At the close of my previous article sketching the life of Abraham Kuyper, I suggested that the key to an interpretation of his labors lies in what Kuyper called the “life system” of Calvinism.1 Kuyper’s engagement in a wide range of reforming activities—as a church reformer and theologian, politician, educator, journalist—can only be accounted for in terms of his convictions regarding the Christian world and life view, convictions that he most comprehensively articulated in his Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898. Though Kuyper was a man of action whose accomplishments in many areas were nothing short of extraordinary, he was first and foremost a man of ideas or, as he was apt to express it, of principles (Dutch: heginselen). For this reason, now that we have a sketch of Kuyper’s life behind us, I would like to turn in this and a subsequent article to the principles which formed an integral part of Kuyper’s worldview.
Before outlining these principles, however. I have to acknowledge that quite different approaches could be taken to a summary and analysis of Kuyper’s advocacy of a Christian worldview. For example Kuyper could be located in the context of late nineteenth century historical and intellectual developments whose influence upon his thought and labors was significant.2 The tendency of modern thought has been to treat the distinctive ideas or principles of influential people in history as the product of their social and cultural context. Within the framework of this kind of an approach, Kuyper’s ideas might be regarded as comprising little more than an “ideology” whose sources are the cultural and intellectual world in which Kuyper was nurtured. What Kuyper termed the distinctive biblical and Calvinistic principles of a Christian worldview would be relegated, on this kind of an approach, to a kind of secondary and subordinate position. From this standpoint, we could simply term Kuyper a “person of his times” and regard his understanding of Calvinism as an interesting museum piece in the history of ideas. Little of what Kuyper taught would be regarded as having continuing significance for Reformed Christians today.
Alternatively, it would also be possible to treat Kuyper in a more psycholanalytical way. In this approach, the most pressing question would be: What was the connection between Kuyper’s person and character on the one hand, and his distinctive views and activities, on the other? No one, for example, who is acquainted with the caricatures and criticisms of Kuyper that were registered during his lifetime, in the public and religious press, would be unaware of the charge that much of what he did was motivated by a massive ego and an inordinate personal desire for power.3 Given the tremendous influence of the discipline of psychology and psychological approaches to historical interpretation, Kuyper, being the influential and complex person he was, is a tempting target for this kind of analysis and interpretation. The fact that he suffered periods of emotional distress and breakdown, particularly on two significant occasions, only adds to the attractiveness of this approach.
Though these and other approaches may have a limited validity, and though they may even provide insights into Kuyper’s views that will be missing from my account, I will deliberately follow a different approach. Even though I am quite well aware of of the truth and insight that can be gleaned in either of these approaches, they tend, from the standpoint of evaluating Kuyper’s continuing importance for the contemporary testimony and labor of Reformed believers, to be too limited. On these approaches, Kuyper’s views are regarded as little more than the product of his times and temperament. As such, they provide little help to the Christian community today in its reflection about a biblical worldview. Within the context of contemporary relativism, Kuyper simply becomes one voice, and an outdated one at that, among the many voices that clamor to be heard in the marketplace (cacophony?) of ideas.
The following account of the chief principles and emphases in Kuyper’s worldview, then, is self-consciously written from the standpoint that ideas matter. Just as from a biblical standpoint doctrine undergirds life (compare Matt. 28:16–20; Acts 2:42), so in the history of Christian thought and deliberation upon the worldview taught in Scripture, practice is shaped by theory. Indeed, this is one of the primary claims of Kuyper’s position: a Calvinist worldview gives rise to a peculiar pattern of life and labor. As someone who shares this conviction, I am convinced that Kuyper’s articulation of biblical principle, to the extent that it captured truths taught in the Word of God and articulated in the confessional and intellectual tradition of the Reformed churches, remains directly significant for believers at the present time.
CALVINISM A LIFE SYSTEM4
Before taking up directly those principles that were central to Kuyper’s worldview, I would like to begin with a few comments on what Kuyper understood by the idea of a worldview or life-system.
