The Thought and Influence of Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.


In many ways, as it is hoped will be demonstrated, the influence of van Prinsterer is a window into the society and culture of the Netherlands, not only with what he drew on, but what he fought for, and what he left to posterity, including to the worldwide Reformed Christian witnessWhether one begins with his conception of a Christian worldview as being fundamentally a biblical one, or his history of his nation in the world, or the growth and opposition to the effects of the revolutionary spirit of France of 1789, or the battle for Christian schools that were truly biblical in the base of every disciple. His emphasis in anti-revolutionary politics, Christian education, and societal reform, and Reformed orthodox theology and philosophy was and remains immense. Agree or disagree with him on one or all of the many issues he opined on and fought for, no one can deny his stature as a father of the Netherlands who will never be forgotten. This paper will only be able to scratch the surface on some of these points, but to zero in on only one or two would take away from his chief genius – being a true all-of-life thinker and mover.

Sola Scriptura and Tota Scriptura.

These two latin phrases denote two of several solas of the reformers, and those like van Prinsterer, who followed in their steps and lineage. They mean not only sola scriptura, or living based on scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, living by the totality of the inerrant word. Weinberger is one of the who rightly acknowledge this as van Prinsterer’s only foundation and stand alone axiom for his worldview in every sphere of life.Groen became convinced that active Christian involvement in society wa essential. In his lectures and writing, “Groen urge[d] fellow Christians to re-read the Scriptures in order to understand the responsibility they have to shape the history of this world to the glory of God.1

This foundation and sole axiom of van Prinsterer’s must not be overlooked.Sewell wrote the following regarding Unbelief and Revolution: “Groen’s thinking was deeply historical. That said, Unbelief and Revolution is not only of historical interest, because its central message continues to be deeplyrelevant to crucial questions that continue to confront the west. The whole work is also an argument based on a biblically directed understanding of the human condition and the course of human history.2  There can be no doubt that for van Prinsterer, the Scriptures were the one foundational axiom of his worldview – a view of human nature, and history of a sovereign God.

A Biblical Christian Worldview,3 Sphere Sovereignty and Biblical Inerrancy.4

Van Prinsterer was the first to coin the phrase ‘sphere sovereignty’ (Dutch: soevereiniteit in eigen kring). By this he meant, first of all, that the church and the state were separate spheres of activity, both subject to the sovereignty of God and his word. Many believe that it was first coined by Kuyper, but the latter was simply following the former, in both ‘worldview’ thinking, and the ‘sphere sovereignty’ paradigm. Contrary to both these men, Dooyeweerd and his followers, such as The Institute of Christian Studies morphed the paradigm into a kind of so-called ‘reformational’ conception of natural law philosophy, now divorced from an inerrant scriptural revelation, ie., actually opposed to the philosophy of Calvin and the other Reformers, which was carried forward by van Prinsterer, and Kuyper, as well as Bavinck.5 

Influenced by the Reveil, the Dutch version of the evangelical awakening, the latter three combined an orthodox theology, adhering to an inerrant word, while living out their faith in the social, including political, and cultural spheres of the whole of life. It was clearly his orthodox Reformed biblical theology which also led van Prinsterer and later Kuyper, to posit the paradigm of an antithetical culture war. In particular, for van Prinsterer, the revolutionary thought that found expression in the French revolution of 1789, and all secular humanist revolutions following it in the same philosophical vein, were completely antithetical and antagonistic to a biblically reformed worldview. Ironically, by departing from an inerrant scripture, Dooyeweerd in fact followed the pattern of the faux-evangelicals or the neo-orthodoxy of Berkouwer and Barth that repudiated the evangelical position, the latter later finding expression in The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy

Thankfully we have the translation by Ruben Alvarado of A. A. van Ruler’s thoughts on the phrase, and how van Prinsterer emphasized this axiom more than Kuyper and certainly opposed later on with Dooyeweerdians. “Kuyper under sovereignty in worldly things never fully understood the sovereignty of God in Christ, and so also the sovereignty of God’s Word. His doctrine of common grace hindered him. This had a diluting effect. But it should be recognized that Kuyper fought that much harder for the sovereignty of God, even though one is always in doubt as to whether it was the sovereignty of the triune God, or the sovereignty of God-in-general, for which he fought. But he fought for it in all areas of life.”6

It is the clarifying thoughts of van Ruler that this writer believes best expresses also the unique approach of van Prinsterer, or to put it in another fashion, van Ruler may be more in line with van Prinsterer than either Kuyper and certainly Dooyeweerd. “I have already indicated its weaknesses: it leaves the sovereignty of the grace of God in Christ in the background; for this reason it understands the European reality not startingfrom the salvation of the Lord but through common grace, from creation, and therefore is no longer able fully to proclaim the sovereignty of the Word of God; it hesitates between the sovereignty of the triune God, i.e., the God of revelation, and the sovereignty of God-in-general , i.e., the God of the philosophers; it is therefore too hazy about whether it really means that every sphere has its own sovereignty, or whether each sphere in itself is sovereign.”7 One can long for the day when both van Prinsterer and van Ruler have more of their work translated into English. This writer would also reject the extreme of van Ruler, in limiting the spheres to his triangle of family-church-and state, although he did write of many ‘spheres’. The other extreme is Dooyeweerd, with as many spheres as there are separate thoughts.

Pillarization in the Political Arena.

From what had come to refer to the different denominations in the Netherlands, where each defended their own, van Prinsterer and Kuyper, in large part because of their strict adherence to the inerrant authority of the protestant canon, could see no compromise with the worldview of secular humanism. From this evolved van Prinsterer moving away from fighting for state biblically reformed schools, to the equal treatment of all schools, both financially and in law. While some view this pillarization in a negative light, it was in point of fact the only way to reconcile such fundamental differences, and would give birth to a kind of proportional representation for politics, that many look positively on today. Better to respect one’s conscience and vote in the like-minded and then to work on compromise, rather than bar whole segments out of the larger body politic altogether. Van Prinsterer’s entire treatment of the revolution was to expose its worldview basis as being one of unbelief, to which he opposed with scriptural revelation, and it just so happened that many could support this anti-revolutionary objective politically, with Kuyper later becoming PM, if not the biblical basis for it. 

