The Justice System: A Kuyperian Commentary

What follows are select extracts from Abraham Kuyper’s political party’s manifesto, Our Program, Article 13 on the justice system, with commentary

The highest and most sacred attribute of the sovereign is that he upholds justice…Even then, it is God himself who upholds justice. He does so in three respects without involving people and in just one respect through the intermediary of people.

Kuyper goes on to explain that God rules directly through providential punishment of the wicked, and through not allowing peace of conscience in their hearts, and finally, God upholds justice on the Last Day. Yet, indirectly, God upholds justice through the father in the home, the police on the streets, and the judges in the courtrooms.

Kuyper elsewhere has written that government is a product of the Fall. He does not explain how he came to this. But his counterintuitive position can be defended by a look at Christology.

Christ’s mediatorial offices are only necessary, by definition, due to the Fall of Man. We would need no savior, no prophet or sacrificial priest, had Genesis 3 been written differently. Presumably, the same thing applies to the mediatorial office of king.

However, this view might be reconcilable with the standard position that government is a natural outgrowth of the family. Perhaps a distinction similar to what we use for the church, the government as an institution and government as an organic entity would bring these two ideas into a single harmonious system.

The sovereign is not to please his will but to uphold justice. He does not have to invent law or establish right, because law and right were there before he started. It exists even now outside of him. It is so little subject to him that the sovereign himself is under the law–unconditionally.

Hence the beautiful expression, still heard today, that the first task of the sovereign is to find the law. It is there, but it is hidden. He has to search for it, and keep on searching until he has found it. He has to search for it in the divine ordinances of the Word, in the people’s sense of justice, morals, and customs, in the legislation of other nations, and in the findings of the science of law.

Kuyper here upholds the common law tradition in three ways:

1. Teaching that law is discovered,

2. Implying that law should uniquely reflect a people and a people’s culture, and

3. Valuing the “jus gentium” or, the law of the nations, as a source of knowledge of the eternal law.

Common law is a form of natural law. Whereas natural law that is popularly known is based on a priori reasoning (deduction), common law theory teaches law can be found a posteriori (induction).

Common law was pioneered by Kuyper’s mentor, Edmund Burke, and systematized by Friedrich J. Stahl, both Reformed men of repute, the first a politician and the second a lawyer. Common law theory was specifically formulated to combat the liberalism born in 1789.

A government that operates on a common law understanding of the justice sees order as a moral principles, a governing principle. This is in contrast to the liberal view of social justice, which you can learn more about by understanding it’s historical development.

Not people’s sense of justice, for though it is still operative it is impure, because people are sinful. Nor the majority, since it changes and can turn into its opposite, a fact that militates against all concept[s] of justice. Nor yet science, since it can indeed draw logical conclusions from given principles, but legal scholarship is anything but clear about the principles of justice.

For this reason we deliberately referred in chapter 3 to the “ordinances of God” and tried to show that sinful people can have firm and incontestable certainty about the eternal, unchangeable principles of justice only by means of special revelation.

Kuyper has a sound hamartiology. He knows that the problem why any kind of natural law, (be it the common law variety or the traditional sort) is sin will justify all sorts of injustices.

If the law of nations is a valid source of knowledge of eternal principles of justice, than the best source would be Israel’s laws. The best record of those Israel and Israel’s laws is that which we know to be inerrant and infallible.

Far from a theonomist, Kuyper rejects either extremes. Two Kingdom theology teaches that the Bible is to have no influence wherever politics is concerned. Theonomy wishes to stifle the freedom the political sphere rightly owns.

Instead, Kuyper holds the position of the Westminster Confession; the judicial laws of Israel are not applicable today, except as a “general equivalence.”

This means that eternal principles of justice were on display in Israel, principles that can be applied in our context today.

A second observation is in order. Kuyper here rejects popular sovereignty. Further, he rejects the idea that the elected official is merely an instrument, or a slave, to do nothing but the bidding of the majority. Following Edmund Burke, Kuyper holds that officials are to consider the masses, rule in accordance with their “spirit.” But the official is still to retain his own mind, judgments, education and experience. The official is elected because the people trust him, but he is free to go against the wishes of the masses if he discovers this to be required by justice.

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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