Johannes Althusius was born in Diedenshausen in Westphalia in 1557. Beyond a record of his birth, little is known about his early life. Upon receiving his doctorate in both civil and ecclesiastical law at Basle in 1586, he accepted a position on the faculty of law at the Reformed Academy at Herborn. The greatest achievement of his Herborn years was the publication of the Politica in 1603. Its success was instrumental in securing for Althusius an offer to become municipal magistrate of Emden in East Friesland, which was among the first cities in Germany to embrace the Reformed articles of faith. Althusius accepted the offer in 1604 and exercised an influence comparable to that of Calvin in Geneva; he guided the city without interruption until his death in 1638.
Much of Althusius' thought is indebted to the precepts of Calvinism. John Calvin offers Christian political thinkers a sound theological basis to oppose unjust governments. “We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him, let us not pay the least regard to it,” Calvin writes in the last chapter of his Institutes. Althusius, too, contends in his Politica that because all power and government comes from God, civil authorities cannot use their power to serve their own ends: “[The king] is over individuals in order to administer rightly, to which extent he is the executor, preserver, and minister of the law. Properly speaking, therefore, law is thus over everyone. It is the superior above all...Therefore, if [the king] governs against the rule of law, he becomes punishable by the law...”
For Althusius, as for other Reformational political thinkers, government power must be limited. All human social institutions, including the state, are gifts of God and are accountable to God for what they do; therefore, the state can never have ultimate sovereignty. It, too, is sub Deo. Thus, Althusius can conclude that if ever the state transgresses its divinely ordained authority, it becomes illegitimate. In contrast, the legitimate state is that which “undertakes all actions of its administration according to laws.” Were it not for a code of law that exists outside the purview of state control and manipulation, the state cannot hope to preserve justice. When a state ceases to direct its power toward the common good and attempts to release itself from the power and jurisdiction of God, it forfeits its authority to rule.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Jean-Jacques Boissard (?) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-192