When speaking of sovereignty alone, it was van Prinsterer’s practice to contrast God’s sovereignty with that of the secular sovereignty of man. The issue with the phrase as it later came to be understood, was whether there are “relatively independent entities in the social order generating their own laws.” It is the argument of this brief, that this was not the position of van Prinsterer, that the war was between autonomous human reason as a source of truth, and the inerrant truth of the protestant canon. It is perhaps the case that although Kuyper may have based his concept of ‘sphere sovereignty’ on God creating the separate species, or somehow being implied in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26, that he could have been more direct in giving a scriptural basis. Perhaps there was a sense where both he and van Prinsterer took it for granted that this would be understood of them from the entire bodies of their works.


It is with the other anti-revolutionaries that the Common Law Review places van Prinsterer. “Anti-revolutionary thinkers generally developed the social theory whereby the social entities are not creatures of state power but are autonomous, self-generating, and self-regulating. Groen van Prinsterer was one of them.”8 It seems to this writer that they actually prove the point defended here, that van Prinsterer was the first to employ the phrase ‘sphere sovereignty’ and paid homage to the memory of Stahl in his treatment concerning politics and law.The following is probably the fairest that the Review (above) gives as to the relationship of these similar thinkers, and how it leads to a better understanding of van Prinsterer. “If one peruses Groen’s work and takes into account the ubiquity of the phrase indicating independence, autonomy, self-reliance “in eigen kring” or “in eigen sfeer,”[6] then there can be no doubt as to the provenance of Kuyper’s similar usage, “albeit with the one crucial difference, that “an accurately formulating lawyer like Groen”[7] would not go so far as to attribute sovereignty to all the “spheres” in society generally, which as we noted is juridically irresponsible.”9 Numan rightly critques the Dooyeweerdian conception of ‘sphere sovereignty’, but really draws no connection to Kuyper, whom he does claim to be critiquing. It has been the experience of this former member of the Canadian Reformed church that they never employ scripture in critiquing those who want to see it critique secular humanistic culture.10

In Conclusion.   

There are some significant parallels to the Canadian experience which could have benefitted from the leadership like van Prinsterer. Initially in Ontario there was to be Roman Catholic and Protestant schools, but when the latter went secular those wanting a Biblical Christian worldview were forced, and still are, to pay taxes to the public systems, while building their own. This effort has been led by many within the Reformed community, like Runner and others behind Redeemer University, after they had established Christian primary and secondary institutions. Groen rightly saw how significant it was to shift gears from trying to return the state education system to its Christian roots, to setting out on their own, and people like Groen fighting for a level financial playing field. Evangelicals of all stripes have also followed suit, many transforming bible colleges to a broader liberal arts and science curriculum, largely because the paradigm of a biblical worldview has permeated into the Evangelical mindset, of which the Reformed Dutch had a leading role. Furthermore, the pandemic has opened the eyes of many parents, even non-religious ones, to the bankruptcy of the public system, and the selfishness of its teacher’s unions. 

Van Prinsterer was a man of various roles and interests. Besides planting the seeds of the Anti-Revolutionary, to be carried forward by a like-minded man in Kuyper, their worldview propelled them to engage in the political arena, where they could preserve their distinctiveness, while cooperating with others, like the Roman Catholics, to fight common battles. They may have laid the foundation for a possibility in western democracies like Canada, to move to proportional representation. If this development is not made then this country will split apart, which is something that van Prinsterer did not want to see happen to his Netherlands. Groen also developed a Biblical view of history as part of his worldview, and to this day is highly esteemed as a historian not only of the Dutch, but also as a critic of the French Revolution from a biblical or revelational perspective, the consequences having proved his thesis. In this respect he was in-line with both Stahl and Burke.

Above all else, Groen had a living personal relationship with Christ, as one born again In the context of the Reveil, so that he combined doctrinal fidelity with a living faith, both of which expressed themselves in every area of life, including serving the poor and disadvantaged. He was also in that stream of thought and practice which fought for tolerance, ever believing that discussion and compromise where needed, and was better than revolution. There remain but two choices – revelation or revolution.Groen formulated the following as his “Christian- historical Testament, as the end of life draws near: 

    With the publican’s prayer: 0 God, be merciful to me, a sinner.      

    With the wisdom of the Heidelberg Catechism: my only comfort in life and death. 

    With the shout of joy: I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

    With the battle-cry of the Reformation: Put on the whole armour of God, and the 

    sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Verbum Dei manet in aeternum: The

    Word of God endures forever. 

    With the motto: Not a statesman! A confessor of the gospel.11 

End Notes.

1.   p. 51 He contuse this point, quoting from Groen’s UR (Unbelief and Revolution): “This is where the centrality of the reformed emphasis on preaching the Word of God is evident: ‘The preaching of the gospel is the lever whereby world history is made to serve the execution of God’s counsel.’ (45, UR, 81). 

Groen was not against all tradition, but as Sewell also pointed out “Groen observes that the Reformation called for freedom from tradition only where tradition contradicted Scripture.” (44)

2.   pp. 43-4

3.   Cf. Ryken for a brief but adequate summary of this Evangelical and Reformed Christian understanding of ‘worldview’, an even briefer treatment being pp. 17-32, and as that which includes but also goes beyond philosophy to include a whole of life outlook or perspective. It is also the case that the Dutch thinkers tended to bind themselves to the fourfold paradigm of creation, fall, redemption, and glory (34).

