The exhortation “Join the Anti-Revolutionary Party!” might seem out of place in North America today. It seems to suggest that one must be against revolutions, against civilian resistance to unjust governments, or simply an attitude of mere conservatism. However, the actual, historical Anti-Revolutionary Party was the Netherlands’ first political party, one that sought to substantiate a Reformed contribution to Dutch social and political life in lively dialogue with (and offering a principled alternative to) postrevolutionary liberalism. The party was established by the Reformed pastor, professor, and future prime minister Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). In its historical context, “anti-revolutionary” was synonymous with Reformed—more specifically, Calvinist—politics. If we are interested in what an anti-revolutionary attitude might look like today, it is worth getting to know some of the key figures behind the party in order to better understand what being antirevolutionary meant to them. This would include Abraham Kuyper’s comprehensive Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde (Antirevolutionary statecraft, 1916–1917). But we should go back to the source in the work of his political predecessor Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and his Unbelief and Revolution (1847). Once we get a better grip on the “Anti-Revolutionary” stance from that time, we are in a better position to ask what such a stance looks like in 2016.
Against the Revolution, the gospel?
The call to “join the Anti-Revolutionary Party!” was first heard throughout the Netherlands in the second half of the nineteenth century. The formation of the party heralded a revolutionary change toward party-based elections in the Netherlands. Prior to this time, no one had organized political movements into a party in the Netherlands. One of the challenges of forming such a party was that most of its sympathizers were (still) excluded from suffrage. The idea of a political party itself involved a revolutionary increase in the ability of Dutch citizens to participate in the political process. The party also embodied an important change in the social and political engagement of the Reformed communities. The party was the institution through which the Reformed communities could pursue their interests coherently at a political level, based on a set of principles that stood in contrast with the constitutional philosophies that were developed upon the French Revolution of 1789. The Anti-Revolutionary Party set out to embody both a set of ideas and an institutional vehicle to provide those ideas with the political power to instantiate them in Dutch public life.
This contrast is vital to an understanding of Kuyper’s anti-revolutionary thought. Kuyper was not simply against the French Revolution, nor was he against the many other revolutions of 1830 and 1848. He readily admitted that the Reformed communities shared many of the concerns that had incited the French Revolution, such as the plight of the working class and the unjust inequity between social classes. But the anti-revolutionary tradition had a different understanding of the individual and society from that of the French Revolutionaries. Kuyper and the Anti- Revolutionary Party advocates regarded society as a grand family, an organism, and they argued for a balance among the classes rather than focusing solely on the individual freedom advocated by classic liberal philosophers. This concern is best seen in Kuyper’s Christianity and the Class Struggle (1891). (North American readers are most likely to have encountered this text via James Skillen’s translation, published as The Problem of Poverty.)
It’s important to note that Kuyper carefully distinguished being anti-revolutionary from being counter-revolutionary. Counterrevolutionary voices took issue with the Ni Dieu, ni maître maxim of the French Revolution, but according to Kuyper, without providing a viable alternative for political thought. In line with the Greek root word anti, which could be translated as “instead of ” or “a substitute for,” Kuyper tried to develop a Reformed alternative to liberal constitutional philosophies that developed in the years after the Revolution. For Kuyper, to be anti-revolutionary was, in some sense, to be opposed to both the French Revolution and the ancien régime.
Kuyper was not the first to provide an alternative for the liberal values of the Revolution. Earlier, his predecessor Groen van Prinsterer had coined the maxim “against the revolution, the gospel.” Groen van Prinsterer was an aristocrat and intellectual who had been part of the Réveil, a religious revival movement that sought to complement religious formalism with a stronger sense of spirituality. The movement was active from about 1815 to 1865 in Western Europe, initiated many charity programs, and bore similarities to the Second Great Awakening. Groen van Prinsterer’s maxim “against the revolution, the gospel” emphasized a different, biblical source of order, peace, and happiness. Yet he was not necessarily against the Revolution as a set of events, as he explained in his work Unbelief and Revolution. He criticized the post-revolutionary outworking of philosophical notions of liberty, equality, and the concepts of popular sovereignty and social contract theory in the constitutional frameworks of France and the Netherlands, specifically because of its inherent skepticism and the rejection of God’s Word and law. Groen van Prinsterer believed these values could be counterproductively used to compromise individual freedom in the context of a centralized national state; but more fundamentally, it undermined both God’s sovereignty and the given order in creation. Groen van Prinsterer was deeply concerned about the changing position of churches in society, since the emerging liberal constitutional state had been limiting the freedom of churches and religious communities. As a member of Parliament, he advocated earnestly for their freedom and, most notably, for Christian schools.
