Groen van Prinstererlezing 2011 (Schuurman) in het Engels

voorkant_gvpwoensdag 08 februari 2012 02:48

Vorig jaar organiseerde het WI de Groen van Prinstererlezing met Egbert Schuurman. Zijn verhaal van toen is inmiddels ook vertaald in het Engels voor publicatie in de VS. De gehele lezing in het Engels is hieronder geplaatst.


It has been testified of Job (see Job 1:1 [All biblical quotations are from the New International Version]) that he was upright and blameless, that he feared God and shunned evil. In Job 29:25 the work of the young Job is described as the work of a king. You could say: as the work of a political figure of his times.  Job 29:7-17 indicates the lasting meaning of that work for politicians of all times:


“When I went to the gate of the city

And took my seat in the public square,

The young men saw me and stepped aside

And the old men rose to their feet;

The chief men refrained from speaking

And covered their mouths with their hands;

The voices of the nobles were hushed,

And their tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouths.

Whoever heard me spoke well of me,

And those who saw me commended me,

Because I rescued the poor who cried for help,

And the fatherless who had none to assist him.

The man who was dying blessed me;

I made the widow`s heart sing.

I put on righteousness as my clothing;

Justice was my robe and my turban.

I was eyes to the blind

And feet to the lame.

I was a father to the needy;

I took up the case of the stranger.

I broke the fangs of the wicked

And snatched the victims from their teeth.”

Gen. 11:4-8 is about striving to build the tower of Babel. That striving repeats itself time and again throughout history. Also in our times. Therefore our Christian politicians must stay on their toes:

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’

“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other’.

“So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”


Confessors of Christ:  Courage in politics

The challenge for Christians in politics

The 2011 Groen van Prinsterer Lecture of the Christian Union in the Netherlands

By prof. dr. ir. Egbert Schuurman


The yearly Groen van Prinsterer Lecture[1] is meant to support and nourish reflection about Christian politics. Such reflection is not a superfluous luxury but – certainly for Christians who are in politics – a constant necessity. First principles must constantly be reasserted and acted upon anew. In this regard we stand in a long tradition. I would especially like to join someone in that tradition who has been somewhat forgotten. That is professor Mekkes,[2] my predecessor at the University of Technology at Eindhoven. His observations have stimulated me quite a bit in my own reflections about culture and politics. I would like his prophetic voice to be heard. In the style of Mekkes’ thinking, I would like to begin with a reflection on culture and close with a meaningful political perspective for a spiritual, Christian approach to politics. The accompanying question is of importance:  What should be the main issue for a Christian in politics in a strongly changing culture?



A main characteristic of our times is that materialism is the leading conviction or religion. Thereby reality is seen as autonomous and humanity – with its reason and cultural power – can act on its own authority. Not being dependent on God, man conceives himself to be in control. The universities in the Netherlands are an example of that: there is no transcendent, no divine reality that man has to take into account.  Let alone that he knows himself to be responsible coram Deo. It is through science, technology, economy and organization that this secularized spirit has gained control over so many, especially since this spirit has brought enormous material wealth, which appears to suffice. Our culture has become thoroughly materialistic and individualistic, blind to the spiritual dimensions of existence and with little or no consideration for the essential relationships in life. There was never a time when material wealth was as great as it is in our time, but also never a time when the spiritual void was so serious. And therefore there has never before been a time when we spoke, as we do today, of a great moral crisis. This is expressed especially – but not solely – in broken social relationships and in the enormous cultural crises of our age.

The materialistic culture, even as its worldwide influence continues to grow, is cracking at its seams. The big problems – with their often worldwide dimensions – of finances and economy, energy, food, water, climate and natural resources have another side in individualization, in the loss of safe relationships like marriage and family, in abortus provocatus, the blurring of moral standards, sexualization, increasing youth criminality, addiction and vulgarization and, not to forget, the self-enrichment of ‘the fat cats’. These are all symptoms of a deeper malady; they are not themselves the disease. As a “doctor of culture” the cultural philosopher Nietzsche diagnoses this disease already at the end of the nineteenth century as the emergence of nihilism, the cause of which is the declaration that ‘God is dead’. The highest values have become worthless: “Umwertung aller Werte” (the ‘revaluation of all values’). Nietzsche applauds this, but at the same time it does not give him peace.[3] At the same time he wants to bring mankind to a higher level; that of the “Übermensch” who is driven by the desire for power; the strong, mighty human being who exceeds his own possibilities and is certain of the building of modern towers of Babel.

It took until just after the Second World War – the process took place gradually and almost unnoticeably – before this lawless and overconfident conviction gained influence over many. This spirit marks the sphere of what I shall call the ‘small personal culture’ in which a sense of sin no longer exists; and the ‘big material culture’ of the coherent complex of Science, Technology, Economy and Organization – and the management and bureaucracy that go with it.  In the present account I shall differentiate between these two cultures. Naturally there are also connections. Yet the correct differentiation is necessary if we are to shed more light on the problems of our culture and the reaction to it by Christian politics in particular.

An attentive spiritual and intellectual in-depth examination is necessary if we are to understand how the ‘small personal culture’ and the ‘big material culture’ have developed over the course of time.  