In the important opening chapter of his Stone Lectures, “Calvinism a Life System,” Kuyper distinguished his use of the term “Calvinism” from three other uses. Before considering several of the principal themes in his advocacy of a Calvinist worldview, Kuyper’s distinctive use of this term, particularly in contrast to these other uses, needs to be carefully noted.
According to Kuyper, none of the three common uses of “Calvinism” adequately embraced the full range and scope of Calvinism’s reach. The first or “sectarian” use often found among Roman Catholic spokesmen uses the term “Calvinism” to refer negatively to Protestantism or those who dissent from official Catholic teaching. The second or “confessional” use caricatures Calvin’s theology as marked by a fatalistic doctrine of predestination a doctrine that governs the whole of his thought. The third or “denominational” use designates certain church communions of denominations as “Calvinist” because of their peculiar Reformed confession or creed. In contrast to these uses, Kuyper argued for “Calvinism” as a term to designate the Christian religion in its most consistent and life-embracing expression.
In Kuyper’s view, “Calvinism” referred to a formative kind of religious consciousness or life-system whose interests were not only narrowly religious and ecclesiastical but also included a distinctive view of history, politics, education, and the like. By contrast to the term “Reformed” which refers only to a distinctive pattern of church confession and government, Kuyper regarded the term “Calvinist” as more appropriate to his purpose because it embraced a whole “system of conceptions” which addressed all the different areas of life. Calvinism want not simply the sum of the teaching of John Calvin, but the form of Christian conviction and insight that find its most definitive and sustained expression among the Reformed churches. For this reason, Kuyper was willing on occasion to use the expression “neo-Calvinism” for the worldview that he had in mind though this expression was often used by his critics as a term of disapproval, accenting the difference between Kuyper’s teaching and the teaching of Calvin himself. In distinction from these narrower uses of Calvinism, Kuyper summarized his view as follows:
Thus understood, Calvinism is rooted in a form of religion which was peculiarly its own, and from this specific religious consciousness there was developed first a peculiar theology, then a special church-order, and then a given form for political and social life. for the interpretation of the moral world-order, for the relation between nature and grace, between Christianity and the world, between church and state, and finally for art and science; and amid all these life utterances it remained always the self-same Calvinism, in so far as simultaneously and spontaneously all these developments sprang from its deepest life principle. Hence to this extent it stands in line with those other great complexes of human life, known as Paganism, Islamism and Romanism, by which we distinguish four entirely different worlds in the one collective world of human life.5
In his use of Calvinism to designate the Christian worldview in its most consistent expression, Kuyper believed that he was giving it a more precise and “scientific” definition than was commonly the case. However, because the terms “Reformed” and “Calvinist” are so often used interchangeably, Kuyper’s language may easily be misunderstood. The simplest way of capturing Kuyper’s point is to realize that what he terms “Calvinism” might better be termed “Christianity,” more particularly, the Christian faith or worldview in its most consistent and comprehensive expression. Partly for this reason, I have chosen to entitle my treatment of Kuyper’s understanding of Calvinism as a life-system, “Kuyper’s advocacy of a Christian worldview.”
In order to illustrate this claim that Calvinism is more than a particular church creed or church order, that it is a comprehensive view of all things from the standpoint of a unique life-principle, Kuyper cited Calvinism’s particular understanding of the “three fundamental relations of all human existence,” namely, our relation to God, to man and to the world.
The sectarian view of the Christian faith tends to separate between the church and the world, regarding only the former as a legitimate arena of Christian interest and activity. Similarly, the pietist view of the Christian faith treats the inward life of the soul as the matter of chief. even exclusive, interest. Calvinism, by contrast, regards the whole of life in terms of our relation to a Sovereign God, Creator andRedeemer, to whom our entire life is offered as a sacrifice of praise and worship. Calvinism recognizes that human beings have been created in the image of God, and that all people stand before God and every earthly authority as equals with God-given responsibilities. The Calvinist worldview regards the world as the proper realm through which God’s glory is revealed and His dominion is exercised.
