The Roots of Western Culture. Chapter 2: Sphere Sovereignty
28 min read
28 min read
The scriptural ground motive of the christian religion – creation, fall, and redemption through Christ Jesus-operates through God’s Spirit as a driving force in the religious root of temporal life. As soon as it grips a person completely, it brings about a radical conversion of his life’s stance and of his whole view of temporal life. The depth of this conversion can be denied only by those who fail to do justice to the integrality and radicality of the christian ground motive. Those who weaken the absolute antithesis in a fruitless effort to link this ground motive with the ground motives of apostate religions endorse such a denial.
But the person who by grace comes to true knowledge of God and of himself inevitably experiences spiritual liberation from the yoke of sin and from sin’s burden upon his view of reality, even though he knows that sin will not cease in his life. He observes that created reality offers no foundation, foothold, or solid ground for his existence. He perceives how temporal reality and its multifaceted aspects and structures are concentrated as a whole in the religious root community of the human spirit. He sees that temporal reality searches restlessly in the human heart for its divine origin, and he understands that the creation cannot rest until it rests in God.
Created reality displays a great variety of aspects or modes of being in the temporal order. These aspects break up the spiritual and religious root unity of creation into a wealth of colours, just as light refracts into the hues of the rainbow when it passes through a prism. Number, space, motion, organic life, emotional feeling, logical distinction, historical development of culture, symbolic signification, social interaction, economic value, aesthetic harmony, law, moral valuation, and certainty of faith comprise the aspects of reality. They are basically the fields investigated by the various modern special sciences: mathematics, the natural sciences (physics and chemistry), biology (the science of organic life), psychology, logic, history, linguistics, sociology, economics, aesthetics, legal theory, ethics or moral science, and theology which studies divine revelation in christian and nonchristian faith. Each special science considers reality in only one of its aspects.
Imagine now a science that begins to investigate these distinct aspects of reality without the light of the true knowledge of God and self. The predicament of this science is similar to that of a person who sees the colours of the rainbow but knows nothing of the unbroken light from which they arise. If one were to ask him where the different colours came from, would he not be inclined to consider one colour the origin of the others? Or would he be able to discover correctly the mutual relation and coherence between them? If not, then how would he know each colour according to its own intrinsic nature? If he were not colour-blind he would certainly make distinctions, but he would likely begin with the colour that strikes him the most and argue that the others were merely shades of the absolutized colour.
The position of a man who thinks he can find his basis and starting point for a view of temporal reality in science is no different. Time and again he will be inclined to present one aspect of reality (organic life, feeling, historical development of culture, or any of the others) as reality in its completeness. He will then reduce all the others to the point where they become different manifestations of the absolutized aspect. Think for instance of Goethe’s Faust, where Faust says: “Feeling is all” [Gefuhl ist alles]. Or think of modern materialism, which reduces all of temporal reality to particles of matter in motion. Consider the modern naturalistic philosophy of life, which sees everything one-sidedly in terms of the development of organic life.
Actually, what drives us to absolutize is not science as such but an idolatrous ground motive that takes hold of our thinking. Science can only yield knowledge of reality through the theoretical analysis of its many aspects. It teaches us nothing concerning the deeper unity or origin of these aspects. Only religion is sufficient for this task, since in calling us to know God and ourselves it drives us to focus whatever is relative toward the absolute ground and origin of all things. Once an apostate ground motive takes hold of us, it compels our thinking to absolutize the relative and to deify the creature. In this way false religious prejudices darken our conception of the structure of reality.
Whoever absolutizes one aspect of created reality cannot comprehend any aspect on the basis of its own inner character. He has a false view of reality. Although it is certainly possible that he may discover important moments of truth, he integrates these moments into a false view of the totality of reality. They are therefore the most dangerous and poisonous weapons of the spirit of the lie.
Today we live under the dominion of an idolatrous view of reality that absolutizes the historical aspect of creation. It calls itself dynamic, believing that all of reality moves and unfolds historically. It directs its polemic against static views that adhere to fixed truths. It considers reality one-sidedly in the light of historical becoming and development, arguing that everything is purely historical in character. This “historicism,” as it is called, knows of no eternal values. All of life is caught up in the stream of historical development. From this viewpoint the truths of the christian faith are just as relative and transient as the ideals of the French Revolution.
There are many moments of truth in the historicistic view of reality. All temporal things do indeed have a historical aspect. Historical development occurs in scientific endeavour, in society, in art, in human “ideals,” and even in the revelation of God’s Word. Still, the historical remains merely one aspect of the full reality given to us in time. The other aspects cannot be reduced to it. It does not reach the root unity and absolute origin of reality. Because historicism absolutizes the historical aspect, its individual truths are dangerous weapons of the spirit of deception. Like the tempting words the serpent spoke to Eve in paradise, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” [Genesis 3:5], historicism contains a half-truth.
