POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: KUYPER VERSUS WITHERSPOON VERSUS THE WESTMINSTER STANDARDS
Two of the leading theologians shaping the philosophy with which Christians approach politics in the last several hundred years have been Dr. Abraham Kuyper and Dr. John Witherspoon. In other articles at Puritan News Weekly we have explored the political philosophy of these two men, but in this article we shall briefly compare these men and their impact.
Dr. Witherspoon popularized common sense philosophy in America and applied the logical consequences of this philosophy to politics. The originators of common sense philosophy were Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Thomas Reid, who were Moderatists within the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Witherspoon imported this philosophy to America, and promulgated it from his post at Princeton College and his leading role in the American Presbyterian Church. Common sense philosophy, as applied to politics, essentially asserts that all mankind has a native capacity to govern a state without reference to divine scripture. It is a democratic, in contrast to a theocratic, approach to civil government. This served as the intellectual basis for the secularist federal US Constitution. It also served as the basis for secularist, non-religiously affiliated political parties like the Federalist Party, the Democratic Party, the Whig Party, the Republican Party, etc. in America. Too it served as the basis for American Presbyterians’ amending the Westminster Standards to remove the Establishment Principle inherent in the original Westminster Standards. American democratic principles not only thoroughly took hold in America, they have been exported by America to the world, shaping the nature of civil government in virtually every nation of the world.
But Dr. Abraham Kuyper challenged this political philosophy which has come to dominate the modern era. Kuyper was already able to see by the late nineteenth century the damage done by common sense philosophy. He rejected common sense philosophy, and emphasized the great divide between the Christian and non-Christian worldviews as a result of the Fall. He testified to the importance of a distinctively Christian, Bible-based approach to politics. On the other hand, he disagreed with the political philosophy represented in the reformed confessions of the Protestant Reformation, like the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Standards. He especially disagreed with the idea that each nation should have an Established Church, with the civil government protecting that church and suppressing the errors of other denominational churches. (“Sphere sovereignty” politics is a term that has been coined for Kuyperian political philosophy.) Accordingly, Dr. Kuyper led his own church in amending Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, removing the Establishment Principle, but still retaining a vindication of distinctively Christian politics. Kuyper implemented his ideas in the political realm by founding a professedly Christian but multi-denominational political party in the Netherlands. Other Christian political parties have since been founded by Protestants, shaped in large measure by Kuyper’s political philosophy.
Christians should not just follow the crowd in their political involvement, but should first ask questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the various alternatives. Here are just some of the questions we suggest you consider:
1. Is the common sense philosophy of Dr. Witherspoon
correct, and should it be applied in the political realm?
2. Is the “sphere sovereignty” political philosophy of Dr. Kuyper correct, and should it be applied in the political realm?
3. Is the view of the civil magistrate taught in the original Westminster Standards and Belgic Confession correct?
4. What does the Bible teach about nations having established churchesand the govt suppressing errors of non-established churches?
5. If nations should have established churches and suppress errors of non-established churches, how should that affect the nature of our political involvement and affiliation?
In reality, common sense philosophy which underlies American anti-Establishment Principle democracy contradicts the Biblical doctrine of total depravity of fallen man. (And the doctrine of total depravity is foundational to the doctrines of grace in general.) Fallen man does not have the native moral and intellectual capacity to govern properly without the Bible and regenerating grace. Remove established Biblical religion and the suppression of false religion, and man descends into an immoral abyss. But many professing Protestants like Dr. Witherspoon failed to recognize these logical implications.
The Reformation Party (see http://www.puritans.net/Reformation_Party/ ) has been founded because it adheres to the political model advanced in the original Belgic Confession and Westminster Confession.