Abraham Kuyper bust

Many Sons Had Father Abraham

In 2013, we saw the publication of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, the masterful biography by James D. Bratt. When the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Richard Mouw, announced his retirement, the July/August 2013 issue of Perspectives reminded us how much a Kuyperian our leading Reformed Evangelical has been. Mouw has been candid in his deep appreciation of the Kuyperian legacy and also judiciously critical of some parts of it. I want to engage the legacy that these two scholars (both mentors of mine) have put before us.

As long as the legacy continues so powerfully among us it needs this critical engagement, not least because it has leaked out of the Reformed tradition, where it may cause more harm than good. (Think of the lineage from Kuyper to Dooyeweerd to Rookmaker to Schaeff er to Dobson to Falwell and the Religious Right.) Not that Kuyper is responsible for this harm, but then again, what did our Lord say about a tree and its fruit? In what follows, forgive me if I too easily slip between Kuyper and Kuyperians.

AT MY FATHER’S KNEE

I begin with a personal report. I grew up knowing the name of Abraham Kuyper. My father was a Reformed Church in America pastor in New York and New Jersey. When I was a child, I noticed that he had two copies of a little white-covered book, Christianity and the Class Struggle, on his bookshelves. My first summer home from college, I took one down and read it and was inspired.

My grandpa, an immigrant from Amsterdam, when discussing the strictness of the Dutch community in Paterson, N.J., would say, “Ja, maar Dominee Kuyper fietste op Zondag!” (Yes, but Dominee Kuyper rode his bike on Sundays.) My mother later told me that my grandpa was devoted to Kuyper.

Though I was RCA, I went to Calvin College and entered the halls of Kuyperianism. It was from Kuyper that we were taught what Calvinism was. I heard it like gospel, good news, and figured that if you didn’t follow Kuyper, it must be simply that you hadn’t yet heard of him. His vision of cultural engagement was thrilling: “All of life is religion,” and we repeated that there is not “one square inch” of all the world of which Christ does not say “mine.” Our faith was not just for saving our souls – we had to save the whole secular world for Christ. Christian theology was not enough: We needed Christian philosophy, Christian politics, Christian economics and Christian labor unions. Not all of our professors were Kuyperians, and they disagreed about how much common ground there was between Christian and non-Christian culture, but the collegewide debates were stimulating. The word “Reformed” was redefined for me: It meant having a certain “world-and-life-view,” and it had nothing to do with belonging to some old church with “Reformed” in its name (think RCA).

Despite that (and on Mouw’s advice), I went to the RCA seminary in New Brunswick as the lone Kuyperian. There I was introduced to other Dutch theologians, and I discovered it was possible to be Reformed, know about Kuyper, even expertly, and not be a Kuyperian! In A.A. van Ruler I saw another kind of culturally engaged Christianity, drawn out of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I also learned that, historically speaking, to be Reformed was less about “worldview” (for centuries Calvinists had pretty much the same worldview as everybody else) and more about “how we are right with God.” I began to have my doubts. In 1984, when I was being gripped by the Belhar Confession, I no longer considered myself a Kuyperian. I had come to see Kuyper as just one more voice in the Reformed conversation, albeit a voice that was demanding, stimulating and often strident, as were the echoes of his voice among some Kuyperians (not Bratt or Mouw!).

Since then, off and on, I’ve been wrestling with Kuyperianism, pro and con by turns. Last summer, in an unintended preparation for the Kuyper-year, I read Karl Barth’s second commentary on Romans; three recent books by Rich Mouw, including The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper; and four books by Lesslie Newbigin. This combination made my three main issues gel.

THE ANTITHESIS

Among Kuyperians “the Antithesis” means that there is no common ground and no neutral territory between the kingdom of God and the human city and that these two realms are in opposition to each other. The line of the Antithesis is drawn through the totality of human life and culture: through science, politics, education and the visible church. This requires Christians and Christian organizations frequently to be in stances of opposition and separation. The motivation is for distinctly Christian institutions and organizations of all sorts to be on the righteous side of the Antithesis. There are hard and soft versions of this. The soft version is not separation or opposition, but “redeemed cultural discipleship.”

I am compelled, however, by Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans. The good news is that all persons and all institutions and organizations, Christian as well as non-Christian, stand equally under the judgment of the cross. The cross contradicts our every last effort and achievement of righteousness. The line of the Antithesis, as it were, is not vertical but horizontal and high and absolute, and under it is every political party, Christian or not, every Christian school no less than any secular school, every church, no matter how truly Reformed, and so on. (No wonder Barth was met with such hostility from the Dutch and not only from the Kuyperians.) All efforts to “positivize” righteousness fall under the judgment of Romans 2: Christian (Calvinistic) institutions for godly righteousness are, under the cross, no more righteous before God than are the pagan or humanistic institutions of Romans 1.

