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Van Ruler: Sphere Sovereignty and the Theocratic Triangle

Editor’s note: The following is an English translation of the 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian A.A. van Ruler.

A.A. van Ruler

translated by Ruben Alvarado
(excerpted from Religie en Politiek, Nijkerk: Callenbach, 1945, pp. 373-379.)

I am thinking here of course about the famous doctrine of sphere sovereignty. It was drawn up by Kuyper, but it has been applied by the Liberals, the Liberal Democrats, and the Social Democrats. And that makes quite a difference! In Kuyper the word sovereignty is never really without content, albeit that this content was never fully Christian. I mean, that Kuyper under sovereignty in worldly things never fully understood the sovereignty of God in Christ, and so also the sovereignty of God’s Word. His doctrine of common grace hindered him. This had a diluting effect. But it should be recognized that Kuyper fought that much harder for the sovereignty of God, even though one is always in doubt as to whether it was the sovereignty of the triune God, or the sovereignty of God-in-general, for which he fought. But he fought for it in all areas of life. And the thought of the sovereignty of God was echoed in the term “sphere sovereignty.” And that implies that Kuyper, among other things, conceived this term both literally and in the strict sense, and that he indeed wished to say that in every sphere is its own sovereignty, that thereby all areas of life consist of rulership cores with people-aspects around it, that therefore each sphere reflects the state and nation entirely, as in the material world the microcosm reflects the macrocosm and every atom is a solar system in miniature. I do not say that Kuyper always said this in so many words. I only say that this is the most favorable interpretation one can give to his theory of sphere sovereignty, and that it unconstrainedly corresponds to the organic and corporate structure of his anti-revolutionary system of public law.

But in the reality of nineteenth and twentieth century Dutch life, this theory was not applied and implemented in the sense of its author. The sovereignty of God paled in the phrase “sphere sovereignty.” Hence the strict content of the term, namely that in every sphere is its own sovereignty. And the formula applied in practice was to the effect that each sphere became sovereign. For instance, the formula gave footing to the modern autonomy of all areas of life. Society was emancipated. It became loosed from the state. And in addition it broke up into a number of, in themselves again sovereign, spheres. Culture also became autonomous. I am thinking of the struggles of the arts and sciences to keep their heads above water and not perish on the one hand from the lack of style and on the other from the utterly agnostic skepticism of nihilism. The band of art and science with the people was entirely lost. And social and economic life became a wild struggle of all sorts of unhinged forces.

I am not saying that these things are the consequence of Kuyper’s formulation regarding sphere sovereignty. Not even that they are the result of an incorrect application of this formula. One can also see it otherwise. This disintegration of all things, this dissolution of the organism of the state and the destruction of the unity of life, is the expression and the result of the modern mind which was already active for some centuries, converting Christian Europe into “human” Europe. In its first germs this was already begun in the mid-seventeenth century (Descartes, Spinoza!). And Kuyper’s thesis of sovereignty in each particular sphere can be seen as an attempt to counteract the worst dissolution of life.

But this attempt was abused in any case. And it is quite sure that it gave rise to the farthest and the worst dissolution, even to the degree that it was not abused, but applied in the spirit of the auctor intellectualis. It has cooperated not only in the transition to dissolution of the organism of the state, but also the organism of the nation. One need only think of the affinity between the formula “sphere sovereignty” and the formula “the isolation of the Christian part of the nation.”

