Creştin democraţia

Christian Democracy in neo-Calvinist perspective
Central motives, historical roots

[Scientific Institute ChristenUnie]

The Dutch neo-Calvinist movement launched by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) contributed to postwar Christian Democracy in Europe alongside, for example, neo-Thomist social and political thinking. Christian Democrats defend institutional pluralism in civil society against both (socialist) statism and (liberal) individualism. Within this defense of a pluralist society the neo-Calvinist concept of (horizontal) ‘sphere sovereignty’ differs from the Roman Catholic principle of (hierarchical) ‘subsidiarity’. Recent attention to civil society brings to the fore centuries of Christian social initiatives and societal ideas, already within the Roman Empire, and Biblical roots of this praxis and thought. In this article is described how neo-Calvinism strengthens the central motives of Christian Democracy. The historical roots of these motives are traced in order to picture neo-Calvinism perpectively as only one source of Christian Democratic thinking among a variety of other historical sources.

Keywords: Christian Democracy, neo-Calvinism, Kuyper, sphere sovereignty, subsidiarity


Despite electoral ups and downs Christian Democracy has offered postwar Europe „a genuine „third way” between capitalism and socialism”.1 This early selfdescription as a „third way” can still be defended, but after the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. its main competitors better can be labelled as (political) Liberalism and Social Democracy: the former hailing individual and private initiatives, the latter stressing the lasting need for state regulation and support. The presence of other rivals, like conservatism or rightwing populism, triggers Christian Democracy to present its profile sharper than by taking position ‘between’ two political poles. So: what are the typical motives which recommend Christian Democracy above its competitors? Jonathan Chaplin, political theorist knowing this tradition from inside, answers: „Central to the Christian democratic political thought (…) is the priority it attaches to safeguarding the independence of civil society institutions.”2

Analysis of this distinctive trait of Christian Democracy will show a number of interrelated motives: the priority of society above its government, the plurality of societal institutions, and more. These motives, and the neo-Calvinist contribution to it, have roots in the general history of Christian practice and thought: not only earlier initiators of Christian politicial action or ideas, but also church life itself3, and its inspriration in emphases and examples that can be found in both Testaments of the Bible.

In the next sections central motives of Christian Democracy are listed. After this list, the order of a historical narrative is used to present practices and ideas that somehow fuelled Christian Democracy and its neo-Calvinist current. Finally, the lines of this sketchy overview are drawn together, highlighting the neo-Calvinist contribution to the central motives of Christian Democracy.

This overview remains sketchy. It is not a historical study; it does not argue for some causal claims in a history of ideas: ideas usually have many fathers! Aim here is to probe the neo-Calvinist contribution to Christian Democracy adding some preparatory historical background. In this way the novelty and potential of the neo-Calvinist contribution can be assessed. The assessment itself is left to the reader.

Central motives of Christian Democracy

Safeguarding the indepence of societal institutions is a distinctive feature of Christian Democracy, not the only one. This feature itself, however, already harbours a number of motives. It assumes a civil society that (1) is distinct from its government; (2) has more to offer than a private sphere for each citizen, or for private economic initiatives resulting in a ‘market’; (3) consists of a plurality of different types of institutions or organisations, areas or spheres (families, schools, companies, churches, leisure clubs, and so on), all having their own responsibility or vocation within or for society as a whole; (4) is bound with its government into an ordered state by rule of law; (5) has a kind of priority above its government: citizens and organisations can take initiatives and decisions without having to wait for approval by a government (illegal ones of course may show up afterwards in court!); (6) recognises a specific responsibility and vocation in service of society by the government, however limited by the responsibilities of the other spheres of society; (7) should be distinguished from churches (or other ‘worldviewish’ communities), which can be seen as ‘spiritual societies’ functioning at the same time as institutions within civil society.

