Dutch politics, and especially Dutch Christian politics, has been profoundly influenced by the political philosophy of Abraham Kuyper. In order to understand Kuyper’s political philosophy, we first need to understand Reformation political philosophy and Enlightenment political philosophy, which he was responding to.
Reformation political philosophy is reflected in such confessions as the French Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). They spoke with one voice concerning the role of the civil magistrate in relation to the Church and the enforcement of the Ten Commandments. The model prescribed was essentially this: one rightful Church in the nation (consisting of one Christian denomination), with a reformed confession, recognized and protected by the nation’s civil magistrate, to the suppression of other denominations and religions differing in religious policy with the rightful church. In this model, only communicant members of the rightful established church in a nation were to be allowed to vote and hold civil office. They recognized that the State and Church had different spheres of authority and role, as well as that these two institutions should work together to promote Christ’s kingdom.
Article 36: The Civil Government
We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.
For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.
And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God's law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.
They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.
And the government's task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.
Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God's Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.
And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.
And chapter 23 of the original Westminster Confession reads as follows:
“…II. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth, so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions.
III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God…”
Enlightenment political philosophy rejected Reformation political philosophy. It held that man does not depend upon scripture to know how to govern. Denying the doctrine of total depravity, it asserted that man’s “common sense” is sufficient to govern, and civil rule should not be tied to a certain church and a certain religious creed. American political parties, like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, etc., and the US federal government (with its Constitution prohibiting church establishment and religious test oaths) are examples of how this political philosophy came to be manifested.
The Dutch theologian and political philosopher Abraham Kuyper was not comfortable with either Reformation political philosophy or Enlightenment political philosophy. He believed there needed to be distinctively Christian politics, but denied it should take the form of the Reformation model. He held to what is commonly termed “sphere sovereignty”. Perhaps the best way to begin to understand “sphere sovereignty” as Kuyper meant it (in contrast to Reformation political philosophy) is to read how Kuyper had Article 36 in the Belgic Confession amended in the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, and how it has similarly been amended in various Dutch reformed denominations influenced by Kuyper’s political philosophy .
Here is how http://www.pprbc.org/BelgicConfession.htm describes the alteration:
“We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates; willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose He has invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well.
Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry,* that the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.
Moreover, it is the bounden duty of every one, of whatever state, quality, or condition he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.
Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce a community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men.
“We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he hath invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the protection of them that do well. And their office is, not only to have regard unto, and watch for the welfare of the civil state; but also that they protect the sacred ministry; and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship (see note below); that the kingdom of anti-Christ may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, of what state, quality, or condition so ever he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates, and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order, which God hath established among men.
NOTE: This phrase, touching the office of the magistracy in its relation to the Church, proceeds on the principle of the Established Church, which was first applied by Constantine and afterwards also in many Protestant countries. History, however, does not support the principle of State domination over the Church, but rather the separation of Church and State. Moreover, it is contrary to the New Dispensation that authority be vested in the State to arbitrarily reform the Church, and to deny the Church the right of independently conducting its own affairs as a distinct territory alongside the State. The New Testament does not subject the Christian Church to the authority of the State that it should be governed and extended by political measures, but to our Lord and King only as an independent territory alongside and altogether independent of the State, that it may be governed and edified by its office-bearers and with spiritual weapons only. Practically all Reformed churches have repudiated the idea of the Established Church, and are advocating the autonomy of the churches and personal liberty of conscience in matters pertaining to the service of God.
Here is a representative sample of how one CRC minister looks upon the original Article 36 of the Belgic Confession (see http://www.trinitycrc.org/BelgicSermons/36.html ):
Kuyper’s political philosophy of “sphere sovereignty” is unquestionably closer to Reformation political philosophy than Enlightenment philosophy is. Nevertheless, it should not be confused with Reformation political philosophy. Kuyperian political philosophy does not believe the civil magistrate should nurse and “establish” one Christian church (or denomination), while suppressing the errors of others. Kuyperian political philosophy would recognize the right of even those holding to various and sundry heresies to vote and hold civil office. Kuyperian political philosophy confuses the Establishment Principle and the having of an Established Church with Erastianism, which it should not. On the other hand, it rejects secularist political parties, and recognizes the need for professedly Christian (and even broadly reformed Christian) political parties.
Kuyper was both a philosopher and a practitioner. He led in the implementation of that which he believed. One result was the Anti-Revolutionaire Partij (ARP, "Anti-revolutionary Party") which existed in the Netherlands from 1879 , when Kuyper founded it, until 1980. Since the founding of the ARP in the Netherlands, other Christian political parties have also been founded there by Protestants. These have been multi-denominational Christian parties, essentially agreeing with Kuyper’s philosophy (as represented in the amended Article 36 of the Belgic Confession), though differing in policy with the ARP in other respects. Arguably the best political party in the Netherlands following the Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” model of government is the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP, literally "Politically Reformed Party"). The party was founded in 1918 out of dissatisfaction with the existing Christian political parties. The parliamentary faction cooperates in various areas with the Christian Union party.
But the question we must ask is this: was the original Belgic Confession correct in its political philosophy, or was Kuyper right in his amendment of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession? It is obviously the view of the Reformation Party that the original Belgic Confession correctly states what scripture teaches, while Kuyper missed the marked. The Reformation Party does not believe that having an Established Church should be confused with Erastianism. The Reformation Party believes those outside the rightful established church in a nation should not vote or hold civil office. The Reformation Party believes the civil magistrate should suppress heresy and idolatry, as well as murder and theft. The Reformation Party believes the civil magistrate can do this without encroaching in areas where God has given sovereignty to His Church. Kuyperian political philosophy is better than secularist political philosophy, but it fails to rise to the soundness of Reformation political philosophy.