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Christian Thinking Applied: A Look at the Life of Groen van Prinsterer

History is like a treasure hunt. Solomon notes, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2 NKJV)

  • Ben House,
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History is like a treasure hunt. Solomon notes, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2 NKJV). Beginning with his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, historian Thomas Cahill notes changes due to what he calls the “hinges of history.” He writes, “We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage—almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace …”

On these occasions, the direction of history is changed by a particular person, a nation, or a culture. There are always social, political, and economic forces at work in history, but these are only sidebars to the transforming work done by those Cahill describes as “the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration.”1

Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til says, “As Christians we have a very definite philosophy of history. For us history is the realization of the purposes and plans of the all-sufficient God revealed through Christ in Scripture. And if this is the case, we are naturally persuaded that in history lies the best proof of our philosophy of human life.”2

If, as we affirm, God calls us not only to be transformed, but to be the transforming changers of culture, we might expect the study of history to uncover treasures of models to follow. If, as we believe, God uses the wicked acts of men to advance His Kingdom in spite of the wicked intentions behind those acts, we ought to be looking past the acts of evil men for hinges of history leading to narratives of grace. If, as we confess, God uses the humble, the obscure, and the small to succeed against the proud, the great, and the dominant, we surely can find our philosophy of life in historical examples. History teaches theology by example.

Beyond the Maze of the French Revolution

Without a doubt, the French Revolution was one of the most wicked and horrible episodes in history. When coupled with the succeeding revolutions and turmoil of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ever-increasing death counts might obscure the French Revolution. Gas chambers are certainly more horrible than the guillotine. Yet the ultimate evil of the French Revolution is not to be found in this purge or that execution, but rather in the philosophy or worldview that it unleashed on society.3

The Revolution has its defenders. Some historians winced at the evils of the French Revolution, but found the Age of Enlightenment a historical curative. Transitioning from a world of darkness to the Enlightenment justified the busy guillotines, for Paris was worth a bloodbath.

The aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era promoted a changed perspective on history and culture. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes this new thinking as follows: “It was an attack on all established institutions, including the church and the State. It meant the rejection of all authority and the setting up of ‘the sovereign people,’ and their reason and understanding, as arbiters in these matters.”4 From the storming of the Bastille to the march of Napoleon’s Grand Army, a man-centered humanism replaced religious doctrine, popular sovereignty became the lodestone of truth, the perfectibility of man provided the eschatological hope for the future, and the centralized state took the place of the church.

From 1789 France dominated the political and military complexion of Europe as she fought against military coalitions consisting of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain. Even after her final defeat in 1815, France was still a formidable power. Less noticed, less powerful, less influential in the power politics of the day was the kingdom to the northeast of France—the Netherlands.

Perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, Christians in the Netherlands came to understand the implications of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. In this small, swampy, low country, God raised up a host of Christians like the famed sons of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what God’s people ought to do (1 Chron. 12:32). William White, Jr., notes, “This tiny, densely populated nation has contributed more to the difficult fields of philosophy and theology than most people are aware of. It may not be an overstatement to assert that what ancient Greece donated to philosophy and ancient Rome to jurisprudence, the Netherlands has given to theology.”5

Both in terms of the home team of Dutch Christian thinkers and those who immigrated to other lands, particularly the United States and Canada, the low country birthed Christian denominations, universities, intellectual movements, philosophies, revivals, and mounds of books and literature. This small landmass, about a third the size of Virginia, has had a worldwide impact on Christian thought and life. Although in our times, the Netherlands is noted for its infidelity, immorality, and apostasy, God mightily used that nation in the past, and He will do so again.

The historical blueprints for this Christian dominion can be discovered by looking at the key men and movements in the Netherlands. The thoroughness of Dutch Christian thought as found in Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures of 1898, and published in book form as Lectures on Calvinism, applied Calvinistic theology to religion, government, science, art, and society. What we now call “a Christian worldview,” Kuyper called a Christian “life-system.” It might appear that Kuyper was like a “blazing comet who lit up the sky for a time and then disappeared beyond the horizon; he came from nowhere and then vanished without a trace.”6 But he had his own predecessors in the Netherlands, and in particular he was mentored by a fellow Christian thinker and political leader, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876).7

An Amazing Conversion

God’s use of Groen van Prinsterer fits that recurring pattern of God doing the unexpected to advance His Kingdom. He used an aristocrat to help the poor, a childless couple to promote Christian education for children, a historian to chart the future for the Netherlands, and a servant to the royal family to start a political party for the common people.

