Roman Dutch criminal law and Calvinism: Calvinist morality in De Criminibus (1644) of Antonius Matthaeus II

J. Oosterhuis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


The pervasiveness of Calvinism and Calvinist morality on criminal law in the early modern Dutch Republic, is shown through an analysis of the work of Antonius Matthaeus II, De criminibus (On crimes) of 1644. In Matthaeus’s restatement of criminal law, certain inherent ambiguities of Calvinism become manifest. Matthaeus’s Calvinist conviction becomes particularly evident in contested issues of criminal law. At these places, in discussion with Civil and Canon lawyers, but particularly also with other Reformed theologians and legal scholars, Matthaeus developed his own stance, on how to interpret and explain Roman criminal law and local customary criminal laws in light of the orthodox—Calvinist—religion. Matthaeus’s consequent Calvinism can help to explain certain ‘modern’ opinions, such as his rejection of torture as a mean to achieve confessions. Due to the absolute primacy of divine will and law in De criminibus, the role of natural, practical reason remains quite limited. Indeed, although Matthaeus distinguished between moral and enduring laws with direct bearing on criminal law and religious prescripts without such direct consequence for the law, he failed to give any clear reason or criterion for such distinction. For criminal law, the enduring moral laws were to be found mainly in the Decalogue and the Mosaic Laws that explicated those commandments. According to Matthaeus, these enduring moral laws of the Decalogue corresponded with natural law. Importantly, Matthaeus did not equate all biblical teachings with enduring moral laws valid for the courts on earth. He notably refused to criminalize heresy. Indeed, for Matthaeus apparently many of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles concerned the conscience and what was right before the court of conscience. Matthaeus did not, however, provide a consistent reasoning for the underlying distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ morality. Despite a lack of theoretical clarity in distinguishing between divine and natural law, ‘public’ and ‘private’ morality, and enduring morals laws and religious prescripts, for Matthaeus eventually personal faith and dedication to God was distinct from law: the orthodox religion had to be taught, rather than imposed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCriminal Law and Morality in the Age of Consent
Subtitle of host publicationInterdisciplinary Perspectives
EditorsAncieto Masferrer
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-64163-4
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-64162-7
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Publication series

SeriesIus Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice


  • Criminal law
  • Morality
  • Calvinism
  • Roman-Dutch law
  • Legal history


Dive into the research topics of 'Roman Dutch criminal law and Calvinism: Calvinist morality in De Criminibus (1644) of Antonius Matthaeus II'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this