19 October 2017

How Socialism Suppresses Society

Last month I was privileged to visit the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I lectured on "How Socialism Suppresses Society." A video of my lecture has been posted on YouTube with Portuguese subtitles for anyone interested. However,  as my delivered lecture was an abbreviated version of the text, I am posting the full text here:

Until last year's presidential election campaign, socialism had long been a nasty word in the American political lexicon. It had been associated with the worst forms of tyranny, especially those of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Thus many of us were surprised to see a certain United States Senator from Vermont gain a dedicated following among especially younger voters while proudly wearing the democratic socialist label. Their elders would have blanched at the prospect of a socialist president, while they themselves manifested no such fear of an ideological vision whose character and history is without doubt unfamiliar to them.

Norman Thomas
Nevertheless, virtually all western democracies can boast a sizeable socialist party of some sort. Britain has its Labour Party, while Australia has its Labor (minus the “u”) Party. France has its Parti Socialiste, and Germany its Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands. Even my own country of Canada has its New Democratic Party, which, while never having governed at the federal level, has managed at times to form the government in half of the country's ten provinces, including Ontario. The United States had a Socialist Party in the first decades of the twentieth century, under the leadership of Eugene Debs (1855-1926), who famously campaigned for the 1920 election from a jail cell, and the venerable Norman Thomas (1884-1968), a Presbyterian minister who stood six times unsuccessfully for the presidency. But the high water mark for the party came in 1932, after which it lost its support base to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. As a consequence, the United States remains virtually the only country lacking a major political party adhering to the principles of socialism.

Defining socialism

What exactly is socialism? Definitions vary widely, of course, and it is probably more accurate to speak of socialisms in the plural. Yet despite the differences, most manifestations of socialism have a number of characteristics in common.

17 October 2017

October updates

Here are three updates:

  • Last month I was privileged to visit Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I spoke on "How Socialism Suppresses Society." My lecture has been posted on YouTube with Portuguese subtitles:


  • An article of mine has been published in the Autumn 2017 issue of The Bible in Transmission, of the Bible Society (also known as the British and Foreign Bible Society): Populism in Christian Perspective.
  • An excerpt:
    One cannot simply blame political leaders for the direction of an entire culture. George Bernard Shaw was perhaps more realistic in his observation that ‘Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.’ An overstatement perhaps. Yet it is true that political institutions and leaders alike are conditioned by a complex of cultural assumptions characterising the polity as a whole. A people accustomed to autocracy is very likely to be ruled by autocrats. A nation whose people are corrupt in their daily lives are highly unlikely to be governed by leaders careful to avoid conflict of interest in the conduct of public affairs.

  • Finally, I have received word from InterVarsity Press that my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, has been approved for a second revised edition, which I will be working on over the next several months. I will keep everyone updated on its progress and projected date of publication. Thanks to the many readers who have made this book a success over nearly a decade and a half.

25 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 4: The Kuyperian Alternative

Herman Dooyeweerd
In response to the evident defects of liberalism, we might well ask what the alternatives might be. We evidently cannot return to the religious establishments of old. Even the most dedicated communitarian is highly unlikely to make such an obviously retrograde proposal. Although at least one church body has long sought to amend the US Constitution to recognize the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ, no one would argue that, for example, the state’s coercive apparatus should enforce ecclesiastical judgements issued against recalcitrant members.

Everyone now presumably agrees that the execution of heretics handed over by the Inquisition to the civil authorities was not only a very bad idea but fundamentally unjust as well. Nevertheless, the major Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries charge the civil authorities with the responsibility to “protect the sacred ministry; and thus [to] remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.” By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this confessional charge to the political authorities was sounding less and less plausible in the increasingly pluralistic societies of Europe and North America.

22 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

John Stuart Mill
In Part 2 we examined the implications of Kuyperian and liberal pluralisms for ecclesiology, that is, our understanding of the nature and authority of the institutional church. We noted, in particular, that liberalism, following John Locke, is compelled to reduce it to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals.

