Authority and Sovereignty

What follows are select extracts from Abraham Kuyper’s political party’s manifesto, Our Program, Article 2 on the subject of authority, with commentary.

We wholeheartedly confess what Jesus’ apostle has put on the lips of every Christian: namely, the governing authorities “that exist have been instituted by God”; or, to use the words of our Program: the source of sovereign authority does not reside in the law or the will of the people but in God.

Kuyper denies popular sovereignty. And rightly so. There is a profound difference between popular influence and popular sovereignty. You cannot have two sovereigns in any sphere. This is the same reason why you cannot have two sovereigns in the family. The king cannot be sovereign and the people at the same time. Popular sovereignty is simply direct disobedience to Romans 13. Kuyper knew this. Modern Democrats and demagogues wish to speak out of both sides of their mouth in trying to affirm that we can have both Romans 13 while still demanding that the king submits to us.

Many people who were children of the Enlightenment’s rejection of God (and a rejection of God’s political program) believed that freedom could only be secured if the people were king. After all, if the king must submit to the people, how can he abuse them and oppress them?

Kuyper’s answer is sphere sovereignty:

Sovereign authority flows out from God Almighty to all parts of his creation – to air and soil, to plant and animal, to a person’s body and a person’s soul, and in that soul to one’s thinking, feeling, and will; and further, to society and all its organic spheres of scholarship in business; and finally, to families, to rural and urban communities, and to the sphere that encompasses all these spheres and has to safeguard them all: to the state.

It is helpful to see that Kuyper is building an entire worldview, and therefore a conservative political program, on theism. This is why his understanding of conservatism is righteous and right, a living conservatism that can transform our hearts and our homes.

In the final analysis, only three kinds of conservatism can exist. This is because there are only three foundations to build a worldview upon. The three different worldviews are either built on Man, the Universe, or God.

A worldview manifested upon the foundation of the universe sees the universe as both the starting point and ultimate telos. Theologically speaking, this is pantheism. And thus the pantheistic mind understands the universe to be sacred. Therefore, all that is and all that happens is sacred. It is a violation of piety to change what is sacred. This is the worldview that creates a conservatism which desires to protect the status quo at all costs.

The second false conservatism is engineered upon the foundation of man himself. This kind of worldview’s conservatism places man as the final arbiter of what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. Therefore, this atheistic kind of conservatism has a an overwhelmingly strong tendency to fall into the trap of sentimentalism and nostalgia. For man is deciding that a thing must not be changed simply because man likes it.

Antithetically, Kuyper is building a political program built upon a theistic foundation; a political system built upon a conservatism that acknowledges God as both the foundation and the goal. Abraham Kuyper and his political mentor, Groen van Prinsterer, both knew that false conservatism was a danger, having written about them. They had not been able to discern exactly as to why that was, failing to discern the respective theological ground-motive which inevitably leads to an impotence.

Kuyper continues:

Thus political authority operates alongside many other authorities that are equally absolute and sacred in the natural and spiritual world, in society and family every attempt by political authority to try and rule over one of those other areas is therefore a violation of God’s ordinances…

As Kuyper explained in his public lecture, “Sphere Sovereignty,” there is a valid and helpful distinction between a government ruling over a sphere and ruling in a sphere. This more careful and precise language does not show up here.

On another note, the concept of sphere sovereignty was the very heart and foundation of American legal science from the 1880s to about 1940. It was the critical legal studies movement and critical theory itself that sought to dismantle sphere sovereignty. Harvard professor Duncan Kennedy describes what he calls “the rise and fall of classical legal theory” as none other than the rise and fall of the “Legal consciousness” or “legal worldview” which consisted of the following:

  • Absolute sovereignty in each sphere
  • Public/private distinction
  • Inductive/deductive method
  • The Will theory

It was this that postmodernism and critical legal studies sought to dismantle.

Daniel Mason

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Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.

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