Abraham Kuyper: His Life and Legacy, Part Two: Abraham Kuyper Advocate of a Christian Worldview (I)

In my previous article, I began to introduce some of the key features or themes of Abraham Kuypers understanding of a Calvinistic worldview, In that article I noted that Kuyper used the language of “worldview” or “life-system” to describe a comprehensive perspective upon the world consisting of a unified “system of conceptions” that addresses all the different areas of life. In his Lectures on Calvinism therefore, Kuyper set forth the implications of a Calvinistic worldview for such wideranging subjects as religion, politic science, art and the future. After considering what Kuyper meant by a worldview, I then began to summarize the key principles of Kuyper’s position by describing several features of his doctrine of the church. According to Kuyper, a free church, one whose ministry of the gospel of the kingdom equips the people of God for their various vocations, was vital to the reformation of life under the lordship of Jesus Christ

There are three further principles or themes in Kuyper’s understanding of a Christian worldview that remain to be considered. These are the principle of sphere sovereignty, the antithesis between faith and unbelief, and the doctrine of common grace. Each of these principles played an important and far-reaching role in Kuyper’s thinking and practice. Each of them, moreover has been the subject of considerable debate and criticism. In what follows I will only attempt to describe accurately Kuyper’s viewpoint, reserving to a subsequent article a consideration of some of the common criticisms of Kuyper’s position.


On the occasion of the founding of the Free University in Amsterdam in 1880 Kuyper delivered his well-known address “Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring”, (literally, “sovereignty in its own circle”).1 That Kuyper should have chosen to address this subject on this important occasion confirms the importance of this principle to his thought. It is also one of the principles for which Kuyper, where there is some familiarity with his writings, is commonly known.

God’s universal sovereignty

The issue of sphere sovereignty was initially confronted by Kuyper within the context of his struggles for a free church, for a university “free” from state ownership and administration, and for a politics that was based upon the principle of God’s sovereignty rather than popular or state sovereignty. In each of these areas, Kuyper sought to articulate a vision of God’s universal sovereignty over all the different spheres of life within the created order.

As I indicated in my sketch of Kuyper’s life, Kuyper faced the issue of sovereignty and authority in several different areas. In the context of the church struggle in the Netherlands, Kuyper had to confront the illegitimate assertion of state authority over the internal affairs of the churches on the one hand, and of denominational authority over the local churches on the other hand. In the context of the school struggle, Kuyper faced off against those who advocated state ownership and administration of the schools, including the universities. And in the context of the political struggle, Kuyper opposed the tendency to grant inappropriate authority to the people or the magistrate. In each of these struggles, Kuyper insisted that the Calvinistic conviction of God’s sovereignty over all of His creation was being compromised.

These respective struggles constitute the historical background and context for Kuyper’s insistence in his Lectures on Calvinism that the Calvinistic emphasis upon God’s sovereignty has implications, not only for the doctrine of salvation, but for other areas of life as well.

This dominating principle [of Calvinism] was not, soteriologically, justification by faith, but, in the widest sense cosmologically, the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. A primordial Sovereignty which eradicates [sic] in mankind in a threefold deduced supremacy, viz., 1. The Sovereignty in the State; 2. The Sovereignty in Society; and 3. The Sovereignty in the Church 2

God’s sovereignty, as this statement of Kuyper suggests, means that He is the divine Author and Administrator of all the distinct spheres of the cosmos or world. God alone is the supreme King over all creation and, therefore, all earthly authorities are subject to His rule. No earthly authority is original. It is always authority that originates with and is subject to God’s supreme authority. Thus, any attempt by an earthly authority to rule over the distinct spheres of God’s creation usurps God’s sovereignty. It also threatens human life with a tyrannical abuse of authority.

The principle of sphere sovereignty

In Kuyper’s development of this fundamental principle of God’s sovereignty over the entire world, he insisted that each sphere of life, because it is the creation of God, be subject to His direct rule. This is true particularly for those spheres of life — the family, the state, and the church — that are the direct institution of God. These spheres were instituted to provide for the ordering of human life under the sovereignty of God. The family is the first and original sphere created by God for the purpose of human blessedness, procreation and nurture. The state and the church are post-fall spheres ordained by God for the purposes, respectively, of the just ordering of human society and the redemption of God’s peculiar people. All the other spheres of life, though not directly instituted by God either at the dawn of human history or subsequent to man’s fall into sin, are likewise under the sovereign ownership and authority of God the Creator. Though they are often the products of cultural and historical developments, they are nonetheless legitimate spheres of life, which are subject to the ordinances of God for their proper function.