This phase of reformation in the Netherlands began with an evangelical revival, which resembled similar revival movements in other countries in the early 1800s. It has been described as “a blend of native Calvinism and the Methodist-inspired revival.”8 No work of reformation or Christian dominion can take root without a foundation built on the saving work of Christ. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a call for unity of doctrine, the pursuit of holiness, and the proper use of gifts so that the Corinthian Christians could impact Greek society with Christian culture. The foundation for that cultural conquest was Paul’s Christ-centered preaching (1 Cor. 3:10).

Concerning this revival, Van Dyke says, “Wherever the latter movement spread it questioned mere outward observance of religion and insisted on personal experience and inner conviction of the new life in Christ.”9 What was true of the revival in general can be specifically seen in the life of Groen, who recognized the shallowness of the profession of faith he made at an early age.

Groen was born to privilege and blessed with exceptional intelligence. His father was a doctor, and his mother was the heiress of a banking family. Like so many accounts of education in the past, the depth and range of his schooling is phenomenal compared to modern standards.10 Beginning with homeschooling and private night classes, he was trained in his native Dutch language and culture, as well as in French, English, and German. By age twelve, he added Latin, Greek, and natural science to his studies. At age sixteen he went to the University of Leyden to study law and letters. After six years, he completed two dissertations, one in law (on the Justinian Code) and one in literature (on Plato) and was awarded two doctorates.

Building upon his family name and wealth, he stood poised to advance his career in either the practice of law or in the scholarly pursuits. He began to practice, but soon accepted a position as the official historian of the Netherlands, enabling him to study history, which was his first intellectual love.

There was another love that entered his life—Elisabeth van der Hoop. She was a fervent evangelical Christian who soon became his wife. Her deep faith made her the perfect helpmeet for a man of great potential whose own faith needed deepening for God’s future work in his life.

The building blocks in Groen’s life as a reformer were beginning to come together: an education, work as a historian, and a godly wife. But there was another factor that had already altered his way of thinking.

In his book Heroes, Paul Johnson gives some defining qualities of heroes. The first quality, he says, is “[A]bsolute independence of mind, which springs from the ability to think everything through for yourself, and to treat whatever is the current consensus on any issue with skepticism.”11 But for Groen to become such an independent thinker himself, he needed someone who fit Johnson’s description to show the way.

There are many brilliant scholars whose names, works, and reputations earn them respectability within the academic community, but there are also others who think outside the box and go against conventional wisdom. Good students might know the risks of footnoting these types. But wise students read and follow these kinds of thinkers diligently. One can readily fill in the names of such independent thinkers: Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, Ludwig von Mises, R. J. Rushdoony, Herman Dooyeweerd, Otto Scott, and others.

In Groen’s college days, one such thinker was a poet and independent lecturer named Willem Bilderdijk (1756–1831). Having no official position and little respect from the university community, he conducted his own lectures off-campus. As is usual with such thinkers, Bilderdijk was accused of “corrupting the best of our youth.”12 His lectures are remembered as “high-flying harangues … delivered harum-scarum in a dazzling display of astonishing erudition.” These controversial lectures on history, philosophy, law, and politics went contrary to the spirit of the age or “political correctness” of the time. The Enlightenment worldview was thought beyond intellectual reproach, but it was this worldview that Bilderdijk opposed.

This erratic, quirky, politically incorrect Calvinist poet redirected Groen just enough to cause him to begin to doubt the accepted conventions of his day. As Groen described it, Bilderdijk “first made me doubt the things I had hitherto accepted without questioning.”13

It would be this willingness to rethink issues and go against the comfort zone of the academy and the complacency of society that would eventually chart Groen’s course in life. Before that would happen, yet another key figure would enter his life.

Mr. and Mrs. Groen van Prinsterer began sitting under the preaching ministry of Merle d’Aubigne, who was an evangelical Calvinist and was appointed chaplain to the Dutch royal family. D’Aubigne is primarily remembered today as a historian, but it was his Bible teaching that most strongly influenced Groen.

