Sarah Mortimer (New College, Oxford University)

Is Christís Law Universal? Socinianism and the Early Modern Debate upon Natural and Revealed Laws

The development of a system of natural law has often been seen as the seventeenth centuryís response to political instability and to a crisis in intellectual authority. As such, it held out the prospect of a minimal code of ethics sufficient to preserve peace without provoking controversy. The work of men like Grotius and Hobbes can then be seen as part of this drive to secure agreement over the basic principles necessary for human society, principles which, it is assumed, must therefore have divine approval and moral value. Yet some of those who discussed the question of natural law sought to detach it from divine law and to strip it of any moral value; they were adamant that the law brought by Christ was fundamentally different from the natural law. This was the position taken by the Italian religious thinker Faustus Socinus and many of his followers. Their contemporaries were publicly horrified, although it is clear that several scholars took these Socinian ideas very seriously. The question of the relationship between Christianity and natural law was thus brought sharply into focus.

My paper will discuss the distinctive nature of the Socinian understanding of natural law and the law of Christ, and it will consider the consternation which this caused. After outlining the broad issues which were at stake, I shall focus upon the case of England, where the crisis of civil war brought questions of obligation and allegiance to the forefront of political debate. Here, Socinianism was used by leading Royalist propagandists and pamphleteers in order to undermine the legitimacy of Parliamentís resort to arms. Parliament had appealed to the duty of self preservation which, it was argued, was commanded by the law of nature. Royalists denied that such an obligation existed; at best, they claimed, it could be considered a right. This exchange reveals the way in which the Socinian approach to natural law undermined its moral and normative status. Yet Socinians did seek to show that their thin concept of natural law was universal in a way that the divine law simply could not be, and I shall show the importance of this claim. The arguments developed in this period would be crucial for later political thought, particularly that of Thomas Hobbes.

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