The scriptural ground motive of the christian religion liberates our view of reality from the false prejudices imposed upon us by idolatrous ground motives. The motive of creation continually drives us to examine the inner nature, mutual relation, and coherence of all the aspects in God’s created reality. When we become conscious of this motive, we begin to see the richness of God’s creation in the great pluriformity and colourfulness of its temporal aspects. Since we know the true origin and the religious root unity of these aspects through God’s revelation, we do not absolutize one aspect and reduce the others, but we respect each on the basis of its intrinsic nature and its own law. For God created everything after its kind.
The various aspects of reality, therefore, cannot be reduced to each other in their mutual relation. Each possesses a sovereign sphere with regard to the others. Abraham Kuyper called this sphere sovereignty.
The creation motive of the christian religion is engaged in an irreconcilable conflict with the apostate tendency of the human heart to eradicate, level, and erase the boundaries between the peculiar and intrinsic natures that God established in each of the many aspects of reality. For this reason the principle of sphere sovereignty is of powerful, universal significance for one’s view of the relation of temporal life to the christian religion. This principle does not tolerate a dichotomy (division) of temporal reality into two mutually opposing and mutually separable areas, such as “matter and spirit” which we observed in the orphic Greek view. A dualistic view of reality is always the result of the operation of a dualistic ground motive, which knows neither the true religious root unity nor the true absolute origin of temporal reality.
The principle of sphere sovereignty is a creational principle which is unbreakably connected with the scriptural ground motive of the christian religion. It tells us of the mutual irreducibility, inner connection, and inseparable coherence of all the aspects of reality in the order of time. If we consider logical thinking, for example, we find that it is embedded within the logical aspect of temporal reality. While this aspect is irreducible to the others, sovereign in its own sphere, and subject to its own sphere of divine laws (the laws for logical thought), it nevertheless reveals its internal nature and its conformity to law only in an unbreakable coherence with all the other aspects of reality. If one attempts to conceive of the logical function as absolute, that is, as independent of and apart from the functions of feeling, organic life, historical development of culture, and so on, then it dissolves into nothingness. It does not exist by itself. It reveals its proper nature only in an inseparable coherence with all the functions which created reality displays within time. We therefore acknowledge readily that one can think logically only insofar as one has a perishable body which functions organically and physicochemically. Our hope of immortality is not rooted in logical thinking but in Christ Jesus. By the light of God’s Word we know that our temporal life in all its aspects has a spiritual, religious root unity that will not decay with our temporal existence. This unity, which transcends our bodily life, is the imperishable soul.
The principle of sphere sovereignty has a concrete meaning for our view of reality. As we saw earlier, the scriptural ground motive radically transforms one’s entire view of temporal reality as soon as this motive begins to penetrate one’s life. It then causes one to know again the true structure of reality.
There are two types of structure within temporal reality. The first is the structure of the various aspects or modes of being we listed earlier. One is familiar with these aspects only indirectly in everyday life, where we experience them by way of the individual totalities of concrete things, events, societal relationships, etc. In the ordinary experience of our daily life our attention is focused entirely on concrete things, events, and societal relationships; and we are not interested in focusing on the distinct aspects as such within which these concrete things, etc. function. The latter focus occurs first in the scientific attitude of thought.
A child, for example, learns to count by moving the red and white beads of an abacus. He begins to learn numerical relationships by means of these beads, but soon he sets the abacus aside in order to focus on the relationships themselves. This process requires a theoretical abstraction foreign to ordinary experience. For the child the numerical aspect and its numerical relations become a problem of logical conceptualization. At first this raises difficulties. The child must learn to set reality aside in his thinking, so to speak, in order to focus on the numerical aspect alone. To carry out such a theoretical analysis, he must subtract something from the full, given reality. The logical function, with which one forms concepts, thus assumes a position over against the nonlogical aspect of number, which resists the attempt to conceptualize it.
In everyday experience reality does not present itself in the aspects that thought abstracts from it, but in the structure of different individual totalities, such as things, events, acts, and societal relationships (involving the family, the state, the church, the school, industry, etc.). This is the second, the concrete structure of reality as it reveals itself to us in time and in which it shows itself in the experience of daily life. This structure is inseparably related to the first. If one views the latter wrongly, it is impossible to gain correct theoretical insight into the former, as we will see later.
If one desires to understand the significance of the creational principle of sphere sovereignty for human society in its full scope, then the meaning of sphere sovereignty for the intrinsic nature, mutual relation, and coherence of the aspects of reality (including the aspects of society) must first be understood. Earlier we observed that the various aspects arise from a single religious root, just as the colours of the rainbow originate in a single unbroken light. Despite their distinctiveness, the aspects cohere and interconnect in the all-embracive order of time. None exists except together with all the others. This universal coherence and inter-connection expresses itself in the structure of each aspect.
