Groen Van Prinsterer: Dutch Statesman and Christian
While I was a theological student, the first book by Groen van Prinsterer that I read was his Unbelief and Revolution. This is his main work. It has its origins in lectures which he gave to a small circle of interested friends in the winter of 1845-46. His style of writing is not easy, but in his writings we find very original and clear thoughts, running counter to the spirit of his age.
The motto of the French Revolution was 'liberty, equality and fraternity', but those involved in the French Revolution preached, as Groen saw it, a freedom, equality and fraternity that were not Christian. Christian equality is an equality before God, both in condemnation and in pardon by God's free grace, through the blood of Jesus Christ, and not an equality that destroys all distinctions in society. Real brotherhood is not based on vague principles that will never really unite men but is based on the blood of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Thus it surpasses distinctions that are based on race, culture, intellect and wealth. It makes men of different states in society compassionate towards each other.
Groen van Prinsterer was deeply convinced that the principles of the French Revolution are destructive for church and society. The French Revolution sought to annihilate the notion of God and his Word as the source of all authority. Over against the principles of the French Revolution, he testified to God's Word as the only solution for the church and for society at large. The true church is the church that proclaims the gospel of redemption by penal substitution. According to Groen, European society would disintegrate into chaos if it were no longer governed by the principles of God's revelation for society. He foresaw that the European countries would become orderless masses. In our time we see the fulfillment of this prophetic insight. For Groen, the only hope for Europe was to return to the living God who can only be known in a saving way through his Word. His motto was: 'Against the Revolution, the Gospel.'
Who Was Groen van Prinsterer?
Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer was born in The Hague in 1801. He grew up in a wealthy, aristocratic family. His father was a physician, who was for a time a member of the Council of State, the highest advisory council to the Government. His parents belonged to the liberal wing of the Reformed Church. Like almost all the leading class of that time, they were averse to what they saw as extreme opinions, both in religion and in society. Groen was a very gifted man. On 17 December 1823, he graduated twice in one day: at 10:00 in law, and at 11:00 in literature! While at Leyden University, Groen had attended the 'private lectures' of Bilderdijk, the father of the Reveil in Holland. The Reveil was an international movement in Switzerland, France and Holland in which believing Christians tried to edify each other in a true and living faith. Though Groen van Prinsterer never fully accepted all Bilderdijk's thoughts, the seed sown by Bilderdijk later bore good fruit.
Bilderdijk was an advocate of absolute monarchy, while Groen was a champion of constitutional monarchy. In 1827, Groen was appointed to be the king's private secretary. A year later he married Betsy van der Hoop. Like Groen himself, she came from a wealthy family. Her influence for good on her husband was very great, especially in spiritual things. In his official position Groen was in Brussels during the prelude to the secession of Belgium from Holland. This was one of the factors that changed his political views. He became more and more conscious of the deadly danger that lay in the principles of the French Revolution. Also he and his wife both experienced a spiritual change. That came about through the influence of the court chaplain, Merle d'Aubigné, a Swiss preacher, and a representative of the Reveil Movement. D'Aubigné became famous as a historian of the Reformation. All this led to a change in the lifestyle of the young couple. For example, they stopped visiting the theatre and attending balls.
In accordance with van Prinsterer's character, this change in his life occurred gradually. In 1831 he wrote to his friend Van Rappard:
But that faith, by which one becomes a new creature, by which instead of my own will the desire to serve God rules, that faith I do not have, or in such a small measure that I am almost unconscious of it. But having that faith is absolutely necessary. It must be given to us. Daily prayer and reading the Bible are the means to get it. Continually I acknowledge God's guidance in my vicissitudes, and I trust more and more in God's help. He who hath begun a good work in me, will complete it.
In January 1833, Groen became seriously ill. To the great joy of his wife, however, he was not just restored to good health, but he found rest for his soul in a complete surrender to Christ as Saviour. That year he resigned from his office. From this time he dedicated his energies to new activities.
Groen's book, Archives de la Maison Orange-Nassau, made a name for him in all learned Europe. His firm conviction was that God reigns over all the world, according to the counsel of his will. The birth of the Netherlands as an independent state, he saw, was closely connected with the birth of the Reformed Church. Significance was also assigned to the rise of the House of Orange. In the sixteenth century, William I, Prince of Orange, had been the leader of the spiritual struggle of the Dutch Provinces against Spain. He died by the hands of a murderer, who had been hired by the king of Spain. His last words were: 'My God, have compassion on me and on this poor people.'
Van Prinsterer never failed to emphasize the importance of the House of Orange for the Reformed Church. He believed that William III of Orange was not only important for Protestantism in the Netherlands, but for the whole of Europe, because of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In the providence of God, William of Orange was the means of preserving Protestantism in Britain, in the British colonies and in America.
