As an American Christian, it’s clear to me that I’m living in an increasingly secular nation. And by secular, I don’t mean most Americans are atheist or agnostic. Nor do I mean most Americans are hesitant to bring their religion into public discussions. Instead, following philosopher Charles Taylor, I mean Christianity has been displaced from the default position and is now positively contested by countless religions, ideologies, and “takes” and “spins” on the world.
As a result, there’s less consensus and more contention on social and political issues. Moreover, historic and biblical Christianity is increasingly viewed as implausible, unimaginable, even reprehensible. Christians who don’t abandon these beliefs are considered either ignorant or evil, or both. This radical restructuring of society, with Christianity expunged from the public square, has ancient roots, and few have helped me understand our present situation more than a 19th-century Dutch historian named Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876).
Unbelief and Revolution
In particular, I focus on Groen van Prinsterer’s (hereafter, “Groen”) forgotten classic, Unbelief and Revolution, recently published in a new English edition (Lexham Press, 2018). Groen served as cabinet secretary for King William I in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands before proceeding to a career as an archivist, historian, political commentator, and newspaper owner and editor. This book is an edited and abridged version of lectures he delivered in his house on Saturday evenings to a crowd of friends and acquaintances.
Few have helped me understand our present situation more than this 19th-century Dutch historian.
Groen delivered these lectures in the 1840s during a period of political turmoil across Europe. He was especially concerned about revolutionary ideas seeping over from the French Revolution into Dutch society, but also about a theologically anemic Dutch church that employed rationalist or mystical hermeneutics and ignored or rejected the historic confessions.
Danger of Secular Ideology and Secular Revolutions
Groen’s thesis is that the French Revolution shouldn’t be dismissed as a failed political project of a previous era. Instead, the Revolution lives on through its dangerous ideas that, Groen argued, would continue to subject the West to social, cultural, and political convulsions and recurrent revolutions. The Revolutionary spirit replaces God with man, divine revelation with autonomous human reason, and a transcendent morality with immanent, self-authorized morality.
Given the Revolution’s sidelining of God, revelation, and transcendent morality, it wished to base moral and social order on social consent and to base its conception of “justice” on the opinions of those in power. In response, Unbelief and Revolution argues for a retrieval: European societies should return to the understanding that moral order is framed in relation to creation order, political authority is ordained by God, law and justice are rooted in an objective moral order founded by God, and truth is objective and rooted in God’s revelation of himself.
If European societies don’t retrieve their Christian underpinnings, Groen argues, they’ll experience the consequences of their unbelief. Revolutionary principles are antithetical to Christianity, for they coalesce to form a rival conception of humanity, evil, salvation, and the eschaton. But they’re also antithetical to creation’s most basic ordering, which can’t be flouted forever with impunity.
Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution is a foundational work addressing the inherent tension between religion and modernity. As a historian and politician, Groen was intimately familiar with the growing divide between secular culture and the church in his time. Rather than embrace this division, these lectures,—originally published in 1847—argue for a renewed interaction between the two spheres. Groen’s work served as an inspiration for many contemporary theologians, and as a mentor to Abraham Kuyper, he had a profound effect on Kuyper’s famous public theology.
Place from Which to Stand
The first two chapters are introductory. Groen decided to write the lectures because his work as a historian made him “keenly aware” of the Netherlands’s “national humiliation and decline” (1). In his studies he came to the conclusion that Revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, popular sovereignty, social contract, and social reconstruction are antithetical to Christianity and to creation order. “A life-and-death struggle is raging between the gospel and this practical atheism. To contemplate a rapprochement between the two would be nonsense” (4). Thus, Christians have a duty to oppose Revolutionary ideas politically.
In opposing the Revolution, Groen made clear the place from which he stood—historical and biblical Christianity. “The Scriptures contain the foundation of justice and morality, of freedom and authority for private persons as well as for nations and governments. The Bible, searched sincerely and prayerfully, is the infallible touchstone” (11). While grateful for many wise historians, philosophers, and theologians, Groen looks “first of all to the Scriptures” (18).
Factors That Didn’t Cause the Secular Revolution
In the second, third, and fourth chapters, Groen addresses factors that helped enable the Revolution but weren’t the primary cause. The Revolution, he argued, wasn’t sparked by the insufficiency of France’s prevailing principles, France’s established forms of government, or the real abuses of France’s standing regime. Instead, it was an intentional program introduced by France’s shameless philosophers seeking the devolution and disintegration of historic Christianity along with its social, cultural, and political implications. To this subject we now turn.
Groen begins exploring the Revolution’s roots—and the injustice and violence left in its wake—by arguing that social-contract theory replaced Europe’s historic view that governments exist by divine right. He criticizes Locke and Rousseau, but Hobbes especially. Thomas Hobbes leveraged his hypothetical “state of nature” to argue for the absolute, near-god-like power of the sovereign to rescue humanity from its own brutality. Ironically, the animalistic bloodthirst of the Revolution revealed its identity not as the people’s savior, but as their executioner.
Next, Groen addresses the charge made by some commentators that the Reformation’s break with the Catholic Church fostered the Revolution. Groen disagrees, arguing that the Reformation’s emphasis on liberty was framed by other doctrines such as divine sovereignty and human depravity. The Reformation helped to slow down the degeneration and disintegration caused by Europe’s slouch toward unbelief.