Early on in his address on the subject of sphere sovereignty, Kuyper raised the question to which this principle provided, in his opinion, the only appropriate answer.

What is Sovereignty? Do you not agree when I define it as the authority that has the right. the duty, and the power to break and avenge all resistance to its will? Does not your indestructible folk-conscience tell you too that the original. absolute sovereignty cannot reside in any creature but must coincide with God’s majesty? If you believe in Him as Deviser and Creator, as Founder and Director of all things, your soul must also proclaim the Triune God as the only absolute Sovereign. Provided and this I would emphasize — we acknowledge at the same time that this supreme Sovereign once and still delegates his authority to human beings, so that on earth one never directly encounters God Himself in visible things but always sees his sovereign authority exercised in human office. Whence arises the very important question: how does this delegation proceed? Is the all-encompassing sovereignty of God delegated undivided to a single person? Or does an earthly sovereign possess the power to compel obedience only in a limited sphere, a sphere bordered by other spheres in which another is sovereign and not he?3

According to Kuyper’s understanding of the principle of sphere sovereignty, God delegates or entrusts to the various spheres a limited authority to carry out the task or responsibility entrusted to them. All creaturely or human authority is directly subject to God’s authority, and not to the authority of other spheres of life.4

To illustrate this principle, Kuyper stressed the importance of a free university, that is, a university subject neither to state nor to church authority. Though the university has certain obligations to the state and to the church, the peculiar task given to the university under God is not one that either the state or the church should presume to undertake. Similarly, the family and its human authorities (parents) are not subject to the illegitimate intrusion of state authority, so far as their peculiar task and calling are concerned. The same principle applies to all the distinct spheres of life — whether the school, the political party, a business enterprise, labor union, art, science, and the like.5 Each of these spheres is responsible under God to fulfill its divinely given mandate. However, no earthly authority may assume the right to lord it over all other authorities or spheres of life.



Anti-revolutionary politics

Kuyper’s development of this principle of sphere sovereignty was most evident in his articulation of the program of the Anti-revolutionary Party. Over against the revolutionary principle of popular sovereignty — that the state is subject to the authority and will of the people who call it into existence and determine what is right — Kuyper insisted that the state’s authority is delegated to it by God and is limited to its peculiar area of responsibility. The assertion of the unlimited authority of the people in the area of politics could only lead, Kuyper persistently argued, to a kind of unrestrained and tyrannical form of popular sovereignty. Carried to its logical conclusion, the principle of popular sovereignty could only encourage a practice of “rule by the majority.” Whatever the majority wished to legislate (the “will of the people”) for the citizens of the state would become the law of the land. Might, in this case, makes right! This kind of unrestricted exercise of the power of the people could only lead to the excesses that characterized the Revolution of 1789 in France.

According to Kuyper, the alternative to popular sovereignty represented by the ideal of state sovereignty was no better. In this ideal. the state is regarded as the supreme and Original authority, having direct authority over all the other spheres of human life. The church, the family, the school, the business enterprise — all of these respective spheres of human life before God would be subordinated to the all-encompassing authority of the state and its magistrates. This would grant to the state a kind of unlicensed freedom to interfere immediately in the affairs of the various sectors of society. And it would also regard the state as the primary means to bring about human blessedness and well being. Rather than the people being the supreme sovereign, as in the theory of popular sovereignty, the state would exercise its power in an almost messianic way, providing redemption for all who look to it for help and salvation.

In Kuyper’s defense of the program of the Anti-revolutionary Party, the only antidote to these unchristian views of popular or state sovereignty was the principle of divine sovereignty and its corollary, sphere sovereignty. As a servant appointed by God, the state’s authority is limited by the ordinances of God. Rather than conceding to the state the right to interfere in the internal affairs of the various spheres of life, Kuyper insisted that the state’s peculiar task was to promote the free development of human life within the various life-spheres. As an institution established by God after the fall into sin, the state was responsible to maintain good order, justice and peace on the one hand, and to restrain injustice and the violation of good order on the other hand.

