Sphere Sovereignty Re-Examined

The concept of Sphere Sovereignty is capturing ever greater interest in the CRC and also in other circles. It is highly necessary that we have a clear understanding of what this expression implies. In this lucid article, Or. Norman De Jong, professor at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, makes clear-cut distinctions to assist the reader in knowing what this discussion is all about.

“Does the Bible teach Sphere Sovereignty?” That is a pertinent question, and I can only rejoice that it is being asked in public print. That question has for too long lain dormant and unasked. Since some among us have persistently asked the question through a series of lengthy discussions, it is now appropriate that a public and unequivocal answer be given.

When Gerard Van Groningen presented the question in recent (Nov. 1973 and Jan. 1974) issues of this magazine, he gave to his readers an answer that most would willingly and uncritically accept. Those answers this writer, too, would quickly acknowledge as being filled with Biblical verification. In examining them, carefully, however, a serious flaw is detected, and that one which every teacher should be quick to note: the statements given as answers are beautiful, but they do not address themselves to the question which has been asked.

Those two articles are answers to the question of whether God is sovereign over all of life. They do not answer the question that is expressed in the title of the two articles. Even if the appropriate question had been asked, full approval could not have been given, for the answers are not given directly from Scripture, but by a series of lengthy quotations from Professor John Murray’s book, The Sovereignly of God. Although the esteemed brother has been widely judged as orthodox, his writing should not be inserted where Biblical explanation is required.

“Sphere sovereignty” is an elusive concept and one that has undergone major shifts of interpretation since it was first enunciated by Abraham Kuyper in 1880 at the opening of the Free University in Amsterdam. What many persons today intend it to mean is nothing more than a reworded version of what John Calvin meant by the sovereignty of God. If that were the major thrust of the concept, none of us should quarrel, for the sovereignty of God over every aspect of life is clearly demonstrated in Scripture.


Kuyper’s Social Darwinism – This restated version of Calvin’s central theme does not, nevertheless, get at the original and intended version of the sphere sovereignty principle. As originally formulated by Kuyper and currently advocated by some of his most ardent disciples, both here and in Canada, the concept of sphere sovereignty is significantly different from that which Calvin much earlier enunciated. In much contemporary thought it is assumed that Abraham Kuyper was in total harmony with the views of Calvin, forming at worst an unbroken line of thought, and at best a significant extension and development of Calvin.

This last assertion ought to be seriously studied, yes, even challenged, for it is predicated upon the kind of mentality that is best characterized as Social Darwinism. This is not to suggest that Kuyper’s thought and writing are completely without merit. Quite the contrary. Yet, to say that Kuyper contributed many important insights wholly in accord with Biblical teaching is not to cast a blanket of approval on all that he spoke or thought. To do that would be to elevate a mere human to a level no lower than the creeds.

Kuyper’s thought is tainted with Social Darwinist thinking and comes to clearest expression in his unfounded contention that Calvinism had lain dormant from 1648 to 1870, and that it was only through his and Groen Van Prinsterer’s efforts that Calvinism was awakened from its centuries-long slumber (Kuyper, Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde, pp. 622–644). The same unbiblical assumption comes to clear expression in the opening chapter of the Stone lectures, where Western democratic practices are described as the epitome of political development. What Kuyper, and many of us, I presume, were doing when he eulogized democracy was making a serious theoretical and logical shift by equating “democracy” with the representative form of government, more correctly labeled as a “republic.”

Antithesis of “in loco parentis” – Our disagreement with Kuyper is not now with his views on “democracy,” but with his concept of “sphere sovereignty.” Although the two concepts are closely related in theory and in practice, the “sphere sovereignty” concept is prior and foundational, not only to the development of the democratic spirit, but also to the THE Cosmonic philosophy as developed by Dooyewerd and Vollenhoven.

