What was the Revolution?

Conservatives of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were appropriately called “Counter-Revolutionaries” or “Anti-Revolutionaries”, because of their opposition to the socio-political effects and philosophical ideals associated with the French Revolution. The contemporary Dutch conservative, Bart-Jan Spruyt, has noted that conservatism developed as a self-conscious philosophy in the late eighteenth century when, in light of the political upheaval in France, conservatives became aware of the necessity to systematically express their long-held traditionalism.[1]  

Edmund Burke’s work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, has also been appropriated as the foundational document of modern conservatism. But what was it about this Revolution that the conservative fathers countered? Or rather, what was at the heart of their conservative resistance to the French Revolution? And does their interpretation of and resistance to this Revolution have any relevance for conservative socio-political engagement today?

The Revolution is essentially an epistemic rebellion against the authority and will of God.

In his Reflections, Burke emphasized the fact that it is the essence and principle behind political developments that form the key to understanding their nature and legitimacy.[2] It was the epistemic rationalism of the French Enlightenment that sanctioned the political revolution in France that, to Burke, formed an illegitimate foundation. As he writes: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would be better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.”[3] This principled appreciation for the epistemic value of tradition was central to Burke’s opposition to a Revolution based on abstractions.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Reformed Conservative Groen van Prinsterer, appealed to Burke’s emphasis on the essence and principle for his own understanding of the Revolution.[4]

For Groen, the Revolution did not in the first place signify historical political phenomena such as the French or Batavian Revolutions, but the epistemic shift or epistemic revolution that he believed sanctioned these political revolutions. The ideas of the Enlightenment sanctioned by this epistemic shift opposed the teachings of history and the Bible, thereby overthrowing the basic pillars of justice and order needed for the flourishing of society.[5]

‘Revolution’ for Groen was ultimately a denial of the sovereignty of God in favor of the sovereignty of mankind, with the “revolutionary” ideas of the Enlightenment being the fruits of a rationalist religion wrongly elevating man-made abstractions as truths supreme over the revelation of God.[6] Groen argued that the Revolution, not only as an historical-political phenomenon, but as an historical-philosophical development, amounted to an anti-Christian infringement upon the natural rights, established socio-political relationships and justice system rooted in a divinely-ordained social order.[7]

In this regard he wrote in his conclusion to Unbelief and Revolution:

The Christian-historic principle also (…) directly leads to political triumph. The truth of a principle is also evidenced in application (…) taught and guided by experience and the eternally constant Word of Revelation, I proclaim the inalterability of truth, the forsaking of which leads to distortive ideas.[8]

“Experience”, i.e. the characteristically traditionalist or conservative appreciation of the value of the lessons of history, as well as the “Word of Revelation”, i.e. the special revelation of God’s will through the divine inspiration of the Bible, formed the twofold epistemic foundation of his Christian-historic or anti-revolutionary political theory.

That Groen’s opposition to the Revolution was fundamentally aimed at the ideas and principles that sanctioned socio-political upheavals like the French Revolution, is evidenced when he wrote:

I desire not that the Revolution be removed from history, of which it compromises one of the most instructive parts … But although the Revolution certainly belongs to history, we must not forget that a doctrine, derived from false speculation, is opposed to the essence of things and therefore opposed to history, to the historic development of humanity, against all societal rights and relationships, as a fatal seed of confusion and dissolution.[9]

Groen’s most renowned German ally, the Lutheran Conservative Friedrich Julius Stahl, also described the Revolution in religious and epistemic terms. In a similar vein to Groen, Stahl regarded the “spirit of the revolution” as standing directly opposed to the “Spirit of faithfulness and obedience to … God’s will as expressed through the Revelation [i.e. Scripture] and history.”[10]

At heart of the political theory of Burke, Groen and Stahl was an epistemological rootedness in the authority and will of God as revealed through both Scripture and Providence…

These three European fathers lived in different contexts and expressed different concerns. Stahl, for example, preferred to self-identify as “conservative”, while Groen strategically preferred the term “anti-revolutionary”. At heart of the political theory of Burke, Groen and Stahl was an epistemological rootedness in the authority and will of God as revealed through both Scripture and Providence (or tradition as the epistemic appreciation of the historical lessons of Providence).

The Revolution is essentially an epistemic rebellion against the authority and will of God. This epistemic rebellion was rightly identified by our conservative fathers as the soul of the Revolution underlying all its socio-political manifestations. Since they were primarily concerned with the recognition and right application of God’s will in society, our conservative forebears’ understanding of and opposition to the Revolution cannot be reduced to mere historical political positions on historical phenomena, but remains relevant for Reformed Christian socio-political engagement in a world where our earthly calling remains ever-constant: to advance the Kingdom of Christ.

Citations & References

[1] Spruyt, B.J. Tot lof van het Conservatisme. (Amsterdam: Balans, 2003), 10.

[2] Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. (London:Dodsley, 1790), 29-30.

[3] Ibid., 107.

[4] Groen van Prinsterer, G. Ongeloof en Revolutie – Eene reeks historische voorlezingen, tweede uitgaf. (1868), 251.

[5] Kink, H. “Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876)” in Revolutionair verval en conservatieve vooruitgang in de achttiende en negentiende eeuw (eds: Baudet & Visser. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2012), 280,  288-289; Van Dyke, H. “Groen van Prinsterer: Godfaher of Bavinck and Kuyper” in Calvin Theological Journal 17(1) 2012, 74-75, 94-95.

[6] Groen van Prinsterer, G. Ongeloof en Revolutie (Barneveld:Nederlands Dagblad, 2008), 28.

[7] Ibid., 36, 118.

[8] Ibid., 385-387, 389. “[H]et christelijk-historische beginsel leidt ook (…) rechtstreeks naar politieke winst. De waarheid van een beginsel blijkt ook in een brede toepassing (…) door de ervaring en het eeuwig blijvende woord van de openbaring geleerd en geleid, beweer ik de onveranderlijkheid van waarheden. De verzaking daarvan leidt tot dwaalbegrippen.”

[9] Groen van Prinsterer, G. Grondwetsherziening en eensgezindheid. (Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1849), 483. “Ik begeer niet dat de Revolutie uit de Geschiedenis, waarvan zij een der leerrijkste gedeelten uitmaakt … Maar, ofschoon de Revolutie voorzeker tot de Geschiedenis behoort, dit mag ons niet doen vergeten dat een leer, aan valsche bespiegeling ontleend, tegen het wezen der dingen en dus tegen de Geschiedenis, tegen de historische ontwikkeling der Menschheid, tegen elken gegeven toestand der maatschsappelijke regten en betrekkingen, al seen noodlottige kiem van verwarring en ontbinding, gekant is.”

[10] Stahl, F.J. Neue Evangelische Kirchen-zeitung 24 August 1861, 23.  “den Geist der Revolution” “dem Geist der Treue und des Gehorsams … die Offenbarung und Geschichte ausgeprächten Gedanken Gottes.”

Jan Adriaan Schlebusch

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Jan Adriaan Schlebusch is a Christian philosopher and historian. Born in 1989 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, he grew up on a cattle ranch near the city. Between 2008 and 2013, he completed a BA (Theology), a BA Honors (Latin), and an MA (Philosophy) at the University of the Free State. In 2018, he graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. The title of his doctoral dissertation was “Strategic narratives: Groen van Prinsterer as Nineteenth-Century Statesman-Historian.” He has published several peer-reviewed papers in journals such as Trajecta and the Journal for Christian Scholarship among others. He is a senior researcher at the Pactum Institute and a visiting fellow with the Neo-Calvinism Research Institute.

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