Friday, October 06, 2006

On "Theocracy," 7: The view of the last great Calvinist statesman

Abraham Kuyper, who eventually became Prime Minister of the Netherlands, 1901 - 05, and of whom it was said that for forty years the history of the Netherlands was largely his biography, is an excellent candidate for the title, last of the breed, calvinist statesmen. Indeed, he is also reckoned a pioneer of the recent Third Way -- i.e. communitarian -- thinking.

In his famous 1898 L P Stone public lectures at Princeton, and especially in the third, he touched on the subject of the relationship between the calvinist stream of reformation thought [which he also materially helped to reform and refit for the modern world] and the liberation struggles that ensued on the putting of the Bible into the hands of the ordinary man, thusly -- and please read the whole, I have had to prune desperately:
it must be shown for what fundamental political conceptions Calvinism has opened the door, and how these political conceptions sprang from its root principle . . . . the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. A primordial Sovereignty which eradiates in mankind in a threefold deduced supremacy, viz., 1. The Sovereignty in the State; 2. The Sovereignty in Society; and 3. The Sovereignty in the Church . . . .

Every State-formation, every assertion of the power of the magistrate, every mechanical means of compelling order and of guaranteeing a safe course of life is therefore always something unnatural; something against which the deeper aspirations of our nature rebel; and which, on this very account, may become the source both of a dreadful abuse of power, on the part of those who exercise it, and of a continuous revolt on the part of the multitude. Thus originated the battle of the ages between Authority and Liberty, and in this battle it was the very innate thirst for liberty which proved itself the God-ordained means to bridle the authority wheresoever it degenerated into despotism. And thus all true conception of the nature of the State and of the assumption of authority by the magistrate, and on the other hand all true conception . . . .

In this one thought are hidden both the light-side and the shady side of the life of the State. The shady-side for this multitude of states ought not to exist; there should be only one world-empire. These magistrates rule mechanically and do not harmonize with our nature. And this authority of government is exercised by sinful men, and is therefore subject to all manner of despotic ambitions. But the light-side also, for a sinful humanity, without division of states, without law and government, and without ruling authority, would be a veritable hell on earth; or at least a repetition of that which existed on earth when God drowned the first degenerate race in the deluge. Calvinism has, therefore, by its deep conception of sin laid bare the true root of state-life, and has taught us two things: first –that we have gratefully to receive, from the hand of God, the institution of the State with its magistrates, as a means of preservation, now indeed indispensable. And on the other hand also that, by virtue of our natural impulse, we must ever watch against the danger which lurks, for our personal liberty, in the power of the State.

But Calvinism has done more. In Politics also it taught us that the human element –here the people –may not be considered as the principal thing, so that God is only dragged in to help this people in the hour of its need; but on the contrary that God, in His Majesty, must flame before the eyes of every nation, and that all nations together are to be reckoned before Him as a drop in a bucket and as the small dust of the balances. From the ends of the earth God cites all nations and peoples before His high judgment seat. For God created the nations. They exist for Him. They are His own. And therefore all these nations, and in them humanity, must exist for His glory and consequently after his ordinances, in order that in their well-being, when they walk after His ordinances, His divine wisdom may shine forth . . . .

Authority over men cannot arise from men. Just as little from a majority over against a minority, for history shows, almost on every page, that very often the minority was right. And thus to the first Calvinistic thesis that sin alone has necessitated the institution of governments, this second and no less momentous thesis is added that: all authority of governments on earth originates from the Sovereignty of God alone. When God says to me, “obey,” then I humbly bow my head, without compromising in the least my personal dignity, as a man. For, in like proportion as you degrade yourself, by bowing low to a child of man, whose breath is in his nostrils; so, on the other hand do you raise yourself, if you submit to the authority of the Lord of heaven and earth . . . . The magistrate is an instrument of “common grace,” to thwart all license and outrage and to shield the good against the evil . . . Therefore all the powers that be, whether in empires or in republics, in cities or in states, rule “by the grace of God.” For the same reason justice bears a holy character. And from the same motive every citizen is bound to obey, not only from dread of punishment, but for the sake of conscience.

