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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution ed. Eglinton and Harinck

Edited by James Eglinton and George Harinck
London: T&T Clark, 2014.
ISBN: 978-0-567-65663-6
Hbk, xii + 210pp, £65.00

The rallying cry of the French Revolution can be summed up as “No God, no master”. According to Kuyper: 
“The French Revolution threw out the majesty of the Lord in order to construct an artificial authority based on individual free will. That project resembled a scaffold nailed together from odd planks and beams which cracks and falls when the first gale rises. The Christian religion teaches us that life on earth is part of an external existence. The French Revolution, by contrast, denied and opposed everything beyond the horizon of this earthly life. The Christian religion speaks of a lost paradise, a state of purity from which we fell, and for that reason calls us to humility and conversion. The French Revolution saw in the state of nature the criterion of what is normally human, incited us to pride, and substituted the liberalizing of man's spirit for the need of conversion. Springing from God's love, the Christian religion brings loving compassion into the world. Over against that compassion, the French Revolution placed the egoism of a passionate struggle for possessions. And finally, to touch on the real point that lies at the heart of the social problem, the Christian religion seeks personal human dignity in the social relationships of an organically integrated society. The French Revolution disturbed that organic tissue, broke those social bonds, and left nothing but the monotonous, self-seeking individual asserting his own self-sufficiency (The Problem of Poverty 43-44).

The relationship between neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution is an important one and one that until now has been seldom examined in depth. This book collects the papers from the second European conference on neo-Calvinsim held in Paris in 2012. The first was in Edinburgh 2010. 

Groen van Prinsterer’s refrain ‘Against the Revolution, the gospel’ distills neo-Calvinist views regarding the French Revolution. In chapter 1 James Bratt looks at: What went wrong with the French Revolution? In essence, for kuyper, liberty was replaced by suppression, equality with class segmentation and fraternity with strife. Bratt draws effectively on Kuyper’s 1889 ‘Not the liberty tree but the cross’. 

In Chapter 2 Harinck compares Bavinck’s view with Kuyper’s. The French Revolution is like the fall of Adam and Eve, Groen van Prinsterer introduced the idea to Kuyper who developed it further and contrasted the French Revolution world and life view with the neo-Calvinists. Bavinck didn’t utilise the French revolution as much as Kuyper, for Bavinck the Revolution was an historical event and he focused less as an expression of modernism, over the years it was the ideas behind it that became more important compared with the historical event. 

Eglinton poses the question in Chapter 3: What do Paris and Amsterdam have to do with Babel and Pentecost? The Frnech Revolution disliked linguistic diversity, neo-Calvinism was positive towards it. Here Eglinton looks at Kuyper’s ‘Uniformity: the curse of modern life and his De Gemeene Gratie. The later is more measured than the former, but they provide different accounts of linguistics. Eglinton’s key critique of Kuyper is that despite Kuyper’s opposition  to a false uniformity he seeks to maintain a one nation, one language model. 

What was the French Revolution? Is the question that Elliott seeks to answer in Chapter 4. He does so by examining the views of a number of historians: Burke, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Lamennais (whose interpretation was appreciated by Bavink),  Hugo and the Dutch Reformed: Groen van Prinsterer, Kuyper and Bavinck.

Covolo sums up well the neo-Calvinst view of the French Revolution in Chapter 5: ‘The French Revolution has been for secularism what the reformation has been for the Christian faith’ (p. 82). Covolo carefully and convincingly argues that fashion during the French Revolution should be taken seriously as it illustrates ‘rituals with deep social, political and even spiritual meaning’.

In Chapter 6 Wilkinson critiques the ideals of the French Revolution as presented in Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy. She explores each film and links them with Kuyper’s critique of the revolution in The Problem of Poverty. Reading Three Colours through a kuyperian lens ‘helps clarify what Kieslowski is doing’ (p 102). This is down in a fascinating and novel way - it provides stimulating reading; I shall certainly be rewatching Kieslowski’s films again to see the nuances I previously missed.

Klei, in Chapter 7, looks at the legacy of Groen van Prinsterer, in the light of the French Revolution, in the political ideology of orthodox political parties in the Netherlands.

Burger looks at Kuyper’s anti-revolutionary doctrine of scripture (Ch 8) and Huttinga (Ch 9) at Bavinck’s view of theology as the queen of the sciences. Surprisingly, Huttinga maintains that such a view is not a misplaced view, but is an ‘affirmation of the glory of science and knowledge in general’ (p. 145), though Bavinck’s view of theology is not so much as ruler, ‘but more of the eschaton of the sciences.’ 

In Chapter 10 Kaemingk tests the hypothesis that the French Revolution saw the birth of modern secularity by examining the treatment of Islamic immigrants in contemporary France. As Kaemingk clearly shows the heirs of the Revolution did not transcend religion but developed a new one and behaved as followers of religion. This is illustrated in the French law passed banning the use of clothing in schools that indicates a student’s religious affiliation. This desire for uniformity stems from a religious perspective and illustrates the ‘secularist mission to Islam’. 

Den Boer, in Chapter 11, looks at three markers: perspective, dialectic and integration with regards the French revolution. He suggests that the rise of neo-Calvinism as a reaction to the French Revolution is ‘historically speaking problematic’ (p. 193). He thinks it is better rooted in a wider ‘historical revolutions’. 

What becomes clear from these diverse and wide ranging contributions is that there is little consensus about the role of the French Revolution in neo-Calvinist thought. Kuyper used it as a foil in stressing the antithesis, whereas Bavinck it played much less of a role.

Despite the common themes of neo-Calvinism and The French Revolution we have here a diverse collection of papers, which show that neo-Calvinist studies are flourishing. The book poses - and answers - many fascinating questions. 

This volume will be of  use not only to those with an interest in neo-Calvinism but also in the French Revolution and in the secularisation of Europe.

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