4.   Cf. Wikipedia for a contrary conception in support of an equal understanding of van Prinsterer, Kuyper, and Dooyeweed. ‘Sphere Sovereignty’. Domenico, Roy P.; Hanley, Mark Y. (1 January 2006). Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Politics. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 102. ISBN 9780313323621. “It is rooted in the European Christian democratic tradition, particularly as developed in the Netherlands by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876), Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), and Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). The principle of “sphere sovereignty” or what has more recently come to be called “differentiated responsibility,” is the most characteristic feature of this tradition and undergirds a nonliberal approach to the limited state.” Such that “Roman Catholics agreeing “that the principles of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity boiled down to the same thing, although this was at odds with Dooyeweerd’s development of sphere sovereignty, which he held to be significantly distinct from subsidiarity.” The following, contra Wikipedia, could only be said of van Prinsterer and Kuyper, namely that, “This duty is reserved to the Word of God, held by Protestantism to be sovereign, i.e., beyond the control of either church or state.” Rather, it is the following which became true of the Dooyeweerdians that, “Neither the state nor the church (including the teaching of the scriptures as pertains to science) can dictate predetermined conclusions to a scientific organization, school or university. Applicable laws are those relative to that sphere only.” On this conception of so-called ‘natural law’ they have become a Protestant form of established RCC dogma. See the Canadian perspective and reference to Roman Catholic subsidiarianism – Cardus. Cf. also Weinberger.

5.   Some suggest that the turn away from a scriptural base may have in fact occurred with Kuyper, since the claim is that no direct quotes from scripture can be found for his conception (Jess).

6.   Alvarado,

7.   van Ruler –

8.   Pt. 1 This Review even suggests, in reference to Schilder, that it should not be combined with ‘sphere’. “It comes perilously close to the social contract theory whereby the individuals making up the polity are all sovereign and pool their sovereignty to form the sovereign state. This theory is of course anathema to any anti-revolutionary.” This seems to this writer to be an needless game of semantics. Pt. 3 is as follows: In an attempt to set Kuyper’s originality apart, Harinck argues that Kuyper moves from a historical to an ontological form of sphere sovereignty, whereby sphere sovereignty moves out of the political sphere (Calvin’s exposition) – the doctrine of lesser magistrates – to society at large. But such an “ontological” form of sphere sovereignty whereby the various societal entities exist in their own right and by their own laws was already postulated by Althusius (of which more below), and was already being developed in detail juridically by the historians of Germanic law (which they called Volksrecht as being derived from the people as opposed to the state), Georg Beseler and Otto (von) Gierke. Beseler and Gierke developed the theory of Genossenschaftsrecht(law of associations), fleshing out, in opposition to what they understood to be the individualism of Roman law and indeed social contract theory generally, the innate associationalism of Germanic law. Van Eikema Hommes provides an excellent description of this project (follow this link). 

9.   For further work in this area, one should look to Ruben Alvarado and his self-publishing company ‘Wordbridge Publishing’, and his The Debate That Changed The West: Grotius versus Althusius (Aalten, The Netherlands: Pantocrator Press, 2018) and A Common Law: The Law of Nations and Western Civilization. (Aalten, The Netherlands, 1999).

10.  Numan, Jelte – Sadly, as it seems to this writer, the ‘two seeds’ they practice is the Dutch against the rest. Van Prinsterer is the one who saw the ‘two seeds’ biblically, as did Kuyper, as regenerate covenant keepers and the rest, which did not preclude fruitful cooperation in every legitimate sphere of life, a position that was carried forward in North America by men like Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, and the theonomic or reconstructionist movement consistent with the work of van Prinsterer and van Ruler. This writer gave extensive authorial and scriptural support for this position in their magazine The Clarion, and the response, times three, failed to respond to either. 

11.  Schutte, 131-2.


Alvarado, Ruben –

Chaplin, Jonathan –

Jesse, Dan –

Godfrey, W. Robert “Calvin and Calvinism in the Netherlands.” In John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World. Reid W. Stanford Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 95-120.

Numan, Jelte –

Schlebusch, Jan Adriaan 2018. Strategic Narratives Groen van Prinsterer as Nineteenth-Century Statesman-Historian. PhD thesis. University of Groningen.

_________, Democrat or traditionalist? The epistemology behind Groen van 

Prinsterer’s notion of political authority.

Schutte, Gerrit J. 2005. Groen van Prinsterer: His Life and Work translated by Harry Van Dyke. Publisher’s Imprint, 2005.
The text of this translation is based on Schutte’s book of 1976 entitled Mr. G. Groen van Prinsterer (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre) 

Sewell, Keith C.

Van Essen, Jante Lubbegiena and Morton, Herbert Donald. Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer: Selected Studies. (Jordan station, Onatario: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1990.

Van Prinsterer, Guillaume Groen. Unbelief and Revolution: A series of Lectures in History.

Van Ruler, A. A. “Sphere Sovereignty and the Theocratic Triangle.”

Weinberger, Lael Daniel – In M. Evans and A. Zimmermann (eds.) ‘Global Perspectives on Subsidiary, Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice 37. 

Wikipedia ‘Sphere Sovereignty’.

*NOTE the following, which were listed in an original bibliography, but could not be consulted for financial reasons.

Smitskamp, H. 2017. Building a Nation on Rock or Sand. (Translated by Harman Boersema). Ontario: Guardian Books, 2017.

Van Dyke, Harry. Challenging the Spirit of Modernity: A Study of Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolutionby Harry Van Dyke (Lexham Press, 2019).

Van Prinsterer, Guillaume Groen. Christian Political Action In An Age Of Revolution  

____________, The Anti-Revolutionary Principle, trans. J. Faber (Grand Rapids: Groen Van Prinsterer Society, 1956).

**Some possible works not yet translated.

Your Resume And Then Some.

Having a Christian mind in the workplace and one’s job or career is a challenge for many of us. One thing to consider is your resume or cv (curricular vitae). How honest should you be? Personally I am having to think about this as I find myself without a job and needing a new one. Do I tell prospective employers that I was terminated from my last employment because I was diagnosed with asthma? Or do I withhold that information and simply say I have taken a sabbatical to further my education? I have come to the conclusion that I need to do both, because both are true. Call it my puritan training on sins of commission and omission, but what is the value of hiding the reality and applying for a job that I will no longer be able to perform. I think it is better to see the possibilities. In my case it is seeing how my gifts in teaching can be combined with my vast experience and training as a power engineer to help train the next generation. So I am taking the opportunity to turn this time into a sabbatical where I upgrade my training to a 1st class, opening up even more possibilities than teaching, and also having current experience myself as to what it is like to be a student of power gen in  my generation. The fact is I self-studied for most of my PE upgrades, as most of us do.