I don’t take Barth’s point to prohibit Christian schools and other organizations (although it certainly discourages seceding from liberal churches!). But it discounts stances of opposition or separation. It argues against such terminology as “redeemed cultural discipleship,” which suggests our efforts in discipleship have some actual or positive righteousness in themselves apart from the alien righteousness of Christ that is declared to us. It also means that we have to stop thinking that by our discipleship, cultural or otherwise, we can somehow advance the kingdom of God; we can only receive it (Luke 12:32).

Christian theology was not enough: We needed Christian philosophy, Christian politics, Christian economics and Christian labor unions.

The ring-canal of the Antithesis was brilliantly bridged by Kuyper with his doctrine of common grace. This doctrine is both attractive and problematic, and it is frequently gotten wrong (Mouw gets it right in his loveliest book, He Shines in All That’s Fair). It is a liberating category, but we’d best regard it not as a doctrine in its own right; rather, it’s a shortcut to a complex of other doctrines. It has the Augustinian weakness of positivizing grace, both saving and common, just as righteousness is positivized with the Antithesis. It makes both too much and too little of limited atonement, and it assumes a narrow postbiblical understanding of salvation – as in “saving” grace. We do better, for example, with an expanded and eschatological vision of the work of the Holy Spirit and the kingdom such as we get with van Ruler. But from this more biblical vision, as yet no bridges have been built as noble as Kuyper’s bridge of common grace. Perhaps the vision is too fluid and dynamic, which the Spirit would be.

CREATION, FALL, REDEMPTION

Kuyperians typically say that the so-called ground motive of biblical religion is creation, fall, redemption. Kuyperians speak of redemption being the restoration of creation. Christian ethics gets grounded in the so-called creation order (to which our Lord appeals only once and St. Paul only twice). But my 35 years of close Bible study have convinced me that, from the Old Testament canon’s own orientation, the book of Exodus is more central than Genesis. Indeed, Genesis is written gazing backward from Mount Sinai, as a prologue addressing the question, “Who are we, how did we get here, and who is this God?” The ground motive of Israel’s faith was not the creation but the exodus from Egypt. Creation and redemption are important Old Testament themes (the Fall not so much), but they’re not the main ones. The Old Testament is certainly more prophetic and even more eschatological than this ground motive suggests. It is no coincidence that when I was being gripped by the eschatological appeal of the Belhar Confession was when I noticed that I was no longer a good Kuyperian.

Neither are they the main themes of the New Testament. The apostolic message always begins with the resurrection. In the New Testament, creation, fall and redemption are doctrines seen only in the light of the cross and resurrection, and redemption is oriented far more to the future than to the creation. For St. Paul, the resurrection is more than just a doctrine; it is the ground motive for a whole new magnificent worldview (see Ephesians 1 and Colossians). Should it not also ground the Reformed worldview? I know that many Christians ground their cultural engagement in the incarnation, but it’s clear that in the New Testament the incarnation serves the resurrection (even in the Gospel of John), not vice versa, just as in the Old Testament the story of creation serves the story of the exodus.

It is no coincidence that when I was being gripped by the eschatological appeal of the Belhar Confession was when I noticed that I was no longer a good Kuyperian.

I can think of two authors who offer a cultural engagement that is grounded in the resurrection: Oliver O’Donovan, in his Resurrection and Moral Order and, more so, Lesslie Newbigin, in many books. I had been put off of Newbigin by the church planters who kept repeating his one slogan (see below) like it was theological proof, and I read him only at the behest of my RCA friends in San Francisco. I was more than rewarded. Newbigin is churchly, sacramental, ecumenical and an evangelical catholic. He engages culture (and not just Western culture!), embraces a thoroughly Christian worldview and addresses the secular mind and its pretensions with gusto, expertise and missionary sympathy. He gets and appreciates the Barth critique. His biblical insight, his doctrine of the Holy Spirit and his eschatology are all stronger and more supple than Kuyper’s, and his ground motive is the resurrection. He exhibits Mouw’s wise call for “worldviewing” as opposed to “a” worldview. I think he’s better, point for point. I can see why my San Francisco colleagues named their new school after him.

But alas, Newbigin was not the leader Kuyper was. Time after time as prime minister, Kuyper could imagine a future and get the masses to go there with him. How many movements in how many fields did he start and keep going? And always his chief tool was his terminology, his words, his slogans, which had power to capture people’s imaginations and motivate them to action and sacrifice. The Antithesis, Common Grace, Sphere Sovereignty, even Presumptive Regeneration: these coinages were shortcuts to complex analyses and strategies, and people could grasp them and share them. Jim Bratt suggests that Kuyper was the first politician of the masses.

