Bavinck, Rousseau and the French Revolution

Herman Bavinck noted a profound transition from the medieval world into the modern; people are now deeply disturbed with the philosophical notions of the One and the Many in a this-worldly and practical sense, as opposed to an otherworldly, or metaphysical sense. Christianity alone has the requisite solution to make progress in the so-called “Social Question.” If correct, then Bavinck has correctly expounded the biblical tension that is necessary for answering the question of inequality.

The Archimedean point upon which this story unfolds is the French Revolution. So a brief overview of 1789 is in order.

Thanks to Voltaire and Rousseau providing the philosophical and theoretical framework, and thus creating the battle-cry of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” — a cry that was never answered with what it sought — the French Revolution was grounded in unbelief. With the storming of the Bastille, France also stormed its churches. Up to five thousand clergymen were executed by the guillotine for not swearing at the altar of Reason.


This was necessary for the new religion, the Cult of Reason, necessitated the removal of the superstition of the past creeds and dogmas. So opposed to Christianity was this revolution, it even attempted to break from the Christian calendar, since it was (and still is) based on the advent of Christ. Thus was born the half-truth about equality, which really amounts to a falsehood.

It was this bloodiest of Revolutions that started the ink flowing from the famous pen of Edmund Burke. It is likely that Bavinck was of the same opinion as he. The Revolution had brought forth two trajectories, both ill-begotten, and ill-fated. The one, individualism, as expressed in the Revolution’s popular sovereignty, and the other; collectivism, the socialism that, too, was born of the Revolution. The Christian balance is not One and Many in opposition, but in cooperation, and this both was and is, socially speaking, only attainable by a society based on the family. Yet, the French Revolution tore the unity of the individual and the collective apart.

Not by chance did Bavinck pick Rousseau to contrast with Calvin on the topic of inequality.

In this contextual milieu, Bavinck steps in. Not by chance did Bavinck pick Rousseau to contrast with Calvin on the topic of inequality. The Dutch scholar made clear his position in an essay, On Inequality, summarized below:

The first man to seriously wrestle with material inequality was the Genevan born, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Outside of Paris, traveling to see a close friend, Diderot, Rousseau saw a flyer for an essay contest. It posed the question, “Whether the progress of the sciences and arts has tended to corrupt or purify morals.”

This flyer was the radical change for him, called by some a “religious conversion.” Rousseau began to live life like a medieval monk; abandoning the niceties of civilization, even changing his dress. He gave up the corrupt society and culture that he knew for the simplicity of nature and truth. He saw seeing and civilization as the all-corrupting force in the world. For him, the teachings of our society and experts were actually foolishness and oppression. He concluded that nothing bad can come from God, so therefore, the wickedness and inequalities that abounded must have come from society and culture. In fact, he specifically argued that the cause of evil and sin is actually due to inequality. If everyone had what they needed, and everyone shared with everyone, wickedness would cease to be. He developed these thoughts in two essays, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, and, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. He concludes that man’s redemption consists in turning from culture to nature, from society that is complex and corrupt to the original natural state of innocence, from the deceptiveness of the mind to the pure dictates of feeling. Rousseau represented the people of his day, and his doctrines were the major impetus for the French Revolution. Though not a socialist, his doctrines laid the foundation for the communists and socialists.

The Christian Genevan, on the other hand, dealt with the subject of inequality as well, from a different angle, with a different conclusion. John Calvin wrestled with a higher matter, finding the spiritual inequality of election (of far great importance than material goods!), finally and ultimately, resting with God’s choice.

Scripture’s teachings are paradoxical and counter-intuitive. We can only begin to help our neighbor, loving them as ourselves, when we understand that God delights in inequality, but despises selfishness. Selfishness does not cause inequality, but God.

The Christian balance is not One and Many in opposition, but in cooperation, and this both was and is, socially speaking, only attainable by a society based on the family.

Simply put, if all men are equally unable to save themselves, being destined for eternal punishment, how come some are saved and some are not? Calvin found the answer to this apparent inequality not in culture or society but in the inscrutable will of God. Yet, Bavinck notes another interesting contrast between the two Frenchmen. Rousseau “fought” for the poor, but never lifted a finger for them. Calvin on the other hand, put his “money where his mouth is.” Far from God’s sovereign control over, and pleasure in, variegated distribution justifying human passivity, the actions of the two Genevans show the opposite is true.

[C]laims of religious experience through music are notoriously hard to evaluate and build upon unless one is prepared to identify at least something of the content of the “religion” in question. The category of “religion” or “religious,”….is a massively contested one, as is the belief that there is some kind of locatable core or essence of “religious experience.” Unless we are willing to clarify what we might mean by asserting that, for example, music puts us in touch with God (for the Christian, as for any theistic faith, this would mean with a quite specific God, we will be powerless in the face of the skeptic, who will see such claims as no more than hyperbole for a fervent emotional experience or as a way of masking our desire to have some kind of ultimate authority to back up our musical tastes! In short, a laudable attempt to connect with musical experience in the culture at large can easily trade away the distinctives of Christian faith, leaving the church more irrelevant than ever.[6]

Citations & References 1. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, by Herman Bavinck, Baker Book House, 2013, p. 270.
2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, edited by Vittorio Messori (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985)
3. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, by Herman Bavinck, p. 255. 4. Ibid., p. 256.
5. I admit that this is unsatisfactory, in that Bavinck would say that beauty is revealed in the true statement and the good action, but it does not directly address the question of the truth and goodness in, say, music or paintings. But at the risk of redundancy, a painting is not really an argument, except by way of metaphor.
6. Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, by Jeremy Begbie, SPCK, 2008, Kindle loc. 217.

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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