Will the Real Kuyper Stand Up?

This is a Kuyper behind whom I can line up; Church is a distinct sphere with limited responsibilities

“Kuyper’s theory of ‘sphere sovereignty’ incorporated central tenets of the Calvinism he had inherited, but radically reconstructed its traditional political obligations. The Reformed tradition within which Kuyper operated had long assumed that the role of government was to uphold the moral claims of Scripture, and to effect a confessional culture in which societal norms paralleled those of believers. Kuyper’s great contribution to the Reformed tradition was to overturn this consensus.”

 

From Crawford Gribben’s recent review of George Marsden’s book on 1950s America (and more):

His conclusion draws from the philosophy and political strategies of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the renowned theologian, newspaper editor, and founder of the Free University in Amsterdam, who also found time to become the Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–05).

Kuyper’s theory of “sphere sovereignty” incorporated central tenets of the Calvinism he had inherited, but radically reconstructed its traditional political obligations. The Reformed tradition within which Kuyper operated had long assumed that the role of government was to uphold the moral claims of Scripture, and to effect a confessional culture in which societal norms paralleled those of believers. Kuyper’s great contribution to the Reformed tradition was to overturn this consensus, sometimes at substantial risk to himself, arguing for a more limited view of the responsibilities of government, and emphasizing that it ought not to intrude into the “spheres” of family, church, and voluntary associations. Kuyper argued that believers and unbelievers were divided by an “antithesis” that was simultaneously spiritual and existential, and so advocated the establishment of denominational schools and universities within which believers of different kinds could be separately educated.

This intrusion of sharp religious distinctions into the public square was balanced by Kuyper’s advocacy of “common grace”—the notion that all of humanity, as God’s image-bearers, were recipients of divine kindness—which permitted the construction of a public culture that could be non-confessional and non-denominational. Believers, in other words, could organize in robustly confessional institutions within a broader political environment that respected religious difference while enshrining the non-confessional principles of “natural law.” Kuyper’s utopia looked a lot like constitutional Americanisms, however far it would be from the sometimes theocratic assumptions of modern evangelicals.

This is a Kuyper behind whom I can line up. Church is a distinct sphere with limited responsibilities. Kuyperians use natural law instead of insisting on revealed truth in public life. Christian truth serves not as a basis for driving out the secularists and leftists but offers a strategy for embracing pluralism.

So why is it that the influence of neo-Calvinism flourished precisely during the most contested battles of the culture wars? One account would have to rely on Francis Schaeffer and his use of w-w to show why Christians could never bend the knee to a neutral public space. Along with that has to go a stress upon the neo-Calvinist notion of antithesis which does a handy job of dividing believers from unbelievers — why it doesn’t divide Calvinists from Arminians, or Protestants from Roman Catholics, or Christians from Jews is another matter.

D.G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.