Kuyper’s understanding of the principle of sphere sovereignty in the political arena can also be ilIustrated in terms of the school struggle in the Netherlands. The anti-revolutionary program insisted upon the free development and establishment of the schools in the Netherlands. Rather than advocating a state monopoly upon public education. Kuyper vigorously defended the position that the state should encourage and accommodate the establishment of schools throughout the Netherlands by associations united by common conviction and confession. Justice in the area of education demanded that the state encourage, for example, the formation of Christian schools by associations of Christian believers or parents. The state should not determine the curriculum or worldview that shapes the instruction of the schools; this was the prerogative of those who established schools in accordance with their convictions or principles.


Consistent with this emphasis upon the free development of the various life spheres under the sovereignty of God, Kuyper also insisted upon the freedom of Christian believers to express and implement their unique worldview in every area of life.6 In the articulation and implementation of its distinctive worldview, Calvinism, as the most consistent expression of the Christian faith, stands diametrically opposed to the unbelief and anti-Christian principles characteristic of alternative worldviews. The consistent application of the worldview of Calvinism reauired according to Kuyper a deliberately antithetical posture toward any position that was contrary to its unique standpoint and understanding of God’s ordinances.

The idea of the antithesis

One of the primary principles, accordingly, for which Kuyper is known is that of the antithesis between faith and unbelief, an antithesis that runs through every area of life. Not only the “true” and the “false” church, there is also a sharp difference between anti-revolutionary and revolutionary politics, between Christian education carried out on the basis of biblical principles and secular education, between a Christian and Marxist view of the marketplace, between a Christian and a non-Christian labor union, and so on. When Christian believers seek to live obediently under the lordship of Jesus Christ, they will find themselves opposed, at every point. to the principles of unbelief and rebellion against the kingship of Jesus Christ.

For Kuyper. the antithesis between faith and unbelief is an inescapable feature of human life after the fall into sin. Due to the fall into sin, all human beings are by nature opposed to and in rebellion against the true God. This opposition and rebellion are born from a heart-felt enmity against God that has pervasively corrupted all aspects of human life. Left to themselves, all men by nature are opposed to God’s sovereign claim upon them and seek to suppress His truth in unrighteousness. Only through the regenerating and renewing work of God’s grace in Christ and by the Spirit is the human heart able to be subdued again to obedience and brought captive to Christ. Between the heart and life of the unregenerate and the regenerate, therefore, there is a great gulf fixed. This antithesis shows itself in all the dimensions of human life and calling.

Anyone acquainted with Kuyper’s life and efforts will be well aware of his insistence upon this radical antithesis between faith and unbelief. Perhaps no other feature of Kuyper’s position provoked more hostility and denunciation than his insistence that Christian believers act all the way down the line in accord with the distinctive principles of God’s Word. Kuyper was insistent that the Calvinist believers in the Netherlands had to establish schools based upon their own principles and convictions. He likewise insisted that Calvinism gave rise to a distinctive political platform and program. The same was true for such areas of life as business and economics.

One of the distinctive fruits of Kuyper’s emphasis upon the antithesis was the proliferation of Calvinistic associations and efforts based upon the distinctive principles of the Calvinist worldview. Among these associations and efforts were: the formation of the Anti-revolutionary Party; the establishment of Calvinistic school associations; the founding of the Free University; the development of Calvinistic business and economic associations; the erection of Christian institutions of mercy and care, and the like.7


This emphasis upon the antithesis was, for Kuyper, a necessary implication of the life-embracing claims of the lordship of Jesus Christ. If God as Creator enjoys the right of ownership and dominion over His creation-kingdom, then the creature owes Him obedience from the heart in all areas of life. The office of every creature is to do all things to the glory of God by living in obedience to His ordinances. Though the fall into sin has radically corrupted the human heart and set all men by nature on a course of rebellion against God, the office and calling of man as God’s image-bearer remains the same. Through the redeeming work of Christ. the people of God are being restored to a right relationship with God and to the office/calling for which they were first created.