Ground motive of history[4]

For me, it has been especially Prof. Mekkes who as a philosopher and as a Christian scriptural thinker shed a clear light on this matter. In his studies on Christian politics Mekkes points to the religious, biblical ground motive of all of creation. That motive is Christ. He is there at creation, He leads it through history, He redeems the history of creation, and He brings a new perspective of the completion of everything of God`s Kingdom. That perspective goes through the Cross – of deliverance from human apostasy – and therefore the Kingdom is not of this world. But in the sighing of creation, God’s Kingdom is invincible. No one can escape from this motive of history, which gives history a dynamics. The entire reality of creation is in His hand. In short, Christ is the meaning of history. Everything exists out of, through and for Christ. He has appointed the law of creation – later also called the law of creation and redemption – for the course of history. This law of creation is summarized in the law – also called the ‘way’ by Mekkes – of love and righteousness and focused on life, peace and justice for all and for everything. That Kingdom will only come in its fullness beyond the horizon of earthly time.

There is therefore only one dominant, all-encompassing religious ground motive: namely, Christ as Lord of history. All other (religious) motives, also including that of the imagined autonomy of the Western Enlightenment, parasitize off that. In resistance to this dynamics – grounded in resistance to Christ and deference to the law of sin – there arise all forms of dialectics, of struggle, conflicts and tensions, whereby culture gets caught in a safety net, as it were, and people lose their orientation. Yet even while resisting, people remain bound by the law of creation and redemption. Man is even judged by it: the problems and tensions, the many crises of our time therefore do not have the final say. Humanity`s over confidant pretentiousness – even though the opposite appears to be true – must lose the battle against the dominance of Christ`s rule. Actions against the law of creation, which is focused on the great future, are rectified from time to time. Meanwhile, during that development suffering in one form or another can be enormous. Nothing exact can be said about when and how a crisis and the accompanying reorientation will occur. God does not allow man in his conceitedness to disrupt everything to the end. In this there is something of the divine mystery in history. Sometimes disasters can put man back on track. We then say, euphemistically, that the quay turns the ship, that things will run their course but there will be a price to pay. That happens in both the ‘small personal culture’ and the ‘big material culture’ of Science, Technology, Economy and Organization. The unexpected fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the Arabic revolution in our time are examples.  Moreover, after such upheavals we usually see a counter development, and new tensions develop in culture. In the midst of this history of persistent and changing tensions and even hopelessness, a perspective for human culture and politics always remains thanks to the dominance of Christ’s rule. Seen in this light Christian politics is always actual, not as a fact but as a mandate[5] – even when the cultural context changes.


Reformation and Enlightenment

In the spiritual history of the West, the Reformation went back to the original mandate for man. It took the creation mandate seriously. As a result, culture flourished enormously. Yet where this happened the spiritual movement of the Enlightenment also arose, via the Renaissance; it also devoted much thought to cultural development, but without reference to God’s Sovereignty. Man was called upon to use his own mind and to map out his own future. Since then we have seen the appeal for autonomous freedom and the strengthening of human domination constantly increasing.


Two ideals of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is characterized by these two ideals: the freedom ideal and the ideal of domination. These ideals have brought many positive things into being. Just consider the many material developments in the area of health care, employment, science and technology, and the advancement of material prosperity. Widespread participation in all kinds of education is also a consequence of the Enlightenment. However, at the moment we seem to have reached a deadlock with the radicalization of the Enlightenment. That is because human power – science, technology, economy, organization – and freedom are increasingly being separated from their origin and made absolute. We are dealing with the derailment of the ideal of science and the ideal of freedom.  Both ideals lack a metaphysical relation and a transcendent origin: they are blind to the spiritual dimension of existence. They are modern idols. In order to gain more insight into the seriousness of the tensions in current culture we shall need to give more attention to the consequences of both these ideals of the Enlightenment.


The ideal of freedom

Individual freedom, which is praised by the Enlightenment, has in its unnormed form inflicted much damage on a meaningful, orderly society. In our culture freedom is increasingly anarchistic freedom; it is freedom pried loose from communal, societal freedom, from its moral grounds and its moral mandate. Freedom is increasingly seen as freedom detached from responsibility, such that it becomes freedom without substance and thus empty and intimidating. The results of the sixties in the previous century with their persistent resistance to tradition, authority and values have brought our society into imbalance. We could speak of lifelessness. Our respect for human beings has suffered. An unprecedented clearance sale of our own culture has taken place without our noticing it. The witches cauldron of relativism has deceived many. Some even speak of the dictatorship of relativism. Freedom in the form of indifference and debauchery – extreme godlessness – is visible everywhere. Many no longer accept marriage and family as the firm foundation of a healthy society. In the meantime many are disturbed by this trend and politics has been saddled with many additional social problems because of it that were unthinkable in the past.


