The Social Vision of Abraham Kuyper
Insights from a lecture given by Vincent Bacote of Wheaton College at Acton University 2017.
Abraham Kuyper (b. 1837 in Holland) is one of the most influential practical theologians of all time.
A parish pastor who ran for congress (Tweede Kamer), transformed Dutch society, and ended up prime minister, Kuyper (pronounced, BTW, COW-puhr, not KY-phur) enlisted almost superhuman dynamic energy to create space for Christians and others to thrive alongside one another.
He’s really only well-known in the Netherlands and in circles worldwide made up of enthusiastic Reformed/Gereformeerde/Hervormde theologians.
He was a progressive, “modern” theologian and pastor as a young man, who underwent twin conversions:
- Ethical. Became more humble and teachable.
- Confessional. Kuyper started attending prayer meetings of church members who were staying away from his “revisionist” sermons and discovered something of true substance there. He ended up aligning himself with the “kleine luyden” (the marginalized, less-socially-important people, many of whom could not vote). He ended up seeing himself as their leader and champion.
He eventually stepped away from vocational church life to run for congress, finding himself in the “Anti-revolutionary Party.” They were fighting against the secularist/laicist aftermath of the French Revolution (100 years prior).
You might say: “Why fight against something that happened 100 years ago?” Well, a Chinese historian was asked recently what he thought of the French Revolution. His answer (in 2015): It’s too early to tell (!).
Kuyper landed a seat in the Tweede Kamer (lower house), and began re-making the country. His writing output was beyond prodigious. He wrote daily and weekly columns for De Standaard and De Heraut. Much like Martin Luther, he used waterfalls of the printed word to bathe his nation in new ways of thinking. It led to several nervous breakdowns.
A parishioner, early on in his career, asked Kuyper: “Why can’t I send my child to a school with the bible?” This “School met de Bijbel” idea never left him; subconsciously, he turned it into brick and mortar, opening the Free University of Amsterdam (Conservative Christian) in 1880, and fighting for radical school choice for all (not just the rich) throughout his life, culminating in the 1917 educational pluralism law in the Netherlands, which has produced thriving primary schools of all ideologies to this day, all on an equal playing field, and at a cost of about half per student of what American taxpayers pay.
This will be the topic of another post, but AK developed sophisticated thinking around what he called sphere sovereignty. At the risk of over-simplifying, family, government, and church should stay out of each other’s business. The rules vary from sphere to sphere and one sphere doesn’t tell the other sphere what to do–thus it is fundamentally anti-totalitarian. Kuyper’s concepts around this idea had a huge effect on the large “Christian Democrat” political parties in Europe, and in a way, led to the welfare state which developed after WW2.
There are two kinds of Kuyper fans, in the 21st Century, and yes, they sometimes wear Kuyper T-shirts:
- Common Grace fans.
- Antithesis fans.
A major theme in AK’s thinking, common grace is available to everyone. Dutch: gratie (rhymes with “Yahtzee”). Because God rules over all creation and all humankind, he gives them grace to live in his world and carry out their calling. God shows all men favor by holding their sin in check so that they are able to live together in society and so that His church can live and grow in the world (a quote from Charles Terpstra).
AK had practical reasons for creating the common grace canvas on which to paint his public engagement in politics. It gave him backing for working with all kinds of groups, Christian and secular, since everyone has access to gratie. He needed allies in order to form a coalition government and get some of his ideas passed into law.
Kuyper’s famous quote, “There is not one square centimeter of creation where God does not say: That’s mine!” reflects his understanding of common grace.
Regenerated Christians, on the other hand, are recipients of special saving grace. Kuyper: genade. This sets them apart from all the rest of the human race. All facts can only be seen from two perspectives: regenerated and secular. This antithesis means, that although we share common grace, the regenerated Christian acts differently in the world than a secular person.
As Bacote summed it up: Go ahead and get out in the world, but remember who you are (a child of God) when you get there. We Christians will come to different conclusions about everything.
Kuyper never wanted a theocracy, because regenerated Christians will always be in the minority. But we are not to separate out into monasteries. Like Jesus and Paul, we are to engage the culture.
Special grace (genade) creates regenerated Christians who engage the culture with a different worldview, and engage others with our common grace to move God’s will forward in the world.
Also, AK was down on slavery, pro-women, had a huge effect on Dutch education, and set Dutch verzuiling (sovereignty n one’s own circle) in motion. He said some very racist things, was a workaholic, never groomed a successor, and wasn’t fully aware of how overbearing he was.
But he also is among the most creative Christian leaders of all time in describing how best to be “in the world but not of the world,” and far from being an ivory tower theologian, he walked his talk and set out to transform his nation.