Although part of a conservative political wing, he differentiated himself from the broader conservative bloc, because he articulated distinctively Christian political principles. In similar fashion, he started to differentiate himself from noted German conservative constitutional scholars such as Friedrich Carl von Savigny and Friedrich Julius Stahl, whom he highly regarded and whose work had deeply informed the constitutional thought of the anti-revolutionary movement. Yet Groen van Prinsterer was looking for an explicit Christian outworking of this conservative constitutional thought. Kuyper argued later that Stahl’s focus on legitimacy had made the Christian character of his constitutional philosophy less visible. Additionally, he wanted Reformed political philosophy to be less conservative and more proactive and progressively responsive to the needs of the time.
Kuyper, however, insisted that the maxim “against the revolution, the gospel,” while appealing to a more Christian audience, insufficiently substantiated Reformed political thought. The gospel does offer a basis for political engagement, but it does not explicate a specific political program. Likewise, he believed that the will and sovereignty of God could not easily be mapped onto contemporary political situations. He thought widely different denominations, or even those within denominations, often put forward false interpretations of scriptural passages and proclaimed them to be the will of God. Appeals to the Old Testament, he believed, were especially prone to such interpretations.
These arguments should be understood in the context of a controversy over the tenability of article 36 of the Belgic Confession, on the civil government—the equivalent of the revised article 23.3 of the Westminster Confession. In Calvinism and Revision (1891), Kuyper advocated for its withdrawal and was strongly opposed by the Amsterdam pastor Gerrit J. Vos. Kuyper argued that Vos and other theologians insufficiently appreciated the different nature of the old and new covenants, and thus of Old Testament Israel and the modern state. Kuyper believed that the theocratic model of Old Testament Israel was not applicable in the context of the modern state. In other words, an anti-revolutionary political philosophy and program needed to be developed: one that was firmly rooted in Scripture, and the doctrine of common grace more specifically (still distinguished from an independent natural theology), and suiting the situation of his contemporary Reformed communities.
A Principled Alternative
Kuyper was led by a number of concerns as he formulated his alternative political theory. He was worried about the balance between the individual and the constitutional institutions under an expanding, increasingly dominant state. He was also convinced that, to ensure this balance, religious and ideological diversity needed to be respected on a national level. Just as he thought it wrong for the state to force liberal policies on Reformed and Catholic communities, he was convinced that neither should the state force Christian or Reformed policies on the whole of society. Finally, he envisioned Reformed politics as part of a dynamic movement, rather than a static political program. Reformed, Neocalvinistic principles needed to be worked out by each generation according to the needs of its time and communities.
Kuyper argued that large portions of Scripture which might be used to justify a particular political program should be understood to apply to the covenant people of God. He did not think the Dutch nation was Christian and believed that understanding the character of the nation and the state required an understanding of the different scriptural foundations for family, church, state, and institutions of civil society. Behind this lay his notion of the Antithesis, which denoted a radical division between the regenerate and unregenerate, or the people of God and the world. In relation to the world at large, he elaborated on the doctrine of common grace. The main common principle of Scripture was the sovereignty of God, and this principle became the cornerstone of his political theory.
Kuyper emphasized that God’s sovereignty is unlimited and extended over all of creation. This principle strongly countered the contemporary belief in contract theory, as well as a maxim against the Ni Dieu, ni maître of the French Revolution, which located sovereignty in the populous, or the individual person. He concluded that part of God’s sovereignty is reflected in creation, as human beings are made in the image of God, a state that continued from prelapsarian into postlapsarian reality. Thus, while the individual is a primary bearer of sovereignty in Kuyper’s political thought, it was radically different from that of the wholly immanent liberal philosophies. The individual is called to take initiative and develop social life in order to actualize the full creational potential, first of all in the family, but also beyond. This implied a bottom-up rather than a top-down societal structure.
In postlapsarian reality, and as an expression of and a partial remedy to the grave consequences of sin, God also vests sovereignty in the institutions of church and state. According to Kuyper, these are “the powers that be” from Romans 13. The church is the institution of special grace, dedicated to the sacred field of human life, fulfilling a missionary role in society. The state is the third bearer of sovereignty, being the institution of common grace, and as such, the state has a legitimate and positive role to play in society. The state is commissioned to rule in the secular field of human life and to be the overarching sphere of the nation, mostly as a regulating, facilitating body that enables and supports the initiatives of individuals, churches, and other institutions of civil society.
Thus the three bearers of sovereignty for Kuyper are the individual or family, the church, and the state. All three of them have a derived, limited sovereignty that is to be mutually respected by each. These different authorities have responsibility over different spheres of social life. Respecting the agency of the different bearers of sovereignty, for Kuyper, was a way of honouring the sovereignty of God and the order of grace—what we know as sphere sovereignty. The English translation can be misleading, since no sphere can be sovereign in itself. Soevereiniteit in eigen kring, the Dutch phrase from which we derive “sphere sovereignty” (literally translated “sovereignty in the own sphere”), recognizes the different contexts in which the imago Dei is made manifest and flourishes. This made space in Kuyper’s day for defence of certain spheres that fell under the authority of the family or the church, such as the Christian school, against interference from the government.