Consider, for. example, the psychical aspect of reality. In its core or nucleus it is irreducible to any other aspect. Nevertheless, in emotional life one discovers the expression of an internal coherence with all the aspects displayed by reality. Certainly, feeling has a life of its own: psychical life. But psychical life is possible only on the basis of a series of connections with the other aspects of reality. For example, psychical life requires organic life, even though it is itself not organic life. In its “life moment” the psychical aspect is intrinsically interwoven with the organic aspect of reality. Likewise, feeling has an emotional moment that binds psychical life to the physicochemical process of bodily motion. Even though emotion, which is nothing but the movement of feeling, cannot be reduced to the mere motion of particles of matter in the body, the movement of feeling cannot occur without chemical movement. Thus there is an intrinsic coherence between the psychical aspect and the aspect of motion. Similarly, the feeling of spaciousness points to the connection between psychical life and the spatial aspect. This moment corresponds to the sensory space of awareness in which one observes colours, sounds, hardness or softness, and other sensorily perceivable properties. Sensory space is certainly quite different from mathematical space. Finally, the aspect of feeling also manifests an internal plurality of emotional impressions; this plurality expresses the connection between feeling and the numerical aspect.
Human psychical life is not limited to a coherence with the aspects that precede feeling. It also unfolds itself in logical feeling, historical and cultural feeling, lingual feeling, feeling for social convention, feeling of economic value, aesthetic feeling, moral feeling, and the feeling of faith certainty. In other words, the structure of the psychical aspect reflects a coherence with all the other aspects.
The universal scope of psychical life cannot be limited. In its own sphere psychical life is the integral and complete expression of God’s creational work. Together with all the other aspects of one’s temporal being, it finds its root unity in the religious focus of existence: the heart, soul, or spirit, where it is impossible to flee from God. From the religious creation motive of Holy Scripture one discovers the expression of creation’s integral and radical nature in each of the aspects of God’s work of creation. In other words, sphere sovereignty, which guarantees the irreducibility and protects the distinct laws of the different spheres, finds a correlate in sphere universality, through which each aspect expresses the universal coherence of all the aspects in its own particular structure.
Sphere universality provides the context for absolutizing an aspect of God’s immeasurably rich creation. Let us take an example. Misguided by an apostate ground motive, a person may be searching for the basic certainty for his life in feeling. When he sees that all the aspects are reflected in psychical life, what will prevent him from declaring that feeling is the origin of number, space, motion, logical thinking, historical development, and so forth? Why not ultimately identify faith with the feeling of trust and certainty? Our own faith can easily be undermined and impoverished by this false emotional mysticism. In Goethe’s Faust the simple Margaret asks Dr. Faust whether or not he believes in God; he, the thinker who has fallen into satan’s power, replies by pointing to the feeling of happiness that flows through us when we contemplate heaven and earth and when we experience love in courtship. He continues with these words:
Erfull davon dein Herz, so gross es ist,
Und wenn du ganz in dem Gefuhle selig bist,
Nenn es dann, wie du willst,
Nenn’s Gluck! Herz! Liebe! Gott!
Ich habe keinen Namen
Dafur! Gefuhl ist alles;
Name ist Schall und Rauch,
Then let it fill your heart entirely,
And when your rapture in this feeling is complete,
Call it then as you will,
Call it bliss! heart! love! God!
I do not have a name
For this. Feeling is all;
Names are but sound and smoke
Befogging heaven’s blazes.Goethe’s Faust, Walter Kaufmann, lines 3451-3458. The emphasis is Dooyeweerd’s.
Idolatry of the other aspects of reality stands beside idolatry of the psychical aspect. Vitalism, which deifies an eternally flowing stream of life, is no less idolatrously directed than the religion of feeling. Modern historicism, which sets its hope for humanity on unending cultural development, is no less idolatrous than modern materialism, which declares that the aspect of motion investigated by the natural sciences is the beginning and end of reality.
Have we now begun to see how the religious ground motive of our life governs and determines our whole view of reality? Is it not obvious that an irreconcilable antithesis is at work between the christian religion and the service of an idol? In the light of the conflict between the different ground motives, can we still maintain that the christian religion is meaningful only for our life of faith and not for our view of reality? Certainly not! At this point we cannot escape from ourselves. The christian religion cannot be bartered. It is not a treasure that we can lock away among the relics in an inner chamber. Either it is a leaven that permeates all our life and thought or it is nothing more than a theory, which fails to touch us inwardly.