The scientific-technical domination ideal

As has been said, we also have the Enlightenment to thank for the scientific-technical domination ideal. This ideal is in fact conjured up by the ideal of freedom. But at the same time, it threatens freedom. Under the influence of man’s desire to control and so to subdue everything, modern technology, which is based on science, penetrates and directs all of culture. Modern technology does this in alliance with economics, thereby rendering culture a ‘materialistic’ culture. Technology and economy leave their mark on everything. Organizational power and the bureaucracy that comes with it as the connecting factor produce an ever-growing snarl that cannot be disentangled.[6]

While man thinks he can safeguard his culture through an unlimited development of science, technology and economics bound up in organizational power – the belief in progress – there is at the same time an enormous threat that the basis of human existence will be ruined. The brutalizing of the current development of culture threatens the sustainability of the natural environment and biosphere. Towers of Babel are being built, but on quicksand.

Technical thinking is the motor of the snarled complex of science, technology, economy and organization. Whatever does not fit into the technical model is either ignored or forgotten. Reality is viewed as a technical whole that we can go on to improve through technology. This exaggerated technical way of thinking is translated into a technical worldview. It is a human construction, and it serves as a cultural paradigm. The technical worldview has put its stamp on the development of Western culture in increasing measure, and it is now also putting its stamp on the current gobalization. We all inhale this technical mentality.  We all accommodate this thirst for power through the greed of consumerism.


Primacy of the scientific-technical domination ideal

That the ideal of scientific-technical domination constantly triumphs over the other pole of the cultural dialectic – the freedom ideal – stems from the fact that the ideal of domination makes use of objective cultural powers that manifest themselves in new scientific, technical and organizational possibilities such as systems theory, informatica, computer technology, genetic modification techniques and, recently, in nanotechnology. The economic powers strengthen that process. A cultural reversal is virtually impossible even though criticism is also increasing. The cause lies mainly with the economic powers, which know of no moderation, and with the masses as consumers who, time and again, support the existing mainstream of culture because they believe in and hope for even more blessings from science and technology.


Seriousness of the current dialectic (cultural tensions)

It is important to emphasize that in this historical process the cultural tensions and conflicts take on ever more serious forms. Modern cultural powers attain unheard of growth and assume a despotic character. Through scientific-technical domination of the entire world and one-sided economic development, not only are humans restricted in their freedom but natural resources threaten to be depleted, nature destroyed and the environment polluted. Recently much attention has been paid to climate change. Today’s unrestrained scientific-technical dynamics are a challenge to natural, ecological, energy and social limits; these dynamics provoke clashes that, due to a lack of adequate concrete solutions for the tensions involved, can degenerate extremely quickly into actual conflicts. In developing countries feelings of political impotence often rule the day because of the influence of globalizing technical and economic development combined with persistent economic subordination. Usually that is quickly perceived as a direct humiliation. In other words, via globalization the materialistic culture of the West puts other cultures under pressure. The dialectic all too easily manifests itself in conflicts between cultures, peoples and nations. Cultural disasters can be unleashed and not only ecological or technical but also political catastrophes can occur.


Transformation of the “technological culture”

Within the dominant cultural paradigm of the West we are faced with many problems. At present we usually attempt to solve these problems by the same means and methods that evoked them in the first place. The solutions turn out, however – especially with the support of economics and politics – to be components themselves of the problems of our culture. And so we gradually come to see that this situation can no longer continue. Does a possibility exist, then, that in the current crisis we could find a way into a new cultural phase in which the problems of the “materialistic culture” could really be forced back?

The challenge is to come up with another cultural paradigm that will lessen the cultural tensions and limit or even resolve the existing problems and threats. That is not easy, because the representatives of the old cultural model will not give up easily. They will cling to the current paradigm with a certain grim determination. The counter-forces are of an economical, political and cultural nature. Yet the more the existing development persists, the more clearly its weakness appears. Do the ever more world-threatening consequences of present-day scientific-technical-economic thought not indicate that this is so? It is clear that many people – including politicians! – who are confronted with the current cultural problems are searching for greater sustainability.


Cultural reversal

We see that because of the looming problems in politics and economy, more and more leaders in society are becoming interested in cultural alternatives, sustainable development and socially responsible enterprise. The social-economic climate is becoming more amenable to drastic changes.

Concern about climate change, rising sea-levels, shifting climatic zones, the disruption of ecological systems, loss of bio-diversity, new tropical diseases, etc., cry out for change in the cultural ethos. More and more, people are realizing that modern society with its patterns of production, domination and consumption is inherently and not accidently unsustainable. This realization is undermining the prevailing cultural pattern.

It is therefore of importance that post-industrial culture should reduce and help solve the problems and threats of industrial culture. This will have to be a learning process of small and large steps. It will have to be a process in which what was forgotten or what threatened to be forgotten is allowed to speak.

What we need is nothing less than a ‘leap’. And rightly so, because it is ‘time to turn’. We do not have to deny the many good things that Western culture has brought us in order to conclude that, generally speaking, without fundamental changes in the course of Western culture we are heading for disaster. Think of the ‘exploding’ of the drilling installation in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. Such an example is a model of what is taking place – slowly – throughout the entire culture. Although the cause of the nuclear debacle in Japan was a natural disaster, it is clear that the cause of the problems with the nuclear plant was the taking of risks that were too high for gigantic technical constructions that exceed human limitations. A turn in culture is required that will lead to decreased tensions and threats.


Enlightenment of the Enlightenment

In general, people in our culture still support the motive of the Enlightenment. However, deep criticism of our materialistic culture cannot ignore the Enlightenment. Criticism of our all too sorely one-sided scientific-technical-economic way of dealing with nature and society reveals that we cannot be satisfied with the alternatives of absolute freedom and absolute domination.