Thus, in Kuyper’s development of the doctrine of the antithesis, one of his most characteristic emphases was upon the Christian’s calling to serve Christ as King in every area of life. In a lengthy series of articles that first appeared in the periodical. De Heraut, and later published in a three-volume work, Pro Rege,8 Kuyper gave expanded expression to this emphasis. The calling of the Christian believer. nurtured and directed by the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom, extends into every aspect of human life. The claim of Christ upon the believer is, according to Kuyper. a totalitarian or life-embracing one. Just as every square inch of the created order belongs to God, so every square inch of it is under the reclaiming power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is King, not only of the church, but also of every legitimate human calling and institution. The principle that “whether we eat or whether we drink,” we are to do it to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31), holds true for every facet of creaturely life. Whether it is farming, business, family life, art, culture, science and recreation — all of these stand under the authority of God, Creator and Redeemer of all of life.

The two-fold development of science

Among the implications of this emphasis upon the antithesis and the lordship of Christ over all of life, none was more significant than Kuyper’s insistence upon the two-fold development of science, either in the service of the true God or in rebellion against Him. Just as the antithesis between faith and unbelief cuts through other areas of life, in the realm of science or human knowledge this antithesis is particularly evident.9 The lordship of Christ is as decisive to our scientific labors as it is in any other enterprise.

Defining science broadly to include not only the natural sciences but also what in English-speaking circles are called the “humanities,” Kuyper argued that Calvinism was naturally interested in all legitimate study and understanding of the creation. Because Calvinism stressed the doctrine of God as Creator. and because it understood the legitimacy of every human activity carried out in fulfillment of the cultural mandate to exercise “dominion” over the creation (Gen. 2:26–27), science was a legitimate and indispensable human calling. The scientific study and knowledge of all created things was, according to Kuyper, a worthy pursuit, an important expression of the Christian’s service to God as Creator and Redeemer. Science fell under the same obligation to do all to the glory of God as with any other legitimate calling. As a legitimate life-sphere in its own right, Kuyper believed that the academy or the university ought to be free to pursue its particular calling without the inappropriate intrusion of state or church authorities.

Furthermore, Kuyper maintained that the antithesis between faith and unbelief could not be ignored in the field of science. Here, as in all other areas of life, the distinctive principles of Calvinism gave rise to a form of science or scholarship that was radically opposed to that science, which is shaped by non-christain or antichristian principles. Just as in politics or in business, so in the area of science and education there is no escaping the clash of worldviews or the radical implications of the Christian faith. Though there may be some areas of commonness between science within a Christian and non-Christian context, the antithesis be tween regenerate and unregenerate humanity expresses itself in a twofold human consciousness.10 The radical difference of heart-commitment between the regenerate and unregenerate inevitably produces. Kuyper maintained, two kinds of science.

Kuyper’s claim that there is an antithesis between faith and unbelief in the field of science constitutes one of the most influential and enduring aspects of his legacy. When Kuyper first began to insist upon a twofold development of science, he was strongly opposed by the mainstream viewpoint of “positivist” science that claimed to be neutral and objective. Kuyper’s insistence upon two kinds of science was, in his day, a radical departure from the consensus that science was to be pursued without the influence of pre-scientific or religious convictions of any kind. Today, Kuyper’s viewpoint has become far more common. The school of apologetics, for example, associated with the name of Cornelius Van Til and commonly known as presuppositionalism is an outworking of Kuyper’s reforming insights regarding science and its development from a consistently Christian standpoint.11 (To be continued.)


1. The English rendering of Kuyper’s language, “sphere sovereignty,” tends to suggest that Kuyper viewed these spheres as isolated from and unrelated to each other. Kuyper’s language emphasizes more the unique task and appropriate authority delegated by God to each sphere of life.

2. Lectures on Calvinism, p. 79.

3. “Sphere Sovereignty,” p. 466. 

4. This concern to prevent any human authority from assuming undue power over the other spheres of life is clearly evident in the following statement from Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (p. 91): “In this independent character a special higher authority is of necessity involved and this highest authority we intentionally call — sovereignty in the individual social spheres, in order that it may be sharply and decidedly expressed that these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and that the State cannot intrude here, and has nothing to command in their domain. As you feel at once, this is the deeply interesting question of our civil liberties.”

5. One of the striking features of Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty is the imprecision with which he delineated these various lifespheres. Rather than providing a careful and exhaustive list of the primary life-spheres, Kuyper tends to mention a number of different institutions and areas of life to illustrate their diversity and to oppose any illegitimate “blurring of the boundaries” between them.

