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 witness. Whether 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,” 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” 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
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
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).
8. Pt. 1 http://184.108.40.206/commonlawreview/juridical/thoughts-on-sphere-sovereignty-a-critique-of-harincks-thesis/ 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 – https://defenceofthetruth.com/2022/02/sphere-sovereignty-and-its-lack-of-scriptural-basis/ 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.
Chaplin, Jonathan – https://www.cardus.ca/article/sphere-sovereignty-and-canadian-public-life-1/
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.
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. https://pubs.ufs.ac.za/index.php/tcw/article/view/527/482
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)
Van Essen, Jante Lubbegiena and Morton, Herbert Donald. Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer: Selected Studies. (Jordan station, Onatario: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1990.https://reformationaldl.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/selected-studies.pdf
Van Prinsterer, Guillaume Groen. Unbelief and Revolution: A series of Lectures in History. https://reformationaldl.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/unbelief-in-religion-and-politics.pdf
Van Ruler, A. A. “Sphere Sovereignty and the Theocratic Triangle.” http://220.127.116.11/commonlawreview/theological/van-ruler/sphere-sovereignty-and-the-theocratic-triangle/
Weinberger, Lael Daniel – https://calvin.edu/academics/departments-programs/politics/files/WeinbergerTheRelationshipbetweenSphereSovereigntyandSubsidiarity.pdf?language_id=1&dotcmsredir=1 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 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.