In Memory of Stahl: A Review

In Memory of Stahl by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer. Translated by Ruben Alvarado. Aalten, the Netherlands: Pantocrator Press, 2022. Paperback. 115 pp. $11.99.

“Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it … None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. … The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

These perfectly chosen words by C.S Lewis should be kept in mind when facing the scepticism that In Memory of Stahl might provoke. Who is Stahl? Who is this author with a delightfully Dutch surname? And the translator Ruben Alvarado?

Alvarado is the one-man publishing and translating machine behind Woodbridge Publishing and Pantocrator Press. He has been working steadily to make available an impressive array of works by Reformed thinkers that were hitherto accessible only to Dutch and German readers. Besides his translation efforts, he has authored books on various subjects, including the theology of nature, common law and natural rights, and a biography of Friedrich Julius Stahl (1802-1861). He has single-handedly translated Stahl’s imposing masterpiece of legal theory, The Philosophy of Law: The Doctrine of Law and State on the Basis of the Christian World-View, an enormous work that Alvarado had to divide into six books of a more manageable size.

The slim volume here under review (first published in 1862 to commemorate Stahl’s life, scholarship, and Christian faith) offers an excellent introduction to the thought of Stahl and to his eulogist and disciple, Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876). It also offers an entry into a whole stream of theopolitical thought that has been consigned to oblivion, but could, if heeded, have saved many European Christians from the siren song of the liberal state.

So who was Stahl? Born in 1802, of Jewish parentage but baptised in 1819 into the Lutheran Church, of which he remained a lifelong, devoted member, his career as a legal scholar illustrates the rise and fall of an instructive attempt to reconcile the rights of God with the rights of man, the achievements of Christendom with the dignity of the human person. He saw the upheavals in an increasingly unstable Europe as the offspring of the Enlightenment’s individualism and ahistorical rationalism, which, in the words of Dutch jurist Cornelis Star Numan quoted by Groen, “deduce all societies from the private will of the initiators; to establish on this loose soil a Rousseauian popular sovereignty…They lead to the dissolution of state law into private law; properly applied, to the destruction not only of the state, but of every society.” (86) The legal philosophy that Stahl proposed in response was influenced by the Historical School that played such an important role in German jurisprudence. At the centre of it was Friedrich von Savigny (1779-1861), whose approach was to study law not as the product of a rational plan, nor as the mere command of an authority, but as the organic outgrowth of a nation’s spirit and character (Volksgeist). Building on Savigny’s Burkean method, “Stahl’s merit lies in the establishment of the fundamental principles and the Christian-philosophical foundation” (62) that can help us understand the purpose of the law and evaluate its evolution over time.

Stahl’s aim, therefore, was to confront the ahistorical rationalism and individualism of Enlightenment thought with a legal philosophy that steadfastly refused to treat political authority as the contractual creation of consenting individuals to secure private interests. He opposed the revolutionary doctrine of popular sovereignty with a frank admission that it is providence that raises up rulers to uphold order and protect the vulnerable. “Starting from the concept of a personal God, [Stahl] learns to see His revelation in history itself, in the state His work, in the law His order [sic]. He regards man not only as an individual but as a member of society, and the state is to him that society itself as it is destined for a formation of an ethical kingdom, with a divinely granted power and a sacred vocation.” (62-63)

Once the divine ground of authority was granted, however, Stahl had no intention of defending the divine right of kings or of endorsing the use of arbitrary power, despite being repeatedly misunderstood and accused of being “a friend of compulsion, of princely absolutism, of medieval prejudices and misconceptions.” (29) “His whole system is directed against state power and revolutionary centralization.” (49) Stahl recognised that the ideas of 1789 “are largely derived from the gospel, and to that degree worth promoting; but, torn from their Christian roots and transferred to revolutionary soil, they were always a deceitful and pernicious program” (49). Although a staunch anti-revolutionary, he distinguished between those reformist currents that were downstream of the Gospel, and those that were the product of apostasy and unbelief: “why have the English and North Americans succeeded in attaining a satisfactory state of political liberty, and why have the French always failed?…in England and America the movement for freedom was associated, from the beginning, with Christian faith, while in France it was directed against the Christian faith.” (32)