Calvinism has wrought an entire change in the world of thoughts and conceptions. In this also, placing itself before the face of God, it has not only honored man for the sake of his likeness to the Divine image, but also the world as a Divine creation, and has at once placed to the front the great principle that there is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammelled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator.6
The one great life principle of Calvinism is its conviction that God is Sovereign, sovereign not only in the gracious redemption of His people but also in His works of creation and providence. In its attempt to work out consistently the implications of this life principle, Calvinism has insisted that all of life is to be viewed coram Deo, that is, before the face of God. The redemption that God works in Christ includes the restoration of man as God’s image-bearer to his office as a servant of the King of creation. Consequently, no area of life falls outside of the claims of the gospel of the kingdom.
In Kuyper’s understanding of Calvinism, this was the reason for Calvinism’s interest and influence in the entire range of creaturely life. Calvinism could never be satisfied, Kuyper maintained, with the “Ana-Baptist” tendency to flee the world and worldly concerns. Nor could it ever be satisfied with the sharp separation between “nature and grace” that has historically been characteristic of Catholicism. In the home and the church, in politics and statecraft, in education and scholarship, in art and culture, Calvinism lives from the conviction that God is to be served and honored in every legitimate human vocation or calling.
KUYPER’S DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH
Though some critics of Kuyper have argued that, in view of his emphasis upon Calvinism as a life system, Kuyper neglected to give appropriate place and emphasis to the church, there can be no doubt that the reformation of the church was a vital part of Kuyper’s worldview. Without a re-newed and re-formed church, through whose administration of the Word and sacraments the faith of the believing community was born and nurtured, there could be no prospect of Christian testimony and labor in any other area of life. For Kuyper. the reformation of the church in the Netherlands was the first order of business. Not only was this true for Kuyper personally—he was first a minister, second a prime minister—but it was also true for him as a matter of explicit principle Unless the churches preached and taught the gospel of the kingdom.
Christians would be ill equipped to carry out their callings in life and the Christian community would not be a leaven in society for its preservation and renewal.
Kuyper’s doctrine of the church was in many ways consistent with the historic view of the Reformed churches in their confessions. However, three particular features of Kuyper’s doctrine, each of them in its own way quite controversial, stand out as of special importance.
A Free Church
In the course of the church struggle in the Netherlands, Kuyper opposed the idea of a national church or Volkskerk, a church whose membership coincided with the citizenship of the Netherlands and whose adherence to the Reformed confessions was loose and indefinite. As a minister in the state church of the Netherlands, the Hervormde Kerk, before the separation of 1886 and the formation of the Gerefo rmeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches) in 1892, Kuyper opposed the modernism and unbelief that had infiltrated this church at every level. particularly the level of theological training at the state universities. In this connection, Kuyper also vigorously resisted the state’s control and interference in the life of the church and its congregations. Many of the themes that would also mark Kuyper’s efforts in the areas of politics and education were clarified and articulated initially in this area of the church’s struggle to be free from state authority and hierarchy.
In Kuyper’s doctrine of the church. a clear contrast needed to be drawn between the ideal of a national church and that of a free and confessional church.
It is certain that the national church system aims to absorb the entire population of a country into the church as quickly and comprehensively as this can be done. The system we advocate aims to distinguish the church from civil society, to admit to the church only “believers and their offspring,” and to tolerate hypocrites only insofar as they cannot be unmasked, with the expectation that the comparatively small circle of the church will radiate influence upon civil life outside the church.7
As the last sentence of this statement suggests, Kuyper was not arguing for a sectarian view of the church. He did not want to distinguish the circle of the church from that of the nation in order to encourage a church that was “solely oriented to heaven” and without interest in the affairs of the state or nation. Rather, he wanted to encourage a distinctive and disciplined Reformed church whose members would be properly prepared to serve Christ in the broader arena of national and cultural affairs. The sectarian doctrine of the church’s radical separation from the world formed no part of Kuyper’s worldview.