Other motives of Christian Democracy could be derived from its very name, the combination of Christianity and democracy: Christianity passes on a legacy of Biblical principles and historical (good or bad) examples of how to govern churches and peoples. Pointers are there to, for example, accountability, equality and even voting-by-all-members. Principles formulated by actual Christian Democratic parties in Europe will yield even more motives: justice, stewardship, solidarity, and so on. For clarity however, the focus on the seven motives above will do.

Historical roots (1): From Biblical to Medieval Times

The history of ideas that fuelled Christian Democracy goes back to the origins of life and rule of law as described in the first books of the Bible. The book of Genesis presents God as the Creator of this universe. Point taken: no other absolute rule or power within this world should be recognised! The other books of the Torah contain laws and regulations primarily meant for the people of Israel once settled in the Promised Land. One law (Deuteronomy 17) obliges any future king to read the Torah-laws as daily practice. So: law should be respected above power, right above might. When prophets arose in the name of God and Torah, the prophet Natan rebuked king David (circa 1000 BC) about his recent adulterous and murderous acts – and survived! David didn’t kill him, but broke and repented. Accountability and moral right took position next to power politics and whimsical arbitrariness.

Jesus himself reversed the leadership ideals of his own followers by pointing to his own example of serving others: „Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (St. Mark 10:44-45, New International Version). Mutual care and service is seen by St. Paul and St. Peter as vital for the church life – the church labelled even „Body of Christ”, in which all parts have their specific function and no one is superfluous.

Bishop Basil the Great (circa 370) exemplified this attitude of service and broadened its scope to society when he initiated in Cappadocia a shelterhouse that became the first public hospital of the Western world.4 This xenodocheion became a stepping stone in the monastic tradition. Both in Eastern and Latin Christendom monasteries sprouted as centres of spirituality, learning and practical service for their surrounding societies, and „the first democratically organised institutions in the world. By free elections in which all the brothers participated, abbots were chosen.”5

In his De Civitate Dei St. Augustin presented the church as spiritual community in lasting contrast to the „city of man” till the end of world history. Governments of this world at best aspire an earthly kind of peace and justice, which never will be more than a dim reflection of the spiritual peace and justice that finally will be found in the City of God. Although even churches are „mixed societies” of sinners and saints (and usually in-betweens!), he made the point that church members have a double loyalty, and should never submit to any earthly ruler when forced to act against their heavenly King. The relation of Church and State had become a standing topic throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Historical roots (2): Calvinist and Catholic voices

Calvin (1509 – 1563) is known for his emphasis on the sovereignty of God, which asks for a life style in daily life that suits Him. Less known is his endorsement of the principle of mutual service not only within church life itself or in church aid for society, but even on common economic life. He saw „the market not just as an «expression of human solidarity», but even as «a sign of the grace of God.»”6: it is an exercise in mutual dependence, each contributing with one’s own gift and vocation, together creating a society.

Althusius, syndic of Emden (1604-1638), applied this Calvinist idea of ‘symbiosis’, of living together, on society as a whole („community”, „universitas”), in his Politica (1603, 3rd edition in 1614)7: „The members of a community are private and diverse associations of families and collegia [e.g. guilds], not the individual members of private associations.” In his view, institutions or organisations of different types are actors within society in their own right, sharing among each other goods and services.

In the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Pope Leo XIII gave his encyclical „On capital and labor”, Rerum Novarum (1891). He, too, stressed the fundamental role of families and gives the first hints for the principle of „subsidiarity”, without using the term. Section 13 reads: „A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is, by the authority of the father.”8 It was Pope Pius XI in his Quadragesimo Anno (1931; section 80) that bound the State explicitely to a „subsidiary function”, allowing its intervention in the life of associations at more fundamental levels of society only when they themselves are not able to uphold their lives.9

Historical roots (3): Neo-Calvinism

The neo-Calvinist movement originated in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century, but soon spread to other continents by the fame of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)10 and by Dutch emigrants. A number of motives of Christian Democracy are shared by the neo-Calvinism, but not distinctive for neo-Calvinism itself. Concentrating on distinctive motives of neo-Calvinism, its starting point in political reasoning is (1) the sovereignty of God, the Creator of this world, who in Christ Jesus is Lord of Lords and governs world and world history. (2) This sovereignty, God’s will, is to be respected in every area of life – not only in some sacred areas. (3) Areas or ‘spheres’ in civil society like families, companies or churches have their own specific share in this sovereignty, independent (free) from the government: the sovereignty of a father, an employer, a church council is not state sovereignty.