But what does the christian ground motive have to do with the concrete needs of political and social action? This is the key issue today, especially for those who witnessed the liquidation of the various christian political parties and organizations during the war. After all, one might argue, the christian confessions offer no answers to the political and social questions of the present time. Certainly it is true that the church confessions do not address these problems. Their ecclesiastical character prevents them from venturing into social issues. But if the ground motive of the christian religion works in our lives, then it radically changes even our view of the inner nature of the state and its relation to the other societal spheres. With the christian ground motive we discover the true principles for political life and for societal life as a whole. Hence, the antithesis between these principles and those of an apostate orientation must necessarily be expressed.
As a principle of the creation order, sphere sovereignty also pertains to the second structure of reality. It applies to the structure of societal forms, such as the family, the state, the church, the school, economic enterprise, and so on. As with the aspects of reality, our view of the inner nature, mutual relation, and coherence of the different societal spheres is governed by our religious point of departure. The christian ground motive penetrates to the root unity of all the societal spheres that are distinct in the temporal order. From that root unity it gives us insight into the intrinsic nature, mutual relation, and coherence of these spheres.
In terms of the scriptural ground motive, what is the unity of the different spheres in society? It is the religious root community of mankind which fell in Adam but was restored to communion with God in Jesus Christ. This community is the foundation of all temporal, societal relationships, and on its basis the christian religion stands in absolute antithesis to every view of society that absolutizes and deifies any temporal societal form.
We saw earlier that for the Greeks the state was the totalitarian community which made man truly human by means of its cultural nurture and hence it demanded all of man’s life in every one of its spheres. The religious motive of form and matter completely dominated this view. On the one hand human nature was constantly threatened by sensual desires and drives, on the other hand it was granted form and measure by the activity of the polis. The city-state was the bearer of the Greek culture religion, which deified such distinct cultural powers as science, art, and commerce in the dazzling array of the Olympian gods. We also saw that originally in Roman culture two societal spheres opposed each other: the familia and the Roman state. Each represented an absolute sphere of authority. But during the period of the Byzantine empire the familia collapsed and yielded to an unchecked state absolutism that monopolized every sphere of life, including the christian church.
In our time we too have witnessed the demonic tyranny of a totalitarian regime. The Dutch nation, historically developed in a modern constitutional state that surrounded the liberties of men and citizens with countless guarantees (a state undoubtedly inspired by both christian and humanistic influences), experienced the burden of totalitarian rule as an intolerable tyranny. And what was the most powerful principial basis supporting the resistance? It was the creational principle of sphere sovereignty, rooted in the scriptural ground motive of the christian religion. Neither the modern liberal and socialist offshoots of humanism nor communist marxism could strike this totalitarian state absolutism in its religious root. Only when one’s eyes have been opened to the religious root unity of man can one gain clear insight into the essential nature, proper mutual relation, and inner coherence of the various societal spheres.
What then is the significance of sphere sovereignty for human society? Sphere sovereignty guarantees each societal sphere an intrinsic nature and law of life. And with this guarantee it provides the basis for an original sphere of authority and competence derived not from the authority of any other sphere but directly from the sovereign authority of God.
Since the time of Abraham Kuyper the term sphere sovereignty has become common property in the Netherlands. But the profundity of his insight with respect to the nature of the social order -an insight based on the ground motive of the christian religion -was appreciated by only a small number of persons. The less men realized that this fundamental principle was rooted directly in the scriptural ground motive of the christian religion, the more it dissolved into an ambiguous political slogan which each could interpret in his own way. At the same time, the increasingly historicistic way of thinking robbed the principle of its religious root, thereby contributing to its erosion. If one takes sphere sovereignty as no more than a historical given, somehow grown on Dutch soil as an expression of Holland’s love of freedom, then one automatically detaches it from the constant, inner nature of the societal spheres.
In the light of this historicism, the principle of sphere sovereignty assumes a purely “dynamic” character whose contents can be filled according to the specific needs of a particular period. In this way, this very principle, in which the antithesis (opposition) between the scriptural and the antichristian starting points receives such a lucid elaboration in one’s view of reality, is used as a building block in the most recent attempt to find a synthesis (reconciliation) between Christianity and humanism. For the new phase of history which we have entered, the principle of sphere sovereignty would have approximately the same meaning as the conception of functional decentralization propagated by modern socialism. In this conception the legislative and executive organs of the central government must be “relieved” of a sizable share of their task by a transfer of their authority to “new organs” derived from “society” itself. The different spheres of society must be incorporated into the state by means of public-legal organization. But at the same time these spheres must maintain a relative independence, a measure of autonomy, just like countries, municipalities, provinces and other parts of the state. These new organs would then take over an important part of the state’s task by establishing regulative jurisdiction pertinent to their own affairs under final supervision of the central government. The regulations of these new organs would be maintained with public-legal sanctions. In this way “authority” and “freedom” are to be united in a harmonious manner. The principle of functional decentralization would thus provide a basis for cooperation for members of the socialist, roman catholic, and antirevolutionary political parties. And the sphere sovereignty of the societal structures would receive a historical form and expression suitable to the new era.