And it need not cause wonderment that this well-intentioned formula on the one hand could be so abused, and on the other hand, even when not abused, could give rise to such disastrous consequences. For by its nature it was unable to resist the swelling flow of the humanization of Europe. I have already indicated its weaknesses: it leaves the sovereignty of the grace of God in Christ in the background; for this reason it understands the European reality not starting from the salvation of the Lord but through common grace, from creation, and therefore is no longer able fully to proclaim the sovereignty of the Word of God; it hesitates between the sovereignty of the triune God, i.e., the God of revelation, and the sovereignty of God-in-general , i.e., the God of the philosophers; it is therefore too hazy about whether it really means that every sphere has its own sovereignty, or whether each sphere in itself is sovereign. I can now add to this that the core of all objections to this formula should be sought in the double disadvantage, that through its famous distinction of the church as institution and as organism, it robs the church of its place and role and function in the public, political, social, economic, cultural, moral, and spiritual life of the nation, and secondly, that it first renders the state neutral and restricts it to its policing task. The powers ordained by God, whose task it is to create and maintain Christian culture as form-in-the-flesh of the kingdom of God, and indeed in history have done that (Christian Europe did arise!) – these powers ordained by God are put to the side. And the people, the Christians, put themselves in their place. Instead of the church comes the Christian organization “in all areas of life.” And in the place of the state comes the Christian political party. And these Christian people get ready to build a Christian culture, this time a real one, that is “Christian” only in subordinate degree. Christian culture becomes a ghetto in humanized Europe, soon to be eradicated when Europe becomes itself, which is to say, pagan.

Against all this neocalvinist politics of dissent, we should forcefully keep triangle-thinking in mind in all political and cultural design of Christianity. I mean the triangle: family-state-church. In this triangle is contained all of life. Herein lies the unity of life and therefore the organism of the state, as they are created in the historical-eschatological action of God through His Word and by His Spirit.

This does not mean that there is no breathing room in the Christian unity of life. The threefold nature of this figure already brings an infinitely varied latitude to life. One need only think of the duality of church and state. If the triangle was a point and there was only, e.g., the church as the point of orientation for all man’s activity, latitude would be completely gone and the cultural ideal would be entirely church-bound. But the state stands vis-a-vis the church in all its independence, never even without residues of mystery. That already entails ample latitude. Conversely, the state in its push toward absolutization is radically inhibited and resisted, because there is also the church. From our previous explanations we know enough about the salutary problems of this duality and all of the space it creates for the game and the struggle of existence. I need not highlight this further. I also referred, here and there, to the family, strongly enough to give to understand that it is a completely unique core and form of life, in which man in the original sense of the word is man in community, in which life becomes as much an ordered life about the paternal authority as does the state round about the ruling authority and the church round about the authority of officeholders, and that this peculiar core and form of life participates with the other two cores, the state and the church, to maintain life in the holy order of God’s law, but in an entirely peculiar manner. And that brings a huge piece of new latitude to life.

Thus in the threefold self of the theocratic image of life and the mutual relationship of the three core points there already lies a great degree of flexibility. But each of these three points in themselves is again significantly differentiated. With regard to the family, I need not demonstrate. The many different relationships in the family already make for a rich differentiation. I am thinking of the relations between men and women, parents and children, the children themselves, the relation of house staff and other members of the family, and that of the family members to guests and visitors. More differentiation is brought on by the circumstances in which the family finds and the many ways in which it can be together, can work and have fun. In the second point of the theocratic triangle, numerous variations arise. In order to show that, I would have to enter into the catholic breadth and variegation and variety of meaning of the church concept. I will leave that alone here. But what is important to me is the mobility of the state concept. In my discussions of the theocratic relation of state and people, and especially of state and society, I already indicated that the government theocratically is not a central, omnipotent figure, but that in terms of pure public law there are also many governments from low to high, in which the people is organically articulated and again and again is grouped around new government cores. That is the relation between state and people. And the theocratic relation of the state and society is yet endlessly expanded. There is indeed sphere sovereignty, i.e., in every sphere of life there is a peculiar sovereignty. There is government everywhere.