Over and over in history we see small separatistic groups who want nothing to do with the national church but who, in opposing it, fall into the opposite extreme of denying the covenant of God, abolishing infant baptism, tearing apart nature and spirit, and letting the church be solely oriented to heaven meanwhile, turning their back on ordinary human life in spiritual one-sidedness and presumptuous pride.8
Kuyper’s emphasis upon the freedom and distinctiveness of the church did not only express itself in his opposition to a national church. It also expressed itself in his opposition to every kind of inappropriate hierarchy in the government of the church. Linked to his understanding of sphere-sovereignty, a principle that we will consider in a subsequent article, this feature of Kuyper’s view rejected every form of inappropriate interference on the part of state authority in the distinctive affairs of the church. It also resisted those forms of church government that viewed the broader assemblies as higher authorities with original and inherent authority over the local congregations. One of the clearest statements of Kuyper’s position on the freedom of the local congregations from every form of tyranny, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is given in his Stone Lectures:
This at the same time determines the form of government of this Church on earth. This government, like the Church itself, originates in Heaven, in Christ. He most effectually rules, governs His Church by means of the Holy Spirit, by whom He works in His members. Therefore, all being equal under Him, there can be no distinctions of rank among believers; there are only ministers, who serve, lead and regulate; a thoroughly Presbyterian form of government; the Church power descending directly from Christ Himself, into the congregation, concentrated from the congregation in the ministers, and by them being administered unto the brethren. So the sovereignty of Christ remains absolutely monarchial, but the government of the Church on earth becomes democratic to its bones and marrow; a system leading logically to this other sequence, that all believers and all congregations being of an equal standing, no Church may exercise any dominion over another, but that all local churches are of equal rank, and as manifestations of one and the same body. can only be united synodically, i.e., by way of contederation.9
Organism and Institute
Another feature of Kuyper’s doctrine of the church—one that is closely related to his insistence upon a free, but not sectarian, view of the church—was his distinction between the church as organism and as institute. When speaking of a free church, a church free from state control and hierarchy, Kuyper meant to refer to the church as an institution, the church as it comes to expression in each local congregation under the authority of Christ. The church as institute is under the direct rule of Christ and has been authorized to administer the keys of the kingdom. This church is to be measured by the “marks of the true church,” the preaching of the gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline. Following the Reformed confessions, Kuyper believed this institutional church was the divinely appointed instrument for the granting of new birth and the nurturing of the faith of God’s people.
However, Kuyper also insisted that the church as organism is a more comprehensive reality than the church as institute. Using the analogy of concentric circles to describe the distinction between the church as institute and as organism, Kuyper articulated his view of the church as organism in order to allow for the labor of Christian believers in every area of life, labor motivated by the desire to bring every thought captive and every calling obedient to Christ.
Aside from this first circle of the institute and in necessary connection with it, we thus recognize another circle whose circumference is determined by the length of the ray that shines out from the church institute over the life of people and nation. Since this second circle is not attached to particular persons, is not circumscribed by a certain number of people listed in church directories, and does not have its own office-bearers but is interwoven with the very fabric of national life, this extra-institutional influence at work in society points us to the church as organism. The church as organism has its center in heaven, in Christ; it encompasses all ages from the beginning of the world to the end so as to fulfill all the ages coming after us.10
In this statement of his position, there are similarities between Kuyper’s view of the church as organism and what in the history of Reformed theology has been termed the “invisible” church. The church as organism refers for Kuyper to the fullness of the living body of Christ, the church throughout the ages in its perfection and completion. However, the particular emphasis of Kuyper, so far as the church as organism is concerned, was upon the church as a living body of Christian believers whose life is not exhausted within the limits of the life and ministry of the church as institute.