So, you may not have anything identical with my experience, but what is wrong with telling a future employer, that perhaps you lost your job because of Covid-19, and you have taken this time off to expand your skill set so that you could have more to offer either your old employer, or for a new one? This might even mean choosing to take this opportunity to make that career change you have always dreamed about. Perhaps you have a skill that others need and want, that you could convey online, as many are doing, to enrich the lives and culture you live in. I have been through a lot of job experiences in life, and the ramifications in life that go along with this. I joke that you have not lived until you have been downsized, have no food in the fridge, and you have been evicted from your home. Believe me, this will humble you. I have also been blessed with great responsibility and a six figure salary, and with Paul have learned to be content with both. However, I must say, I would rather the latter, and share what I don’t need.

Some say that there are four things that will severely shake your world – loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a home, or loss of your health. I have experienced all these, and sometimes more than one at once. We have to have a firm belief in the sovereignty of God’s providence, and his love for us his children. Next, we need to see this in the phrase that Paul used – “all things working together,” in other words, get a global view of what is happening to you, there is an inter-relationship of the all things “working together” and not just in isolation, that also speaks to us. Next, do an assessment of your gifts, or a re-assessment, and see if you are not perhaps being forced to expand your fruit bearing in areas you never thought of. Talk to friends and those whom you respect, and get their feedback, but not just one such person, get many, because some people can get you all wrong, including family, or pastors and others in authority, including your parents. Above all pray. The Lord is always praying for us, so you are really just drawing by his side and asking him to help you understand what he has in mind for you.

Schaeffer’s Epistemology – Contra Van Til And The Van Tillians.

Schaeffer’s Epistemology – Contra Van Til And The Van Tillians.

In my humble opinion, their is a huge swath of reformed thinking on the subject of epistemology, or the theory and study of knowledge, or knowing how we know anything, that recklessly followed uncritically the theory of Van Til’s analogical conception. This is well known with regards to Clark’s critique of Van Til’s conception of the incomprehensibility of God, especially when Westminster Seminary had to be disciplined for wrongly accusing Clark of departing from the biblical testimony in this regard. In fact, a strong case could be made that it was Van Til who departed from the scriptures in this area. This was proven very ably by Clark, but it was also repudiated by Francis Schaeffer. The evangelicals, myself included, can be thankful that we had Schaeffer to explain biblical epistemology, but the irony is that Schaeffer was a reformed Presbyterian, when it was Van Til who caused the OPC and Westminster to lean toward the quasi-reformed perspective of Calvin College and Seminary, and the Christian Reformed Church.

One could write a treatise on how the analogical theory of Van Til has tainted what would could have been a far more significant contribution to the reformed tradition in our culture than it had. As it is, it was the men who had a biblical conception of epistemology who were able to construct a comprehensive worldview to meet the modern and post-modern worldviews head on. Men like Clark, Henry, and Schaeffer were able to put forward what is the only justification of true knowledge possible, namely that which is rooted in the scriptures and a thorough conception of its theology, and a full orbed conception of what it means to serve God as his image bearers. Like Clark, Schaeffer argued that even though our knowledge of God and all he has made, is not exhaustive, nevertheless, based upon the revelation of holy scripture, what we do know is true knowledge because it is univocal with God’s revelation of what is true. In his ‘He Is There And He Is Not Silent’, Schaefer dealt with the subject of epistemology, in the form of a primer.

Although he does not name Van Til or those who espouse his view, he did clearly oppose his conception of incomprehensibility. Van Til could not seem to get his head around the idea that although God is indeed ontologically separate from humanity he created, this did not mean that we have a different epistemological conception of truth. In fact, it is part of being created in his image that we are able to receive that which God has chosen to reveal, in both general and special revelation. To suggest otherwise actually makes it impossible for humanity to have any confidence that there is in fact ‘true truth’ as Schaeffer put it. In an age that is submerged in the post modernist soup of relativism, Van Tillians have no answer to the biblical conception of true truth. In the above work alone we find the following. “In the Reformation…we find that there is someone there to speak, and that he has told us about two areas. He has spoken first about himself, not exhaustively but truly; and second, he has spoken about history and about the cosmos, not exhaustively but truly.”(62)

Schaeffer made the point that one need not have exhaustive knowledge to have true knowledge. In this sense, any subject is incomprehensible to us. In other words, our knowledge is quantitatively different from God’s but not qualitatively different. “We cannot even communicate with each other exhaustively, because we are finite. But he tells us truly – even truth about himself.”(79) On this point we have something else to show the absolute necessity of special revelation for any justification for true knowledge, namely that one can only have true knowledge if one does receive this knowledge from someone who does know all things exhaustively, and brings this to each subject of knowing. We have logical grounds for stating that the only grounds for true knowledge, is the special revelation of holy scripture, since it was given by one who does have exhaustive knowledge. This knowledge is qualitatively the same as that received by his creatures, who are able to receive it because they have been created in his image. What obscures that true truth is the fallen nature of humanity which seeks to suppress that truth in unrighteousness.

‘Creation Regained’ by Albert M. Wolters

One will find this work referred to often in works on the worldview concept. The title highlights a significant point of any Biblical worldview, that it involves the regaining of a worldview that takes into account of the need to begin where the bible begins, with creation. The word ‘regained’ speaks to the central paradigm of this work, in that any biblical worldview must also take into account the fall, and redemption which has the full scope of regaining or restoring the whole of the created order. This also has the advantage of showing that the scope of redemption is something more than personal salvation. Getting ‘saved’, so to speak, extends beyond the private sphere of the individual, to include a call to properly fulfill the original creation mandate to exercise dominion as God’s stewards in the world.

Wolters seeks to argue that this is ‘a reformational worldview’, and it is important to bear in mind that this is not ‘the’ reformed worldview. In other words, there can be different reformed worldviews, just as there may be different ‘Christian’ worldviews, and even different ‘Biblical’ worldviews. To this end it is important to point out that Wolters’ worldview is that which stems from the Dutch tradition that he lists as having its roots in the thought of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, and D.H.T. Vollenhoven (1). It is important to note however, that these men still had their own unique contributions. The fact is, the school which Wolters represents, owes more to Dooyeweerd than to anyone else, as any cursory examination will show.