There are two implications to this liberal move. First, it is incapable of accounting for structural differences among an assortment of communities. State and church are not essentially different from the garden club or the Boy Scouts. Whatever differences appear to the casual observer can be ascribed to the collective wills of the individuals who make them up. Proponents are persuaded that, even if different groups of citizens operate out of divergent comprehensive doctrines, they must be made to look beneath these commitments to what are believed to be the raw data of human experience that bind all persons together. These data are, of course, the constituent individuals themselves.

Every community can be easily understood as a collection of individuals who choose to be part of it for reasons peculiar to each member. There is nothing unusual about this approach, the liberal insists. Michael Ignatieff believes himself justified in asserting that liberal individualism is not peculiarly western or historically conditioned; it is human and universal: “It’s just a fact about us as a species: we frame purposes individually, in ways that other creatures do not.” Therefore if the claims of groups and individuals come into conflict, as they inevitably must, Ignatieff confidently concludes that “individual rights should prevail,” despite the contrary claims of nationalists, socialists and many conservatives of a communitarian bent.

15 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

John Locke
As we noted in Part 1, liberalism attempts to guarantee pluralism by empowering the individual, often at the expense of the very communities that go into shaping her. But in so doing, liberalism denies these communities any authority not reducible to the wills of the component individuals.

If, for example, we were to agree with John Locke’s definition of the church, we would find ourselves in territory foreign to the mainstream of the historic faith. According to Locke, “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphasis mine). While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially protestants in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke’s definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the church as the covenant community of those who belong to Jesus Christ, who is its Saviour and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the corpus Christi which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the gospel to the world and especially to the church’s members.

09 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Although it can be misleading to seek the meaning of commonly-used words and expressions in their etymological origins, in the case of liberalism, the linguistic connection with liberty is all too obvious. The promise of liberty is an attractive one that holds out the possibility of living our lives as we see fit, free from constraints imposed from without. We simply prefer to have our own way and not to have to defer to the wills of others.

Yet even the most extensive account of liberty must recognize that it needs to be subject to appropriate limits if we are not to descend into a chaotic state of continual conflict, which English philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably labelled a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all.

Here I propose to compare two approaches to liberty, viz., those of liberalism and of the principled pluralism associated with the heirs of the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper. Although each claims to advance liberty, I will argue that the Kuyperian alternative is superior to the liberal because it is based on a more accurate appraisal of human nature, society and the place of community within it.

28 July 2017

Happy AR Day! a holiday to counter Bastille Day

G. Groen van Prinsterer
Twenty-some years ago my sister was in France, studying Gregorian chant with the monks at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Solesmes. During her time there, the 14th of July rolled around, when the rest of the country celebrates la Fête nationale, better known to us as Bastille Day. But things were quiet in Solesmes and the surrounding countryside. Curious at this lack of merriment, my sister asked why they weren’t joining in the celebrations and was greeted with faces registering shock. In a heavily Catholic region, they would never consider observing a day that marked the start of a godless revolution that wreaked such havoc on the Church, France and the rest of Europe.

There are now 351 days remaining until the next Bastille Day. As we await its occurrence, I would like to propose for that day a counter-holiday to be titled AR Day, “AR” standing for Anti-Revolutionary. After the generation of war and instability set off in 1789 finally ended with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, many Europeans, especially those still loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ, set about attempting to combat the ideological illusions the Revolution had engendered. This entailed breaking with the modern preoccupation—nay, obsession—with sovereignty and recovering a recognition of the legitimate pluriformity of society.

In any ordinary social setting, people owe allegiance to a variety of overlapping communities with differing internal structures, standards, and purposes. These are sometimes called mediating structures, intermediary communities or, taken collectively, civil society. This reality stands in marked contrast to liberal individualism and such collectivist ideologies as nationalism and socialism, each of which is monistic in its own way—locating a principle of unity in a human agent to which it ascribes sovereignty, or the final say.

Recognizing that the only source of unity in the cosmos is the God who has created and redeemed us in the person of his Son, Christians are freed from the need to locate a unifying source within the cosmos. Thus the institutional church can be itself, living up to its divinely-appointed mandate to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and maintain discipline. The family is free to be the family, nurturing children as they grow to maturity. Marriage is liberated to be itself, free from the stifling constraints of the thin contractarian version now extolled in North America and elsewhere. And, of course, the huge array of schools, labour unions, business enterprises, and voluntary associations have their own proper places, not to be artificially subordinated to an all-embracing state or the imperial self.

