The Christian and the World

(What is the significance of Dr. Abraham Kuyper for the “problem of the relation of the Church to the world of culture”? Dr. Runner sets himself to describe Kuyper’s contribution in the concrete context of considerable difference of opinion in today’s Reformed community.)

This default on the part of the Calvinists of the Reformation period with respect to the cultural question meant that the germinal insight of Calvin, when it was treated at all by later theologians, acquired the the character of a purely theological subject. As the key to the proper solution of the problem of culture and of the Christian’s relation to the world it was utterly lost to view in the Epigonenzeit. Moreover, even as in Calvin, so in these men the doctrine of common grace never received complete treatment, even as a dogmatical subject, in one chapter or locus of theology. Kuyper writes of this at the beginning of his Common Grace as follows:(25)

“And when, in the footsteps of Calvin, the attention especially of the Reformed theologians was focused more particularly upon this extremely important subject, they did indeed work out its main features, but without making a separate chapter of it. For the most part they still treated it under the ‘virtues of the heathen’, ‘civic (common) righteousness’, ‘natural knowledge of God’ etc., but without ever bringing all the various parts belonging to this subject together into one orderly, connected discussion. Even our Catechism has no separate treatment of the subject, which, in turn, prevented my dealing with it in E Voto in a separate series of articles.”

So it is that Dr. Abraham Kuyper, looking back over the past history of the Reformed party, can declare in the Preface to his classic work on the subject: “No greater harm ever came to the Reformed principle than (came to it) through the imperfect development of the doctrine of Common Grace. Cause of this was the battle for the preservation of a position won with difficulty, an unceasing battle waged with both pen and sword. The mere struggle to get free of the ecclesiastical monopoly of Rome required in France, in The Netherlands and in Scotland such incredible exertions; added to that there was for Western Europe the lateral party of the Anabaptists, for northern and eastern Europe the sometimes extremely fierce opposition from the Lutherans, and on our own soil (thus, The Netherlands) the Arminian and Erastian disturbances. In this way Reformed ecclesiastical, political and scientific life, already in the first decades after its exceedingly swift rise, was hard put to it, and when the Reformed in The Netherlands and in Scotland through their brave resistance had finally secured for themselves the freedom to live, their best strength was spent, and with the newly won comfortable times an opulence crept in which emasculated them and robbed them of their desire for the ideal. So is to be explained how all dogmatical vigor first concentrated upon interminable polemics and then went to seed in doll rushing.

“There is no question of dogmatical development after 1650 either in Switzerland, The Netherlands, or in Scotland. Not a single original talent arose again in the field of dogmatics after the first period of florescence. The once so fresh stream of Reformed thought in theology chokes up. What had first been taken hold of in broad and ample fashion shrinks into narrow, typically Byzantine investigation, and that arid investigation lacks even the resilience to retrace its steps to the root of the Reformed idea. In their narrowness men keep at their unraveling work on the polemics most recently engaged in against the Arminians, and scarcely take note of anything of the new contrasts that are arising. In this manner the tie to the past was lost and men found themselves outside the intellectual movement of their times. For that reason there could no longer be any question of exercising an influence upon one’s time. It became a closing oneself up in one’s narrow circle, a withdrawing of oneself from the mighty movement of life. Meanwhile the aridity of hairsplitting called forth within the same circles a reaction of the heart, and the repugnance to all such intellectualistic theology, no longer to be held in check, shattered into sects of all kinds what in the 16th century had been one.

In this situation a change has now come, at least within our borders. Historical research into the Reformed life-principle awakened, and so was discovered the joyful truth that the Reformed, in their original development, had put forward principles which, when developed broadly and logically, naturally gave rise to an all-embracing life-and world-view possessing more than sufficient elasticity to determine in this century also our conscious position in the midst of the presently living generation. What at first appeared to offer only historical worth now acquired an utterly timely significance for the present. In this connection the question forced itself. to the foreground, how the Christian life as we understood it had to relate itself to the life of the world in all its expressions and gradations, and in what way our influence on public life, which once had reached so far and since had so pitiably been lost, could be restored. The answer to that question might not arise from a process of bargaining, but had to be derived from the Reformed principle itself, i.e., there had to be investigated, what creative idea had originally, in both theory and practice, governed for the Reformed their relation to the life outside of Christianity. Every Anabaptistic sect had isolated itself; in contrast with which the Reformed had chosen as their rule the apostolic idea of “all things are yours and ye are Christ’s”, and had with full awareness thrown themselves, with uncommon talent and resilience that overcame all obstacles, into the full life of humanity, in the midst of the turbulence of the nations. This character-trait, very pronounced in the history of all western Europe, could not be accidental; it had to find its explanation in an all-controlling fundamental conviction, and so what that governing root-idea was had now to be investigated.