6. There is some ambiguity at this point in Kuyper’s address, “Sphere Sovereignty.” Though this language is used to articulate the diversity of life spheres as created and ordered by God, Kuyper also uses it to cover the rather different idea that there are a diversity of worldviews or principles that require expression in the antithetical development of human life. Thus, for example, if Calvinist principles demand the establishment of a “free” and Calvinistic university, then Catholic principles demand the establishment of a Catholic university. Kuyper expresses this point toward the conclusion of his address, “Sphere Sovereignty” (pp. 484–5): considering that something begins from principle and that a distinct entity [e.g. a university] takes rise from a distinct principle, we shall maintain a distinct sovereignty for our own principle and for that of our opponents across the whole sphere of thought. That is to say, as from their principle and by a method appropriate to it they erect a house of knowledge that glitters but does not entice us, so we too from our principle and by its corresponding method will let our own trunk shoot up whose branches, leaves and blossoms are nourished with its own sap.”

7. Those who are acquainted with many of the Reformed communities in North America that have been influenced by Kuyper’s views will recognize similar developments. The emphasis upon the antithesis and the need for separate Christian organizations (schools, political parties, business associations, labor unions, agricultural associations, rest homes, schools for those with handicaps and other distinctive organizations) is, in part, an evidence of Kuyper’s influence. For example, among many of the post-WWIl Dutch immigrants to Canada and the United States, a strong Kuyperian emphasis upon the need for distinctively Christian organizations was present.

8. Volumes I–III Kampen: J.H Kok, 1911. Unfortunately, though these volumes contain some of the most striking expressions of Kuyper’s views, they have not been translated into English.

9. In addition to his chapter on “Calvinism and Science” in his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper set forth his understanding of the twofold development of science in a comprehensive way in his three-volume work, Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid (Amsterdam: J.A. Wormser, 1894). A portion of this work has been translated into English with the title, Principles of Sacred Theology (with intro. by B.B. Warfield; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968 [1898]).

10. Though Kuyper is sometimes misunderstood to have taught that the twofold development of science means that the non-regenerate know absolutely nothing about the created order that is true, his actual position acknowledged that the non-regenerate know many truths, especially those at the “lower” level of the (empirical) sciences. Kuyper accounted for this in at least two ways: first. it is practically impossible to think in a consistently anti-Christian manner, since the truth is ultimately inescapable and irrepressible; and second. God by His common grace (more on this in the next section of this article) enables the non-regenerate to have some limited knowledge of the truth, despite his rebellion against God.

11. See Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955), pp. 160ff., for an example of Van Til’s appreciation for Kuyper.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.

Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader Edited by James D. Bratt

Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) is a significant figure in the history of the Netherlands and one of the most remarkable figures in the annals of Calvinism.

Kuyper celebrated the Reformed founders, subscribed heart and soul to their teachings, and worked ceaselessly to restore their authority in an age that had either forgotten them or contradicted their word. From their theology, Kuyper extruded a whole worldview, and by that worldview he hoped to refashion the politics, scholarship, art and social arrangements of his time. “Calvinism” was his soul and system, the purest form of Christianity, the treasure of the past, the hope of the future. This anthology published in the cennetial year of Kuyper’s famous Stone Lectures, gathers sixteen key writings by Kuyper never before available in English. Included are his definitive statements on politics. education, culture, and the religious currents and social problems of his time. Also included are Kuyper’s own conversion narrative, his critiques of modernism and of holiness theology, his proposals on common grace and Calvinist politics, his reflections on a culture in thrall to pantheism and evolution, and his classic address on “sphere sovereignty.”

In his introduction, editor James Bratt, sets Kuyper’s work in its 19th century context and shows the relevance of his ideas to contemporary debates on modernism, evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Bratt also provides helpful explanatory notes and a brief introduction to each piece. Photographs, cartoons and short excerpts from some of Kuyper’s better-known works make this an attractive volume that will stand as the definitive Kuyper anthology for years to come.

James D. Bratt is Professor of History at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the author of Dutch Calvinism in Modern America.

Available from:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2551 Jefferson Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49503 TEL: (800) 253-7521 FAX: (616) 459-6540