In the spirit of the Enlightenment, we deprive ourselves of criteria to come to good decisions and judgments if we isolate the spiritual sources of our Judeo-Christian tradition – the biblical perspective – and limit ourselves to the two hundred year old spiritual movement of the Enlightenment. I clearly say: ‘limit’. The idea is not to depart from the culture of the Enlightenment but from any absolutizing of it. Indeed, the Enlightenment is a part of the European history of freedom. Yet it thrives more and more on presumptions and principles that do not stem from Europe’s longer cultural and spiritual history. Where thought is no longer given to that heritage, not only will a rich spiritual history disappear but also the Enlightenment itself will be plunged into a disastrous crisis. Broadly speaking, we can see that the cultural experiment based exclusively on the Enlightenment has been unsuccessful. Signs of that are visible everywhere: social disintegration in an individualization that has overshot the mark and the unbounded freedom associated with it that threatens nature, the environment and the climate are the writing on the wall. The culture of the Enlightenment is stuck in a quagmire. Being materially immensely rich but spiritually dirt poor testifies to metaphysical shallowness and the absence of an urgently needed inspirational ideal. Without such a spiritual ideal the paradox grows ever greater between a society focused on consumerism and the need to foster sustainability. The ‘golden calf perspective’ will disappoint more and more. Enlightenment threatens to reverse into blindness. Therefore: enlightenment of the Enlightenment is necessary.


Content of a new cultural paradigm

And what should the new cultural paradigm look like? What is its essence? It must be radically different from what has gone before yet absorb the old into the process of transformation. In the old cultural paradigm nature is regarded as lifeless and is exploited by unlimited manipulation within that framework. Thus while until recently in the technical paradigm nature, man, the environment, plants and animals were looked at from a technical point of view – the so-called ‘machine model’ – now the protection of life will have to be the all-governing point of view in culture forming. Science, technology and economics will not be allowed to destroy life in all its variations and richness of form, but rather be at their service. From this perspective technology and economics will be better able to respond to their proper meaning.

In the transition to a new cultural phase we shall not, however, need to leave behind modern cultural possibilities as such, yet they should be of service to life and to living together. Not having power over but having respect for living reality in all its richness in color and kind and also love for the worldwide human community gives a different vision. Not destroying through domination but opening up reality and promoting its flourishing should be our objective. The preservation of life and wellbeing is more important than the growth of material welfare alone.[7]

What picture of reality that precedes science, technology and economics best helps us understand how we can come to a reorientation of the development of culture? The cultural philosopher Hans Jonas can help with that.  Just imagine, he says, that we should find ourselves on the moon. We would be impressed by the immeasurable cosmos. From the moon we would be struck by the very, very special uniqueness of planet earth in that gigantic cosmos. It is the only green planet is our solar system. Life exists there in a rich multiformity. If we want to survive as travelers to the moon, we shall need to return to earth. But from the moon, says Jonas, we observe with a shock that this planet earth is in danger. The specialness of life is threatened by the existing technical-economical development. That will need to change. Technology and economics must not threaten life but should serve it. A recent study of the Rathenau Institute[8] therefore rightly states the case for bio-economics. A following step should be to better describe sustainability. Sustainability concerns not only the needs of future generations but also the protection and preservation of the plant and animal kingdoms. That requires wisdom and careful stewardship. Then the procurement of bio-fuels at the expense of food crops could be prevented, for example. Real sustainability represents the cycle of life. That does not exclude but includes cultural progress. It means that more thought is given to the way of justice in contrast to the injustice of the current globalizing development.

A responsible cultural development summons up a depiction of culture that reminds us of the earth as a garden to be run by people like a ‘community house’ in which nature, technology and culture are more in harmony with each other and in which there is a meaningful place for each living person and every living thing. In this depiction everything is incorporated, most importantly, in an indissoluble relationship and at the same time everything has its own individual value or nature. This intrinsic value needs to be respected before we start engaging it in a scientific-technological manner. Every human activity should begin with considerate contact and respectful treatment. Creation and creature should be approached according to their nature, lest life recede. That is not to make an idol of nature. No, it is rather to acknowledge the caring labor of the Creator, to which people must respond. Science, technology and economics should be focused on dwelling in the garden and on maintaining and strengthening all that lives.

The metaphor of developing a garden in the direction of a ‘community house’ also expresses man’s bond with and dependence on all of creation. The reality is given to him: he is not meant to be a lord and master but a keeper and caregiver. He may develop and unveil creation. We should treat the gift of God’s earth in much the same way that we would carefully unwrap a large present. A change in man’s attitude and in man’s behavior is necessary.

