Thoughts on Sphere Sovereignty: A Critique of Harinck’s Thesis

  1. With regard to the question of the origin of the notion of sphere sovereignty: If it’s just a question of semantics, i.e., if the issue is the formal use of the word “sovereignty” in the phrase “sphere sovereignty”, then Kuyper is indeed its primary and well-nigh original formulator. I myself do not like the formulation, for precisely the reason Groen van Prinsterer gives: sovereignty should be reserved to the power that is independent of all others, the power from which there is no earthly court of appeal.[1] Harinck makes a good point about Groen, that he was too good a jurist to attribute sovereignty to all these other spheres.[2] Juridically, sphere sovereignty makes for utter confusion – if they are all sovereign, then where is the power and authority for rule over them? Klaas Schilder pointedly makes that point.[3] It comes perilously close to the social contract theory whereby the individuals making up the polity are all sovereign and pool their sovereignty to form the sovereign state. This theory is of course anathema to any antirevolutionary.
  2. But Harinck’s exposition is misleading in that he argues as if the substance of the concept underlying sphere sovereignty is Kuyper’s own creation.[4] As if Kuyper were the first to postulate the existence of relatively independent entities in the social order generating their own laws, which are not creatures of the state, the laws of which the state is bound to respect. This is so far from being the case that we are tempted to argue the opposite, and state that while there were many contributors to the substance of the concept of sphere sovereignty, Kuyper was one of the least. He did almost nothing to advance the theory underlying sphere sovereignty.
  3. In an attempt to set Kuyper’s originality apart, Harinck argues that Kuyper moves from a historical to an ontological form of sphere sovereignty, whereby sphere sovereignty moves out of the political sphere (Calvin’s exposition) – the doctrine of lesser magistrates – to society at large. But such an “ontological” form of sphere sovereignty whereby the various societal entities exist in their own right and by their own laws was already postulated by Althusius (of which more below), and was already being developed in detail juridically by the historians of Germanic law (which they called Volksrecht as being derived from the people as opposed to the state), Georg Beseler and Otto (von) Gierke. Beseler and Gierke developed the theory of Genossenschaftsrecht (law of associations), fleshing out, in opposition to what they understood to be the individualism of Roman law and indeed social contract theory generally, the innate associationalism of Germanic law. Van Eikema Hommes provides an excellent description of this project (follow this link).
  4. Genossenschaftsrecht was not the only expression of the substance of what we call sphere sovereignty. Antirevolutionary thinkers generally developed the social theory whereby the social entities are not creatures of state power but are autonomous, self-generating, and self-regulating. Groen van Prinsterer was one of them. His writings are replete with this thinking. And he resorts continually to the phraseology later used by Kuyper, of independence and self-reliance “in eigen kring” or “in eigen sfeer.” Granted, he does not use the phrase sovereignty in this regard, for the reason stated above, except with regard to the church. In his Ter Gedachtenis van Stahl (In Memory of Stahl) published in 1862, he makes the following statement: “For his part, Stahl has campaigned no less than Vinet for freedom of conscience, the right of personality, and the sovereignty of the church in her own sphere [sfeer].”[5] If one peruses Groen’s work and takes into account the ubiquity of the phrases indicating independence, autonomy, self-reliance “in eigen kring” or “in eigen sfeer,”[6] then there can be no doubt as to the provenance of Kuyper’s similar usage, albeit with the one crucial difference, that “an accurately formulating lawyer like Groen”[7] would not go so far as to attribute sovereignty to all the “spheres” in society generally, which as we noted is juridically irresponsible.
  5. So the substance of sphere sovereignty was everywhere, and Kuyper’s only “contribution” was to provide a flashy phrase for it, which at the same time is highly misleading.
  6. The controversy about Althusius is illuminating. Dooyeweerd himself argued that Althusius already developed the theory underlying sphere sovereignty. But Harinck objects that Kuyper never cites Althusius as a source of the idea. That is true, but it ends up not mattering, for as I pointed out above, the substance of sphere sovereignty was already being developed by others in detail during the course of the 19th century, rendering any dependence on Althusius superfluous. Indeed, it was Gierke himself who rediscovered Althusius and brought him to scholarly attention, but Gierke’s portrayal of Althusius was anything but beneficial to the cause. He portrayed Althusius as the pioneer social contract theorist and thoroughly secular in orientation![8] No wonder that when Kuyper referred to Althusius in 1916 he “sidelined [him] in the Calvinist political tradition.”[9]
  • For a sample of A. A. van Ruler’s critique of sphere sovereignty, follow this link.