He viewed history through his conviction that its deepest significance lies in the fact that Christ Jesus is gathering out his church from among the nations. Only in the light of God's Word does this become clear to us.
Redemption by Christ's Blood
Van Prinsterer believed in a gospel of redemption by penal substitution. This he expressed very clearly in his book Unbelief and Revolution. He called himself a Calvinist, but his Calvinism was marked by the experimental emphasis of the Reveil. From the central motif of atonement by the blood of the cross, he learned to value the confessions of the Reformed Church, and he pleaded for them to be subscribed to in the church. He never designed a 'system'. His was 'the orthodoxy of the heart'. All emphasis was laid on the central truths of faith which all Protestants share, and which unite them: redemption by Christ's blood, justification by faith alone, the necessity of a renewal by the Holy Spirit, and the full authority of the Bible.
As to the Reformed orthodoxy of post-Reformation times, he had some reservations. He confessed the truths of the Canons of Dort, and on his deathbed he was comforted by the truth of God's eternal and sovereign election. But he thought that the Canons of Dort were first and foremost a matter for the theological colleges, not for the church. Perhaps he went too far at this point. The doctrine of predestination as confessed by the fathers of Dort in such a well-balanced way is very important. It clarifies the fact that salvation is all of God. Neglecting this doctrine ultimately leads to a religion that is man-centred and not God-centred.
His Significance For Church and State
Van Prinsterer always remained a member of the national Dutch Reformed Church. After his return from Brussels to The Hague, he visited the Walloon Reformed Church, a French-speaking congregation belonging to the national church. Although he could not follow the people who had separated from the Dutch Reformed Church, he felt himself inwardly united with them. In this connection he distinguished between the national church as a community of true believers, and the national church as an institution. As Groen van Prinsterer saw it, the people that had left 'the institution' belonged still to the national Dutch Reformed Church as a community of true believers. For him, the unity of the church was first of all a unity of faith and not of structures. He used to speak about 'the Reformed persuasion' which united dissenters and orthodox and Christians in the Dutch Reformed Church. The Reformed faith was for Groen an expression of the unity of the faith.
He looked forward to the restoration of the Reformed Church as 'the soul of the nation', so that dissenters could return to her. His ideal was that in the Dutch constitution the Protestant character of the nation should be explicitly acknowledged. He turned against the harsh measures which the government had taken against dissenters. In 1837, he wrote his The Measures Against the Dissenters Compared With Constitutional Law. The government prohibited the meetings of dissenters. These were seen as 'a new religious sect', which could not claim religious freedom because the constitution guaranteed liberty only for existing religious persuasions. But Groen declared,
The dissenters are no new religious sect, as they are members of the Reformed persuasion. It is very well known that they are Reformed, Reformed pre-eminently. Perhaps they are disloyal to the church as an institution, but surely they are loyal members of the Reformed persuasion, and thus of the real church. The confession, which is the expression of the common faith, is the mark of this persuasion. The dissenters do not leave the Reformed confession, but they keep closely to it, they embrace it.
The governmental repression of the dissenters was for Groen van Prinsterer the evidence that the so-called liberals were in fact most intolerant. The tolerance about which they spoke was only applied to those who held the views of the French Revolution. So van Prinsterer could speak of the intolerance of the tolerant. It is here that we see how very prophetic his ideas were. In western society today there are forces active that seek to impose on the whole of society an ideology of absolute equality. The differences between marriage and 'other forms of living together', the different roles of men and women within marriage, the roles of church and state are wiped out. Everyone who does not accept the ideology is considered intolerant. Those who reject the ideology must be compelled to be tolerant!
Father of Christian Political Parties
For a short time van Prinsterer had been a Member of Parliament (the Dutch House of Commons), from 1849-57, and again from 1862-66. There he had confessed the importance of the gospel for all society. He had been opposed to the principles of the French Revolution. In the nineteenth century there were not yet political parties as they now exist. There were instead two main currents: conservatives and liberals. However, for Groen van Prinsterer, the differences between them were not fundamental. Both political views proceeded from autonomous man. Only by the Bible, he declared, can we hold fast to the values which are essential for society.
His motto for politics was, 'In our isolated position lies our strength.' He meant an isolation like that of Daniel and his three friends in Babylon. A Christian intermingles with other people and tries to win them for Christ, but he realizes that he sees all things in a completely different perspective from others. Van Prinsterer was, then, an advocate of an isolationist position. He wanted separation not just for personal and ecclesiastical life, but also for society at large.