For a period of six years, Groen went through a prolonged conversion experience. Part of this process was a two-pronged reading program. Along with the task of researching and chronicling Dutch history, he began rereading history. Rather than following the now conventional Enlightenment and using the French Revolution as an interpretive lens through which history was to be understood, Groen read the historians who were against the French Revolution.

His second focus was on Bible reading, spurred on by his pastor. From the Scriptures, Groen realized that he lacked a real commitment to Christ and he lacked peace and comfort. As Van Dyke notes about the Dutch revival, “The movement was characterized by a rediscovery of the Bible as the guide for all of life, to be appropriated through personal study and communal sharing.”14

Spiritual awakening followed by a rethinking of history are common occurrences. On an individual level, conversion is followed by rethinking our own past. Like the Apostle Paul, what once was counted as gain is now counted as loss (Phil. 3:7–8). Likewise, spiritual conversion calls for a reassessment of the historical past. Reformation always results from a rediscovery of the Bible, followed by a reinterpretation of history. Augustine’s Confessions chronicles his spiritual change, and his City of God then reevaluates Roman history. Calvin and Luther and their followers constantly combed history for support for their Biblical discoveries.

Groen’s new perspective on both history and the Bible enabled him to begin to recognize the day-to-day occurrences and the Enlightenment worldview. It was a case of seeing root causes rather than societal symptoms, or as Richard Weaver’s title notes, it was seeing that “ideas have consequences.” Groen also began to see that the revolution France experienced grew out of unbelief. Van Dyke notes, “He learned to see that the intellectual revolution of the eighteenth century was directly related to the decline of Christianity after its short-lived revival in the sixteenth century, that in fact it represented its wholesale substitute aiming at founding a new society, one without God.”15

At this time Groen was writing newspaper articles on both political and religious topics. But, like all too many Christians, he was still seeing and thinking in fragments. The spiritual realm of his thought and his political and historical outlook were not connected. A colleague told him that his writings on both topics were good, but that they lacked a unifying principle connecting his religion to his historical and political philosophy.

Willem de Clercq, yet another key influence in Groen’s life, recognized the spiritual and intellectual dilemma that Groen confronted. In a letter, de Clercq told Groen that he needed to abandon everything in order to know Christ. Groen wrote back asking, “Must it all be discarded? Can it not be quite properly united with the truth of the Gospel?”

De Clercq was not advocating a retreat from the world, an intellectual monasticism. Rather, he was calling for a complete worldview, a faith that applied to all areas of life and thought. He told Groen,

Understand me well, I do not wish that you become stupid, but that all your gifts become sanctified … If we have learned and studied history apart from Christ, we must now learn to see that Christ is the centre of history … [I]f we have studied philosophy and come to admire it, we must now learn that … this same philosophy can teach us the vanity of all human knowledge and the insufficiency of its power to re-create man … What was truth outside of us must become truth inside us. What was a vision of the mind must become a feeling that fills our hearts.”16

Further reflections upon these matters, along with prayer, more Bible reading, and conversations with friends, and even a time of severe illness were used by God to prepare Groen for his key labors. Van Dyke says, “It was all, he had learned to see, a providential preparation for the next phase of his life in which he would discover his life calling.”17

Christian Thinking Applied

Following Paul’s example of using military metaphors, the mission of the Christian faith is not to raid the enemy camp to rescue a few hostages. It is total war—upon society, culture, institutions, and individuals. Central to this war is preaching and teaching. A necessary component is ministry to the needy. Vital to this war is an intellectual assault upon all of the false philosophies and ideologies (or idols) of an unbelieving culture.

Groen sat under sound preaching and teaching and even had home Bible studies. With other believers, he worked to promote Christian education in the Netherlands. His wife and others organized sewing classes for girls, Christian nursery schools, and Christian day schools for the lower classes.18 Groen’s main emphasis was, however, on writing, teaching, and lecturing on history.

His initial focus was upon increasingly ignored Christian influences in Dutch history. His concern was not simply that of a nationalist or a patriot, but grew out of a concern that children were not reading and learning of their Christian and Reformational heritage. With an understandable bit of Dutch pride, he asserted, “The Netherlands, more than any other country, was chosen and set apart by the mercies of God to be a seat of Protestantism.”19

For this history to become a means of reformation in Groen’s time, the stories and teaching needed to be embedded in the minds of the youth. For this reason, Groen turned to writing history textbooks for Christian students. He wrote books on Dutch history and world history, and also compiled a collection of patriotic songs and poems and Christian hymns and psalms.20 But for the content and use of these books to have the desired impact, Christian schools were needed.

