Archive Book Reviews Civic Polity Reformed Irenicism Ruben Alvarado

Unbelief and Revolution

Here follows a translation of the first paragraphs of the introduction to Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution. Harry van Dyke’s otherwise excellent translation truncates this part, a bad move on his part as this passage sets the stage for everything that follows, and lays out the importance of this inquiry in no uncertain terms.

A word about Unbelief and Revolution generally: the chapters leading up to the historical exposition are absolutely seminal. They should be required reading for every Christian, for they remind him or her of the public dimension of faith, which in our day is of course woefully misunderstood while shamefully neglected. It can be set usefully alongside Hoedemaker’s The Church and Modern Constitutional Law: where Hoedemaker focuses on the church, Van Prinsterer focuses on the state and the broader society.

Shortcomings: Van Prinsterer was a monarchist for whom republicanism was a bad word. He seems to run republicanism together with unbelief, which of course is a non sequitur. This also explains his aversion to Roman law, which he viewed as the vehicle through which republican thinking invaded Christian political thought. But these are caveats; the broader teaching strikes against modernism with hammer blows.

Here follows the translation (from pages 1-7 of the 1847 edition of Ongeloof en Revolutie).

The goal of these lectures is the demonstration that, since the emergence of the revolution-concepts, the cause of events must be sought in the natural development of these disastrous ideas.

To be fair, esteemed friends, you would desire that I provide some clarification for the choice, the nature, the utility, and the scope of this all-encompassing subject.

The choice is a consequence of revising the final part of my Textbook of the History of the Fatherland. For some months I have been nearly exclusively occupied with the history of the past fifty years, and a single word about the conclusion of this investigation will show you that hereby I, quite understandably, was stimulated to further elucidate an idea that at any rate has been floating before me for a long time.

The attentive contemplation of that which then occurred in the Netherlands rendered the outcome of my considerations unfavorable. In this entire period, which extends up to the present day, apart from moments in which one allowed oneself to be deceived, I have seen a continuous experience, an unmistakable and sometimes animated awareness of humiliation and decline.

When we compare material interests, whether we attend to the insignificance of the state, the limited scope of trade, the burdens on industry, or the increase in the needy, there is everywhere miserable contrast with previous prosperity and splendor.

And decline was not restricted to material prosperity. When we give heed to the political forms the goal of which is a healthy union of authority and freedom, then a long series of experiments manifests itself, in which not only all failed, but every time the sentiment heightened that the power of state arrangements to this point have more disorganized than regulated the state.

This disorder is by no means restricted to actual constitutional law. Rather, it extends to the whole of society. I refer you to the destruction of the variety of estates as erected on acquired rights and the nature of social development; to the evils of unrestricted competition; the removal of the ties of love and submission that had been formed by the spirit of association in connection with consciousness of duty; the defenselessness of workers against factory lords; the almost irresistible influence of the great capitalists; the ever more menacing state of the poor; and already this superficial overview points to the undeniable existence of a general cause behind such comprehensive social decay.

But perhaps experience has been the best teacher, and has brought us to soundness of theories albeit along a toilsome road, which, while based on consultation and experience is the infallible guide of improved practice. Is this so? Have we from such disadvantage at least derived this advantage, that the science of constitutional law has gained in development and stability? The opposite is true. Never perhaps were questions so much exposed, and increasingly so, to uncertainty; never has doubt in science led to such waffling in action; such that in the absence of fixed line or well-contrived design, one is incapable of directing the state, one considers himself lucky to get by each day and exclusively to focus on that to which one is led by the course of events, willingly or unwillingly. Never, in equal measure, has such an aversion to all theories arisen as a result of the fallacies of so many theories.

The same skepticism is in evidence regarding the foundations of religion, morality, and law. The greatest discrepancy of concepts: everything is subjective and individual. Everyone has his own beliefs, his own opinion, which with many are so mutable that they, in their own mind and heart, with changes in circumstances and the passing of years and days, are followed and exchanged with other equally transient opinions. We now have not one church faith, not a few religious affiliations, but in fact, under the almost universal name of Christian profession, an innumerable multitude of beliefs about God and His Word. Not by advancing agreement but by declining interest does the intensity of battle sometimes diminish. Already among the many, disputation about doctrinal concepts bring about revulsion against any and all doctrinal concepts, such that the time could be close at hand in which, from indifference respecting religion and from the need for rest, the truth – the only remaining means of salvation – will not be tolerated.

Do I perhaps exaggerate? Judge for yourselves. We live at the end of this age, under the continual influence of principles which already were overpowering from the start. But now? when we, at the place that we have now reached, stop for a moment, what do you think, in respect of the various points which I have so briefly touched, of the strides that we, as people and state, have taken on the path of perfectibility? Do we rejoice over industrial and commercial matters? Are we unconcerned about the financial world? Do the Netherlands play a glorious, honorable role on the stage of Europe? Do we, through constitution and governance, have a sustainable alliance of freedom and order? May we rejoice that magistrate and subjects, by the sweet bonds of mutual confidence and affection, are interwoven? Is there reason to boast about the way in which the state apparatus guarantees and promote the rights of religion, of morality, and of science? Do we feel that undisturbed action is granted the forces of the nation, apart from which the state is a body without a soul? Does the government have an apparent, well-chosen goal in sight, towards which it works with regular progress? Does the diversity of insights perhaps resolve itself in a higher agreement? Is the diversity of opinion accompanied by a unity of principles?