How can one explain this basic misunderstanding of the principle of sphere sovereignty? This we will consider next.
To find an answer we must recall that the nineteenth-century Historical School in Germany strongly influenced antirevolutionary political thought, particularly in its view of history. Although the founders of this school were devout Lutherans, their world view was completely dominated by the historicism that gained ground in humanist circles after the French Revolution.
By “historicism” I mean the philosophical conception that reduces the whole of reality to an absolutized historical aspect. Historicism sees all of reality as a product of ceaseless historical development of culture. It believes that everything is subject to continual change. In contrast to the rationalistic thinkers of the French Revolution, the historicists do not seek to construct a just social order from abstract, rational principles which have no relation to historical development and the individual traits of a specific national character. Rather, the fundamental thesis of the new historical way of thinking is that the entire political and social order is essentially a historical and developmental phenomenon. Its development originates in a nation’s individual character, the “national spirit” (Volksgeist), which is the historical germ of an entire culture. The national spirit generates a culture’s language, social conventions, art, economic system, and juridical order.
Following the example of the mathematical and natural sciences, earlier humanistic theory had always sought after the universally valid laws that control reality. It constructed an “eternal order of natural law” out of the “rational nature of man.” This order was totally independent of historical development, and was valid for every nation at all times and in all places. The earlier rationalistic humanism displayed little awareness of the individual traits of peoples and nations. All individual things were regarded as mere instances or examples of a universal rule and were reduced to a universal order. This reduction highlights the rationalistic tendency of this type of humanistic thought.
But as a result of the polarity of its religious ground motive, humanism veered to the other extreme after the French Revolution. Rationalistic humanism turned into irrationalistic humanism, which rejected all universally valid laws and order. It elevated individual potential to the status of law. Irrationalistic humanism was not inspired by the exact mathematical and natural sciences but by art and the science of history. Art revealed the “genius” and uniqueness of individuality. This “romanticism,” which for a time dominated western culture during the Restoration period after Napoleon’s fall, was the source of the view of reality defended by the Historical School.
When the Historical School attempted to understand the whole of culture, language, art, jurisprudence, and the economic and social orders in terms of the historical development of an individual national spirit, it elevated the national character to the status of the origin of all order. It therefore denied the truth that the individual creature always remains subject to law. It argued that if the individual potential of a man or nation is the only law for development and action, then this potential cannot be evaluated in terms of a universally valid law. Accordingly, any nation was considered to act rightly and legitimately if it simply followed the historical fate or goal implicit in its individual potential or disposition.
This view of reality was historicistic in the sense explained above. Although the Historical School principially rejected the validity of general laws, it nevertheless replaced them with a substitute by a kind of compromise with the christian belief in “divine providence.” It viewed divine providence as a “hidden” law of history, arguing that God’s providence rules the history of a nation. Where the christian mask was laid aside, “providence” was replaced by Schicksal, the historical destiny or fate of a nation. Schicksal played the same role as divine providence; it operated as a norm for the development of a national character.
Careful readers will have noted how closely this view approaches the spiritual atmosphere of national socialism and its appeal to providence, to the “Destiny of the German People” [Schicksal des deutschen Volkes]. We will do well to keep the affinity between national socialism and the Historical School in mind, for later we will see that nazism must be considered primarily a degenerate fruit of the historicism propagated by the Historical School.
The Historical School strongly emphasized the bond between past and present. It held that culture, language, art, law, economics, and the social order arise and develop from the national character both unconsciously and apart from any formative influence of the human will. For the Historical School, tradition works as an unconscious power in history. It is the operation of God’s providential guidance or, expressed less christianly, of Schicksal, the destiny of a people.
The founder of the antirevolutionary political philosophy in Germany, Friedrich Julius Stahl [1802-1861) (who greatly influenced Groen van Prinsterer in Groen’s second period; that is, after 1850), tried to incorporate this Romantic view of history into a scripturally christian approach. He failed to see that the historical world view advocated by the Historical School was completely dominated by a humanistic religious ground motive. According to Stahl, everything which comes into being through the silent workings of tradition apart from human effort in the development of a nation must be seen as a revelation of God’s guidance in history and must be accepted as a norm or directive for further development. Stahl was fully aware of the dangers inherent in the view that divine providence is a directive for human action. He recognized that in history good is mixed with evil. For this reason he looked for a higher “universally valid” norm for action that could serve as a touchstone for the historical development of a nation. He believed that he had found this norm in the revealed “moral law”; viz., the ten commandments. His conclusion was as follows. One ought to accept as a norm for action the tradition of national historical development in the sense of God’s guidance in history insofar as this development does not conflict with an expressly revealed commandment of God. Stahl was therefore able to call the norm for historical development a “secondary norm.” One could always appeal to the primary norm revealed in the law of the ten commandments. With this reservation, the irrationalistic view of history was incorporated into antirevolutionary political thought. After Stahl, Groen van Prinsterer followed suit, calling the antirevolutionary movement the ”christian-historical” movement.