[1] “In [our fathers’] day, every family head, every corporation, every estate was entitled, within the sphere of its competence, to dispose of person and property, to make rules for its subordinates, to regulate its affairs as it pleased; in short, to exercise a form of government that differs from sovereign authority only in this respect that it lacks independence, which is the distinguishing mark of sovereignty.” Van Prinsterer, G., & Van Dyke, H. (2018). Unbelief and Revolution. Lexham Press. Lecture III.

[2] George Harinck, “I Look Through My Window into Life: Kuyper’s Notion of Sphere Sovereignty 1870-1880” in Journal of Markets & Morality, vol. 23, no. 2, p. 271.

[3] “We are in a fog. Even the followers of Dr. A. Kuyper. For years they have been talking about ‘God’s glory in all spheres of life,’ and the more scientifically grounded among them constantly spoke in imitation of him about ‘sphere sovereignty.’ All ‘spheres’ of ‘life’ had then another ‘sovereign.’ But they didn’t often get any further than repeating the slogan. No wonder: Dr. Kuyper himself could not make clear what those ‘sovereigns’ are in all those ‘spheres.’ One sovereign, that is understood. But as soon as one speaks of ‘sovereigns,’ again and again in every sphere, things begin to get hazy.” Christus en Cultuur, 5th edition, p. 18.

[4] “The notion of sphere sovereignty as presented by Abraham Kuyper was not so much the cumulative result of his knowledge of the intellectual history of Calvinism, but to a large extent his own idea…. Kuyper referred to the Bible and to Calvin as the origin of his notion, but, basically, he found it by looking into life.” Harinck, p. 265.

[5] Harinck cites this text, which Johan Van der Vyver (it seems to me accurately) calls the first instance of the phraseology (as opposed to the substance) of sphere sovereignty, only to dismiss it: “both the specific Kuyperian word kring and the general character of this kring are missing in this reference.” Yes, Groen here uses “sfeer” not “kring,” but these are synonymous terms in context, and Groen elsewhere uses “kring” many many times in the same context. And what is this about “general character”? Is that not an irrelevant objection? If another entity other than the state is called sovereign within its sphere or circle, then that is Kuyperian sphere sovereignty, is it not?

This pamphlet of Groen’s was published (1862) during the period in which Kuyper was wrestling with his free church notions, and Kuyper no doubt picked up the phraseology from it.

[6] For example, for the two volumes of Groen’s Schriftelijke Nalatenschap: Bescheiden [Written Legacy: Varia] there is an index entry for “souvereiniteit in eigen kring” which lists the following entries:

souvereiniteit in eigen kring: a. intern, binnen de kring van het staatsverband: I, 235, 689; II, 58, 156, 227, 349, 386.

extern, in de kring van verschillende levensverbanden (gezin, kerk, staat etc.): I, 392, 418, 595, 617, 662, 689; II, 110, 126-130, 156, 164, 173, 180, 219, 220, 222, 245, 246, 283, 295, 341, 349, 358, 378, 392, 424, 523.

[7] Harinck, p. 271.

[8] With friends like that, who needs enemies? See my discussion of Gierke’s treatment of Althusius in The Debate that Changed the West, pp. 38, 48ff.

[9] Harinck, p. 276.