But I would also in tone avoid all that smacks of irony, especially since the subject has much cause for severity. Rather I ask from whence that decline, disorganization, general decay? Is it a consequence of the forms of government? But we have had all kinds; democracy, aristocracy, monarchical government, despotism, constitutional government: the whole storehouse of revolutionary governments stood at our service. Was it due to the circumstances? But they have not always been unfavorable. Was the source of evil in the corruption of the people? But they were not so deeply fallen that they could not be lifted up, or, if so, then a solution to this riddle of obduracy should be sought. Were there perhaps lacking men of ability and energy? But such a defect cannot actually exist other than in appearance and because of the general orientation of minds; there have also been statesmen to whom one ought to ascribe talent and character, as well as good intentions; so that we are all the more urged to seek the reason by which even their wisdom was betrayed and their resilience paralyzed.

So everything points to a common cause, to whose influence forms of state and circumstances and national character and acting persons were subordinate; and this cause must be sought in the concepts which had the upper hand during that time. “It must be said, because one will never know sufficiently: everything proceeds from doctrines; the mores, literature, the constitutions, the laws, the happiness of states and their disasters, civilization, barbarism, and those frightening crises that carry people away or renew them, as there is in them more or less of life.”[1]

The truth of this remark, history teaches everywhere. The events in their primary content and main scope are not other than the outlines and shapes in which the steady operation of the zeitgeist were revealed. This I desire to show you in the history of revolutionary times. To this end it will be good to remain far from confined to the borders of the Fatherland, to cast a glance at the general course of ideas. In this manner we will encounter a broader level of experience and have less objection to impartiality of contemplation. I will therefore try to make, or rather sketch, the historical argument – whatever the subordinate action of second causes may have been – that the history of Europe, for more than half a century, in the main is the inevitable consequence of errors that have taken possession of the prevailing manner of thinking. The Revolutionary period is none other than the peculiar and continuous development of revolution-concepts.

In order to reveal the nature of this subject, it is necessary to explain what I mean by Revolution and revolution-concepts. By Revolution I mean, not one of the manifold events by which a shift in public authority in one state or another is triggered; nor only the storm of revolution which raged in France; but the entire reversal of the manner of thinking and disposition, manifested throughout Christendom in the disposal of and contempt for previous principles. With the expression revolution-concepts, I have in mind the tenets of freedom and equality, popular sovereignty, social contract, conventional transformation, to which one pays homage as the cornerstones of constitutional law and the state edifice.

The belief that the manifold evils which our ancestors and we have experienced flowed from this wisdom and from its source, the rejection of the Gospel, has been strengthened in me by a fresh examination of the course of events. Once again I have seen how one, where these theories have taken root, revolves in a circle of misery.

I do not want to anticipate what pertains more to an intentional treatment than a statement of main characteristics. Be that as it may, I refer you, in order to clarify my sentiments to you, to the following results of my research and consideration.

By applying the Revolution doctrine, one is taken on a path by which, with systematic faithfulness to a principle once recognized, one is led to the most outrageous absurdities and the worst horrors. When, by contrast, out of fear of this revolutionary development – which is held to be exaggeration – one resists it on the basis of so-called moderation, one, by such recoiling from the consequences of his conviction, becomes capricious and inconsistent, and, to avoid the horrors of anarchy, falls into a state that is as unstable as it is uncomfortable, and that necessarily generates displeasure and opposition, to which one has no resort than a redoubling of arbitrariness and violence. This, among many changes, is, it seems to me, the general nature of any system in which one either blindly follows the Revolution doctrine, or, with the retention of its principle, one flatters oneself that he is able to frustrate its operation. I also count here that which, even in our days, has gained fame as borne by deep political wisdom; the consultation of Doctrinaires; the system which, under the name of Juste Milieu, has been the object of so much praise and such contempt; the theory of the Conservatives, and the system or, if I must speak truthfully, the routine that also prevails in our Fatherland.

The consequences of the revolution-concepts can be fought successfully only when places himself outside of their influence, in the field of anti-revolutionary principles. But this terrain is not reachable, so long as one does not acknowledge that the foundation of justice lies in God’s law and ordinances. A writer of our century expressed this truth with brevity and deep sense: “the Revolution begins with the declaration of the rights of man, it will end with the declaration of the rights of God.”[2]

[1]De la Mennais, Sur l’indifférence en matière de Religion [On Indifference in Matters of Religion] (Brux. Haumann, 1839), I. p. 21.

[2] Vicomte de Bonald, Pensées sur divers sujets, et discours politiques, Volume 2 (Paris: Chez A. Le Clere, 1817), p. 95.


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.

2 replies on “Unbelief and Revolution”

Conservatives in Groen’s sense are scarcer today than hens’ teeth. Indeed, they were rare in his day. Groen’s insights have been co-opted by today’s libertarians in their fight against statism but they are equally his “Revolutionary” nemeses. Of course, this raises the question of what his paleo-conservatism could possibly look like in a culture distorted by 200 years of revolution. Repristination is no solution.

Ignorantia juris non excusat. Yes, a legalese bon mot but an appropriate one. The lack of followers is a result of ignorance, and ignorance is a result of Christians swallowing whole the promises of classical cum progressive liberalism. What would such a social order look like? Well, this other post of mine provides a nub of an answer.

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