On the negative side, it should also be noted that “sphere sovereignty” is the antithesis of “in loco parentis,” [Latin: in the place of a parent], a thoroughly Biblical concept which is crucial to the continued existence of our parentally-controlled Christian schools. Through no mere coincidence, the whole position of “in loco parentis,” as enunciated clearly by Herman Bavinck (Paedagogische Beginselen, p. 16) and since by many National Union of Christian Schools spokesmen, has come under serious attack from the advocates of “sphere sovereignty.” Because of such importance. the concept merits careful scrutiny and discerning criticism by all of us.

How to understand Kuyper – In order to understand thoroughly Kuypers position, (it is necessary to understand the cultural and political situation out of which the concept was first formulated. This writer has briefly attempted to sketch that environment in The Banner of Feb. 22, 1974.

Second, it is mandatory that the serious critic read the version of Kuyper‘s 1880 address, “Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring,” and C. Veenhof’s elaboration of that concept in the book by the same title (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1939). In addition, Klaas Schilders third volume of De Kerk, especially pp. 187–202 (Oosterbaan and Le Cointre, N.V., Goes, 1965), should also be consulted for a critical appraisal of those views. In analyzing and interpreting the concept, this writer has found Veenhofs book most lucid and direct, but also the most in harmony with the later philosophical extrapolations by Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven.

Emphasis on division – The most significant and serious characteristic of the “sphere sovereignty” concept is the clear and pronounced emphasis on separateness and division. This emphasis can be seen already in a translation of the Dutch title, “Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring,” i.e., “Sovereignty in One” Own Circle.Already here, a separateness is assumed or presupposed. Veenhof spells this out bluntly when he asserts,

God is He who drew the lines, first of all between Himself and the creature, and consequently over the whole creation. Lines of ordinances, lines of boundaries, lines of separation, lines of contrast. Between God and the world lies the sharpest boundary Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring, p. 11).

Such an assertion, even though it might be supported with limited evidence, does not easily harmonize with either “Emmanuel-God with us” or with the very Biblical emphasis that our bodies are the temple of God, in which body God sees fit to dwell. This emphasis on separation, when applied to such subjects as the church, the school, and the home, simply does not agree with that beautiful creedal explanation of the church as the body of believers, the elect of God from all generations.

If the Belgic Confession (see e.g. Art. XXVII) is true, and there is no reason for doubting it, then it demands some peculiar mental gymnastics to think of the church as being separate and independent from the home or the school. Only if one equates the church with a building or a place of public worship can such a serious disjunction be made.

In Our contemporary discussions we often hear the idea expressed that the teacher is sovereign behind the classroom door. Veenhof expresses a similar notion on behalf of Kuyper when he contends, “Every head of the family is king behind the doors of his house” (Ibid., p. 31). Following that idea into other examples, it presumably would he justifiable to argue that every merchant is sovereign in his place of business. With the hope that no students read these lines, might we not even assert, again, quite legitimately, that every college student is sovereign in his own dormitory room, and every high school student is sovereign in his own desk? (Beg pardon, but logical extension sometimes reduces to absurdity?)

But such an extension is not out of tune with sphere sovereignty, for Veenhof has stated, “Horizontally, the boundary of the state’s power is the sovereignty of each life in its own circle” (Ibid., p. 36). By so stating the case, he has given to each man the privilege of “doing what is right in his own eyes,” the very epitome of democratic autonomy and chaos. Sovereignty is then attributed, not only to each differentiated societal sphere, but to each distinct person so that no one may tell anyone else what to do. Everyone becomes sovereign in his own sphere, but may not be sovereign over anyone else. In so formulating his position. Veenhof, and Kuyper before him, has articulated quite clearly the theoretical formula for democracy, for total individualism, for completely licentious behavior insofar as it does not interfere with the sovereign domain of others. All of this, while simultaneously crying for “communal” scholarship, team teaching, and sphere universality. In the ordered mind, something does not mesh.

