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Faith, Freedom and Family: An Introduction to the Work of John Witte Jr

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2022

Norman Doe*
Professor and Director, Centre for Law and Religion, Cardiff University Academic Bencher, Inner Temple, London Visiting Fellow, Clare Hall, Cambridge


John Witte Jr is a law and religion scholar of the first order. For decades, as the director of the Emory Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Atlanta, he has played a leading part in the development of the field of law and religion globally. He has written prolifically across a wide range of law and religion subjects. He has nurtured and guided a generation of vibrant scholars who will shape the field for decades to come. He has brought important new insights to law and religion that have animated critical and original law and religion thinking. This article introduces aspects of his work. It examines the personal interest of Witte in law and religion, and the influences on his approach to the field, particularly his Christian upbringing and convictions. It explores his rich and robust understanding of law and religion, around notions of the dialectical interaction between the two, the religiosity of secular law, and the juridical character of religion. It also studies Witte as a historian of law and religion – his quest to retrieve, reconstruct and re-engage historical aspects of law and religion so as to address challenges of today, interdisciplinary, international and inter-religious. In all this, Witte provides a work ethic for Christian scholars in this field in terms of stewardship, accessibility and engagement.

Copyright © Ecclesiastical Law Society, 2022

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This article is based on N Doe, ‘An Introduction to the Work of John Witte, Jr’, in N Doe and G Hauk (eds), Faith, Freedom, and Family: New Essays in Law and Religion (Tübingen, 2021), pp 1–17.


2 Interview with John Witte Jr, 6 May 2015, Handong International Law School, Pohang, South Korea, available at <>, accessed 2 February 2022 (hereafter ‘Handong Interview’).

3 John Witte Jr, Heidelberg Lecture, ‘Promotionsfeier der Theologischen Fakultät’, University of Heidelberg, 8 February 2017, lecture on receiving Doctor of Theology, Honoris Causa (hereafter ‘Heidelberg Lecture’), p 3.

4 Interview with John Witte Jr at the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, Hong Kong, 9 August 2019, available at <>, accessed 2 February 2002 (hereafter ‘Hong Kong Interview’), pp 2 and 13.

5 Handong Interview, p 2.

6 Handong Interview, p 1.

7 Handong Interview, pp 8–10. See, for example, Berman, H, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1983)Google Scholar; Berman, H, Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 2006)Google Scholar; see also his Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion (Grand Rapids, MI, 1993).

8 Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge, 2002). See also J Witte Jr and F Alexander (eds), The Weightier Matters of the Law: Essays on Law and Religion in Tribute to Harold J. Berman (Atlanta, 1988); J Witte Jr, ‘A Conference on the Work of Harold J. Berman’ (1993) 42 Emory Law Journal 419–589; ‘In Praise of a Legal Polymath: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Memory of Harold J Berman (1918–2007)’ (2007) 57 Emory Law Journal 1393–1643; and J Witte Jr and C Manzer, ‘Introduction to Harold J. Berman’, in J Witte Jr (ed), Law and Language: Effective Symbols of Community (Cambridge, 2013), pp 1–35.

9 Handong Interview, p 10.

10 H Dooyeweerd, in A Christian Theory of Social Institutions, J Witte Jr (ed), trans M Verbrugge (Toronto, 1986).

11 See chapter 16 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

12 Handong Interview, p 10. See, eg, his overviews of major eras and shifts in law and religion in chapters 4, 14, 24 and 37 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1) as well as in his ‘Introduction’ to J Witte Jr and F Alexander (eds), Christianity and Law: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2008), pp 1–32; and his introductions to his monographs, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge, 2007); The Sins of the Fathers: The Law and Theology of Illegitimacy Reconsidered (Cambridge, 2009); From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western Tradition (2nd edn) (Louisville, KY, 2012); Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva, 2 vols (Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, 2022); J Witte Jr and J Nichols, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment (4th edn) (Oxford, 2016).

13 Hong Kong Interview, pp 1–2. Kuyper had also been prime minister in the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. See further chapters 1, 2 and 10 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

14 J Witte Jr, ‘The Biology and Biography of Liberty: Abraham Kuyper and the American Experiment’, in L Lugo (ed), Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper's Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids, MI, 2000), pp 243–262.

15 J Witte Jr, ‘God's Joust, God's Justice: The Revelations of Legal History’ (1990) 20 Princeton Theological Seminary Bulletin 295–313.

16 Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), available at <>, accessed 2 February 2022.

17 Handong Interview, p 1.

18 CSLR (note 16).

19 It led to the book J Witte Jr (ed), Christianity and Democracy in Global Context (Boulder, CO, 1993; reprinted London, 2018).

20 See CSLR (note 16).

21 Heidelberg Lecture, pp 1–2. See further chapter 1 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

22 Ibid, 2. See further chapter 11 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

23 See especially chapters 4–9, 14–15, 25–29 and 34–37 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

24 Heidelberg Lecture, pp 1–2.

25 Heidelberg Lecture, p 3. See also J Witte Jr, ‘The Interdisciplinary Growth of Law and Religion’ in F Cranmer et al (eds), The Confluence of Law and Religion: Interdisciplinary Reflections on the Work of Norman Doe (Cambridge, 2016), pp 247–261; ‘The Study of Law and Religion in America: An Interim Report’ (2012) 14 Ecc LJ 327–354; ‘Afterword’, in R Sandberg (ed), Leading Works in Law and Religion (London, 2019), pp 197–205.

