Why are the populism that hailed Napoleon, the nationalism that supported Bismarck, the naturalism of Darwin, and the nihilism of Nietzsche still with us in the twenty-first century?
Of the making of many books there is no end—warns the Bible—but once in a while a book comes along that swallows up many others. Groen van Prinsterer’s famous work Unbelief and Revolution has always been recognized as one of those books. It has inspired Christians for more than a century and a half as they seek to engage modern politics and culture in a rapidly secularizing world.
The Dutch classic appeared in 1847, one year before Karl Marx launched his Communist Manifesto. Whereas Marx blamed material factors for the woes of the day, Groen dug deeper and laid bare the decisive spiritual factor ruling the times. He put his finger on the spirit of the Enlightenment as the motive force that began to drive Western civilization, setting it adrift from its Christian moorings. That force was the anti-Christian stance of secularism that consigns religion to the strictly private domain and reserves the public domain for purely human choices and man-made solutions, regardless of the created order and divine laws. Back of this momentous change, Groen argued, lies the spirit of unbelief that dismisses God’s revelation and wants to live solely by man’s own lights.
The strength of this penetrating exposé is its demonstration that the spirit of modernity has many ramifications for shaping society and has become a permanent feature in the developed world. It predicts, by extension, that post-modernity is the offspring of modernity and will attack the sanctity of life, play with social institutions, doubt objective truth, inflate individual rights, respect international agreements only when convenient, and underpin many other changes that characterize the modern world.
An English translation of both the text of Unbelief and Revolution and an extensive commentary appeared some decades ago and a reprint was long desired. Both have now been reprinted. Lexham Press released the text last year. The present volume, Challenging the Spirit of Modernity, contains the commentary. It describes the context in which Groen’s book came to be written and carefully analyzes its content.
Unbelief and Revolution may not present a complete “system” but it does offer a strategy for waging the culture war as a battle of the spirits. Downstream from Groen, leaders like Kuyper, Bavinck, Dooyeweerd, Van Til, and many others, have all profited from his main lesson: Resist beginnings! That is, examine every proposal in the public square and identify its starting point, its first principle, and you will know whether you can support it or must oppose it. In other words, play the ball, not the man, and don’t flit from one burning issue to another but instead focus on the spirit of unbelief that underlies them all. As Groen put it: “Tell me where you start in your thinking and I will tell you where you will end up in practice.” In this way his book has long functioned as a lodestar for testing the spirit of the age and avoiding false directions. Amid the chaos and confusion of our time, students of Scripture, teachers of history and participants in public life will find this book helpful as they formulate counter-cultural alternatives and advocate more wholesome principles for the life of the mind and for our communal life in society.
This guest post was written by Harry Van Dyke, author of Challenging the Spirit of Modernity (Lexham Press, 2019) and translator of Unbelief and Revolution (Lexham Press, 2018).