The Historical School contained a so-called Germanistic wing which specialized in the legal history of the Germanic peoples. Its influence upon Stahl and Groen van Prinsterer is unmistakable.
Before the Germanic countries supplemented indigenous law with Roman law in the fifteenth century, society and its legal order were still largely undifferentiated. In general there was no awareness of the idea of the state as a res publica, an institution established for the sake of the common good, nor of the idea of civil law, which recognizes the human person as such as a legal subject, endowed with legal rights regardless of his membership in specific communities. These basic ideas were gradually accepted after the reception of Roman law, and they were generally put into practice only as a result of the French Revolution.
In the Middle Ages undifferentiated communal spheres were prominent everywhere. They carried out all those tasks for which, at a more highly developed cultural level, differentiated communities come into being. In the countryside, for instance, the undifferentiated community was the manor. The owner of a manor had the legal competence to participate in judicial matters and to issue legal summonses and ordinances which covered nearly every area of society. The owner of large feudal land holdings was endowed with privileges which gave him the legal right to act as lord over every person domiciled on his estate. In the medieval cities the guilds were the undifferentiated units which simultaneously displayed an ecclesiastical, industrial, and at times even a political structure. These guilds were often based on a kind of fraternity which, as an artificial kinship bond, embraced its members with their families in all their activities. At a still higher level it was not at all uncommon that feudal lords exercised governmental authority as if it were private property, which they could indeed acquire and dispose of on the basis of private legal stipulations. All of these undifferentiated legal spheres possessed autonomy; that is, the legal competence and right to act as government within their own sphere without the intervention of a higher authority.
In this feudal setting there was no idea of the state as a res publica, organized for the common welfare. When the first efforts were undertaken to put into practice the idea of the state with an appeal to Roman law, and to recover those elements of governmental authority which had been relinquished to private power, for a long time these efforts were frustrated by the tenacious resistance of the undifferentiated spheres of life which could indeed appeal to their privileges, their ancient origins, etc. As a rule the feudal period also lacked the idea of private civil law with its basic principles of universal freedom and equality of all men before the law. On the eve of the French Revolution many remnants of this anrien regime had been kept intact in Germany, France, Holland, and elsewhere, even though the historical line of development definitely pointed in the direction of a differentiation process that could end only in a clear distinction between public and private law.
The Germanistic wing of the Historical School wished to continue this process of differentiation. It thus accepted the fruit of the French Revolution: the realization of the idea of a state. At the same time, it sought to harmonize this modern idea with the old idea of the autonomy of the life spheres. In order to bring this about, it was necessary that autonomy be limited by the requirements of the common good. The autonomous spheres of life, therefore, needed to be incorporated into the new state; they had to accommodate themselves to the requirements of the state as a whole.
In Germany, the antirevolutionary thinker Stahl considered such a recognition of the autonomy of the societal spheres a vital requirement for a truly “christian-historical” theory of the state. Similarly, in the Netherlands Groen van Prinsterer fought for an idea of the state along historical-national lines which would suit the Dutch national character in its historical development. He was the first person to use the phrase “souvereiniteit in eigen sfeer” (sovereignty within its own sphere) with respect to the mutual relation of church and state. But he did not yet view this principle as a creational principle of universal scope. He only demanded autonomy for the societal “corporations,” as Stahl had done. For him, trade and industry were only organic members of national life, just like municipalities and provinces. Their autonomy within the state was a merely historical principle rooted in the Dutch national character under God’s guidance. At the same time, Stahl and Groen van Prinsterer saw very clearly the basic differences between the state, the church, and the family. Driven by the scriptural ground motive of the christian religion, both held that the state should not interfere with the internal life of the other societal spheres. But their compromise with the world view of the Historical School prevented them from consistently applying this scriptural motive in their political thought.
Abraham Kuyper was the one who first understood sphere sovereignty again as a creational principle and thus fundamentally detached it from the historicistic outlook on human society. In his initial formulation of this idea, however, traces of a confusion of sphere sovereignty with municipal and provincial autonomy founded in Dutch history were still present. When he listed the various sovereign spheres he included the municipalities and provinces with the family, the school, science, art, economic enterprise, and so forth. Municipalities and provinces, however, are not sovereign spheres themselves but truly “autonomous” parts of the state, and the boundaries of their autonomy are dependent upon the requirements of the whole, the needs of the common good. Autonomy is authority delegated to a part by the whole.