The picture thus sketched is clearly consistent with the original meaning of ‘eco-nomos’. Caring for, nourishing, protecting and preserving go hand in hand with cultivating, harvesting and producing. In the cultural paradigm of the managed garden, scale enlargement and the acceleration of culture are converted to a scale and pace beneficial to man’s living together in community and to creation. In the image of the garden, nature’s limited capacity is respected. Right use of the harvest points in the direction of a more sustainable development of culture. Sustainability is possible within the metaphor of the garden: that is to say that technology together with economics should not go in the direction of manipulation, exploitation and pollution but, as the economist Herman Daly of the World Bank expressed it, should maintain and if possible improve the fruit-bearing capacity of the earth; technology together with economics should limit withdrawals to the usufruct and make this available to all people, now and in the future. Responsible cultural development means living off the interest of the capital given to us; it does not allow the capital itself to be touched or used up. This is as it were the central concept that fits man as steward. The concept is attractive to many even apart from any idea of stewardship, given a certain well-understood self-interest.


Politics of the confessors of Christ

Based on the way culture has developed, we have pointed to a different direction for materialistic culture and come to the question of the politics that Christians should want to promote – and to the question in particular of the politics that the Christian Union in the Netherlands should want to promote, since for me the Christian Union is a Union of Confessors of Christ.[9]

Christians are not out to exceed their humanity through ambitious ideals but to orientate themselves to Christ for the sake of their humanity. Christ is the ground and secret of their being human. They want their life to be focused on the work He did and does and on the word He spoke and speaks. They know they are dependent on His Spirit. And the many shortcomings in their reliance on Him help to maintain their awareness that Christ is their point of orientation. Their desire is to orientate themselves in culture, and with that also in politics, according to the ground motive of creation, fall, redemption and the expectation of the Kingdom of God. Mekkes called it the dynamics of history orientated toward Christ. Drawing a connection between the great and high name of Christ and our deeds excludes taking belief for granted. Therefore a constant reorientation is necessary.

Christ as the source and focus implies a certain view of the world and life, of history and the future. And politics shares in that. For Christians, people in culture are a people coram Deo – they are called by Him and are responsible in the first place to Him, also in politics – for what they support, do or have done. The guideline is that as those who are mandated, it is our task to cooperate in politics too toward making the world a livable home for everyone. The driving factor is that of the Kingdom that is coming and that now is already stimulating us to search for its direction. Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). In the midst of a history in which human freedom has gone off track on a large scale and in which the unprecedented powers of science, technology, economics and organization appear to turn ever more against man and God’s creation, Christian politics must be ruled, in practicing right and justice, by love for God and one’s neighbor and for God’s creation. For Christians who accept the challenge in politics the matter is one of finding a credible alternative. Our program and the strategy it implies must be aimed at giving Christian politics a credible form. It means seeking political power. Yet the Bible knows of no rightful power other than that which is exercised through service. Where power is exercised through service there will be room for criticism, because those who are ruled by such power can indicate best of all how the application of power can best serve them.[10]

But what – limited – power does the state have?


Sphere Sovereignty

In Christian philosophy the biblical ground motive discussed above also forms the background for the vision on the state. Christ is sovereign over a rich variety of contexts and therefore also over the state. In faith we also accept the sovereignty of the creator and redeemer over the state. We do so even if the state or democracy does not accept this itself. It is the familiar principle of ‘sphere sovereignty’. Here ‘sovereignty’ means that God has the first and last word even over the state. The state exists under God`s power even if people do not acknowledge that to be so. Usually people think that ‘sovereign’ means the state is separate from God or neutral and has nothing to do with God. We therefore also speak of sphere responsibility, but then we mean the human response that must follow our acknowledgement that God also rules over the state – with or without human consent.

In the midst of the many relationships in society, the state has, before the face of God, coram Deo, a limited place. For the state it is constantly a great temptation to seek to control the whole of its citizens’ lives. Christian politics, however, recognizes many forms of relationships in society that the state must recognize as having their own responsibility, such as the family, church, business, school, etc. They are not subordinate to the state but on a level with it.[11] This view is based – solely – on acknowledgement of the origin and root of the great variety of relationships in creation; in God as the origin and Christ as the radix of the redeemed creation. The state has its own natural structure, with an important but at the same time limited, restricted authority or mandate. Politics is about God’s public justice for the salvation of a world that without a state would murder itself and that with a state that is bereft of justice certainly does so. The direction of public justice is also that of the Kingdom; it does not lust after power or wealth, which in the end – that is the lesson of our age – bring the opposite of what they intended!

The past and the present, says Mekkes, are determined – which only a Christian can say – by the future, which is the Kingdom of God. The history of creation is therefore a history of opening up or unfolding that is focused on the Future, but because of the resistance of people, this history is constantly in crisis. In that light the task of the state is no more nor less than to promote and serve public justice and thereby also the general, public interest. The state is not and must not be allowed to become a state of wealth or a state of power, but rather a state of justice. Politicians and certainly Christians, especially in politics must pay attention to the distribution of justice among all interests. Not the conflicting dialectic – the tensions and conflicts – of humanity but the dynamics of God’s creation in Christ is and must be decisive for the direction of the special task of the state and for the politicians who try to give it meaning.[12]


Christian politics for the ‘small personal culture’ and the ‘big material culture’

Given the established task of the state, Christian politics focuses on what I earlier called the ‘small personal culture’ and the ‘big material culture’. We have much less trouble with the first than the second.