One should commend the “deep desire to be obedient to the Scriptures in all areas of life and service.” (1) Wolters’ basic definition of what a worldview is a simple one and succinct – “the comprehensive framework of one’s basic beliefs about things.” (2) Nevertheless, his so-called ‘reformational’ perspective is not without its flaws. A key flaw, as this reviewer would suggest, is the positing of the idea of ‘law’ to include all those matters that reformed authors in the past have explained more specifically through other more consistently biblical terms and perspectives. For example, he wants to use the word ‘law’ for what has always been referred to as God’s ongoing active work of providence. Ironically he posits a so-called ‘law of creation’ that he argues will help guard against a concept of creation that may slip into Deism, when the very idea of ‘law’ is more likely to be subject to this danger (12-18)

He has to refer to terms used in the past, like ‘providence’, and ‘wisdom’, and ‘word’ to explain his novel conception of law, when the former speaks far more to the personal active living activity of God as we find it in the scriptures themselves. The fact of the matter is, reformed scholars spent a great deal of time in the past, continuing to the present, to disabuse people of thinking of God’s sovereign personal activity in sustaining the whole of creation against an idea of the so-called ‘laws of nature’, as simply the normal way in which God’s is active in the world. It is the biblical and reformed understanding of providence, and in particular the idea of covenant, that emphasizes the personal nature of God’s sovereign rule in and over all things. It is this personal aspect that is so much missing from the various secular conceptions of reality that make of God’s sovereign activity idols of their own construction.

Wolters even admits to this weakness in the following two-point admission of his novel use of ‘law’. “The first is that the word ‘law’ has to be stretched somewhat from its ordinary meaning to accommodate the sense of “particular command.” We do not usually use ‘law’ in this sense, although it is clearly very close in meaning to “command” and does bear this wider meaning in expressions such as “his word is law.” The second is that the universal validity of God’s law reflects his constancy in dealing with his creatures. We must not understand universal validity as entailing the absolute sense of a metaphysical determinism divorced from God’s personal characteristics of faithfulness or trustworthiness (Hebrew ’emet, “truth”) in his dealings with others. Though God may surprise and amaze us (and often does; we then speak of “miracles”), this does not suggest that we cannot depend on him; on the contrary, it underscores his utter reliability. In other words, there is no tension between the universal and particular in God’s law.” (18)

Why “stretch” the word ‘law’ when in fact it can have the effect of subtracting from the subject the idea of God’s personal living providential sustaining of his own creation. Why not stick with the biblical word ‘command’ which as a verb, clearly denotes this active superintendence? The word ‘providence’ has the advantage of referring to something of ‘universal validity’, but one that necessitates the needed corollary of resting upon the faithfulness of the Creator as personally actively sustaining his creation in a normally predictable way. It is the very idea of God’s faithfulness to his creation in his providence, that the secular worldview has sought to drive out of the discussion, but which alone can explain the very personal existence of humanity itself. It is  the personal nature of humanity, among many other things, that the secular worldview cannot explain, which is foundational to the biblical understanding of God as both the Creator and Sustainer of the whole of reality.

One might concede the use of the word ‘law’ when used in the area of hard sciences when speaking of ‘the laws of nature’, partly because it is so entrenched, but even here we must stress providence and not an autonomous view, or deistic view of law. However, Wolters wants to further “stretch” his definition of ‘law’ to absorb the perfectly adequate and superior words such as ‘norms’ or ‘principles’ or ‘standards’ of the more metaphysical sciences. In doing so he creates the very thing he warned against, “a metaphysical determinism divorced from God’s personal characteristic of faithfulness or trustworthiness (Hebrew ’emet, “truth”) in his dealings with others.” Wolters seems determined to remove the personal nature that the bible preserves further when he reinterprets the biblical conception of wisdom in personal terms, ie., personified as a woman (Pr. 1:22-23; 8:4, 22-23, 27-30), and reduce it also to his broad extra-biblical conception of law (25-27).

Another flaw in Wolters perspective has to do with how his concept of ‘law’ is founded upon the presupposition that the scriptures do not in fact give us sufficient principles or wisdom to guide us in the various academic disciplines. “In these areas, too, the Bible does not give more than general parameters.”(30) This is diametrically opposed to the broader evangelical and reformed work in the area of worldview formation and analysis, which has endeavoured to in fact establish a Christian worldview in every area of life on universal biblical principles. It is the logical fruit of Dooyeweerd’s conception of so-called sphere sovereignty and the so-called particular laws pertaining to them, that this tradition effectively creates areas where God’s word in fact has no place. It is a bald statement that in these so-called spheres, that the revelatory word is irrelevant (30).

Again, in another twist of irony, Wolters draws a parallel to the Christian seeking guidance to fulfill God’s will for one’s life, in particular one’s ‘calling’. It is ironic because it is an example which his conception in fact throws overboard with respect to an overall worldview. He states, with regard to seeking guidance that one must “continually check back with Scripture to make sure his bearings are right” (30-32), but these same scriptures give only “general parameters” for specific areas of study (32). His quote from Calvin, in which he uses the common worldview image of spectacles, in fact disproves his theory of natural autonomous sphere law. Calvin is clearly making the point that scriptural presuppositions are in fact necessary to not only understand the world, but the scriptures themselves (32, Calvin Inst. 1.6.1). The other image he refers to is ‘light’, but his perspective throws a basket over the scriptures as light (Ps. 119:105).