Presumably, each “kring” is sovereign and independent and integrally united to all others, but each is also judged to possess its own laws, ordinances, and rules for right conduct. Veenhof expresses more than coincidental agreement with Dooyeweerd when he argues, “he circles are ‘law-circles’ or ‘law spheres’” (Ibid., p. 53). “Each of these circles now has its own law of life” (Ibid., p. 55). “The circles thus have before everything their own life, their own law, their own territory, their own independence, and consequently, their own sovereignty” (p. 59). When such statements are read, the reader has to pause for examination, for it is difficult to decide whether these are Kuyper‘s 1880 remarks, Dooyeweerd‘s philosophical musings, the AACS‘s 1974 pronouncements, or the latest issue of Pro Rege. The emphasis, and even the language, is the same.

Questions to be asked – Assuming, for the sake of our discussion, that all such talk is thoroughly Biblical and Reformed, a number of questions soon arise. If “education” has its own boundaries, its own laws, and its own ordinances, where can one discover those laws so as to better know, understand, and obey them? Do I search in the local school of cosmetology, the Concordia seminary, the local public school, the catechism class, the ghetto schools of Harlem, or do I muse with the neighbor boy as he lolls by the pond and studies the life-cycle of frogs?

The same problem confronts us as we turn to the family. Presumably, I should find all the ordinances for family life within the family. But to which family do I go? Is my own family a sufficient model for what ought to be? Is each family “sovereign”? Where does that leave our practice of huisbezoek? Is there an eternal “form” for family? If so, how does that notion differ from Plato‘s theory of forms? Does God’s law, condensed in the Ten Commandments and detailed through all of Scripture, apply to life equally, whether at home, at school, or at work?

A scholastic doctrine – Sphere sovereignty causes problems for all who would take it seriously. Yet there is room for comfort, for sphere sovereignty is almost exclusively a scholastic doctrine, i.e., one debated by schoolmen and largely ignored by or even unknown to those outside of higher educational settings.

Never have I heard sphere sovereignty preached from our pulpits, and the typical layman, when questioned, seems to know nothing of it. It is a discussion, then, which begins and, hopefully, dies in academic circles. Those who do defend it usually play fast and loose with dictionary definitions, especially if cornered with penetrating questions. If we are to take the sphere sovereignty concept seriously, however, and assume that the phrase means what it says, we must address ourselves to another question: Is sovereignty divisible?

Bode’s view – The author‘s personal involvement in that question dates back to his dissertation research in which he found that Boyd Bode, when confronted with the Kuyperian position, concluded that the answer was to be affirmative. Bode, a son of an early CRC minister, promptly concluded that both God and man could be sovereign, each in his separate, independent realm.

At that point began Bode‘s conversion to the gospel of democracy, for the sovereignty of man is essential to democratic philosophy. It was not long, though, before Bode reasked the question, this second time with the conclusion that sovereignty was not divisible, and that some adjustments had to be made. Hunging tenaciously to the Christian position of a single universe and to the monism of Calvin, Bode decided that man would keep his sovereignty and that God had to be shunted off to that separate realm from which He had originally devised those deistic laws by which the world has since been ope rating.

Result: autonomy – The meaning of the word sovereignty is quite precise. Standard dictionaries will usually define the term as follows: 1) chief or highest, supreme; 2) supreme in power, superior in all others; independent of, and unlimited by any other. The term has been used, carefully and correctly, by John Calvin when he ascribes sovereignty only to God. By definition, then, one cannot have two highest or supreme authorities within the same domain. Only if one posits separate, limited, independent spheres can one talk about a multiplicity of sovereigns, and then only one per sphere. If the spheres should intersect, however, the question must then be raised: who is to be sovereign in the area of intersection?

To divide and subdivide the sovereignty which only belongs to God so as to spread it liberally among the various societal agencies is to invite man and each societal group to operate from the principle of autonomy. What has happened, consequentially, is that whichever persons try to apply the basic concept become highly suspicious of and callous toward other authority which seeks to regulate their life. Much of that has already come to expression in our own denomination and especially in our colleges, where some students insist that they have separate, distinct authority merely by virtue of their being identifiably different from faculty and constituents.

That mentality didn’t just happen. It was nurtured and fed by the propagation of an erroneous theory, which the brighter students saw fit to extend logically to their own situation. The results are not pleasant.