This can be best shown by referring to the social spheres. The relationship of employer and employee, according to the biblical-theocratic understanding, is a relation of order established by God, in which, by divine will, the one is set over the other. As in marriage the man is set as head of the woman and in the state the government is set over the people, so in society the employer is set over the employee, or rather, the superior over the subordinate. That has nothing to do with conservative capitalism. This notion becomes capitalist if the outlines of the Mosaic law in this biblical notion get wiped away and are substituted with the outlines of Roman law. When property no longer is understood Mosaicly as vocation and task, in which office one is set to administer the good that is the Lord’s, but Romanly in the absolute sense as property of the individual, then the superior becomes employer, and the employer, capitalist. And when the setting of the one man over another man is no longer understood Mosaicly as occurring by the will of God, but Romanly as in the reasonable, necessary, and therefore divine nature of things, the capitalist becomes tyrant. In short, when all of life no longer is understood from the Lord’s salvation and order but from his own divine or also human being, there is no stopping them, then all things develop into absolutism. And then there is nothing to save us! Only the biblical, reformed, theocratic ordering of life is capable also of, not solving, but at least making bearable, the social question, in this chaos of sin. Here is an immense task for the church. The world, particularly in the figure of the laborer, is calling for a theocratic sociology. And everything comes down to the church not erring and supposing that a humanistic, “human” sociology is already a good deal “Christian”!

But what is true for the social terrain is further true for all areas of life. There are cores of government everywhere, surrounded by people-aspects And as the life of the people is always an ordered life, thus never without government, but life placed around the government or even sprouted from the work of the government, just as conversely the government is the life-organizing government, therefore never without people, but always government, not so much above but rather in and among the people – this is how it is in all areas, in all spheres of life. Each communal occupation of man – and how could man ever be active other than communally – is a corporation. The distinction between government and subject, greater and lesser, leader and led, can speak more weakly or more strongly. But it is always there. And it is always such that it is able to take a legal shape. And it is good for the integrity and strength of life, that it is highlighted. In every sphere an ordering capacity ought to exist.

And all these spheres are not outside the state and they are not separate from the government. They are state and government and people. Therefore there is also an organic correlation between a corporate sphere and the state, between the authority core in the corporation and the government in the nation.

Thus, diversity is not denied. But the unity of life and the organism of the state may not thereby be broken and dissolved. The church and the state have … a task in life, which thus receives the mark of being public. The slogan, e.g., the school to the parents’, is a clear breach of this theocratic unity of life. The school is also somewhere in the triangle: family – state – church. The state has something to do with the school, and in more than just a financial sense. And the church has something to do with the school. Theocratically, there are no more hiding places in life. Everything has been made public. Existence is turned inside out. This is consistent with the theocratic outlines of reconciliation as purification of the heart and sanctification of life, and with the other theocratic outline of the sacrament as the Christianization of the surface, the exterior, the face of life.

This triangle is – as I may stress again – created by the Word of God. It by no means originated in paganism. Paganism has essentially only the state. In any case, the church and in a sense also the family stems from revelation. This triangular relationship is therefore characteristic of the truss of a Christian culture. One can break this unity of life, in order to make culture human. As long as the remains of Christianity still linger and to some degree make their strength felt, that may go well. But in the long run, man cannot save himself. If he has lost the living God, he will sooner or later go looking for his own gods. A human culture is not sustainable in the long run. That must result in a pagan culture, in which the demons again show their strength. For this reason the Christian politics of neocalvinism, which was intended to work as a barrier against the flow of burgeoning paganism, where it radically breaks the theocratic unity of life, benefits paganism. No more caulking can be applied to this Christian politics. It must radically be broken with. If necessary, the church must go into prophetic isolation, to await martyrdom. Things are, however, not yet that far along. She has other duties. In our current cultural constellation, it behooves her to manifest herself reformationally. But in addition, she must keep one thing clearly in mind. That over time, there is but one dilemma: between the theocratic, Christian state, and the heathen state. In the transition time of de-Christianization and the paganization of life, the curious charming figure of the human state may present itself. But that is a transitional figure. And in essence, a phase.

By Ruben Alvarado

Mr. Ruben Alvarado is an independent scholar, publisher, and translator living to the east of Arnhem in the Netherlands. His writings, which span a wide variety of issues, can be found at WordBridge Publishing, Common Law Review, and Common Law Economics.