This pluriformity is something worth celebrating! It may sound perfectly mundane when described in the way I have here, but the fact that the followers of today’s political illusions find it so threatening indicates that we cannot afford to take it for granted. Here are some suggested readings that highlight this dissenting anti-revolutionary tradition:
  • Johannes Althusius, Politics (1614)
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • Guillaume Groen van Prinster, Unbelief and Revolution (1847)
  • Abraham Kuyper, Our Program (1880)
  • Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)
  • Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951)
  • Yves R. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (1951)
  • Friedrich Julius Stahl, Philosophy of Law: the Doctrine of State and the Principles of State Law (1830)
I could go on and list many more resources, but these will suffice for purposes of our new holiday. I propose that we celebrate it by holding public readings from these and similar works. The food would consist of such anti-revolutionary delicacies as boerenkool met worst, haggis, Brazilian pães de queijo and pamonhas, and, for the sake of all those Byzantine-Rite Calvinists out there, loaves of white bread with taramosalata, Kalamata olives, and cruets of extra virgin (Greek!) olive oil.

Music will consist of mass communal singing of the Psalms, preferably from the Genevan Psalter. Additional music will be provided by (why not?) the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Solesme! Let’s do it!

This is a numerically altered version of David Koyzis's debut column at Kuyperian Commentary.

10 July 2017

To my students: a reluctant farewell

When I began teaching thirty years ago, I had not anticipated how much I would grow to love the young people in my classes. At Notre Dame during my graduate student years, I had been just another teaching assistant, and thus one more obstacle for the ambitious undergraduates to get past on their way to (for most of them, it seemed) law school. All of that changed when I arrived at what was still called Redeemer College in the autumn of 1987.

In the first course I taught, an introductory political science course, I made a number of missteps—nothing serious, just the ordinary kind that come with inexperience. Nevertheless, at the end of the term, when I read the student evaluations, quite a number of them generously offered this assessment: “Has potential to become an excellent professor.” This could have become a deflating experience, but instead I took heart from their words, and it became an incentive for me to improve my performance in the classroom.

The early years were, of course, filled with the normal stresses of multiple preparations of courses from the ground up. Many a beginning teacher reports that her ambition is simply to keep up with the students from day to day, and that was my experience as well. Nevertheless, despite all the busyness, I made time outside the classroom to be with my students and to converse with them. In the process I found that I was developing a deep love for them which lasted for three decades.

Two episodes stand out for me.

Not long into my teaching career, I was sitting at a cafeteria table with several of my students. One young lady repeated to me something I had said in class as though it were gospel truth, and I was startled and somewhat alarmed at the influence I was already having on her. That night I was unable to sleep, as the words of James 3 echoed through my head: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” I quickly recovered, of course, but I was beginning to comprehend the awesome responsibility that teachers carry for communicating truth to the young people in their care.

The second episode occurred after I was married and shortly after our daughter was born three months premature. Theresa had been in two successive hospitals for more than ten weeks after her early birth. Still less than five pounds when she went home with us, she was released from hospital on the very day that Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe was hit by a snowstorm of historic proportions. (Remember when Toronto’s mayor called on federal troops to help dig his city out?) Not knowing what to do, I phoned one of my students on campus, and he brought some of his friends over to our house. They freed our driveway in little time, and we were able to get to St. Joseph’s Hospital on schedule to bring Theresa home. This young man, now in his forties, is still a close friend.

To all of you whom I was privileged to teach over the decades, know that you have my undying affection and loyalty. I have sought above all to show you that the belief that our world belongs, not to ourselves, but to the God who has created and redeemed us has huge implications for political life and for the animating visions underpinning it. I hope I have communicated to you a hunger for justice, especially for the most vulnerable in our society as well as for the communities that support them. My greatest prayer for you is that you will continue to be agents of God’s kingdom in this world for whom Christ died.

In the meantime, although I am unwillingly leaving my current students behind, I fully intend to maintain the friendships I have formed over the years with so many of you. Do stay in touch!

After thirty years of service at Redeemer University College, David Koyzis’ position was terminated due to financial and curricular restructuring. He is currently seeking employment elsewhere and asks for readers’ prayers in the meantime.