What is even more remarkable is he proceeds to turn to scripture to in effective disprove his hypothesis. In a wonderfully inconsistent glimpse of this light Wolters states the following. “In a way, therefore, the scriptures are like a verbal commentary on the dimly perceived sign language of creation.” (33 Cf. Ps. 19:3) It is more than odd that Wolters can then refer to his ‘law’ as a blueprint for building, when it is in fact the Scriptures which are the blueprints for a truly Biblical Christian worldview (34). Wolters called the wisdom of Proverbs 8 as “a kind of living blueprint preceding creation” (27), but then calls his autonomous law the ‘blueprint’, and the Scriptures as nothing more than ‘parameters’ in his ‘reformational’ worldview (30). Wolters states that without his conception of a blueprint (‘law’), the builder is at a loss “to puzzle out in general terms what the blueprint indicates.” (34) This is a radical departure from the vast majority of reformed and evangelical thinkers who in fact view the scriptures as providing the blueprint to properly understand general revelation, in every department of life.

The following summarizes the prime fallacy in this so-called ‘reformational’ worldview. “It is in this way that we must continue to try to discern, through empirical study and historical experience, what God’s specific  norms are for areas of human life that the Scriptures do not explicitly address – industrial relations, for example, or the mass media, or literary criticism.”(34) He firmly believes that “to say this is not to downgrade the authority of Scripture” (34), but that is exactly what he has done. Another truly astounding thing from Wolters is his interpretation of Mt. 5:17. He argues that the law of Moses has a ‘double reference’, the fulfillment of his so-called ‘creational law’ or its ‘deepest meaning’, which is the ‘substance’ which replaces the so-called ‘Jewish’ cultural context of the biblical law’s application. In the very passage where Jesus states categorically that he did not come to abrogate biblical law and the prophets, Wolters has the temerity to teach that his conception of ‘creational law’ replaces the biblical application!

Whereas reformed men like the puritans and Dr. Bahnsen sought to be guided by the application of the law as found in the scriptures, in applying the law in the current context, Wolters throws out this application as culturally irrelevant, and superceded by his conception of ‘creational law’! It is no wonder that he disparages the scriptures as at best only providing so-called ‘parameters’ for  Christian worldview. For one who claims a tradition in opposition to human autonomy, it is remarkable that he would even suggest such an ‘interpretation, and follow it with the following. “Another way of saying this is that God did the implementing for his people in the Old Testament, while in the New he in large measure gives the freedom in Christ to do our own implementing.”(35)

He arrogantly thinks that we are not apprentices like Moses’ first recipients, rather we are journeymen able to come up with our own constructions of his nebulous ‘creational law’. His view is like the baby in his analogy of the first two chapters of Genesis in relation to the third. It “contracts serious chronic disease for which there is no known cure”(39). There is a cure though, it is to give the scriptures the place that God has given them to us for our view pf life and the world. This is the only “process of healing” that will cure the sickness of this ‘revelational worldview’. By rejecting the LORD’s own application of his biblical law, constructing a theory of ‘creational law’, and finally by postulating so-called’ ‘positive’ law, that is, man-made applicational of man-made ‘creational law’, Wolters has drifted so far from scripture that it cannot be grouped with anything like a biblical worldview (43).

It is therefore inconsistent and illogical for him the conclude his chapter on ‘Creation’ with the following. “the most striking illustration of the goodness of positive law can be found in the Mosaic law. As we have indicated earlier (35), this is God’s own positivization of creational norms for ancient Israel. The books of the Old Testament never tire of praising its goodness and of stressing that safety and shalom can only be found by a return to the Torah. The longest psalm, Psalm 119, is one long paean of praise for the law of God in this sense.” (43) This final paragraph completely repudiates everything he has been arguing for up to this point. This is remarkable indeed.

There is another subject that overlaps into his next chapter on the fall, and that is the subject of theology. Wolters from the beginning wanted to stress that everyone has a worldview, but not everyone has a fully developed theology or philosophy, and hence why we need to keep this distinction in mind. Many would argue just the opposite, that in fact everyone does have a philosophy and theology that is part of their worldview, whether consciously or not. The knowledge of God and the logos or biblical philosophy, many would argue are innate, that in fact part of the corruption of sin is humanity’s effort to suppress this knowledge in unrighteousness. However, it is the very subject of theology which Wolters refers to when he defends the concept of ‘common grace’ (50).

This has been the traditional way that reformed people have explained how the order of creation is maintained to both the redeemed and the unredeemed, seen in his providential goodness and faithfulness in sun, rain, the changing of the seasons etc. This he wants to posit a different conception, that of the ‘structure’ or order of creation being preserved, while acknowledging that the ‘direction’ that one takes with this order is where sin comes in (49-52). In other words, one can behave as a good steward of the environment, directing it the glory of God as his servants, or one may direct it in opposition to what God intended. This, it must be said, is a good point, but may be clouded by introducing the terms ‘structure’ and ‘direction’ which may indicate more than has been traditionally understood. It becomes confusing when he regards ‘theology’ as ‘direction’ (9).

No doubt there is good and bad theology, but to say such is to admit that theology is indeed integral to everyone’s worldviews. It only becomes more obfuscated when he refers to the spiritual commitment of one’s heart as the subject of religion, and decidedly not theology. Additionally, he wants to draw a distinction between philosophy and theology, but it is not clear whether he sees a distinctly biblical philosophy, or if this is in the realm of ‘creation law’, and what part it therefore plays then in the ‘direction’ of things. All of this betrays what is a truly artificial construction, one unique to the Dooyeweerdian perspective, and frankly most unhelpful in seeking to form a biblical worldview. Surely a biblical Christian worldview must incorporate a full orbed biblical theology and philosophy.

It is commendable that Wolters stresses that sin is abnormal, and that the goal of redemption is the restoration or regaining the original good purpose of a good creation. In this sense the threefold paradigm is beneficial, but one must realize, not at all unique to the ‘reformational worldview, and frankly one of the few good things it affirms. Wolters also states another obvious element which is found in most efforts at constructing a biblical Christian worldview, that being the rejection of a ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ dichotomy, such as is found in secularism. To this end it is also an accepted truism, that when the bible speaks of ‘the world’, it is acknowledged to be referring at times to an unbiblical worldview and practice (52-54), and not to the created order as such, seen in our need to be in the world, but not of the world.

