The epistemic considerations underlying the Neo-Calvinist rejection of the theocratic constituent of article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith

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By virtue of the endeavours of leading Neo-Calvinist theologians such as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, the Synod of Reformed Churches in the Netherlands accepted a revision of article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith in 1905. Neo-Calvinists convinced the synod to remove a controversial phrase in the article which stated that it was the duty of civil magistrates “to remove and destroy all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist”. Whereas this article of the confession had historically been understood as demanding Christian theocracy, Neo-Calvinists, by virtue of this historic revision, reframed it as proposing a Christianised pluralism in the public or political domain. This Neo-Calvinist contribution has enjoyed broad scholarly recognition and appreciation within the Reformed tradition, and synods in South Africa, Canada and the United States have also followed suit by accepting similar revisions.

The existing scholarship places great emphasis on the Neo-Calvinist hermeneutic framework as sanctioning this rejection of the theocratic constituent of article 36 of the Belgic Confession. Many scholars attribute this to Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s supposed adherence to a form of Two-Kingdom theology, wherein particular grace revealed through Scripture operates as sanctifying force in the church, whereas natural law is the authoritative operating principle in the public or political domain. However, even the most ardent proponents of the Two-Kingdom interpretation have been forced to admit that Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s views in this regard are characterised by a number of ambiguities, which have in turn manifested in a variety of contradicting interpretations thereof. Kuyper himself, after all, strongly emphasises the active Lordship of Christ over every domain of human existence while Bavinck even distinctly rejects any Two-Kingdoms doctrine which threatens to disregard the intrinsic connection between nature and grace or creation and redemption. Furthermore, on a number of occasions throughout his career Bavinck expressed the conviction that Old Testament law remains perpetually normative for all civil governments.

In the light of the primary sources, this article therefore shows existing interpretations to be insufficient and critiques the tendency to attribute a Two-Kingdom theology to either Kuyper or Bavinck. In the light of the fact that these Neo-Calvinist pioneers so vehemently rejected any dichotomy between the nature of authority in the ecclesiastical sphere on the one hand and the socio-political sphere on the other, I propose a renewed appraisal of their epistemology as fundamentally underlying their rejection of theocracy.

Neo-Calvinist epistemology was distinctly characterised by a sharp distinction between “natural knowledge” and “the knowledge of faith”, which shaped the theological framework by which Kuyper and Bavinck advocated pluralism in the public domain. Bavinck ranks natural knowledge above the knowledge of faith in terms of objective evidence. He bases this in the Kantian distinction between the object of knowledge external to human consciousness and the representation thereof within consciousness itself. Even if God, the object of the knowledge of faith, is infinite, theological knowledge is still limited by conscious representation in a way that natural knowledge is not. For Bavinck this has profound implications for both the calling of the civil government as well as the role of religion in the public domain, since the distinction between true and false religion can only be subjectively revealed to the individual through the inworking of the Holy Spirit and can therefore never serve as objective normative framework for civil government.

Kuyper goes even further in distancing himself from the traditional position of orthodox Calvinism in which the light of Scripture is regarded as necessary framework of interpretation for the light of nature. Kuyper turns this around, arguing that the revelatio specialis cannot be understood apart from the framework provided by the theologia naturalis. Like Bavinck, he also regards natural revelation as taking evidential precedence in human consciousness. Thus, in addition to the orthodox Calvinist distinction between the unregenerate life of sin and the regenerate life of grace, Kuyper invents a third category: life through common grace. It is by means of common grace that socio-political life and its institutions are to be maintained. He sees the church as an institution of special or particular grace while the state is an institution of common grace. The civil requirement of an independent judiciary, for Kuyper, necessitates establishing and maintaining the civil sphere through common as opposed to particular grace.

The Neo-Calvinist rejection of the theocratic component of article 36 of the Belgic Confession therefore needs to be understood in the light of the epistemic precedence of natural knowledge over the knowledge of faith. Dutch Reformed critics of the Neo-Calvinist position, such as Philippus Jakobus Hoedemaker (1839‒1910), also argued that the Neo-Calvinist position effectuates a false dichotomy between natural and revealed knowledge, while epistemologically speaking, there can be no contradictions between natural and special revelation. Whereas Hoedemaker views human consciousness as only emerging within the context of given and revealed realities outside that consciousness, Kuyper and Bavinck emphasise natural knowledge as unmediated common ground between believers and unbelievers in contrast to the mediated knowledge of faith. Indeed, this distinctly Neo-Calvinist dichotomy was central to their rejection of theocracy.

Both Kuyper and Bavinck therefore maintain that natural knowledge, acquired within the framework of common grace, is more epistemically certain, objective and universally evident than the knowledge of faith. The former is therefore normative for the public or political life of both believers and unbelievers alike. While participation in the public domain ought to be shaped in terms of this natural knowledge, the Lordship of Christ over every facet of life, including the socio-political domain, is maintained by both Kuyper and Bavinck throughout. In contradistinction to Two-Kingdom theology, however, they also maintain that particular grace and special revelation ought to have a sanctifying effect on public life by which common grace can be guided to its highest and truest development. This sanctifying effect must be limited, however. This is because they view the nature of human society as such that it would be inappropriate to maintain Biblical revelation as the ultimate standard for public life to the degree that other religious convictions would thereby be excluded, since the distinction between true and false religion can only be subjectively and not objectively determined. In the Neo-Calvinist view this would not only be epistemically problematic but also constitute a form of government tyranny.

Keywords: Bavinck, Herman; Belgic Confession; epistemology; Kuyper, Abraham; Neo-Calvinism; pluralism; theocracy


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Epistemologiese oorwegings by die Neo-Calvinistiese afwysing van die teokratiese inslag van artikel 36 van die Nederlandse Geloofsbelydenis

• The featured image of this post is a combination of images in the public domain from Wikimedia: Herman Bavinck by Atelier Prinses, used in terms of the relevant license agreement; Abraham Kuyper (source unknown), used in terms of the relevant license agreement.

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