Further Calvin has expressly stated that authority, as such, is in no way affected by the question how a government is instituted and in what form it reveals itself. It is well known that personally he preferred a republic, and that he cherished no predilection for a monarchy, as if this were the divine and ideal form of government. This indeed would have been the case in a sinless state. For had sin not entered, God would have remained the sole king of all men, and this condition will return, in the glory to come, when God once more will be all and in all. God's own direct government is absolutely monarchial; no monotheist will deny it. But Calvin considered a co-operation of many persons under mutual control, i.e., a republic, desirable, now that a mechanical institution of government is necessitated by reason of sin . . . .

the Calvinistic confession of the Sovereignty of God holds good for all the world, is true for all nations, and is of force in all authority, which man exercises over man; even in the authority which parents possess over their children. It is therefore a political faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses: 1. God only–and never any creature–is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of the nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by His Almighty power, and rules them by His ordinances. 2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow-man in any other way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God . . . .

The three great revolutions in the Calvinistic world left untouched the glory of God, nay, they even proceeded from the acknowledgement of His majesty. Every one will admit this of our rebellion against Spain, under William the Silent. Nor has it even been doubted of the “glorious Revolution,” which was crowned by the arrival of William III of Orange and the overthrow of the Stuarts. But it is equally true of your own Revolution. It is expressed in so many words in the Declaration of Independence, by John Hancock, that the Americans asserted themselves by virtue –“of the law of nature and of nature's God”; that they acted –“as endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights”; that they appealed to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of their intention”;3 and that they sent forth their “declaration of Independence” –“With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”4 in the “Articles of Confederation” it is confessed in the preamble, –“that it hath pleased the great Governor of the world to incline the hearts of the legislators.”5 . . . .

The French Revolution is in principle distinct from all these national revolutions, which were undertaken with praying lips and with trust in the help of God. The French Revolution ignores God. It opposes God. It refuses to recognize a deeper ground of political life than that which is found in nature, that is, in this instance, in man himself. Here the first article of the confession of the most absolute infidelity is “ni Dieu ni maitre.” The sovereign God is dethroned and man with his free will is placed on the vacant seat. It is the will of man which determines all things. All power, all authority proceeds from man. Thus one comes from the individual man to the many men; and in those many men conceived as the people, there is thus hidden the deepest fountain of all sovereignty . . . . here, from the standpoint of the sovereignty of the people, the fist is defiantly clenched against God, while man grovels before his fellowmen, tinseling over this self-abasement by the ludicrous fiction that, thousands of years ago, men, of whom no one has any remembrance, concluded a political contract, or, as they called it, “Contrat Social.” Now, do you ask for the result? Then, let History tell you how the rebellion of the Netherlands, the “glorious Revolution” of England and your own rebellion against the British Crown have brought liberty to honor; and answer for yourself the question: Has the French Revolution resulted in anything else but the shackling of liberty in the irons of State-omnipotence? Indeed, no country in our 19th century has had a sadder State history than France.
There is much more there, and it is well worth the read. It should serve, with the notes here, to help dispel the spell wrought by the common calumny that biblical Christian faith is the necessary enemy of liberty and liberation. [Such faith is indeed the enemy of licence and libertinism, but that is a very different matter from true liberty!]

But, flowing from these ideas, which by and large grow in rich biblical soil, there is a challenge to the church, one that on a deeper look, lurks in our Great Commission:
Matt 28:18 Then Jesus came to [the assembled disciples in Galilee] and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
In that highlighted phrase lurks the issue of reformation of government, citizenship and community as well as the individual's life, under the impact of the social consequences of the gospel: repentance, discipleship and reformation are all to be found in the gospel mandate.

Rom 13:1 - 10 elaborates:

1] we have citizenship built around the neighbour-love principle that does no harm and so fulfills the moral law, with

2] government to do good and uphold and defend justice, thus having a just power of reasonable taxation, and as well the principle that tyrants can be properly removed,

3] personal, community and governmental financial prudence so that debts do not go out of control,

4] a general respect for all and honour to whom it is due [starting of course with God], then also,

5] a lifestyle that respects government and law.
And more, but space and time will not permit for the moment.

Would to God that in our Caribbean today, this pattern would prevail. So, how can we address the longstanding gaps thereby exposed in the Caribbean church's ministry?

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