Stahl’s articulation of the legal and moral principles that should govern a Christian state was aiming at “reconciling respect for the foundations of society with the equitable demands of this age. Equality for faith orientations and freedom of conscience, yes, but also, in public institutions, insofar as they are connected with religion, observance of the right and the need of a Christian nation.” (20) He “wanted freedom for all, even for those whose convictions do not correspond to the Christian-national character of public institutions; but he did not want a Christian population to be brought under the rule of a humanitarianism opposed to the gospel, by so-called neutralization of the state, in violation of the vocation of the church…Maintaining but not imposing the truth, allowance for free choice, is Stahl’s main idea.” (51) A proper distinction between the roles of Church and state “does not preclude mutual appreciation and support, cooperation and common deliberation, and does not relieve secular authority in Christian Europe from the obligation to obey the commandments of God, according to his revealed will, in law and in administration.” (49)

It is to be hoped that readers of this book will be led to dive deeper into Stahl’s work. His career as a jurist, politician, and churchman presents an impressive attempt to bring the historic tradition of Christian political thought to bear on the political problems and controversies of the nineteenth century, which remain in many respects the same today. Their debates about how to combine popular legislatures with the authority of landed nobility and the monarch are behind us, but Christians face the same problems when confronted with liberalism, socialism, and other ideologies that remain with us. Christians frequently fail to be salt and light in the world because we uncritically accept the terms of political discourse and throw ourselves to the Left or to the Right, and avoid the harder task of sifting through those ideas that are and are not compatible with the Gospel. It would be foolish to pursue that task without learning from past attempts to make sense of what the Gospel demands of us in an age of Revolution and Progress. And, as Lewis wrote, we will never discover the mistaken assumptions, overlooked problems, and unasked questions that plague our thinking unless we turn often to older writers like Stahl.

The influence of Stahl in the German Confederation and Kingdom of Prussia began to wane in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially as the unification of Germany proceeded apace after Stahl’s death in 1861, until eventually his memory “receded into oblivion” (xiv). But he found a devoted follower in Groen van Prinsterer, a Dutch politician and historian of the House of Orange (1801-1876). Although the nature of a commemorative work means that Groen remains in the background, In Memory of Stahl still offers a good introduction to the thought and context of its author. Groen constantly refers his reader to the relevance of Stahl’s ideas to the political affairs of the Netherlands, and to his consonance with the thought of other anti-revolutionary luminaries, especially Burke, Guizot, and Tocqueville. The importance of Groen’s political career and thought (especially his masterpiece Unbelief and Revolution) may well be as forgotten as Stahl’s. But his personal and intellectual influence over a young Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) makes him an important link in the genealogy of Reformed political thought. In fact, the almost exclusive concentration on Kuyper in Anglophone Reformed circles is responsible for the lack of engagement with (or even awareness of) Kuyper’s critics, such as Arnold van Ruler and P.J. Hoedemaker. They appealed to Groen’s thought to show that Kuyper had turned away from his intellectual mentor and the authentic Calvinist tradition by advocating for a religiously neutral state.

The unashamedly evangelical political thinking of Groen and Stahl can help us see better how easily today we can consign the Christian faith to the private sphere or to the role of a vague source of inspiration to guide our actions. Yet their work also repays reading because we can learn from their mistakes and missteps. It is easy to forgive their focus on opposing revolutionary ideas, given the instability of their times. But it is not so easy to dismiss the concern that their conservative focus on the organic unity of society and the providential place of authority as a natural outgrowth of society make it hard to explain how the Christian can stand at some critical distance from his or her own society. How to tell which laws or institutions serve to prepare the Kingdom, or whether they are in rebellion against the Gospel? (Was it inevitable that Stahl, a convert from Judaism, would reject Jewish Emancipation?) It is true that Stahl claimed “conservatism without a Christian foundation is a vis inertiae which, by its very inhibition, strengthens the urge and makes yielding inevitable.” (37) But even conservatism with a Christian foundation still must face the reasons why so many then and now are being drawn to revolutionary ideologies, and whether it serves evangelisation to identify the Gospel so closely with law and authority. We would have no hope of finding an answer to these questions without reading old books by dead authors. But, of course, we would be more hopeless still without recourse to the Holy Writ of the Risen One.

M. Ciftci has a D.Phil in political theology from the University of Oxford and after a postdoc at the University of Toronto now lives in South Bend, Indiana, with his wife and a one-year-old tyrant.

*Image Credit: “Heidelberg with a Rainbow, 1840” by J.M.W Turner, Wikimedia Commons


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