26 June 2017

Religion's apparent threat to sovereignty: Rousseau, Sanders and the religious test for public office

During last year's presidential election campaign, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a latecomer to the Democratic Party, positioned himself as a voice for the downtrodden against big moneyed interests, something that many Americans, especially the young, found deeply attractive. In so doing, Sanders drew on a deep tradition of social justice with biblical roots, as evidenced in his powerful address to Liberty University two years ago. Recognizing that “there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he laudably demonstrated his concern for the economically disadvantaged in our society. However, judging from his questioning last week of Russell Vought, the President's nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders appears not to understand that there is no justice where religious liberty lacks protection.

At issue was a blog post Vought had written as an alumnus of Wheaton College, a Christian university near Chicago, in response to a controversy involving one of its faculty members. The offending passage was this: “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” While it may sound harsh to a nonchristian, Vought was in no way suggesting that Muslims cannot be good citizens or should be treated severely by the governing authorities. He was simply reiterating what the vast majority of Christians have believed for two millennia: that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:7).

20 June 2017

Grace and justice: a response to Brunton

The Gospel Coalition's website tells us that, "as a broadly Reformed network of churches, [it] encourages and educates current and next-generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior and do good to those for whom he shed his life's blood." Founded by Donald A. Carson and Manhattan pastor Tim Keller in 2005, it publishes numerous articles reflecting its commitment to renewing churches through proclaiming the gospel. I have published with them once, and an interview with me recently appeared on their website.

Last year Jacob Brunton posted a critique of TGC which recently came to my attention: How The Gospel Coalition is Killing The Gospel With “Social Justice”. Brunton laments what he sees as the substitution in many circles of "economic justice" for "charity."

Remember that I said charity is a picture of the gospel? That’s why it’s such an important practice for the Church: it demonstrates the grace of God. Now, ask yourself this: if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved. When we teach that we owe money to the poor, we are teaching that God owed us the cross. When we teach that the poor deserve monetary assistance, we are teaching that we deserved what Christ accomplished for us. When we teach that “economic justice” consists of giving to those in need, we are teaching that divine justice consists of the same — and the inevitable result is a grace-less universalism in which everyone gets all the blessings of heaven, because they need it. You cannot pervert the meaning of justice in “society” or in the “economy,” and not expect it to bleed over into theology. You cannot have one standard of justice in Church on Sunday morning, and another for the world the rest of the week.

Well, not exactly. To begin with, Brunton's argument is missing a recognition of what Abraham Kuyper calls sphere sovereignty, one of whose implications is that justice's meaning must be qualified by context. In marriage justice requires that husband and wife be faithful to each other. In the state justice demands that government treat equitably individuals and the variety of communities of which they are part. In the classroom justice calls both instructor and students to fulfil their responsibilities relative to the educational mission that governs their relationship. So, yes, justice may mean something different in the institutional church context than in the state, the business enterprise, the school, the labour union, &c.

More seriously, Brunton risks confusing God's relationship with us on the one hand and our multifaceted relationships with each other on the other hand. God relates to us as Creator to creature, while we relate to each other as fellow creatures under God. One needs to be cautious in drawing too close an analogy between God's unmerited grace, which we do not deserve, and the creational contexts rightly ordered by the jural norms conditioning ordinary human interchange. If someone buys my house, then, once I've turned over the keys to him, he definitely owes me the amount of money we had agreed on irrespective of whether either of us has received God's saving grace.

The crucial difference here is that God is God and we are not. As his creatures, we confess that our very existence is conditional on his freely granting us life. God owes us nothing. But this is definitely not true of our relations to each other, whether in the context of ordinary economic life or in the realm of assisting the poor to fulfil their respective callings. Whether such help for the poor is deserved or unmerited must be weighed according to a variety of factors related to the norms for economic life and not by analogy to God's relationship to his people. For example, is poverty a byproduct of lack of effort? Or is economic life structured in such a way as to exclude indefinitely certain segments from its benefits? Either or both may be true. Who deserves what will depend on how we assess a variety of economic and other factors based on observation, synthesis and analysis of conditions on the ground.

What we ought not to do is pretend that a correct theology of grace will by itself give us an answer to the complexities of economic life in our society.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com