What was the result of this confusion in political life? It became impossible to offer a principial criterion for the limits of autonomy. Increasingly, what originally fell under the autonomous jurisdiction of the municipalities and provinces needed regulation by a centralized government. Since this autonomous jurisdiction has been described as “sovereignty within its own sphere,” Kuyper’s followers began to be embarrassed with the principle itself, particularly because Dutch antirevolutionary political thought had never severed its links with the Historical School and had remained more or less infected with historicism.
Had Kuyper then erred when he founded sphere sovereignty in creation? Was his immutable principle actually no more than a historically alterable and variable given in the Dutch national character?
Confronted with questions of this sort, many antirevolutionaries, especially among the more educated, began to endorse an attitude of caution. They hesitated to honour certain slogans with the word principle. “Eternal principles” were considered safe if they were limited to directives “explicitly revealed” in Holy Scripture. The Bible, it was argued, contains no direct texts about sphere sovereignty. Thus the infection of the historicistic outlook surreptitiously influenced many in the ranks of the antirevolutionaries.
But the foundation laid by Kuyper was so firm that the principle of sphere sovereignty in its scriptural sense could not be completely erased from the religious consciousness of those who lived by the Word of God. Certainly, “purification” and further elaboration were still necessary. The important elements of truth in the teachings of the Historical School had to be freed from the framework of the historicistic world view if they were to become parts of a truly scriptural view of history.
It is high time that such purification and elaboration take place. The “new age” has no mercy for principles that are internally undermined. Our spiritually uprooted nation has never needed the explication and implementation of the creational principle of sphere sovereignty as urgently as today.
Kuyper’s great achievement was that he grasped the principle of sphere sovereignty as a creational principle. Earlier, however, we saw that the influence of the Historical School was evident in the way in which he sought to apply this principle to society. When in his general list of the life spheres he placed municipalities and provinces alongside of the family, the school, art, science, economic enterprise, and even the church as temporal institution, he confused genuine sphere sovereignty with a historically founded autonomy of parts in the body politic.
Especially today, when the issue of the proper relationship between political, social, and economic structures demands immediate, principial solution, it is utterly crucial that we avoid this confusion. For we have already seen that the historicistic world view has an immense influence in our time. Those who still hold to the constant principles rooted in the creation order are summarily dismissed in the abundantly flourishing wave of pamphleteering – that dangerous impulse of journalistic superficiality. Proponents of constant principles today are viewed as fossilized system builders who have not grasped the spirit of our “dynamic age”! But, if ever, this is true today:
Was ihr den Geist der Zeiten heisst,
Das ist der Herren eigner Geist
In dem die Zeiten sich bespiegeln.
What spirit of the time you call,
Is but the scholar’s spirit, after all,
In which times past are now reflected.Goethe’s Faust, Walter Kaufmann, lines 577-579
Historicism nourishes itself on the absolutization of the historical aspect of reality. Against it there is only one antidote: exposing the hidden religious ground motive which operates behind a seemingly neutral mask of supposedly profound scientific insight. All the false masks of apostate ground motives become transparent under the searching light of divine truth through which man discovers himself and his creator.
Autonomy of the parts of a whole and sphere sovereignty of radically distinct societal relationships are principially different matters. In a differentiated society the degree of autonomy depends upon the requirements of the whole of which the autonomous community remains a part. Sphere sovereignty, however, is rooted in the constant, inherent character of the life sphere itself. Because of their intrinsic natures, differentiated spheres like the family, the school, economic enterprise, science, and art can never be parts of the state.
Above we briefly discussed the undifferentiated state of society during the Middle Ages. Some remnants of that undifferentiated situation maintained themselves until the French Revolution. In such an undifferentiated condition, genuine sphere sovereignty cannot yet express itself in the social order. Because the guilds, towns, and manors display the traits of the most divergent societal structures in their own existence, it was impossible to distinguish these structures according to the criterion of “intrinsic nature.” Autonomy was limited only by a formal criterion that decided nothing with respect to the essential nature of legal competence and jurisdiction. We can formulate this criterion as follows: autonomous jurisdiction embraces all those matters which a community can decide upon without intervention of a higher authority. Thus the basis for autonomy was not the intrinsic nature of the community, for the community did not as yet have a differentiated nature of its own. It rested entirely on the ancient customs or privileges granted by a lord.
As we noted earlier, the authentic idea of the state was absent. By this we mean the idea that the state’s governmental authority is not private property but a public office which must be exercised exclusively for the common good or the public interest. Precisely because of this, the autonomy under the anfien regime before the French Revolution was not limited by the public interest of the state but was exclusively defined in a purely formal manner by existing legal customs and privileges. When a powerful lord attempted to subject this autonomy to the requirements of the public interest, the autonomous corporations would invariably appeal to their special rights and freedoms guaranteed by these customs and privileges.