The first sector is about standing up for the life of each individual, protecting life, resisting abortion and active euthanasia, strengthening marriage, the family, good health care and good education. And naturally we rightly stand up for the vulnerable – but perhaps still too little worldwide. We like to refer to Psalm 72 for that. Job 29 is even more penetrating. It has been testified of Job (Job 1:1) that he was upright and blameless, that he feared God and shunned evil. In Job 29 (verse 25) the work of the early Job is described as the work of a king; one could say as the work of a political figure of his time. Job 29:7-17 gives the abiding meaning of that work for politicians of all times:


                            “I took righteousness as my clothing,

                              justice was my robe and my turban.

                              I was eyes to the blind,

                              and feet to the lame.

                              I was a father to the needy.

                              I took up the case of the stranger.”


We clearly resist the excesses of the freedom ideal of the Enlightenment where the ‘personal culture’ is concerned. Our political focus for the ‘big culture’ is much less clear, perhaps because our appreciation of material culture may seem ambiguous. Perhaps Christians should practice asceticism more in order to bear fruit in the ‘big culture’ too: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). We shall have more to say about the ‘big culture’ later. First, as an intermezzo, let us say something about conservatism.

One-sidedness of conservatism

Naturally the call to return to the situation before the secularism of the Enlightenment – conservatism – finds a great deal of response, even among Christians. In the Netherlands conservatism has a good representative in Andries Kinneging.[13] Kinneging wants especially to return to the old virtues of the Greek world and the Christian world that followed it. Conservatism considers the greatest challenge of our time to be resistance to moral relativism in the line of the Enlightenment’s ideal of freedom; through the Enlightenment the powers of chaos and disintegration get their chance. The Enlightenment simply accommodates man, who is inclined to evil. According to Kinneging, the decline of Western civilization started with the Enlightenment. For politics, returning to natural law that fits the old doctrine of virtue means resisting the ever growing ‘pragmatization and juridification’ of politics and society. These only lead to the disintegration of politics and community. The conservative movement calls for constant attention and effort in the face of the worsening declension. That can be achieved through an appeal to conscience. 

Conservatism has certain starting points: man is inclined to all evil – to the seven main sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, jealousy, laziness – and the task of the state is limited. These starting points deserve permanent attention (a position close to the standpoint of the Christian Union). Instead of autonomous freedom, the case must be made for a freedom that matches such values as order, discipline, authority, respect, trust, helping one another, human solidarity; that is, for freedom connected to responsibility, connected to God`s law for life – and to a task of the state limited by sphere sovereignty.

It is also remarkable that conservatism stresses that history is a source of wisdom and insight. Yet the conservative vision of society is static and its criticism either too shallow or too narrow. Given the correctly limited conservative view of the state, Christians – even today – often vote for rightwing politics because of the right’s limited view of the state. They appear in doing so to tolerate the shadow sides of unrestrained technological-economic power exercised at the cost of what God has given in His creation. At most, conservatism is critical of wrongheaded goals that indulge human evil, but the process as such and the means by which science, technology, organization and economics function are accepted without criticism. Conservatism aims it criticism at one extreme of the Enlightenment – unrestrained freedom – but leaves the dominance of science, technology, economics and organization undisturbed. Conservation has no criticism of the cultural powers. That is because its source of criticism is conscience instead of God’s dynamic law of life for all of life and all of culture. From its very roots, conservatism denies for culture the negative sides of the secularization of culture.

For Christians – however much they may be able to appreciate its resistance against the moral crisis – the conservative movement therefore only does half the job and is not focused on the future.


Back to criticism of culture

The Christian political vision connects self-criticism with criticism of society or with criticism of culture and thereby has an eye for the dynamics of cultural history. The dominating culture of the Enlightenment with its unrestrained technological-economical power and the cultural tensions and problems that accompany it must – as we saw – change into a culture in which technology and economics are of service to the life of all and to communal life, as well as to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature and the environment. The change is a development for the whole of culture. Given its proper task, government has limited yet important influence. Politics can encourage government to take action through bills that will avert developments going awry, limit social disruptions, etc. Christians in politics – and the Dutch Christian Union – must take seriously approaching and protecting of the great variety of forms of life. Perhaps they must consistently take the lead. Christian politics must highlight the difference in cultural perspective via cultural criticism and so go its own way.[14]

Thus in my eyes the cattle trade has gone rather off track. It has come to be dominated by the technical spirit of the philosopher Descartes; we think that animals are “machines” and treat them accordingly. It is biblical to do justice to the created nature of animals. Their nature is threatened if economic utility is made the all-determining factor. The animal’s natural behavior (typical for its kind) will suffer. Not much is left then of the biblical notion that the righteous know the soul of their animals and that the covenant God made with Noah was made with the animals as well (Proverbs 12:10 and Genesis 9:10; cf. Genesis 1:21, 25). Industrial agriculture must also be converted into agriculture in which biology as the science of life becomes dominant. The ecologization of agriculture, biological agriculture, with much thought for landscape and social relationships, will have a future.