Kuyper’s understanding of the church as organism aimed, therefore, to explain how Christian believers within their various vocations are called to serve Christ beyond the confines of the institutional church. Wherever believers are to be found—whether as parents in a Christian home, students in a Christian school, workers in a trade or industry, magistrates in the service of the state, artists in a studio or school, Kuyper wanted to insist that they were acting as members, not of the institutional church in any direct sense, but as members of the church as organism. Though believers were called to live as Christians and therefore as members of the institutional church, their conduct in these areas was not to be regarded as churchly activity under the direct auspices and authority of the church. According to Kuyper, that would be to follow the way of Roman Catholicism where the kingdom of God is identified with the Roman church and every area of life is properly under the authority of church officers. That this was Kuyper’s interest in drawing this distinction and calling attention to the church as organism becomes clear from the following statement:
This institute [that is, the church as institute] does not cover everything that is Christian. Though the lamp of the Christian religion only burns within that institute’s walls, its light shines out through its windows to areas far beyond, illumining all the sectors and associations that appear across the wide range of human life and activity. Justice, law, the home and family, business, vocation, public opinion and literature, art and science, and so much more are all illuminated by that light, and that illumination will be stronger and more penetrating as the lamp of the gospel is allowed to shine more brightly and clearly in the church institute.11
The Pluriformity of the Church
A third, and perhaps most controversial, aspect of Kuyper’s doctrine of the church was his stress upon its pluriformity. Kuyper was a fierce opponent of the uniformity that he believed plagued modern life. In one of his early addresses, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” he argued that the drive to uniformity in the modern period reflected a worldview that was at odds with the Christian faith. In the worldviews of monism (“all is one, one is all”) and “pantheism” (“all is god”) there is a denial of the radical difference between God as Creator and all things creaturely. There is also a failure to recognize the diversity of kinds and types of creatures that God created and that have developed under His providential direction of history This article proved prophetic of Kuyper’s life-long opposition to the “blurring of boundaries” or the denial of God-appointed differences between institutions (home, church and state), sexes (male and female), offices or callings (father and mother, parents and children, magistrate and citizen, student and teacher), cultural enterprises (school, business, sport), and the like.12
Within the broader framework of this emphasis upon multiformity and diversity, Kuyper also argued for recognition of the multiformity of the church. In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper summarized his understanding of this multiformity as follows:
Now let me draw your attention to another most important consequence of this same principle [that is, the freedom of the church from all tyranny or hierarchy], viz., to the multiformity of denominations as the necessary result of the differentiation of the churches, according to the different degrees of their purity. If the Church is considered to be an institute of grace, independent of the believers, or an institute in which a hierarchical priesthood distributes the treasury of grace entrusted to it, the result must be that this hierarchy itself extends through all nations, and imparts the same stamp to all forms of ecclesiastical life. But if the Church consists in the congregation of believers. if the churches are formed by the union of confessors, and are united only in the way of confederation, then the differences of climate and of nation, of historical past. and of disposition of mind come in to exercise a widely variegating influence, and multiformity in ecclesiastical matters must be the result. A result. therefore, of very far-reaching importance, because it annihilates the absolute character of every visible church and places them side by side as differing in degrees of purity but always remaining in some way or other a manifestation of one holy and catholic Church of Christ in Heaven. 13
I quote this particular statement of Kuyper’s view at some length because it gives a sense of the complexity and occasion for his stressing the multiformity of the church.
Kuyper’s doctrine of the multiformity of the church, as this statement clearly shows, was not offered as a way of excusing or belittling the serious doctrinal differences between the churches. Thus, it was not intended to affirm the legitimacy of every multiform expression of the church, whether it be in confession or church government or practice. Rather, Kuyper wanted to acknowledge that churches could only join together in federation when they were genuinely one in confession and worship. An artificial or forced unity between churches of very differing confession and practice would be illegitimate and in no way further the true unity of the church of Christ.