The Reformation’s power wasn’t found in scientific theology or philosophical apologetics, but in the preaching of the gospel and the fundamental truths of Christianity:
The fundamental truths of the Christian religion are indelibly imprinted in the history of the church. I think of the infallibility of Holy Scripture, the deity of the Savior, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the total depravity of our nature, the satisfaction for our sins, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, the necessity of regeneration and sanctification—all those truths are summed up in the one thing needful: Peace through the blood of the cross. These are the truths that invariably appear in all the symbolic writings of the evangelical churches . . . . These truths are the same truths whose denial marked the cause and origin of the Revolution. (82)
Once these truths were rejected, the Revolution became inevitable. Indeed, the principle of unbelief, followed to its logical consequences, necessarily leads to ruin. Once Europe severed ties with the gospel, “none [could] stop the rush to the abyss” (82).
Unbelief in Religious Sphere
In his eighth lecture, Groen addresses unbelief in the sphere of religion. As European society—including large swathes of the church—increasingly rejected biblical Christianity, unbelieving Revolutionary ideology rushed in to fill the void. It “clothed itself” in Christian ideas such as justice, liberty, toleration, humanity, and morality. These ideas
had not been cultivated on [the Revolution’s] own acre, but in Christian soil. Once orthodoxy failed to preserve this rich heritage, it fell into the hands of the philosophers. And what did they do with it? For all their boasting, these treasures came to ruin under their stewardship. And no wonder. They wanted to retain the conclusions while abandoning the premises, to have the water while plugging its springs, to enjoy the shade of the tree after cutting its roots. Plants that had flourished on the banks of the gospel stream could only wither when transplanted to a dry and thirsty land. (87)
For Groen, God is the source of both religion and society; when we err in our conception of God, we will necessarily also err in every other sphere of life. Unbelief has an inexorable drive toward tyranny. “Wherever the lie triumphs, it must hate every element of the truth that still remains” (93). The Revolution’s defining feature, then, is hatred of God and the gospel—and thus carries with it “the mark of hell” (94).
Unbelief in Political Sphere
In the ninth lecture, Groen demonstrates that errors in religion cause errors in politics and political theory. Whereas historically, the West had recognized divine sovereignty as the basis for state and society, it now declared human autonomy the basis. Epistemologically, autonomous reason usurped the place of divine revelation, and truth became a matter of convention. Ethically, justice became increasingly equated with expediency.
At the heart of unbelieving political theory is a false anthropology that blames institutions, rather than persons, for the origin of evil. Revolutionary political theory posits that human nature is good but distorted by institutions—and thus we must alter the institutions so that man can once again be good. In particular, we must abolish any form of hierarchy, conceive of society as an aggregate of individuals, and get rid of all differences, distinctions, and inequalities.
Further, the state—rather than being seen as authorized by God—replaces God, demanding that citizens surrender their lives to it. And consequently, religion must surrender to the state:
What will be the policy of the revolutionary state with respect to religion? To tolerate all religions while having no religion itself. With one proviso, of course—that the state shall command reverence toward its own precepts for politics and morality and ban any religion that refuses to bow before the idol. (103)
Groen concludes by arguing that the principle of unbelief promises liberty, but in the end only offers radicalism or despotism, either in the rending of the social fabric or in government tyranny (107).
Consequences of Flouting Creation Order
In the tenth lecture, Groen argues that neither individuals nor societies can flout creation order forever with impunity. History is replete with examples of how pagan ideology brushes up against the divine order. Revolutionary ideas are no exception; they are positively and repeatedly contested by creation order and divine law (109). As revolutionaries overthrow every aspect of Christianity and the moral order, they’ll pursue sensual pleasures and temporal interests alone.
Yet the idolatry of sensual pleasures and temporal interests will have negative consequences, and as those consequences become more profound and severe, the social fabric will be torn, and the state will be called in to ameliorate the consequences. In fact, Groen devotes Lectures XI–XIV to articulating a five-stage cycle in which revolutions experience the negative consequences of their unbelieving ideology.
Faith Overcomes the World
In his conclusion, Groen encourages Christians to proclaim the gospel, urging them to consider that even though Revolutionary ideas are powerful, the gospel is more powerful. We must preach the gospel even when the response is nothing but opposition. Groen writes:
Faith overcomes the world. If we wish to overcome the world it is needful first of all to cast down in our minds all imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Let us always remember that the cry, “Help thou mine unbelief!” is preceded by the shout of joy, “Lord, I believe!” Let us never forget that all activity, also in history and politics, is of no value in the estimation of him who knows the heart if it is not sanctified by the twofold prayer that expresses the common need of philosopher and child alike: “Be merciful to me a sinner,” and “My soul cleaves to the dust; quicken thou me according to thy word.” (247–48)
I’m grateful that I found Guillame Groen van Prinsterer’s Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution while browsing the shelves of a used bookstore in Raleigh almost a decade ago. Although the edition I found was nearly worthless in monetary terms—faded and tattered as it was—it is priceless in its ability to help us understand the West’s recurrent social, cultural, and political convulsions. Although I didn’t agree with everything he advocated—e.g., I don’t want to push for a monarchical republic—I recognized immediately that he was right about the unbelieving roots of modern political ideologies.
This volume is priceless in its ability to help us understand the West’s recurrent social, cultural, and political convulsions.
Under the pretense of neutrality, the West’s revolutionary ideologies function as immanent systems of salvation. For that reason, it’s unsurprising that the West continues to experience social and political convulsions. Creation order and the moral law can’t be contradicted forever with impunity. And, as Groen rightly predicted, the situation will only worsen unless God grants us spiritual renewal and cultural and political reform.