Groen’s Reformed Meta-History

Although 5 foot 2, ‘Willem’ Groen van Prinsterer was a man of tall stature. The national historian of Holland, a Parliamentarian and founder of the Anti-Revolutionary political party — a Christian political party he bequeathed to Abraham Kuyper — Groen’s greatest contribution to the church arguably lies outside of politics. His development of the concept of meta-history foreshadowed the critiques of postmodernism.

After the Copernican Revolution, all academic disciplines sought to transform each academic sphere to match the precision of math and physics. If a biologist would treat the animals like mathematical calculations, perhaps he can produce precise and accurate results. Religion increasingly was seen as a superstition, and what theologians call the “magisterial use of reason,” whereby Reason is idolatrously exalted, helped lead to a perversion of writing and researching history.

The Enlightenment created an insatiable desire to make man as a rational machine. It was assumed a man cannot find the truth if any bias or prejudice holds sway in his heart. Make man’s mind neutral, and only then can he see correctly. Pure objectivity was the goal and neutrality the means.

Yet, the Reformed Conservative knows this does not hold true from a theological perspective. Man cannot see the truth of the gospel for he hates the light. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). But when a man is changed so as to have a bias towards the truth, a prejudice for Christ, only then does he come into the light.

Man is either biased towards or biased away from the truth. There is no neutrality — not, at least, in matters theological. But how can a man find the truth if he is biased and prejudiced, especially in matters of historiography? Harry Van Dyke, the foremost expert on Groen van Prinsterer explains:

One fruitful approach to this problem is to acknowledge that bias does not necessarily mean unwarranted partiality or uncritical prejudice. The critical test, rather, is to raise this question: Does the investigator’s bias help him to open up his field of inquiry? The test seems particularly pertinent in connection with the historiography of the French Revolution. 

The French Revolution was the turning point between the middle ages and modernity. It was also the turning point in Groen’s conservatism. As Abraham Kuyper, Groen’s protege, opined, “The French Revolution is the point which all consistent Christians eventually turn to.”

What was so crucial about 1789? It was nothing other than secularism applied in force. Van Dyke explains that according to Groen, this monumental event can only be understood one way:

Being without God was the real formative power of the revolution, hatred of the gospel its defining feature, recognition of the sovereignty of God its only antidote, and a Christian revival its only remedy.

Pretending that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God had no immediate, direct, and lasting impact on how we interpret history was unconscionable.

Groen wrote an Essay on Truth in 1834, and it was evident then that he “had definite ideas about countering secular historical science.” Van Dyke continues in explaining Groen’s view:

History was to be viewed in light of the gospel and interpreted with Christ as its center and the fortunes of Christianity as its theme. Under the influence of the eighteenth-century philosophy, however, all recognition of God’s hand had been eliminated from history.

This is remarkably arrogant, felt Groen. He was, nevertheless, cautious. For a historian must not presumptuously “lift the veil that God has put over the mysteries of the governance of this world.” And yet, on the other hand, the Christian historian must not be willingly — and culpably — blind to the “wonders of history [whereby] God’s love and justice did not remain without witness to the nations in the ways of His providence…”

Agreeing with Jonathan Edwards that the Christ Event was the fulcrum of history, Groen did not invent a new method of doing history.

As Groen’s biographer put it, “history, when it is viewed through the spectacles of Scripture, reflects the reality of God’s covenant faithfulness to his Word of blessing and curse.”

Covenantal history, according to Groen, is understood thus: “Whenever a people blessed with the Gospel chooses unbelief, the prophecy applies: ‘I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruit of their thoughts, because they have not hearkened to my words, nor to my law.’”

In short, God relates to people not only on an individual level, but also on a corporate level, a covenantal level. Nevertheless, the key question for the believing and faithful historian is this: “How does history relate to, and is to be understood in light of, the God of history?”

In contrast to Groen is the modern secular view of removing any and all religious connections from the study of history. A near-comtemporary of Groen and fellow historian, held that the Son of God becoming man and transforming the world may indeed have “cosmic significance” — and he admits this pertaining to history! — but that this is a matter that “lie[s] outside the realms in which historians are supposed to move.”

By contrast, we see the authors of Scripture, such as Luke, record historical narrative with an explicit religious interpretation. This is, in Groen’s view, precisely the answer and the only alternative to the practice of writing history from a methodological approach of unbelief. 

Groen writes:

It is very true that science is not advanced by pointing only to God; but it is equally true that by not pointing to God the bottom must fall out of science and every system must collapse. To know only the remote cause is not enough; yet in the proximate [cause], too, one ought to acknowledge the final cause. The wish to accord independence to secondary causes has been the source of manifold idolatries, including scientific ones.

A faithful meta-history, according to Groen, approaches history without skipping over natural causes, nor dispensing with the mundane facts, yet neither should history (connected to a faithful metahistory) ignore the faith which illumines all it touches. Groen’s approach is a metahistorical approach in conjunction with a solid and scientific approach. As Groen’s biographer elucidates for us, Groen’s “explanations of facts and events are designed to take into account the created order in which they are grounded and the metahistorical framework in which they have their existence.”

But is not this religious bias ‘unfair’? Does it not predispose certain kinds of readings of history? Harry Van Dyke’s retort is perfectly clear and perfectly sound:

To dismiss [Groen’s] writing of history on that account is to show a lack of critical insight into one’s own religious bias, an unscholarly lack of critical reflection on one’s own pre-theoretical point of departure.

The faithful Christian historian is able to boldly move ahead knowing his faith is a bias and prejudice wich leads to the truth, not that which would distort it. History, no less than science and philosophy, must be done by the Christian sub specie aeternitatits — within view of eternity, and as always, coram Deo.

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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