Within the framework of promoting public justice, also in the international context, Christians in politics can plead for the proper choice of priorities. For example, it is quite normal in science and technology to strive for a tour de force. That leads at times to violations of social justice because less attention is paid to techniques that could help many people in the struggle against hunger and disease. It is distressing, for example, to see that there is less money and attention for solving such injustices than there is for money guzzling prestigious enterprises in space. I am not referring to the development of communication satellites but to space travel to distant planets. It is not that such enterprises are not interesting, but should we not first fulfill our ethical responsibilities before posing other priorities? To mention another example of injustice, do the natural resources given us not require just distribution so that poor and needy residents of our “communal house” also receive their share? Setting such priorities proves there is enough for everyone; hunger is caused by a one-sided technological-economic development: “There is enough for every need, but not for every greed.”

And then it is high time to take a serious look at the ‘unnormed’ – that is, not controlled by the normative power of decision of governments – development of modern weapons and the world trade in them, which goes on to the detriment of very large groups of people. The many civil wars on the African continent are a distressing example of this unrestrained lawless development. It causes much suffering and costs many – mainly innocent – human lives.[15]

To conclude: I trust I have not given the impression that Christians can fully realize the described perspective in culture and in politics. “Thorns and thistles” will continue to accompany our work until someday, through God`s intervention, an earth now marked by disruptive development will be turned into the divine garden-city or court-city described in Revelation 21:9 to 22:5, where people are revealed as freed people, as people freed to the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8). In a surprising way it will then be apparent that in spite of people themselves, the work in science, technology, economics and politics is involved in the re-creation. That perspective gives hope and creates responsibilities. The prophetic message of Amos therefore remains current worldwide as a summons to political responsibility: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream!” (Amos 5:24).



Those are big words. Are they not too heavy for us? Because – let us be honest – Christians are often marked by inner uncertainty, deplorable communication and an obsessive attention to internal affairs; they easily allow themselves to be dominated by a paralyzing fear that makes them cautious both in the small personal culture and in the big culture – but especially there! – about being fully honest.[16] Materialism often has more control over them than they could wish.

Christian politics should not be the politics of brute power, nor of paralyzing uncertainty and doubt, but of courageous people!

The problems of secularized culture can make us unsure and afraid. Human fear can overpower us. We can learn from Kierkegaard that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in the presence of fear. That protects us from recklessness. At bottom, however, courage is based in the very positive message of Christ: as a mother prepares herself for the birth of a child, so we should prepare ourselves for the coming of the Kingdom (Romans 8). This Kingdom does not come because of anything we do, but the expectation creates responsibilities. In the end, the power of faith focused on Christ expels fear and leads to creative and bold action. To go against the mainstream and orientate oneself to God’s appointed way is not popular. Yet it can also be very surprising: sometimes it turns out that others too – without sharing our presuppositions of belief – support us. We can also learn from unbelievers. Mekkes says about that that we are all bound by the way and structures of creation. In that, we have our task, in solidarity with everyone. No one can step outside God’s structures; but one can resist. In solidarity with all, we have failed in our task and continue to do so. The Christian should not be ashamed to admit that his ideas about the solutions we need nowadays are often awakened by the actions of spiritual opponents. Others are often better in their discernment, their results and their good intentions. But they lack the certainty of faith and the Christian perspective.

Bearing the cross remains a part of Christian politics. That is one of the reasons why Christian politics resists the intemperance of Enlightenment thought[17] and the utopism of the ‘left’. That is why Christian politics also distances itself from the ideal of perfection. Yet in the midst of all these matters, the main goal is kept in mind: seeking the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in strongly changing circumstances in the ‘small personal culture’ and in the ‘big culture’ of science, technology, economics and organization – and all of this in a worldwide perspective.

Mekkes says in an article about the meaning of Christian politics: “For the Master who called and placed Himself over against the world has raised this creation to a seed of the Kingdom by the opposition of His cross, which was destined from the beginning. Therefore the disciple must testify to this, bearing the cross.”[18] To that I shall add: The Light of the world will never be extinguished!! After all, the great Master Himself said: “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).



[1] The Christian Union in the Netherlands, or Christen Unie, a Dutch political party, holds a Groen van Prinsterer Lecture every year. It is named after the historian and statesman Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801 – 1876), the father of modern Dutch Christian politics. Egbert Schuurman represented the Christian Union in the Netherlands as a senator in the Dutch Parliament from 1983 through 2011. Schuurman is the emeritus professor of Reformational Philosophy at the Dutch universities of Delft, Eindhoven, and Wageningen.

[2] Johannes Petrus Albertus Mekkes was born in 1898 and died in 1987. He and his wife Johanna remained childless. Mekkes did not study until later in life: he started in 1932 and continued from 1933 until 1940 while an aide to the Commander of the army, General W. Roell. Mekkes’ military training took him to the university of Nijmegen, where he studied law. There he became interested in the task and limits of the state, came into contact with the Reformational Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea, and developed an interest in Christian philosophy. He completed his doctor’s degree in 1940 under Prof. Herman Dooyeweerd by defending a dissertation critical of the development of humanist theories of the state, Proeve eener Critische Beschouwing van de Ontwikkeling der Humanische Rechtsstaattheorieën. As a professor in Rotterdam, Leiden and Eindhoven, Mekkes assimilated Dooyeweerd`s conceptions into his own style of philosophizing. He had a great influence on the development of Reformational Philosophy.