When the idea of the state was actually implemented by the French Revolution, the undifferentiated life spheres were eliminated. Modern municipalities and provinces are therefore not comparable to the old boroughs, shires, towns, estates, and manors. They are parts of the modern state, and they display the differentiated, intrinsic nature of parts of the body politic. Thus, when it comes to the relation between the state and its parts, one can speak of neither sphere sovereignty nor autonomy in the sense of the old regime. In principle, municipal and provincial autonomy depend upon the demands of the common good of the state as a whole.
Thorbecke and some of his followers held that the municipal, provincial, and national economy formed three independent spheres which could be mutually delimited according to their nature. But reality proved stronger than doctrine. It was simply impossible to offer an intrinsic criterion for the delimitation of these three “spheres.” The extent to which the common good of the body politic could permit municipalities and provinces an autonomous sphere of self-government depended entirely upon historical development and its coherence with juridical life. By contrast, sphere sovereignty is rooted in creation, not in history.
But this does not in any way imply that the whole question of municipal and provincial autonomy can be removed from the list of fundamental political problems. A truly christian-historical political policy that is guided in its historical reflection by the christian religion demands that the national character and its historical development be considered seriously in the formation of the body politic. This consideration is required not because the “national spirit,” taken individually and by itself, is a norm for political action but because historical development is subject to the norm of differentiation which requires that undifferentiated societal forms break open and unfold. It is equally necessary because the process of differentiation carries with it historical individualization, also in terms of the development of individual nations.
What does historical individualization mean? We must pursue this further, for it is here that the scriptural view of history immediately comes to the fore.
It cannot be said often enough that historicism, which today is much more influential than the scriptural view of history, arises out of the absolutization of the historical aspect of reality which is investigated by the science of history. But the integral, complete, and radical (penetrating to the root of created reality) character of the scriptural motive of creation makes us see this aspect in its ucible nature and in its unbreakable coherence with all the other aspects of reality. In its core it is irreducible to the others, but at the same time in its inner structure it displays a complete expression of this aspect’s universal coherence with the other aspects. This expression is the work of God’s creation, which is integral and complete.
Earlier I discussed the universal coherence of the aspects in connection with the psychical aspect, calling this coherence the sphere universality of each aspect. It is the correlate of sphere sovereignty. In order to perceive God’s ordinances for historical development, it is necessary that we search for them in the historical aspect and in its unbreakable coherence with the structures of the other aspects. If this search is not to go astray, then the scriptural ground motive of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ must be our only point of departure and our only religious motivation.
Some may object as follows: is such an intricate investigation really necessary to gain insight into God’s ordinances for historical development? Is it not true that God revealed his whole law in the ten commandments? Is this revelation not enough for the simple Christian? I answer with a counterquestion: is it not true that God placed all the spheres of temporal life under his laws and ordinances – the laws that govern numerical and spatial relationships, physical and chemical phenomena, organic life, emotional feeling, logical thinking, language, economic life, and beauty? Are not all these laws grounded in God’s creation order? Can we find explicit scriptural texts for all of them? If not, shall we not acknowledge that God gave man the task to discover them? And admitting this, can we still hold that it makes no difference whether we start from the ground motive of the Word of God or from the guidance of unscriptural ground motives?
Those who think they can derive truly scriptural principles for political policy strictly from explicit Bible texts have a very mistaken notion of scripture. They see only the letter, forgetting that the Word of God is spirit and power which must penetrate our whole attitude of life and thought. God’s Word-revelation puts men to work. It claims the whole of our being; where death and spiritual complacency once held sway in us, it wants to conceive new life. Spiritually lethargic persons would discloses the powers that God enclosed in creation. The fall affects natural phenomena, which man can no longer control. It expresses itself in theoretical thought led by an idolatrous ground motive. It appears in the subjective way in which man gives form to the principles established by God in his creation as norms for human action. The fall made special institutions necessary, such as the state and the church in its institutional form. But even these special institutions of general and special grace are based upon the ordinances that God established in his creation order. Neither the structures of the various aspects of reality, nor the structures that determine the nature of concrete creatures, nor the principles which serve as norms for human action, were altered by the fall. A denial of this leads to the unscriptural conclusion that the fall is as broad as creation; i.e., that the fall destroyed the very nature of creation. This would mean that sin plays a self-determining, autonomous role over against God, the creator of all. Whoever maintains such a position robs God of his sovereignty and grants satan a power equal to that of the origin of all things.
Certainly, then, this objection from the Barthian camp may not keep us from searching for the divine order for historical development as revealed in the light of the creation motive.