Newbigin did not offer that. He did not have that genius for capturing an issue in a word or two. The slogan he’s known for, “The church is for mission as a fire is for burning,” is not even his own (it’s from Emil Brunner) and it poorly represents his thought (unless you convert your understanding of “mission”). He is a Bucer where Kuyper is like Luther; the one irenic, integrated and balanced, and the other brilliant, judgmental, mercurial, complex, contradictory and ornery. Luther was as much a revolutionary as a reformer, and so was Kuyper. Newbigin’s legacy is more scriptural and catholic than Kuyper’s and less prone to ideology, but it is also less powerful and has moved fewer people. We need someone to write a good, inspirational and popular book to challenge us to a resurrection kind of cultural discipleship.

THE SQUARE-INCH THING

The most widely repeated slogan from Kuyper comes from the proclamation he made in a speech at the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine.’” (Translation in Jim Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, p. 488.) This proclamation, especially the second independent clause, continues to inspire the cultural engagement of many Christians, with the incentive being not the interests of ourselves but the interests of the Lord, who makes the audacious claim.

Kuyper’s wrong on this one. Christ does not say “mine.” The Lord Jesus does not cry “mine.” If anything, he would cry out “thine.”

Certainly our Lord has the right to make that claim, and no one else does. The devil made that claim at our Lord’s temptation, but he was lying, and maybe lying to himself. The core confession of Christians is “Jesus is Lord,” and I am by no means denying the absolute status and cosmic scope of his lordship, as we are taught it in Colossians and in the Revelation to John, with Psalm 24 in the background. But in the Revelation, when the sovereignty is his by acclamation, he accepts it as a lamb. He does not cry “mine.” In the Gospels, he claims it before the Sanhedrin on the night before he died, but he does not cry “mine.” He takes his throne upon the cross, the standard punishment for slaves, which form he takes (Philippians 2), and a slave, by definition, does not say “mine.” Among the seven last words from the cross he does not say “mine.” He doesn’t whisper it on Easter morning or even command it his ascension. (There he says, instead, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” This is in the way that God gave the kingship of Israel to David. All authority is in Jesus’ hands and at his discretion, but here he’s clearly saying “ours,” as in, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” which is why it’s not in his name only that baptism is commanded.)

Where in Scripture does Jesus ever cry “mine”? We might wish he had done so, as that would have given us more exciting marching orders. My challenge here is to Kuyperians, not Kuyper, and it is not merely a quibble. We ought not put words in the mouth of our Lord in order to inspire our program – you know, the third commandment and what our Lord said to Simon Peter about “getting behind” him. We ought not misrepresent him and his interests to ourselves or to the world beyond the church.

At stake is the tenor and character of our Lord’s sovereignty. Earlier in that Amsterdam speech, Kuyper asked, rhetorically, “What is sovereignty?” And he answered, “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?” Our Lord might have that right and the power, but he rejects that duty, and in Scripture he certainly doesn’t use his power to break and avenge. Not because Jesus is such a nice guy or a liberal; it’s just that that is not his strategy. Neither was it the strategy of the Lord God in the Old Testament. God suffered with God’s people, and God accepted much resistance to God’s will. As did the Lord Jesus.

To whom does our Lord say “thine”? His Father, of course, who gives the sovereignty right back to the Son, precisely because of the Son’s self-emptying. He holds the sovereignty from the Father and for the Father. He also might be saying “thine” to us – not that we possess it but that we too receive it as a gift: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Any attempts at cultural discipleship are purely and simply thanksgiving. This is what Mouw is getting at when he calls for a “Kuyperianism under the cross.” And this brings us full circle to the Antithesis: the contradiction of Barth’s “No” is actually the good news of God’s gift.

If I have fired a shot through the window, as the Dutch expression goes, I do not aim to underestimate all the powerful good in the legacy of Kuyper, as Bratt and Mouw have been laying out for us, and even the “square-inch” motto need not be an obstacle. I had to get past the Newbigin slogan to get to Newbigin. We might do the same with Father Abraham, as Bratt recently recommended on these pages: “I propose we give the ‘square inch’ citation … a rest for twenty years; we get it already. Evangelicals can/must engage this world in all its dimensions. … Let’s concentrate instead on another line from the heart of that speech: ‘It cannot be said often enough: money creates power for the one who gives over the one who receives’” (July/August 2013). Well, that puts me in mind of the little book on the class struggle that was my first taste of Kuyper. Not a bad place to go back to.


Daniel Meeter walks on Sundays to preach at Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.