The political eschatology of Groen van Prinsterer and its impact on Christian conservatism in the USA

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Abstract

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876), Dutch anti-revolutionary statesman and historian, has enjoyed continued appreciation among Reformed scholars both in his homeland and internationally for well over a century. He is famous for his active 19th-century opposition to the liberalisation of Dutch society as a leader of the Dutch wing of the Réveil, a conservative pan-European Christian revivalist movement (Kuiper 2012:50). Along with the emphasis on personal religious experience and piety, the movement also emphasised the socio-political impact of the Christian faith – the Kingdom of God was to be manifested in every sphere of human life (Janse 2012:169). His anti-revolutionary position was shaped through his contact with Réveil figures such as the Swiss preacher and church historian Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigne (Kuiper 2012:13, 35). Groen came to see the Christian faith as fundamentally opposed to the “revolutionary”, i.e. liberal Enlightenment-inspired, worldview (Groen van Prinsterer 1873:265).

From a distinctly Christian historiographical perspective Groen argues for the Christian State based on God’s revelation in both Scripture and Dutch history as a manifestation of God’s providence (Bijl 2011:127). His history-writing and narration were, like those of his more famous contemporaries, Marx and Hegel, a typical 19th-century example of what the American philosopher of history David Carr describes as

a kind of discourse more appropriately compared with the political-rhetorical kind of story-telling … to [be] read … as [a] narrative whose role is neither cognitive nor aesthetic, but practical … not [merely] describing the history of mankind, but urging that it move in a certain direction. (Carr 2013:129–30)

Carr views history-writing as inherently rhetorical in nature, advocating a retentional understanding of history, where narrative is retained consciously or subconsciously as a framework in which one’s actions in the present make coherent sense in light of a given past and envisaged future (ibid. 67–8). Past, present and future are therefore closely interlinked.

Three main themes characterise the existing body of literature on Groen. These are his contributions as political theorist, his work as historian and his significance as statesman. In light of the literature’s emphasis on Groen’s continued relevance as statesman it is surprising that little to nothing has been written about his eschatology, since this theological aspect of his thinking played a significant role in shaping his worldview as an anti-revolutionary. Eschatological themes are integral to both his historical and his political writings. Authors who touch on Groen’s eschatology do so only briefly, without an in-depth investigation. The obvious reason for this oversight is the fact that Groen never systematically develops his eschatology and does not often explicitly write on the subject. Furthermore, there has been very little appreciation for the rhetorical narrative strategies in his history-writing. Nonetheless, with Groen there is no hard distinction between past, present and future, and these interplay in his worldview as reflected in his writings.

For Groen, all of history is the battleground between Christ and evil. The key to understanding history lies in Genesis 3:15, which he understood to be a promise and prophecy of Christ’s ultimate and eventual victory (Van Vliet 2008:85; Klink 2012:278–9). This eschatological victory, however, was generally understood in a premillennial fashion within the context of the Dutch Réveil. With the exception of Groen, all the leading figures in the movement were committed premillennialists. Premillennialism was typical for evangelical movements at the time. Nonetheless, Groen sees his own Dutch nation as instrumental in what he understands to be the inevitable spread of the gospel all over the world (Groen van Prinsterer 1925:566). His orthodox preterist exegesis of Matthew 24 (Groen van Prinsterer 1991:49) sets the stage for his postmillennial eschatological narrative. He understands history to be the narrative plot through and in which the climax – the gospel conquering the world – comes to fruition. Because this eschatological victory is assured, he rhetorically invites his anti-revolutionary comrades to actively engage in present political battles, knowing that all setbacks are merely temporary. This was a striking line of thought for the leader of a minor political movement in the Netherlands at the time – one which indeed suffered numerous setbacks.

Although Groen’s eschatological sentiments never garnered much sympathy in Dutch (or South African) Reformed churches, the theological and historiographical ideas underpinning his postmillennialism were perpetuated in the USA by his Dutch-American Neo-Calvinist successors, Cornelius Van Til and Geerhardus Vos. Van Til thought about history in distinctly Groenian terms, i.e. as the realisation of the cosmic and redemptive purposes of God (Van Til 1980:xiii). Vos viewed eschatology as “pre-eminently historical”, and like Groen, contrasted it with rationalism, where eschatological sentiments are “devoid of historic sense and … tradition” (Vos 1979:ii). Vos also identifies with postmillennialism (1979:226).

Groen’s paradigm of the Christian worldview as historically rooted is also employed by the Christian Reconstructionist followers of Van Til and Vos, like R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen and Gary North. Rushdoony in particular had an immense influence on the theological and political development of the Christian Right in the USA (McVicar 2015:5-6). Rushdoony explicitly systematised the intrinsic connection between postmillennialism and theonomy – the idea that Biblical Law should be the foundation of all politics and legislation (Rushdoony 1977:6). For Rushdoony, like Groen before him, the gospel conquering the world meant that every facet of human existence was to be brought under the dominion of Christ. For Rushdoony, history and eschatology are inseparable (Rushdoony 1999:1). His call to exercise dominion for Christ on a socio-political level is therefore rooted in a Christian worldview that is both historically and eschatologically driven.

Rushdoony’s justification of a Christian theocracy would have a lasting impact on the Christian Right in the USA. Recent studies even show that an increasing number of conservative USA evangelicals identify with postmillennialism (Smietana 2016:7). Nonetheless, this post-Enlightenment political-eschatological paradigm characteristic of the Christian Right has its origin with Groen van Prinsterer, who was the pioneer in terms of developing an optimistic Christian political eschatology in the 19th century.

Keywords: conservatism; David Carr; eschatology; Groen van Prinsterer; narrative; Neo-Calvinism; postmillennialism; R.J. Rushdoony

 

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Die politieke eskatologie van Groen van Prinsterer en die impak daarvan op Christelike Konserwatisme in die VSA

 

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