Another related point of clarification needs to be made. Several times Wolters, like many others, refers to the fall as a result of “Adam’s failure to heed  God’s explicit commandment and warning” (44), or “Adam through his disobedience” (47), when a biblical covenantal view of the fall is better expressed when he wrote that the fall is as a result of “ourselves in Adam” (49). For one who wants to guard the goodness of God’s creation ‘structure’, it is puzzling why he would not want to emphasize the biblical and reformed conception that all humanity changed the ‘direction’ in Adam, and that this original sin is not passed down by the unbiblical notion of simple human procreation. We cannot blame Adam, since we were regarded by God as being in covenant with him. For this reason also we cannot blame our parents for the simple act of procreation, and indirectly then, of one of God’s creation ordinances.

Wolters rightly notes the role of Satan, and the spiritual battle that the LORD’s people wage (54-56 Cf. Jn. 12:31). By the same token, we must affirm that when God executed his judgments after the fall, he did not judge a snake, which had no volitional accountability. Rather the entire judgment of Satan included him being lowered to the level of a snake, and metaphorically placed in a position of forever licking the dust, so to speak, of submission to both God and redeemed humanity (Gen. 3:14-15; Rom. 16:20; I Cor. 15:25). Evil is therefore ultimately spiritual, but affects the whole of the created order. The creation is therefore in bondage, as is fallen humanity, such that only in the redeemed is the creation also freed from bondage (Rom. 8:19-20).

It is not coincidental that the most fruitful contribution of this work is found in Wolters’ final chapter on redemption, for here he turns to the scriptures throughout. It is however somewhat ironic, because in doing so he is practically suggesting that that the bible is only concerned with salvation. Happily, he is inconsistent here, for he rightly emphasizes the scope of redemption as including the whole of the created order, the very things that are embraced in a comprehensive world and life view. He also points out that the key words referring to salvation all denote a restoration of what has been lost. He only mentions in passing what is surely a key point in other conceptions of a biblical or Christian worldview, and that is the issue of discipleship. He writes that the above two points “are pregnant with important consequences for Christian discipleship.” (57)

He also rightly raises the topic of the kingdom, that as the reign of the King it is to include the whole of his domain. This is what we pray to come, on earth as it is in heaven. Sadly, he leaves the door open to the idea that Christ will need to come physically in his second advent to complete this work, when the scriptures clearly indicate that he will only return when the work is complete already (I Cor. 15:25). He rightly criticizes any notion of two-realm theory (65). However, as part of the notion of ‘creational law’ and so-called ‘sphere sovereignty’, he actually does limit the scope of scripture, and thus the scope of Christ’s kingdom. His final chapter concerns his elaboration of the construction of ‘structure’ and ‘direction’ referred to earlier.

A significant amount of time and space has been devoted to this work, mainly because it figures so prominently among many other thinkers, but sadly there is very little here that is unique, and what is unique is either to be rejected or irrelevant to a truly biblical Reformed Christian worldview. Again, by far the best portion of this work is where Wolters directs his attention to the scriptural revelation in the scope of redemption (57-64).

