Reading Abraham Kuyper . . .

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m now in the third year of a multi-disciplinary Ph.D. on church and state. We select our own reading list under supervision from four different professors and prepare for comprehensive exams prior to beginning the dissertation.

I’m currently reading Lectures on Calvinism, a reprint of Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton. Having put away half of the book, I’m wondering how I could have possibly come this far in the study of religion and government and not read this man previously. He’s always been out there, a ghostly image of a Christian statesman, newspaperman, pastor, and professor who was once prime minister of the Netherlands, but I had never engaged his writing. It is profound and enlightening.

One of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across from him is that of “sphere sovereignty,” where the state is only supreme in its particular sphere. It is the rod that holds up a weak plant. It is in service to God as a restraining hand upon the evil sin may do. It may not disrupt the sovereignty of other spheres like the arts, the family, the university, the church, business, and the sciences. The key insight is that the state is not omni-competent and it is not the first institution of a society. Others are more organic and occur prior to it. This more limited idea of a state, Kuyper argues, is what lies behind the American constitutional impulse. He certainly seems correct in saying so.

Maybe more later, but in the meantime I urge any interested readers to get hold of Kuyper’s Stone lectures in whatever form and pay particular attention to the section on Calvinism and Politics.

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7 thoughts on “Reading Abraham Kuyper . . .

  1. He is interesting, and quite profound. On the downside, it is worth considering more carefully the long-term consequences of such ideas as “sphere sovereignty”. I personally think that it bears an inherent danger of relegating faith to the margins of society and unintentionally fostering the public/private fallacy.

    You might look at the current ethical and political situation in the Netherlands and consider the perennial questions of correlation and causation.

  2. “One of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across from him is that of “sphere sovereignty,” where the state is only supreme in its particular sphere. It is the rod that holds up a weak plant. It is in service to God as a restraining hand upon the evil sin may do. It may not disrupt the sovereignty of other spheres like the arts, the family, the university, the church, business, and the sciences.”

    I don’t see how this is really different in practice from what we have today in the US. The government of course has a role in each of those other spheres in one way or another but not control of them. For instance the government gives artistic grants but does not preclude the creation of art outside of that. The government supports national laboratories but again science is not forbidden outside of them (with some concessions here for national security). The government is currently too involved in defining families but that will pass.

    If anything the point here is much better applied to business which does indeed try to control all of the above. It tries to control government leading to fascism (of which no few incidences have occured in this country). It tries to control science and art through intellectual property law (the worst concieved field of law). Business is about the consumption of resources and it’s never been good at sharing.

  3. Peter Edman Said, “I personally think that it bears an inherent danger of relegating faith to the margins of society and unintentionally fostering the public/private fallacy.”

    Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty not only limits the state, it also limits every social institution, including the church (which gives institutional expression to faith). In this NeoCalvinist vision each social insitution has it’s own limited sphere of authority. When you say that Kuyper’s idea relegates “faith to the margins of society,” it suggests to me that you would have the church transgress its boundaries and take authority over other spheres lest it be relegated to the margins. But from Kuyper’s perspective, that would be a return to the medieval totalitarianism of the church, something the Christian community is still trying to live down.

    Although each social institution is limited in Kuyper’s vision, they are all subjected to the rule of God through Christ, willy-nilly. True faith knows this reality and the church proclaims this reality. So although faith and the church have limited roles in terms of authority, they speak to all areas of life—hardly a relegation to the marginal or the merely private. Indeed, to suggest that Kuyper’s NeoCalvinism, perhaps the most socially consequential revival of all time, relegates faith to the margins borders on the ludicrous.

    “You might look at the current ethical and political situation in the Netherlands and consider the perennial questions of correlation and causation.”

    It seems pretty obvious to me at least, that the current situation in the Netherlands is a movement away from Kuyper’s vision, not a consequence of it.

  4. Mr. Huisman, I knew you’d weigh in on Kuyper. Very glad to have your comments on that. Perhaps you could help us understand how Holland could move from one extreme so far to the other side in the space of a few decades. I studied the movement in Sweden, but I imagine there are differences in the story of the Netherlands.

  5. In response to Hunter:

    1. The NeoCalvinist movement was never, demographically speaking, the largest spiritual community in the Netherlands. Further, though greatly diminished, there is still a NeoCalvinist presence in the Netherlands. So it’s not as if Holland has fallen from a totally NeoCalvinist past to a totally secular present, leaving us to wonder what it is about NeoCalvinism that could engender such a spectacularly negative result. Liberalism, socialism and other secular currents were the dominant spiritual forces in Dutch society in the late 1800’s as they are today.

    2. Thus, NeoCalvinism is, perhaps, best understood as a revival within the Dutch Reformed community in reaction to the increasing secularity of Dutch life (and thus it did not involve mass conversions of secular people to Christianity). This revival had as its focus the social implications of the Christian faith and its greatest accomplishment was to create societal room for people of Dutch Reformed faith within areas of life that had previously been abandoned to the forces of secularity (areas like politics, journalism, higher education, labor unions, the arts, etc.)

    3. NeoCalvinism’s origins were in the mid 19th century, its greatest accomplishments occurred between 1880 and 1920, and it was a strong spiritual dynamic in Dutch life until well after WWII. Measured against other revivals and reformations of the Christian faith in terms of longevity, it compares quite favorably.

    4. Although NeoCalvinism in the Netherlands is, spiritually speaking, a pale shadow of its former self, its accomplishments still permeate Dutch life. Just one example: Christian day schools are also granted government funding.

    5. Further, although spiritually waning in the Netherlands, NeoCalvinism is gaining ground in other countries. It seems to me (I admit bias here) that the present revival of American Evangelical intellectual life is largely of NeoCalvinist derivation. A few examples to support this contention: It is well known that the current revival of Christian philosophy is mostly due to NeoCalvinist intellectuals (Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Hendrik Hart and many others). Less well known is that Francis Schaeffer (a leader amongst non-Reformed evangelical intellectuals) was deeply influenced by the Dutch NeoCalvinist philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd and that Chuck Colson was influenced by H. Evan Runner (a Dooyeweerdian who taught at Calvin College for many years).

    6. None of this fully answers your question as to why NeoCalvinism faltered in the Netherlands. People often cite the disruptive influence of WWII as a cause but, quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone can ever fully explain why any of the revivals, renewals, or reformations that Christianity has experienced over the last 2000 years have ultimately petered out. This just seems to be a part of our sinful human condition. We fall away from God, He revives us again in some new and unexpected way (thereby showing he is the author of the renewal), and we eventually fall away again—a cycle that will no doubt continue until Christ’s return.

  6. It seems to me (I admit bias here) that the present revival of American Evangelical intellectual life is largely of NeoCalvinist derivation.

    This is not surprising. The Netherlands is where many Puritans found refuge after the defeat of Cromwell. The English and American evangelical traditions are derivations of the Puritan (and therefore Calvinist) ethos. The NeoCalvinist and evangelical movements are natural bedfellows. Mr. Huisman, whatever my personal feelings on the matter, I am impressed by your breadth of knowledge.

  7. Thanks James. And to add a bit to your point, I believe I once read in Sidney Ahlstrom’s “A Religious History of the American People” that 3/4 of all Americans in 1776 belonged to denominations in the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, that is, the Puritan tradition. So it makes sense that a new strain of Calvinism would find fertile soil in America.

    Kuyper’s Dutch NeoCalvinism is a more radical, assertive, and self-conscious version of Calvinism than Early American Calvinism. And the American Evangelical intellectual revival is (beginning) to reflect these qualities.

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