Conscience.” To many 18 th century academics and clergymen—radical or orthodox, progressive or conservative—his address represented a milestone in the long debate over tolerance. It later found its way into the debates that ultimately led to the declaration, “Les droits des hommes,” of the French Revolution and to the Declaration of Independence on the American continent.
The principles Gerard Noodt defended are still regarded as a platform for ongoing debates about freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the European Union and abroad. Some have criticized him for not elaborating on the implications of his philosophies. He laid down principles, but what would be the effects of their implementation? What was religion, in fact? Did he mean Christian religion? If so, how would one define what is Christian? Or did he mean religion based solely on the Bible? Was Roman Catholicism—which Calvinists regarded as not truly Christian because it was based on priests, not solely on the Bible—under the same protection of freedom of conscience and religion? And what about the Jews, or anyone who didn’t adhere to the Trinity as it was then understood? What exactly was conscience? Could conscience exist without religion? Could atheism, too, be considered a religion? Could having no belief at all, or not knowing what to believe, be considered as conscience? And so forth.
The importance of Noodt’s work lay not just in his ideas. They had been proclaimed by others before him. Rather, it lay in their intellectual foundation, the how and why of these timeless principles. Realizing that the devil was in the details, he withstood the temptation of discussing particulars. Many questions raised were related to the parochial world in which he lived, to the particular circumstances of his day. Such issues would not long persist in the future, and they didn’t relate to the world outside. It was never Noodt’s intention to change his world through his lectures and publications. Nor did he want to mingle his philosophies with the scriptures of holy writ. He had no desire to dominate others and thus abrogate the very conscience he held so high. His view extended much broader than that.
His dearest wish was to open the door for discussion and debate that would continue into the future. It was not to set a stage for delving into details. For that reason, his name fits well into today’s challenge of implementing the standard of Freedom of Conscience and Religion as laid down in the foundation of the European Union. Each listener or reader is free to use his own background, thoughts and intellect to expand upon these ideas.