Thursday, August 23, 2012

Neo-Calvinism & the French Revolution: What Is Sphere Sovereignty?

This week's conference on neo-calvinism and the French revolution in Paris aims to contribute to a better understanding of the historical setting in which Abraham Kuyper formulated his ideas. The need for this was expressed in the article A Historian's Comment on the Use of Abraham Kuyper's Idea of Sphere Sovereignty by historian George Harinck back in 2002.

The concept of sphere sovereignty surfaced in US politics at the end of the twentieth century. In 1996 the center for public justice helped draft a law - based on Kuyper's idea of sphere sovereignty- to make it possible for organisations with a religious identity to receive money just like secular organisations. Bill Edgar, Westminster professor of apologetics & Francis Schaeffer Chair of Apologetics at the World Journalism Institute, writes on the website of the center for public justice about The Future of Kuyperian Answers:
'Kuyper’s vision of sphere sovereignty still has great traction'
Abraham Kuyper's use of the term in his speech Sphere Sovereignty at the opening of the Free University in 1880 differs from the philosophical concept of sphere sovereignty constructed by Herman Dooyeweerd in the twentieth century.

Let's reconstruct the background of this confusion which has had important consequences in many political debates. Blogger David Koyzis writes about a Dooyeweerd consultation in Baltimore in 2004:
'a conversation amongst academics and practitioners who are in some sense indebted to Herman Dooyeweerd's political and legal theory'
One of the participants was J.D. van der Vyver, the current I.T. Cohen Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Emory Law. Together with John Witte jr., his colleague at Emory Law, van der Vyver wrote the book Religious human rights in global perspective. He wrote in 2006 the article 'Abraham Kuyper and the right to self-determination of peoples' which starts with the claim:
'Sphere sovereignty as a principle that regulates the mutual relationships among different social institutions originated from the philosophy of John Althusius'
A statement that reminded me of the short introduction to John Althusius by John Witte jr. at Leuven University in may 2012 : 'A ‘Demonstrative Theory’ of Natural Law: Johannes Althusius and the Rise of Calvinist Jurisprudence'. (Althusius wrote the only systematic justification of the Dutch Revolt Politica which John Witte proposed as a precursor of the US constitution, John Witte wrote Natural Rights, Popular Sovereignty, and Covenant Politics: Johannes Althusius and the Dutch Revolt and Republic. )

In 2002 van der Vyver wrote the article 'The jurisprudential legacy of Abraham Kuyper and Leo XIII' in which he argues in similar fashion that the idea of 'sphere sovereignty' itself, however, 'preceded this descriptive phrase (by Groen van Prinsterer in 1862) by approximately three hundred years', quoting Herman Dooyeweerd:
'According to Herman Dooyeweerd, "the first modern formulation of the principle of internal sphere-sovereignty in the societal relationship" is to be found in a statement of the medieval Calvinistic jurist, Johannes Althusius (1557-1638).'
Let's listen again to George Harinck, professor of neocalvinist history at the Free University, responding to van der Vyver's paper:
 'Sphere sovereignty was one of the weapons of Kuyper the tactical general, of Kuyper, the outcast en route'.
He explains how Herman Dooyeweerd reconstructed 'sphere sovereignty' into 'the full-grown philosophical theory that we know so well today' and how it became a 'great subject for academic conferences' but 'did not function anymore as a crowbar in Dutch society'. In a clear reference to van der Vyver's work he concludes:
 'it's a tricky thing to take Kuyper's idea of sphere sovereignty as a well-defined doctrine and apply it to realities such as race, gender, ethnic groups, or the self-determination of peoples.'
Marvin Olasky, who is known as 'the godfather of compassionate conservatism', wrote in 2005:
'Who's the major figure behind the election and re-election of George W. Bush? On one level, the visionary Karl Rove. At a deeper level, a theologian most Americans have never heard of: Francis Schaeffer, who 50 years ago this month founded an evangelistic haven in Switzerland, L'Abri.'
Francis Schaeffer as the mascot of the Christian Right? How could this happen? Some say Francis Schaeffer was influenced by Dooyeweerdian thinking through Free University Art Historian Hans Rookmaaker. Westminster Professor of apologetics Bill Edgar said in 2005 that Schaeffer's first book, Escape from Reason, 'shows a decided influence from Herman Dooyeweerd'. Dr. Schaeffer was a member of the Association for Calvinistic Philosophy.

But that's not the whole story. Schaeffer was first of all a student of J. Oliver Buswell, his apologetics Professor, who had this to say to Herman Dooyeweerd:
'With the background of Hodge and Warfield on this side of the Atlantic, we have learned much from Abraham Kuyper and Bavinck, the great Calvinists of your noble tradition. We prefer their straight-forward appeal to objective facts in the created world, and we regret that some of you younger scholars who have inherited great things from them, have failed to build upon the four-square foundations of their rugged, consecrated scholarship.'
'Early on in L'Abri, Francis Schaeffer gave a lecture called "Christian Apologetics" in which he sided with J. Oliver Buswel' writes Bill Edgar. Francis Schaeffer's book Escape from Reason was an attempt to reconcile Dooyeweerd and Buswell's views. To ignore the influence of J. Oliver Buswell gives the false impression Francis Schaeffer was the guy who sold Dooyeweerd's sphere sovereignty to unenlightened American evangelicals.

This is nonsense! American Presbyterian contacts with Dutch Reformed date back to the 19th century. Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck were read by Warfield, Machen and Buswell decades before Francis Schaeffer set foot on European soil.

Offcours Jim Skillen, Charles Colson, Michael Gerson (ghostwriter of Chuck Colson's culture-war book, “Kingdoms in Conflict” and George W. Bush's speechwriter), Marvin Olasky and Bill Edgar can take credit for selling Dooyeweerd's version of 'sphere sovereignty' to American evangelicals. I can also understand the temptation to use Francis Schaeffer to sell Dooyeweerd's concept of sphere sovereignty to Presbyterians. It still remains a tragedy how in the process J. Oliver Buswell's apologetics and Abraham Kuyper's functional use of sphere sovereignty have been completely obscured.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.