Subsidiarity and Sphere-Sovereignty: A Match Made in ...?

By Van Til, Kent A. | Theological Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview
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Subsidiarity and Sphere-Sovereignty: A Match Made in ...?


Van Til, Kent A., Theological Studies


THE QUEST FOR A CHRISTIAN SOCIAL ORDER has long occupied the church. What should a Christian society look like? Is there such a thing as a Christian society, or might there potentially be many Christian societies? What is the role of the church, state, and other institutions in society? Everyone from Diggers and Dominicans, to Cistercians and Calvinists, has variously defined answers to these questions. To say that there is variety in both definitions and practice hardly captures the wide range of options that have grown within the church. Yet, amidst this diversity, two significant traditions, the Roman Catholic and Dutch Calvinist, have converged in surprising ways within the last century and a half.

While the theology of the Roman Catholic Church has always had a social component, its official social teachings, so defined, are often dated from Pope Leo XIII's Rerum novarum of 1891. Leo believed that the increasingly secular European states were pushing the church out of civil society. Hoping to reassert the church's authority and role, Leo addressed the social issue of the laboring class of Europe. The second tradition, Dutch Calvinism, has also reflected on issues of church, state, and secularization. The teachings of this tradition are not formal teachings of the highest church official, but theological reflections on issues of the day by its church leaders. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a leading theologian in this tradition and prime minister of the Netherlands, developed a social-theological model he called "sphere sovereignty." (1)

There are a number of reasons why these two traditions are parallel and warrant further investigation. The origins of each lie in post-Enlightenment Western Europe of the late 19th century. Both attempt to respond to the political changes in the church/state/society relations of that period. By this time, the medieval guilds had disappeared. In their place was the contractual agreement between corporations and labor. In this context of industrialization, class conflict was a common characteristic of European society. A watchword of the French Revolution, "no God, no master!" still resonated in Europe. The revolts of 1848 were still living memories, and Marx's call, "Workers of the world to unite!" was well known and often heeded. It seemed that the individual stood alone before the state, or industrial capitalist, with few intermediate bodies between. Religion was shoved into a spiritual corner, and governmental elites expected the church's silence or complicity in social issues. In response to these conditions, both church traditions were compelled to articulate new approaches to the social order. The Catholic Church in many instances had been a state church that now found itself pushed from its earlier prominence. On the other hand, Kuyper's church, Gereformerde Kerken in Nederland, seceded from the national Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk in protest over state regulation of ecclesiastical affairs.

Today, the conditions that led these traditions to develop social theologies have changed, but recent conflicts may have made resolution of issues of church, state, and society more vital than ever. The question of how religion can and should function in pluralistic societies arises in many hotly debated political issues today: homosexual marriage, abortion, education vouchers, etc. In other parts of the world, blood is spilling over the question of whether a religion should direct the state. It thus seems imperative that the church continue to develop approaches that honor the role of faith in society, while recognizing the plurality of powers and voices within society. By a "pluralistic" social model I mean an ordering of society in which neither church, nor state, nor individual, nor marketplace sets the standard or holds controlling authority within that society. Rather, a pluralistic society permits diverse groups and institutions to operate within a common societal framework.

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