Yet there were also aspects of the liberal constitutional reality that he tried to integrate with his theory. Interestingly, and in contrast with Groen van Prinsterer, Kuyper believed the political outlook of a state and the precise division of the reflection of God’s sovereignty can differ from state to state. The form of a state—be it democratic or republican, monarchic or aristocratic—is not as important as respect for the other sovereignty bearers and the freedom of the respective spheres. In addition, a moderated version of popular sovereignty could be reconciled with his conception of the imago Dei: human agency could extend to suffrage in the sphere of the state. Hence, contrary to others at the time, he believed that both the regenerate and unregenerate could vote for Parliament, whether or not conscious of their accountability to God.
Kuyper wanted to build strong Reformed communities as a counterweight to an expanding state and as a distinct identity within the liberal constitutional state. He was deeply concerned about the long-term effects a liberal government that crossed the boundaries of its legitimate spheres would have on the Reformed tradition as a whole. At the same time, he believed in a political
voice for the people, and demanded that individuals exercise their social and political responsibility as a Neocalvinistic expression of public piety. He believed that the character of the nation depended on the character of the people and therefore also believed that religion needed to be stimulated in the people. However individualistic this social and political calling may sound, Kuyper certainly did not applaud liberal individualism; he rather wanted individuals to participate and contribute to society for the benefit of the family, the tradition, and the nation as a whole.
Join the Anti-Revolutionary Party Anno 2016
Anti-revolutionary thought is as relevant today as it was over a hundred years ago under Kuyper’s leadership. Kuyper’s most fundamental concerns—the freedom of religious communities, the position of minorities, and the balance between individual and government— retain their relevance in today’s liberal democracies shaped by post-revolutionary constitutional philosophy. There are constant challenges surrounding Christian education, the degree to which the government is willing to cooperate with or restrict religiously based institutions of civil society, and individual freedom to display religious symbols in public institutions. Yet liberal constitutional states are in a later phase of development than they were in Kuyper’s time, which provides challenges for Christian communities today who are trying to suitably think through these as well as newer concerns. Being anti-revolutionary in 2016 cannot imply a habitual stance against change but must include fostering the communities’ grounding in Scripture, reorienting the tradition’s school of thought toward the social and historical position of Christianity in society.
It is worth noting that Kuyper always had the Christian communities as a whole in mind, and never thought social and political engagement was an activity for a well-educated elite. The heart of an anti-revolutionary attitude today lies in faithfulness, and reconsidering, articulating, and living what it means to bear the image of God especially as individuals, families, and churches. Social and political initiatives that flow from these spheres also need to reflect a strong Christian identity, not only because of their roots, but also because identity is the key word in a pluralist society. Institutions such as schools, medical centres, and charities need to clearly articulate their identity and enforce policies stemming from it. This is practical, as jurisprudence shows that established Christian institutions are more likely to have their religious freedom protected when confronted with claims of discrimination.
It does not seem that Kuyper envisioned a politically active church. He thought the church as an institution should focus on its core mission, which lies in the realm of special grace. Its focus is the Word, the sacraments, its community, and its missionary function in society, a function that included education and diaconal work. But Kuyper still wanted to see Christians participate socially and politically— what he called the church as organism. Nowadays, churches increasingly undertake social initiatives that are beyond its “sphere”; a Kuyperian line might lie in at least keeping functions separate and under distinct leadership, as well as care with the content of the ordained offices’ responsibilities.
Kuyper took the constitutional and democratic outlook of the Dutch state as a working fact, and did not necessarily either champion or condemn it. He employed its institutions to advance the interests of the Christian communities, and to create space for their work that extended beyond witnessing to theological dogmas. One could also learn from his ability to work with shifting majorities. Kuyper did bargain on policies, sometimes letting go where something else could be gained. For example, he was part of a political deal that established general suffrage for men and equal financial support for all schools regardless of their religious or ideological foundation in 1917—both formed a key part of the anti-revolutionary party’s platform.
But while there are similarities between Kuyper’s time and ours, nothing is less Kuyperian than copying Kuyperian politics in 2016. Kuyper wanted every generation to think through the principles of the Reformed tradition and develop its own perspective on social and political engagement based on its biblical convictions, a perspective that enabled the communities to make a positive contribution to society and defend their interests and freedoms when needed. Joining the Anti- Revolutionary Party is thus not just a political thing; it involves articulating and living a vision on the Christian home, the church, and the communities’ social and political engagements. Neither is it simply building Christian institutions with a strong identity, but creating spheres that enable Christian communities to foster a biblical lifestyle and to meaningfully engage with society.