In this inquiry it quickly appeared with unassailable potency that this root-idea lay before us in the doctrine of Common Grace, derived directly from the Sovereignty of the Lord, which is and remains the root-conviction for all Reformed thinking. If God is Sovereign, then his dominion must extend over all life and cannot be shut up within the walls of a church or the circle of Christians. The world outside of Christianity has not been abandoned to Satan, not to fallen man, nor to chance. God’s Sovereignty is also in the life of that unbaptized world great and all-controlling, and for that reason Christ’s church on earth, for that reason the child of God cannot summarily withdraw from that life. If his God is working in that world, then his hand too must be put to the plow in that world, and also there the Name of the Lord must be glorified. “Consequently, what above all had to be done was to bring once more to life the rich fundamental idea that was embodied in the doctrine of Common Grace.”

It must by now have become abundantly clear that Kuyper’s interest in the subject of common grace is much more than the interest of the scientific theologian alone. We see rising before us the responsible leader, first after Gwen van Prinsterer, of the army of Christian believers in The Netherlands. Kuyper is also in a very real sense a cultuur filisoof, and in his three-volume work De Gemeene Gratie we see the doctrine of common grace developed into a theory of the possibility, legitimacy and responsibility of cultural life.(26) After nineteen centuries of history the Church is here for the first time in possession of a worked-out theoretical accounting of the world of culture and of the Christian’s relation to it.



Should my description of Kuyper’s work require any further substantion, I would, in the first place, direct the reader to the contents of the work itself. There ample proof will be found of my contention. In addition, I can point to the title of a book by A. A. Van Ruler, Kuyper’s Idee eener Christelijke Cultuur, and to the words with which the book begins.(27)

“It cannot be said to be superfluous to ask the attention of the reader for Kuyper’s solution of the problem of Christian culture,…since it continues largely to govern the situation in The Netherlands in all the questions mentioned. The way in which we are accustomed to put the questions of christian politics, christian social-work, christian radio etc. is not conceivable apart from Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, the dominant in his idea of Christian culture.” There is also the doctoral dissertation of S. J. Ridderbos, with the title, De Theologische Cultuurbeschouwing van Abraham Kuyper.(28) If the qualifying word ‘theological’ in the title provides difficulty, I may refer my reader to what Ridderbos himself has to say about it: (29 )

“We have further limited our subject by speaking of Abraham Kuyper’s theological view of culture. With this formulation we arc serving notice that not only the historical, but also the special philosophical questions are left out of consideration by us as much as possible.” Immediately after that Ridderbos suggests the extent to which, in his view, practicaI cultural considerations were at work to produce De Gemeene Gratie when he writes:(30) “Because Kuyper’s mind was preeminently directed to the practice of life, it is not surprising that he repeatedly applied his general views to the various individual areas of culture. One does him perhaps even more justice by saying that he pushed onward from the particular problems (the school-question, politics) to the general (common grace, etc.).” Kuyper is himself fully aware of the distinctiveness of his work and of its eminently practical and cultural point of departure. Here is what he says:(31) “Although we have since 1878 (the date at which De Heraut began to be published) been repeatedly and constantly pointing to this ‘common grace,’ and although we have, with thanksgiving and interest, taken cognizance of the well-documented address on the subject of “De Algemeene Genade” published by Dr. Bavinck in 1894, up to now this momentous subject has not yet been treated in its total connection or in any Sense exhaustively stated, Thus there remained nothing for us to do but this time to blaze our own trail, least of all with the pretension as if herewith this portion of Dogmatics would be finished for good; hut, inasmuch as this subject cuts so deep into our life and into our contemporary struggles (emphasis mine), in order to furnish at least a first specimen of treatment, which can lead later to a more elaborated and rounded out dogmatical treatment.”

Obviously, Kuyper was conscious not only of the originality and pressing practical motivation of his conception, but also, as a consequence, of the tentative character (“first specimen”) of his formulations. Thus he says explicitly in his Preface:

“To a sharp formulation of this doctrine it will be possible to come only later. What had to be done first was, that all the historical and dogmatical material related to this doctrine be assembled and put in order under the sway of the principle…Completeness and a good arrangement of the material was here the main thing. It had to appear, of what far-reaching significance for all of life this Reformed ground-conviction was.”