Kuyper introduced the concept of ‘sphere sovereignty’ when he inaugurated in Amsterdam the „Vrije Universiteit” (Free University, 1880). Free: free from influence by the government, and free from control by some church synod or congregation of bishops. The same freedom from intervention by the government or by other spheres of society he claimed not only for churches themselves, but also for families, companies, political parties, and so on.

So for Kuyper „sphere sovereignty” was a sociological or political concept. Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), who studied Law at the Free University, as philosopher of law refined Kuyper’s idea to a full-grown ontology. For every sphere, institution or organisation in society (or whatever entity in reality) he assumed it has a „qualifying function”. He saw similarities in the functioning of, for example, companies and hospitals: in a building employees work, money and materials flow. But within this physical, social and economic functioning („aspects”) Dooyeweerd looks for a leading aspect that „qualifies” this multi-aspectual functioning. For a company, its economic aspect itself is leading: a company is an economic organisation. In a hospital, however, its economy should be in service of a higher level, i.e. of care – and care is, according to Dooyeweerd, an ethical qualification.

What about governments? How does a state relate to citizens, institutions or organisations, to society? Dooyeweerd11: „A real State cannot find its qualifying function in any other than the juridical aspect.” Aiming at „public justice” a government should defend or balance the legal rights of citizens, institutions and organisations within its territorory, against each other and against external enemies.

Drawing the lines together

Natan’s rebuke that made king David return to rule of law; the role of churches from the Roman Empire onward; monasteries and Calvinist ‘economical’ life styles: these examples of practices moulded civil societies and modelled views on their relations with governments. The plurality in kinds of institutions and organisations in civil societies has grown. Their claim for a kind of autonomy has been defended differently: in a hierarchical way by the principle of subsidiarity; in a horizontal way by the neo-Calvinist „sphere sovereignty”. This last view of a really, qualitatively pluralistic civil society destroys every picture of society as a bunch of individuals associating in several contingent ways, or as one monolythic, if layered, pyramid with the government (or a spiritual leader) at its top.

Buijs and Chaplin (political theorists) and Goudzwaard (economist) are examples that neo-Calvinism is still providing intellectual inspiration for actual applications in the societies of our globalising world.



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1 Jonathan Chaplin, Herman Dooyeweerd. Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 11.
2 Chaplin, Dooyeweerd, 23.
3 Cf. John Witte Jr., God’s Joust, God’s Justice. Law and Religion in the Western Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge UK: Eerdmans 2006), 88-90.
4 Govert J. Buijs „Agapè and the Origins of Civil Society”, in Henk Geertsema, Rik Peels, Jan van der Stoep (eds.) Philosophy Put to Work. Contemporary Issues in Art, Society, Politics, Science and Religion (Amsterdam: VU University 2008), 39-40.
5 Buijs, „Agapè”, 44.
6 Bob Goudzwaard, Mark van der Vennen, David van Heemst, Hope in Troubled Times. A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House 2007), 95.
7 Johannes Althusius, Politica. An abridged translation by Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund 1995), 40.
10 Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview. Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans 1998), 11-13.
11 Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. III (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1957), 434.

ROB A. NIJHOFF – (MSc MTh) a studiat Informatică şi Teologie, actualmente îşi pregăteşte teza de disertaţie pe tema „Order and Reason” (Free Press, Amsterdam).




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