However, Kuyper also wanted with his doctrine of the church’s pluriformity to acknowledge the catholicity and fullness of the church of Jesus Christ, contrary to any sectarian view that would limit the true churches to those whose doctrine and worship were largely “pure” and undefiled. The one church of Christ on earth embraces a multiplicity of churches and denominations, some more, some less pure. Because a church is not as biblical in its confession and practice as is demanded by the norm of the Word of God, this does not justify the conclusion that it is no longer a manifestation of Christ’s church on earth. No one church could claim, Kuyper maintained, to be the absolute form of the church of Christ on earth. Not only are there differences of confession and practice among the churches, some so significant as to prevent organizational unity. But there are also, according to Kuyper’s conception, many factors within the providence of God—distinct histories, differing languages and cultural expressions—that account for a legitimate diversity among the churches.
With this explanation of what Kuyper meant by Calvinism as a life system or worldview and his doctrine of the church, we have only begun to introduce some of the key features and principles that were so important to Kuyper’s vision. Some of the most distinctive features of Kuyper’s view need still to be considered—for example, his understanding of sphere-sovereignty, anti-revolutionary politics, the antithesis, the twofold development of science, and the doctrine of common grace. To these we will turn, the Lord willing, in articles to come.
Enough has been said, however, to give something of an impression of the range of Kuyper’s vision. No one should be surprised that Kuyper “filled so many shoes” as a churchman, journalist, politician and educator. A lively interest in all areas of life within God’s creation is a natural fruit of the Christian worldview, when it reckons seriously with its confession of “God the Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”
1. The expression, “Life system” is the expression used in the printed edition of Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. It is a synonym for the English expressions “worldview” or “world and life view” (German: Weltanschauung). See Peter Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, pp 88–96, for a discussion of the possible origin and background to Kuyper’s use of this expression.
2. More recent studies of Kuyper, including that of Heslam, have tended to take this approach. For a survey and selected bibliography of recent studies, see: James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, pp. 491–8; and James D. Bratt, “In the Shadow of Mr. Kuyper: A Survey of the Field,” Calvin Theological Journal 31/1 (April 1996) 51–66.
3. A recent Dutch study of Kuyper’s life (I. Stellingwerff, De Vrije Universiteit na Kuyper [Kampen: Kok, 1987]) is characterized to a degree by this kind of an approach Stellingwerff regards developments at the Free University after Kuyper as the unhappy fruit of several serious defects in Kuyper’s character.
4. The sequence of principles or themes in Kuyper’s position that I will be following in this and subsequent articles is roughly similar to that chosen by Kuyper himself in the presentation of his Lectures on Calvinism. These Lectures and the articles in Bratt’s anthology (Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader) will be the primary sources for my summary of Kuyper. Unless otherwise indicated, references to articles by Kuyper will give the English title and pagination in Bratt’s anthology.
5. Lectures on Calvinism, p. 17.
6. Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 29–30.
7. “Common Grace,” p. 190.
8. “Common Grace,” p. 190. Subsequent to this statement of his position, Kuyper adds a further, illuminating comment on his opposition to a national church: “… Calvinism from its own roots produced the conviction that the church of Christ cannot be a national church because it had to be rigorously confessional and maintain discipline, and that the Christian character of society therefore cannot be secured by the baptism of the whole citizenry but it is to be found in the influence that the church of Christ exerts upon the whole organization of national life.”
9. Lectures on Calvinism, p. 63.
10. “Common Grace,” p. 195.
11. “Common Grace,” p. 194. I will have occasion to return to some aspects of this distinction in my concluding article, when I hope to address some criticisms of Kuyper’s position. Here I am only interested in providing an accurate exposition of Kuyper’s view.
12. See “Uniformity The Curse of Modern Life,” pp. 19–44; and “The Blurring of the Boundaries,” pp 363–402. As we shall see, this theme of multiformity versus uniformity plays an important role in Kuyper’s understanding of sphere-sovereignty. In the context of the many contemporary forms of monism and pantheism, readers of these addresses of Kuyper will find them remarkably current! To cite only two concrete examples: Kuyper notes the trend in fashions toward a bland uniformity. transcending not only lines of social distinction but even national boundaries’ he also notes similar trends in architecture.
13. Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 63–4.
Dr. Venema is professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.