‘Nostalgia For The Absolute’ By George Steiner

“Unless I read the evidence wrongly, the political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts-more or less conscious, more or less systematic, more or less violent-to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology. But I think we could put it more accurately: the decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct.” (2)
Ever since, modern human thought has sought an alternate or “surrogate creed” – something to fill the the necessity of a coherent view of the really real. What Steiner calls myth, is just another word for a worldview, and these, besides seeking coherence, seek to explain everything in total. It is also impossible to have a worldview without some “founding prophetic vision,” which “will be preserved in a series of canonic texts.”(3) It is a characteristic of a worldview that it creates its own drama, a story of the way things are or should be.
The new attempts at a world and life view are in fact a “substitute theology…systems of belief and argument.” (4) “These features directly reflect the conditions left by the decline of religion and by a deep seated nostalgia for the absolute.” (5) “We are starving for guaranteed prophecy.” (6) There is also the attempt to explain “the nature of original sin.” (6) Conversely there is a desire to return to some sort of Edenic vision of past innocence that will prefigure a future utopia . In short, all worldviews betray “a religious and messianic vision…the resurrection of man in the kingdom of justice.” (9)
“We have the vision of the prophet and the canonic texts which are bequeathed to the faithful by the most important apostle.” (9) “The vision, the promise, the summons to total dedication and a renewal of man, were, in the full sense, messianic, religious, theological. Or to borrow the title of a celebrated book, it is ‘a God who failed’” (11) Steiner’s focus here is on Marxism, but all to give an example of what is characteristic of all worldviews. Steiner sees the same dynamics in Freudian psychoanalysis (12-23).
“Marx and Freud took over from religion and from systematic theology the inference of original sin, of a fall of man-though neither mythology is really completely specific as to the occasion of this disaster. Levi-Strauss is specific. Necessary as it was, imprinted as it must have been in the genetic code and evolutionary potential of the human race, our transition from a natural to a cultural state was also a destructive step, and one that has left scars on both the human psyche and the organic world.” (28)
Steiner highlights the French anthropologist as one who drank from the streams of both Marx and Freud, seeing in them both, “two modes of radical understanding and reconstitution.” (24) For Steiner these are among “the great mythologies which have attempted to fill the vacuum left by religion.” (25) “There is an Hassidic parable which tells us that God created man so that man might tell stories…to give coherent expression to reality.” (26-27) “The fall of man did not, at one stroke, eradicate all the vestiges of the Garden of Eden.” (31)
However, “In Levi-Strauss there is the obsessive sense of retribution, of man’s failure to observe his contractural responsibilities to creation. We have never in modern times had a more powerful, a more explicit, reading of man’s breach of covenant with the mystery of creation, and of his own borrowed being in a world which he should guard and preserve, in a garden which was his to cultivate and not to destroy. Here are three great mythologies devised to explain the history of man, and our future.” (37)
“All three are rational mythologies claiming a normative, scientific status. All three stem from a shared metaphor of original sin. Can it be altogether accidental that these three visionary constructs-two of which, Marxism and Freud, have already done so much to change Western, and indeed, world history-should derive from a Jewish background? Is there not a logic in the fact that these surrogates to a moribund Christian theology and account of history, that these attempts to replace a dying Christianity, should have come from those whose own legacy Christianity had done so much to supplant.?” (37)
Although not specifically stated by Steiner, it is ironic that the secular drift of western culture, having dismissed the Christian worldview as a myth in the full sense of being the opposite of factuality, should now evolve into a society that has fallen before the idols of superstition and irrationality. “Ours is the psychological and social climate most infected by superstition, by irrationalism, of any since the decline of the Middle ages and, perhaps, even since the time of the crisis in the Hellenistic world.” (38) This is seen in the widespread and profitable enterprise of astrology, and astral and galactic forces.
“The occult is now a vast industry with multifarious sub-divions. Pychic, psychokinetic, telepathic phenomena are being studied with the utmost seriousness. Clairvoyants of every hue flourish, ranging from the lay of the tea leaves on an amusement pier, to practitioners of graphology, palmistry, geomancy, and the Tarot pack. Modern man is enmeshed in a network of psychic forces.” (41) “There is a fundamental review in progress of such basic notions as chance, probability, law.
“It is a truism to say that Western culture is undergoing a dramatic crisis of confidence.”(46) Lest one think that Steiner sees the answer to be a return to divine revelation, he regards the Christian worldview, as he understands it, as being helpless and corrupt in the face of the evil of wars, “and in the face of totalitarian and genocidal terrors thereafter. It is not often said plainly enough. Those who realize that the same church blessed the killer and the victim…are not surprised by the bankruptcy of any theological stands since.” (46)
So sadly we see Steiner’s ignorance here. The Christian stand today, in particular to the question of evil, has been that very doctrine that Steiner has said other mythologies have sought to replace, namely the fall of man in a pivotal covenantal rebellion. His main point is this – “the absence of a commanding theology of a systematic mystery such as was incarnate in the church.” (48) “I have argued that the gradual erosion of organized religion and systematic theology, particularly of Christian religion in the West, has left us with a deep unsettling nostalgia for the absolute.” (50)
In his concluding chapter Steiner asks – ‘Does the truth have a future?’(50) When he delivered these lectures on what he called ‘Secular Messiahs’ in 1974, the question as to whether truth would have a future may have been received in jest. However, now some 45 years later, or what is the next generation, this question is no joke. Nostalgia being a sentimental feeling, rather than anything rational, reveals what is Steiner’s conception is of religion and faith.
Even the ‘secular messiahs’ or mythologies he has highlighted are to be commended, according to Steiner, because they “are monuments of reason and celebrations of the ordering powers of rational thought.” (50) However, Steiner believed that the answer was more obvious. The then current emotional climate, as he saw the 70’s, was do to the absence of science. “It was precisely the belief that the natural sciences would fill-indeed more than fill-the emptiness left in the human spirit by the decay of religion and supernaturalism, which was one of the major forces bringing about this decay.” (50)
Thus, it is not so much the natural sciences, but naturalism itself which would be the sole definition of truth. “As the ancient darkness of unreason and credulity receded, the light of the sciences was to shine forth. The ‘impassioned countenance’ of scientific discovery, to borrow Wordsworth’s phrase, would replace the childish mask of the gods and serve as a beacon for human progress.” (51) For Steiner, divine revelation, such as the Gospels are therefore not true truth, as Schaeffer would say.
“The mystical tradition, from the time of the gospels on right to modern times, always insisted on a vision of truth beyond rational grasp, beyond logic, beyond experimental control or refutation.” (53) But for Steiner the only truth is what can be subject the the so-called scientific method of naturalism – experimental control or refutation. Despite the fact that John spoke of Christ as the word or logic of God, Steiner reinterpreted his words at 8:32, that the truth will set one free, as a purely mystical conception (51).
Strangely enough, Steiner sees another villain more subtle in their attack on the naturalistic conception of truth, in the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’. “Their argument goes something like this. Objectivity, scientific law, truth-functions, indeed logic itself, are neither neutral nor eternal…Truth, in their explanation, is in fact a complex variable dependant on political social aims. Different classes have different truths. Logic is a weapon of the literate bureaucracy as against the intuitive sensory modes of speech and feeling among the less-well-educated masses.” (54).
The problem for Steiner is that his own world view of naturalism itself can have no place for logic. He gives but three risks to his naturalism. One is the the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, that the universe is running down. Quoting Bertrand Russel he writes, “it is open to us to say that when the time comes God will wind up the machinery again: but if we say this, we can base our assertion only upon faith, not upon one shred of scientific evidence.” (55)
Secondly, Steiner claimed that there was evidence accumulating that “it is very hard for man, particularly for so-called developed, highly skilled and technologically equipped man to endure long periods of peace.” (56) From this perspective, “war…would be a kind of essential balancing mechanism to keep us in a state of dynamic health.” (56). His third risk is that posed by genetics, but he tread carefully here, because of some thoughts at the time, that there were different intellectual capacities posited based on race.
Based upon Steiner’s conception of truth as naturalism, helps us understand what he has used as threats to the future of his “truth”. “The enshrinement of scientific laws, whether Newtonian, Darwinian, or Malthusian, reflects a conscious investment in intellectual and technological control over society.” (54) The three risks he posited he himself admits came in the context of a cold war and threat of nuclear holocaust. Given his naturalistic view of truth, it is not surprising that he viewed it as an “affliction.” (58)
It is also not surprising, given all the above, that he concludes that truth may be “more complex than man’s needs, that it may in fact be wholly extraneous and even inimical to these needs.” (60) If the only truth is the truth of naturalism, there is indeed reason to fear. However, there was a time when there was a conception of truth that was indeed based upon the logic of God as he has revealed himself in nature and the word. This truth indeed sets one free.
Sadly, Steiner’s naturalistic conception of the truth, he acknowledges may result in the death of humanity. “It is the eminent dignity of our species to go after truth disinterestedly. And there is no disinteredness greater than that which risks and perhaps sacrifices human survival. The truth, I believe, does have a future; whether man does is much less clear. But I cannot help having a hunch as to which of the two is more important.” (61). Make no mistake about it, Steiner had a deep religious commitment to his conception of truth!