We sense here again the practical urgency that Kuyper felt prompting him to carry out his task. That urgent practical need, we have already seen, was for an effective influence of the Christian body of citizens upon such problems as politics, education, social work, etc. For that, the Church had first to be drawn from the cultural isolation into which it had fallen by a gradual process which I have already described in Kuyper’s own language. The thing of prime importance was to cause Christians to see their responsibility in the public, the cultural life of the day. And Kuyper reasoned as follows: if our Cod concerns himself with that life, then we Christians must get to work, that also there the name of the Lord may be glorified. Kuyper felt not only this urgent need but also its great risks. Thus he ends his Preface with the following words:

“Spiritual as well as ecclesiastical isolation is anti-Reformed, and only then will this work accomplish the purpose I had in view, when it has broken this isolation, without, which God prevent!, ever anyone’s being tempted to lose himself in that world: it must not control him, but he it, in the strength of his God.”

The work which Kuyper here offered to the Church is obviously of universal validity; its significance and relevancy reach beyond the borders of his own little country into the whole wide world. Just as the Calvinism of the Reformer had been markedly ecumenical-minded, so Kuyper aspired to bring the Reformed of all nations back from the narrow range of conventicle meetings, to which their vision had deteriorated, to their original glorious calling of reforming the world after the principle of fife revealed in God’s Word. He speaks at the very beginning of a begillsel, a levensbeginsel (life-principle) that is deeper, of wider range than mere theological life. This principle, apart from the understanding of it, is the principle out of which Reformed Christians everywhere must live. Thus in his Preface Kuyper states expressly that he is presenting his book “to the Reformed Churches in all lands.” Here in America we who are Reformed ought not lightly pass by what Kuyper has given, fancying that we are faced with different problems and different situations. Kuyper knew better: the history of the Reformed Churches with respect to their place in the world had been the same everywhere; for causes general in the western world had been at work. And now the spiritual revival among the Calvinists in The Netherlands was with such divine force and providentially under such propitious human circumstances that from the beginning its talented leaders found themselves being given back to the common roots and uni· versa I principles. In the sixteenth century it was Geneva to which all who would be Reformed had to go; today it is The Netherlands. Recognition of this fact is a simple mark of Christian piety, which ever is alert to providences of Jehovah.

We have now accomplished the first purpose that we set for ourselves when we began: to see the historical place and the historic significance of Kuyper’s De Gemeene Gratie. In it, we saw, the Church was for the first time in her entire history in possession of a critical theory of the world of culture and of her relation to it. Surely it is no wonder that the following generation, busying itself with this tremendous heritage left to it, displayed differences as to some of the emphases, some questions of exegesis, even some matters of fundamental conception. Had not Kuyper himself foreseen the necessity of correcting and supplementing his work? Yet in all the subsequent debate it is important not to overlook the fact that all the participants who are Kuyper’s geloofsgenoten (comrades in faith) are agreed with him in his main purpose:(32) there are none who would follow the path of Anabaptistic withdrawal from cultural pursuits, nor an y who think of allowing a higher estimate to be put upon man fallen. Moreover, all participants to the debate are agreed that we must enter the world of culture essentially in the way Kuyper proposed.

Time no longer will permit us to enter into alI the questions surrounding Kuyper’s work De Gemeene Gratie that have been debated within the last thirty-five years. However, this last point does most assuredly have to be touched upon. I said that all the participants to the debate are in essential agreement with Kuyper’s views as to the manner in which Christians are to relate themselves to the world of culture. But what were his views here? A discussion of this point ought not, in my opinion, to be delayed any longer.

For on this question of the how—let us not close our eyes to it—not only do hesitancy and uncertainty characterize the mind of the Christian Reformed Church generally, but in the case of certain of her more vocal representatives rather basic disagreement appears to exist. A case in point is the difference between the view expressed by our esteemed president, Dr. Spoelhof, in his contribution to the volume God-centered living and the view held by the Calvinistic Culture Association as it was expressed in my address Het Roer Om! Of course, that is but one concrete in· stance. The disagreement among us is far more general than that. Always—it may be the question whether a Christian has to treat the field of logic differently from the unbeliever, or whether the necessity exists generally of a radical-Christian reformation of the various sciences, or of the interpretation of literature—always, I say, it soon appears that wholly diverse views are entertained in our circles. In all these cases the point at issue is the relation that exists between common grace and the antithesis. For example, I have heard several of my colleagues put it this way: “Once we had a generation of students with an appreciation of common grace; now all they seem to know about is the antithesis.”

(to be continued in October issue)

(25) G.G. I, p.5

(26) It is this fact that eminently sets off the work of Kuyper from that of Bavinck, Hodge and from the Article of Prof. John Murray on the subject of Common Grace, which appeared in Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. V.

(27) Published by G.F. Callenbach, N.V., Nijkerk (no date).

(28) Published by J.H. Kok, N.V., Kampen, 1947.

(29) Op. cit., p. 8.

(30) Loc. cit.

(31) G.G. I p. 5 f.

(32) cf. Schilder, Wat is de hemel? p. 294.