Gerard Noodt

In the mid-17th century, a remarkable man rose to the surface of academic life in Europe.

Gerard Noodt lived during the troubled timess of the Dutch-Spanish 80 year war, and was a shining light in the debate on religious freedom for individuals.

Born in 1647 in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, he was the fifth child of Peter Noodt and Gijsbertje Biesman. Nijmegen, established by the Romans and developing into 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 semi-autonomous city republic of sorts. As such, it was unwilling to yield 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 became 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 the 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 a Roman Catholic stronhold, and as such had supported the enemy of the state: the King of Spain. But when the Reformation got underway, its government became divided. As such, in the early days of the “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.

Noodt was a lawyer, in deed one of the few great legal scholars the Dutch republic has known and one of the greatest in Europe.

While the government of the new Netherlands Republic relied heavily on the support of the Calvinistic Reformed Church, another religious movement had started spreading. It was based on the teachings of a Dutch minister named Gomarus 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 Gods allmighty destiny notion, saying it was not grace alone but grace in combination with people’s works that determined eternal destiny. The national debate was strong, and important figures literally lost their heads in it. 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 religious sentiments and a more emotional and extremists’ points of view. He debated that the matter was not a religious one at all. Natural law (ius naturalis), demanded that if a person acted, he could not blame Gods pre-determination for this act. Not God should be held accountable, but the actor himself.

Noodt’s courageous address had come from a scholar of law, a recognized student of Roman law in early modern Europe. He approached the subject  from the standpoint of what we would nowadays call “human rights”. 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 nothing less than law. It was the primary duty of every Christian government, he declared, to sustain this same tolerance toward all.

“It is the duty of everyone to defend Religious Freedom and promote it for all people”

Pope Francis

Using this universal approach, Noodt avoided 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, or a favor, so to speak, by any government. It was an inalienably right  and responsibility of humanity, a “self-evident truth,” akin to the ideas of the founding fathers of the American Constitution a century 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.

Freedom of association, too, was part and parcel of the package. A person had the right to join or leave any church. 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. No prince had the right to rule 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 18th century academics and clergymen, albeit radical or orthodox, progressive or conservative, his address represented a milestone in the long debate regarding religions. 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 United Nations, the European Union and elsewhere. Some have criticized him for not elaborating on the implications of his philosophies. Questions remained. 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.

We, at the Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief (GNF) carry on the banner of Gerard Noodt.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that protects the conscience of all people. It allows us to think, express and act upon what we deeply believe. But around the world, and in the United States, this freedom is eroding. Churches, religious organizations and individuals face increasing restrictions as they participate in the public square, express their beliefs or serve in society.”

Taken from Church of Jesus Christ Newsroom