The Two Principles of State Order

Assuming  the rightness of the critique provided by anti-revolutionary thinkers such as Groen van Prinsterer, what then should be the result? Obviously, by the nature of the case, Christians, being anti-revolutionaries (whether Rousseauian or Jeffersonian: the difference is not as great as one might think), cannot resort to outright revolution. The social order informed, indeed formed, by right Christian thinking, would be something evolved into, not foisted-upon. But what would such a social order look like? This is of course a matter of speculation at this point, as we live in the iron grip (albeit the death throes) of modernism. I would summarize such a social order as being a full-orbed common law order, regarding which I have written rather extensively, even though barely scratching the surface (see here, here, and here, for instance).

But the basic need is to find a reorientating principle taking into account the valid claims of liberalism while subsuming/transcending them. For, as I have noted before, liberalism is nothing more than a Whig/Marxist dialectic that cannot get beyond its polar oppositions. Friedrich Julius Stahl provided the building blocks for such a transcending synthesis. Granted, he like Groen van Prinsterer were children of their age, unable to fathom a political structure beyond monarchy. But that does not obviate the lessons contained in their teaching. Here is one such lesson, perhaps the basic one, in which Stahl shows what it is that needs to be learned from liberalism, and what liberalism needs to move beyond itself. Christian political order needs to recognize “the principle of humanity,” while also retaining “the fear of God.” Actually, it is as simple as that.

The following excerpt is Chapter Four of Private Law.

Universal Human Value

The image of God in man is the final ground of the right of the person (§. 2). In it lies the obligation on the civil order not only to preserve the rights necessary merely for the existence of the person, but also to elevate him to an ever higher level of entitlement, freedom and gratification, which we described above as the primeval right (Book II, §. 36). It is this power which motivates our times at their deepest level.

Among the many partly true, partly misconceived efforts of these times, one appears in full clarity: the recognition of the rights of man. This does not belong simply to the area of law. More deeply comprehended, it is the principle of humanity: the idea that the well-being, the right, the honor of every individual, even the most humble, is the concern of the community, which views each person in accordance with his individuality, which protects, honors, looks after him without regard for descent, class, race, gift, as long as he has a human face. This is the characteristic principle of the times and what constitutes its true worth. From it stems the abolition of serfdom, torture, the toleration of deviant religious confessions, the elevation of lower classes to equal civil honor, the many philanthropic pursuits, the effort to provide a satisfactory existence for the starving masses. This principle was alien to previous times, even that of the Reformation. Certainly, where Christian faith exists, love of neighbor and thus humanity is of necessity the motiva <38>tion of life. However, this neighborly love in the past only concerned corporeal and spiritual well-being, not entitlement, freedom, the honor of men, and only provided the motivation for personal action, not the civil order. The outlook of improving entire classes out of a motivation of humanity, of spiritual individuality, of recognizing the honor of each person, did not inspire any institution in those times. Only in the most recent period has humanity in its full concept become an energetic virtue, the principle determining the entire 

The Fear of God as Principle of Order

On the other hand, earlier periods of European Christianity had the fear of God as the motivation for the public order, the unconditional devotion to God’s command and ordinances and the zeal to glorify God. Recent times prior to the revival of Christian faith (that is, the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century), had eliminated this motivation. Every trace of the recognition of an unconditional divine command, every obligation to fulfill the will of the living God disappeared from it. Only the recognition of men and their convictions and opinions, and the care for men, remained as guideline. Thus in the area of religion only tolerance remained a recognized and praised motivation, not however the zeal for God’s Word and God’s honor, that previously was the only such recognized motivation. Tolerance has no boundaries; all religious or much rather irreligious doctrines are to have equal rights and equal honor; and even deistic and pantheistic doctrine of every stripe is to be recognized as Christian and as a church as long as it considers itself to be so. On the other hand, fidelity to divine truth, to maintain the true revelation of God, finds no consideration when it maintains its true measure, much less so when it in any way oversteps its boundaries. It is the same in the po <39>litical arena. The state is based solely on human rights, not on higher goals; this is the sympathy for all opposition against all authority; it lacks the recognition of unconditional commands for the legal order. From this springs opposition to the death penalty and in fact to any sort of punishment. In the absence of a higher command that the criminal must be punished, that where blood is shed, blood must be shed, this becomes an institution for improving the criminal or a means of providing for the security for others. From this springs the claim for unconditional divorce, making the happiness of the spouses, their sense of what is agreeable, the decisive concern and not the higher, unconditional command that what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder. From this everywhere stems the revolt against all discipline, against all restrictions established for the fulfillment of a higher order of life.

The Two Poles of World Order: the Fear of God and Full Humanity

The fear of God and full humanity are the twin poles of the ethical world order. The fear of God puts the seal of majesty [Erhabenheit] on the individual man and the public condition. This majesty consists in being fully subsumed in the will of God and therefore in the unconditional fulfillment of higher commands without regard either for one’s own life and well-being or the life and well-being of others. It elevates man above himself and all the powers and frailties of the earthly world. A picture of such majesty and unconditional devotion to God and, at least in accordance with our knowledge and our standard, virtually without humanity-inspired motivation, is found in the colossal appearance of Samuel in the Old Testament. Similar character, perhaps tempered by the spirit of the New Covenant [neuen Bundes], runs through the great men of <40>the Puritan church.(1) Humanity however is what provides the stamp of beauty, love, and kindness, the final consummation. The fear of God everywhere in dignity is the highest, in time the first. It begets humanity from itself. This is the eternal law, the course of history. Upon reaching maturity, however, it dare not close itself off, for in that case it becomes rotten and kills, it becomes Pharisaism in its manner of thinking, in institutions becomes a despotic and grotesque oppression. On the other hand, humanity dare not free itself from this, its true root. Otherwise it softens into the weakness of live and let live, into mutual interests merely regarding corporeal, earthly existence, the short-term indulgence of others to their long-term damage, as well as to that of the whole. Thus, love becomes the practice of worldly well-being, freedom the acclaim of arbitrariness. Following Kant, it is false humanity to make the man of appearance (homo phenomenon) the linchpin rather than man as he truly is (homo noumenon). For the public order, however, humanity freed from the fear of God leads on the one hand to fanaticism, as in the Revolution when the rights of man were imposed through the guillotine, and on the other hand, because human society can only be held together through God’s ordinances, first to the slackening and then the dissolution of society.

This is therefore the shadowy side of recent times along with its higher worth: that it only seeks man while being detached from what stands above man. Of the two parts through which the law is fulfilled – you shall love the Lord your God above all things, and your neighbor as yourself – it has arbi <41>trarily picked out the second while ignoring the first, it has demolished the first of the two tables of the law while proposing to establish only the second. This is however contrary to the eternal ordinance. No building can stand when one removes the foundation, no tree can live when one lays the ax to the roots. The task of the times is therefore not the ongoing one-sided advance of humanity and the rights of man, but the restoration of the fear of God as the energetic principle in both hearts and public institutions, while in it and through it preserving humanity and the rights of man. This is the union of the truth of former times with contemporary times. It gives the testimonies of the one and the other principle their pure shape and their complete meaning and worth.


(1) A similar loftiness shows itself in the engrossment of men in higher ideas apart from a final relation to God, e.g., Roman civic virtue which did not even spare its own sons. But this virtue does not, as does Christian fear of God, give birth to humanity from itself as its other principle.