“At the Root” (Review)

History is pushed along by God and He deals with people either as believers or unbelievers.

Ignorance of Europe is ignorance of ourselves. The long centuries before America’s discovery and settlement are not the least of what we should know of European history. Europe’s tumultuous centuries since our nation’s independence should also be familiar country. Europe’s and America’s destinies have been intertwined, and what has come to pass there has come usually with some delay to us, too: gusts of labor unrest, social upheaval, the emptying of the churches, and world war. 

Groen van Prinsterer’s incisive look back at the French Revolution from a distance of several decades will bring up many things unfamiliar to the American reader. The relative obscurity of eighteenth-century French history would have been severely compounded by the absolute obscurity of eighteenth-century Dutch history that the author also discusses, but Harry Van Dyke has skillfully edited out the most arcane references van Prinsterer makes. The reader is left with a smooth, philosophically fascinating discussion of the root of the French Revolution.

The root of something so complex? Van Prinsterer’s most radical contention is that historical events come forth from the nourishing root of Christian faith or from the poisonous root of unbelief. Unbelief is the Revolution’s mother. He gestures toward the unpopularity of large claims and bold theses in his time, though he never experienced twenty-first-century academia’s fragmentation. He understands what he calls the “Christian-historical” analysis of history to center on what human beings believe and what actions issue from those beliefs. Material or other ideological factors in the understanding of history may be helpful to know, e.g. that Paris was a greater locus of power in Revolutionary France than was Philadelphia in the early American republic, but history is pushed along by God and He deals with people either as believers or unbelievers. Van Prinsterer understands the historical dynamics of the Old Testament as paradigmatic for the entirety of human history: man is dealt with and himself deals with all of life either in faith or in unbelief.

At the root of the French Revolution and its imitators the world over in the Netherlands or Haiti and with all its repercussions through the centuries, van Prinsterer sees unbelief. The growth of unbelief in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe produced a thorough detachment from God and His Word. Once man was loosed from the bond of service to God, he could invent for himself any goal he chose, any standard he chose, and justify any action he took as necessary for those self-set, self-made goals. Man without God will become his own god.

You may be surprised to see the comprehensive brutality, moral relativism, and politicization of every element of life you associate with the twentieth or twenty-first centuries described and analyzed in the eighteenth century. Van Prinsterer’s examples of murders, assassinations, rapes, tortures, and insanities drive home the cleavage between the high-minded, publicly described ideals of Robespierre and Marat and the actions they and others took or commanded in the name of those ideals. Van Prinsterer is much less sensational in his descriptions and analyses than Edmund Burke and does not share Burke’s sentimentality about the French monarchy, though the Dutchman is sympathetic to monarchy as Europe’s traditional form of government.

His more dispassionate reading of French and European history is that groups and institutions with a clear understanding of their duties and their rights had been altogether destroyed in the name of abstractions such as “equality,” now entirely subject to the definitions and redefinitions of politicians and journalists. Once France had a king who had certain duties to his people as a father does to his children; now France had a tyrannical Committee of Public Safety, then a tyrannical dictator with greater power than any king ever had, now yet another form of government upon Napoleon’s defeat. Instability, uncertainty, and tyranny characterized a government founded upon a vague “will of the people” rather than upon historically established, publicly known duties, liberties, and authorities in a Christian kingdom.

Van Prinsterer mentions our war of independence only once and in passing, and his historical analysis is not entirely applicable to the United States, where kings never even visited, let alone lived or died in battle. Not even our most thoroughly noble colony, Virginia, entirely replicated the political dynamics of England. Settler societies always produce greater social and thus political equality and so also a different form of government, even where monarchy is retained (cf. Australia or Canada to Great Britain), than long-settled societies. Even had Americans retained some monarchical form of government, our history did not lend itself to the “throne and altar” sentiments of Continental reactionaries like de Maistre or Stahl. Our history was not Europe’s, and our way of life had no practical attachment to a very distant king and a very distant established church.

His concern was not to articulate abstractly how political bodies arise and why America and Rome formed republics at first. He wanted to assert something with which no student of history can quibble: the realities of historical fact are far weightier for a nation and for its institutions than the abstract explanations of itself and its institutions that politicians and journalists provide. France was a nation that had been overtaken by the airy fantasies of writers such as Voltaire and lawyers such as Robespierre. The ideology of Rousseau’s “Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains” had moved from a philosopher’s book to the streets of Paris. The guillotine would ensure the end of those chains.

The end of the guillotine would come with the transfer of power from the tyranny of the idealists to the tyranny of the dictator. What would bring the end of this dynamic, this constant transfer of power from idealist to pragmatist, from left to right? Is there something that could stop the right, especially, from being forced to conserve whatever the left has left untouched? Must the right be forced to conserve first 1950s America, then 1980s America, and then simply an America where boys did not turn into girls?

Van Prinsterer believes the crisis of our civilization to be radical, so its solution must be radical. The re-conversion of the West to Christ must be primary in the heart and in the life of anyone who recognizes the unbelieving root of our bloodshed from the French Revolution to the Second World War. A civilization does not tear itself apart in the name of unknown ideals for no reason. Its drive to self-destruction is demonic, so its cure must be heavenly. Preach the gospel to every creature, especially the modern European or American man who has never heard it. The Revolution will only end when and where Christ is honored as King.

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Adam Koontz

Rev. Dr. Adam Koontz is Assistant Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN.

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Christian Culture is the magazine of Luther Classical College. Visit lutherclassical.org for more information about the college.