Van Prinsterer is the father of the formation of Protestant-Christian political parties in the Netherlands. For him, however, the formation of Protestant-Christian institutions was not an end in itself, but a means to win back the whole nation to God and his Word. Over against the principles of the French Revolution, he emphasized the authority of God and his infallible Word.
The French Revolution had started with the declaration of human rights. The only answer to that position was to affirm God's rights. Knowing the history of the Netherlands, van Prinsterer pleaded for the Protestant character of the Dutch nation. He could refer to the antirevolutionary or Christian-historical persuasion. A Christian ought to reject the principles of the French Revolution. The Bible must be his only rule for faith and practice, his guide for all areas of life. A Christian ought also to think along historical lines.
As a member of the Dutch House of Commons, Groen van Prinsterer spoke again and again in favour of the Protestant character of Dutch society. He saw the principles of the revolution as a threat, not only to the gospel, but also to the constitutional state, governed by law and right. The ideology of absolute equality transforms the nations into ungovernable masses and spiritless individuals. When this ideology becomes the pattern for government, it will lead to an absolute, totalitarian state, which will impose its ideology on all its subjects. Van Prinsterer believed that a constitutional state could only exist and flourish in the sphere of the gospel.
Over against the attitude of the totalitarian state, van Prinsterer supported the place and value of church, school and family. All these have their own spheres and rights. This thought was later elaborated by his disciple, Abraham Kuyper, in his doctrine of 'sovereignty in its own sphere'.
The original ideal of Groen van Prinsterer was that the Protestant character of the Netherlands should be acknowledged in the constitution. Later on, he accepted the neutral state as a space in which the various religious and ideological persuasions could unfold themselves. He emphasized in this context that the neutrality of the state ought in this case to be a real neutrality. The French Revolution pressed for principles which promoted a new kind of state religion.
For Groen the neutrality of the state was nothing more than a compromise solution, not the ideal one. That principle distinguished him from Kuyper, who was a champion of 'a free church in a free state'. Van Prinsterer saw that the state cannot be strictly neutral. In the last analysis neutrality is impossible in the church, in science and in the state. For Groen it was God's revelation in the Bible that had given its definite stamp to the history, not just of the Netherlands, but also of Europe and North America.
Van Prinsterer saw that when a nation is loosened from the roots of divine revelation the leaves and flowers of the constitutional state wither. Just as a person cannot be neutral, so also a government cannot be neutral. A so-called neutral state will very easily become an anti-Christian state. The policy of government must be defined in terms of certain principles. Van Prinsterer opposed the principles of the French Revolution in favour of God's revelation, and the gospel of God's grace in Christ. Governments, whatever form they have, ought to acknowledge God's commandments as the principles to order society, and thereby recognize God as King.
Van Prinsterer is not only of importance for the Netherlands. The American constitution is derived from the principles of the Puritans, with their emphasis on a divine right that is always superior to the position of sovereign. Such a view is thoroughly opposed to the principles of the French Revolution. Unfortunately, in America, the separation of church and state within the constitution came in the course of time more and more to mean an absolute separation between the Christian faith and government. In this way, the state is surrendered to an anti-Christian ideology. Neutrality is a myth. American Christians who want to see a recognition of the bond between government and religion are listening with new interest to Groen van Prinsterer's words.
In the light of both the Word of God and the history of the Netherlands, Groen van Prinsterer's political ideal was a state governed by the principles of historic Protestantism which at the same time gave full religious freedom to those of differing persuasions. He accepted the neutral state as a makeshift contrivance. In this case, he insisted, the state must be really neutral. It must not govern by the principles of the French Revolution, but, within the bounds of the constitution, allow all freedom to develop for people in accordance with their different persuasions. Protestant Christians should use this free development to form Christian institutions and especially free Christian schools to permeate the nation with historic Protestantism and so win it back for God and his Word.
The End of Groen van Prinsterer's Life
On 19 May 1876, Groen van Prinsterer passed away to be with Christ. Mrs Van Prinsterer formulated the text of the mourning-letter thus, 'Today my very beloved husband, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, passed away, in an unshakable faith in his Lord and Saviour, to whom he had dedicated his life.' In the December issue of the periodical Dutch Thoughts, van Prinsterer had written his spiritual testament, as he had felt his end approaching. It reads as follows:
I am going to die with the prayer of the Publican, "O God! Be merciful to me a sinner!"; with the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, "My only comfort in life and death"; with a shout of joy, "I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord"; with the battle-song of the Reformation: "Put on the whole armour of God, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God's Word"; with the motto: "Not a statesman, but a confessor of the gospel."
O that we might all live by this heritage, both in the church and in politics. It is needed not only in the Netherlands and in Europe, but all over the world.