The story of government education in the Netherlands in the 1800s parallels that of the United States during that same time period. Whatever Christian influences in the government schools remained were being drowned out by the trend toward total secularization of education. A government decree, for example, forbade the public schools from teaching anything that might offend any religious persuasion. Van Dyke states, “Readers were expurgated and history lessons neutralized. The singing of psalms and hymns in school became the subject of bitter altercations and in more and more locations even Bible reading was banned if the Catholic priest objected to it.” Two years later, that point of contention was “solved” when the Bible was completely banned from the schools.21

In pursuing a desire for private schools, Reformed Christians and Catholics joined together to oppose modernistic Christians, liberal humanists, and rationalists on the education issue.22 Hebden Taylor points out that Groen’s philosophy of Christian education was not seeking for “some religious coloring.” He states,

Groen wanted the children of the New Covenant not merely to be taught some knowledge of the Bible at school and to learn to pray, but rather that they should study all their subjects in the light of God’s revelation of himself, given in nature and in the Scriptures. His desire was not merely to add the fourth “R” (religion) to the other three “R’s” but to have all subjects of the school curriculum taught and studied from a truly biblical and Christian point of view. In short, he wanted Christian children to be taught to worship God with their minds as well as with their wills or “hearts” and to learn to think about God’s creation as Christians, not as secular scientific humanists and unbelievers.23

From the battle for education grew the need for political action, and this led to the establishment of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, which ultimately became a major force in Dutch politics. The school battle came, in time, to be known as the “sixty years school struggle.” Even though Groen was involved in the formation of a political party and served in the Dutch parliament, he never saw great success for his causes in his own lifetime. Yet he labored all his days for these very causes.

It was not until 1989 that a complete edition of Groen van Prinsterer’s greatest work, Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution, was made available in English translation.24 This work in itself is a key treatise on history and political philosophy from a Calvinistic Christian perspective. With so many battles facing us as Christians, we would do well to pursue the narrative of grace, this hinge of history, this example of our philosophy applied to life as found in the writings and life of Groen van Prinsterer.

1. Cahill includes this preface now in all of the volumes of his ongoing Hinges of History series. It began with How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Nan A. Talese, 1995).

2. Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, no date), Introduction, xiii.

3. Two of the best studies of the spirit of the French Revolution can be found in James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003) and Otto Scott’s Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (New York: Mason and Lipscomb Publishers, 1974).

4. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, “The French Revolution and After,” a Westminster paper published in The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times, 1975; published again in The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 329.

5. William A. White, Van Til: Defender of the Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979), 16.

6. Harry Van Dyke, “Abraham Kuyper: Heir of an Anti-Revolutionary Tradition.” Van Dyke amply shows in this essay why this impression is a wrong one.

7. The name Guilluame (or Willem) was only used for official purposes. He is generally referred to as Groen, which translates as Green and is pronounced “Grune” (rhyming with prune). “Van Prinsterer” was a title that meant “of the King.”

8. Van Dyke, Groen van Prinsterer’s Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution (Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada: Wedge Publishing Company, 1989), 21.

9. Van Dyke, 21.

10. It may take a few more generations for us to completely reclaim the educational heights of the pre-twentieth-century Christian world.

11. Paul Johnson, Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and Charles de Gaulle (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 280.

12. Van Dyke, 41.

13. Van Dyke, 41. I had a similar experience in college when I read Rushdoony’s and Gregg Singer’s books on American history from Calvinist perspectives.

14. Van Dyke, 21.

15. Van Dyke, 45.

16. Van Dyke, 47.

17. Van Dyke, 49–50.

18. Van Dyke, 41, 27.

19. Groen van Prinsterer, Lecture VII: Reformation. Quoted in Van Dyke, Lectures, 176.

20. Van Dyke, 67.

21. Van Dyke, 65.

22. E. L. Hebden Taylor, The Christian Philosophy of Law, Politics, and the State (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1966), 39.

23. Hebden Taylor, 38–39.

24. This is Harry Van Dyke’s translation, published by Wedge Publishing Foundation, which is the basis for much of my essay. It also includes his 269-page background study of the man and the boo

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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