During his twenty-two years as a professor, Mekkes wrote four books and more than six hundred articles, the last of which appeared in 1975. After that, he lived more or less in seclusion. Only a few friends visited him regularily. Following his wife’s death in 1980, several older ladies cared for him faithfully until he died in 1987.

From 1942 until 1945 Mekkes was held in the German prisoner of war camp at Stanislau. There, fellow prisoners asked him to lecture on philosophical topics. One listener, Hans Rookmaaker, became a Christian partly as a consequence of Mekkes’ work. Mekkes felt a strong tie with Groen van Prinsterer because both men had to fight a spiritual battle. Mekkes fought against the upcoming materialism of his day and the secularization of culture that accompanied it.

In politics Mekkes made himself useful to the Antirevolutionary Party (ARP) until it became part of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). Then, together with others, he formed the National Evangelical Association (the Nationaal Evangelisch Verband or NEV) instead. It united with the Reformed Political League (the Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond or GPV), but when no new Christian political party flowed from that, he joined the Reformed Political Federation (the Reformatorische Politieke Federatie or RPF). In a certain sense, spiritually considered, Mekkes must be regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Christian Union in the Netherlands.

[3] See A. A. A. Prosman, Geloven na Nietzsche [Belief after Nietzsche] (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2007).

[4] See J. P. A. Mekkes, “Christelijke politiek”, in Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde 21 (1951), p.285-303 and J. P. A. Mekkes, “Heeft ‘christelijke politiek’ een zin?”, in: Antirevolutionaire Staatskunde 31 (1961).p.156-176. See furthermore the books by Mekkes: Teken en motief der creatuur (Buijten & Schipperheijn, Amsterdam 1965), and Radix, tijd en kennen (Buijten & Schipperheijn, Amsterdam 1971).

[5] See the elaboration of Mekkes’ thoughts in E. Schuurman, Technology and the Future – A philosophical challenge, translated by H. D. Morton, second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 378ff.

[6] See e.g. the report of the “Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid” in Overheid (The Hague and Amsterdam: WRR and Amsterdam University Press, 2011).

[7] See E. Schuurman, Faith and Hope in Technology (Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2003), 155ff.

[8] Rathenau Institute: “Naar de Kern van de bio-economie” (The Hague 2011).

[9] Exactly because Christian politicians are confessors of Christ, they are united with the congregation of Christ, where the call to Christian politics should be heard in the preaching. If I am not mistaken, it is often missing.

[10] The Christian Union in the Netherlands, in contrast to a church community, is a faith-based organization aimed at political action. It is grounded in the shared faith in Christ and is therefore also the guardian of a shared vision based on God’s revelation concerning the normative task of the state. By participating in the last Balkenende cabinet, the CU demonstrated that it does not shrink from government responsibility. The lesson must be, however, that in the future our political leader must never again become a member of a coalition cabinet. If and when that happens, the party leadership should be transferred. Otherwise the danger is too great that the political leader, because of his properly responsible position in a coalition that aims at cooperation, will put the party under spiritual pressure at the very least.

[11] See H. van Riessen, Christelijke politiek in een wereld zonder God [Christian politics in a world without God] (Nunspeet: Marnix van St. Aldegonde Stichting, 1990), 90ff.

[12] Prof. dr. A. De Bruijne published an article about this perspective in the December 2008 issue of Denkwijzer (pp. 15-19). He follows the English theologian Oliver O’Donovan in arguing for reintroduction of the tension between christian politics and the expectation of the kingdom of God. I am convinced that Mekkes too did exactly that in an all-embracing, consistent and ever more timely way. Reformational Philosophy’s reproach of De Bruijn for identifying realization of the kingdom of God with christian politics rests in my opinion on fundamental misunderstandings that need to be thoroughly examined.

[13] A. A. M. Kinneging, Geografie van goed and kwaad. Filosofische essays [Geography of good and evil. Philosophical essays] (Uitgeverij het Spectrum, 2006); and A. A. M. Kinneging, “Het Conservatisme, Kritiek van verlichting en moderniteit” [Conservatism: Critique of enlightenment and modernity], in Philosophia Reformata LXV (2000), 126-53.

[14] See the 2010 Groen van Prinsterer Lecture of the Christian Union in the Netherlands by Dr. Bob Goudzwaard, “Crisistijd” [Time of crisis], which expresses the same point of view in its assessment of the market and government. Given that lecture, I do not go specifically into the problems of neo-liberal capitalism here.

[15] See Bob Goudzwaard, Hope in troubled times – a new vision for confronting global crises (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

[16] See H. Van den Belt, Liefde drijft vrees uit [Love drives fear out], in the Reformatorisch Dagblad (Saturday January 29, 2011): 12.

[17] Christian politics is neither right nor left nor is it a politics of the center. Because of its vertical dimension or dependence, it transcends the various contrasts in order to approach political reality again with a vision of its own: the Christian political person too “does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Seeking social peace, righteousness and justice must remain a leading characteristic. Christian politics is neither conservative nor progressive but is focused on the coming of the Kingdom of God. A final contrast must also be rejected: Christian politics is not pessimistic given the Christian expectation of the future, nor is it optimistic given the weak, sinful people who represent politics.

[18] J.P.A.Mekkes,  “Heeft ‘christelijke politiek’ een zin?”, in Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde 31 (1961), p.166.


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