26 Hong Kong Interview, p 3.

27 Handong Interview, pp 2, 11–12.

28 Heidelberg Lecture, p 3.

29 See, for example, J Witte Jr et al (eds), Texts and Contexts in Legal History: Essays in Honor of Charles Donahue (Berkeley, CA, 2016); The Weightier Matters of the Law (1988); J Witte Jr, ‘Hugo Grotius and the Natural Law of Marriage: A Case Study of Harmonizing Confessional Differences in Early Modern Europe’, in T Harris (ed), Studies in Canon Law and Common Law in Honor of R. H. Helmholz (Berkeley, CA, 2015), pp 231–50; J Witte Jr, ‘Canon Law in Lutheran Germany: A Surprising Case of Legal Transplantation’, in M Hoeflich (ed), Lex et Romanitas: Essays for Alan Watson (Berkeley, CA, 2000), pp 181–224. See further chapters 11–13, 17–24 and 35–37 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

30 Heidelberg Lecture, p 3.

31 Handong Interview, pp 10–11.

32 Ibid, pp 15–16. See also, for example, J Witte Jr, ‘What Christianity Offers to the World of Law’ (2017) 32 Journal of Law and Religion 4–97. See further chapter 2 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

33 Hong Kong Interview, pp 9–10.

34 See, for example, J Witte Jr, ‘Christianity and Human Rights’ (2015) 30 Journal of Law and Religion 353–495; J Witte Jr and F Alexander (eds), Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2010); Witte, note 19.

35 See, for example, J Witte Jr and J van der Vyver (eds), Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective: Legal Perspectives (Dordrecht, 1996); J Witte Jr and M Broyde (eds), Human Rights in Judaism: Cultural, Religious and Political Perspectives (New York, 1998); J Witte Jr and M Christian Green (eds), Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction (Oxford, 2012); J Witte Jr and M Bourdeaux (eds), Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New War for Souls (Maryknoll, NY, 1999); J Witte Jr and R Martin (eds), Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism (Maryknoll, NY, 2000).

36 Heidelberg Lecture, pp 4–6.

37 J Witte Jr, ‘Foreword’, in N Doe (ed), Church Laws and Ecumenism (Abingdon, 2020), pp vii–ix.

38 Heidelberg Lecture, pp 4–6.

39 For example, the contribution of Emory Center member J van der Vyver, ‘African Traditional Religion and Indigenous Perspectives on the Environment’, in M Christian Green (ed), Law, Religion and the Environment in Africa (Stellenbosch, 2020), pp 333–342. See further J Witte Jr and F Alexander (eds), Modern Christian Teachings on Law, Politics, and Human Nature, 2 vols (New York, 2005) (on Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox thinkers). The Cambridge Studies on Christianity and Law series that Witte edits and the Routledge Law and Religion Series that I edit include several commissioned studies on ‘great Christian jurists in world history’ from across the Christian world. See further chapter 3 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

40 Hong Kong Interview, pp 3–4.

41 Heidelberg Lecture, p 4.

42 See, for example, N Doe, Comparative Religious Law: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Cambridge, 2018); N Doe, Christian Law: Contemporary Principles (Cambridge, 2013).

43 Heidelberg Lecture, p 3. See, for example, J Witte Jr and G Hauk (eds), Christianity and Family Law: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2017); N Doe (ed), Christianity and Natural Law: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2017); R Domingo and J Witte Jr, Christianity and Global Law (London, 2020). The Emory Center has commissioned a score of other such ‘introductions’ to Christianity and law for publication in the Routledge Law and Religion Series and the Cambridge Studies in Christianity and Law series.

44 M Hill, N Doe, R Helmholz and J Witte Jr (eds), Christianity and Criminal Law (London, 2020). The roundtable in London (October 2018) also allowed new friends to hear the power of his preaching at the Temple Church, London (prominent in the genesis of Magna Carta and mother church of the common law).

45 This was later abridged and translated as J Witte Jr, The Foundations of Faith, Freedom, and the Family, trans H Ohki and Y Takasaki (Tokyo, 2008) (Japanese edition).

46 J Witte Jr, The Blessings of Liberty: Human Rights and Religious Freedom in the Western Tradition (Cambridge, 2021).

47 Heidelberg Lecture, p 3.

48 Handong Interview. See also his Church, State, and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings and Modern Liberties (Cambridge, 2019). On these volumes and their critics, see further chapters 35 and 37 of Faith, Freedom, and Family (note 1).

49 The quotations from Church, State, and Family, pp xiv, 365 and 377. The reviewer is Russell Sandberg: (2020) 22 Ecc LJ 260–263.

50 Heidelberg Lecture, p 4.

51 In 2017 Witte attended a symposium that helped to inspire the publication of R Sandberg (ed), Leading Works in Law and Religion (London, 2018), and on the same visit delivered a magisterial lecture to mark 500 years since the Reformation – later published as ‘From Gospel to Law: The Lutheran Reformation and its Impact on Legal Culture’ (2017) 19 Ecc LJ 271–291.

52 Ahdar, R (ed), Research Handbook on Law and Religion (Cheltenham, 2018), p 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Handong Interview, pp 11–12.

54 Doe, N and Hauk, G (eds), Faith, Freedom, and Family: New Essays on Law and Religion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021)Google Scholar.