Abraham Kuyper’s life was marked by the conviction that Christ’s lordship covers all of life and culture. He not only believed that all spheres of culture should be submitted to Christ and directed toward their creational design, but he built and led institutions in accordance with these convictions. Throughout his life, he led a political party, a church denomination, several local churches, a university, a newspaper, and the entire Dutch government. From local church pastor to prime minister, from the classroom to the halls of parliament, and from the writing desk to the public lecterns of government, Kuyper sought to view all of life through a distinctly Christian lens.
As the North American church moves out of a place of cultural dominance and into the cultural margins, we are faced with an important question: What is the church’s public calling? This question drove Kuyper’s life and writings, and his answers provide a compelling and constructive path forward for the contemporary church. Until now, Kuyper’s ideas have come through only a smattering of English translations. However, under the direction of general editors Jordan J. Ballor and Melvin Flikkema, Lexham Press and the Acton Institute have embarked on a project to translate into English, for the first time, all of Kuyper’s key works on public theology. Available in hardcover and digitally on Logos Bible Software, the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology project has ushered in an unprecedented time in Kuyperian studies. While only five of the twelve volumes are currently in print, these translations should allow Kuyper to instruct a new generation of Christians on how to view all of life under the lordship of Christ.
Written in 1879, Our Program is a summary of Kuyper’s political vision for the Netherlands, covering topics such as education, national defense, finance, and public hygiene. While there are certainly parts of Our Program that are outdated, it is striking to see how relevant the issues Kuyper dealt with still are. Particularly important is Kuyper’s discussions of religious liberty. Against those who wished to exclude religion from the public square, Kuyper argued that religion was essential to the flourishing of a nation: “Only where the religious element is still the mainspring of national life can there be strong government” (p. 53). At the same time, Kuyper rejected any attempt to establish legal and political hegemony for Christianity. He argued for freedom of conscience, stating that the conscience is a “boundary that the state may never cross” and the “immediate contact in a person’s soul of God’s presence” (pp. 69, 73). Thus, freedom of conscience is “the root of all civil liberties, the source of a nation’s happiness” (p. 73).
Our Program also provides an invaluable look at how Kuyper applied his doctrine of sphere sovereignty to concrete policy situations. According to Kuyper, God delegates his authority to certain spheres of life that have their own sovereignty and independence from the state: for example, the family, the church, the arts, business, and education. Each of these spheres ought to be free from being absorbed by another sphere. Long time students of the Kuyperian tradition will benefit from seeing Kuyper’s thought process as he works through the relationship of the state to the different spheres of society.
In the initial volume of the three-part work, Common Grace, Kuyper helpfully shows the biblical foundations of common grace—the belief that God’s grace restrains the worst effects of sin, allowing the unbeliever to achieve a degree of moral virtue and insight into the arts and sciences. Kuyper begins with Adam and traces how common grace works itself out through redemptive history. Kuyper sees common grace already at work in Adam and Eve, whose lives are spared instead of immediately dying after eating the forbidden fruit. God eventually binds himself, in the Noahic covenant, to extending common grace to the creation. In contrast to much modern theology, one of the most refreshing aspects of this volume is seeing a theologian take the biblical stories—especially the creation account in Genesis—literally and historically, and readers will benefit from Kuyper’s creative and insightful exegetical moves.
For Kuyper, particular grace and common grace are part of an integrated whole, constituting a unity that flows from Christ. Common grace makes special grace possible, and special grace gives common grace its goal. For example, without God’s common grace to Noah’s family, the line of the elect would have been cut off. One of the larger points of Common Grace is Kuyper’s belief that there is continuity between this world and the next. The new heavens and the new earth doesn’t mean that God completely destroys this world—a “germ form” of the original creation will eventually blossom into the fullness of glory in the eschaton (p. 595). As a result, Kuyper rejects the view that the church should separate itself from the world and that Christ’s significance for the church is only as redeemer of souls. Christ redeems by restoring this world—grace restores nature. Common Grace should certainly give pause to those who wish to co-opt Kuyper for a two kingdom perspective of Christ and culture (or at least popular versions of the two kingdom view), in which the creation is completely destroyed.
On the Church is an anthology of some of Abraham Kuyper’s most important writings on ecclesiology. Although Kuyper is well known as a public theologian, this work demonstrates that his ecclesiology undergirded the rest of his public work. As he labored as a politician, editor, professor, and public intellectual, he was living out his core convictions about the nature of the church. This volume shows how Kuyper’s understanding of the church developed throughout his life but also demonstrates his overarching emphasis on the need for the church to participate in all of spheres of society.
Two writings from this collection are especially important to understanding Kuyper’s ecclesiology. First, “Rooted and Grounded” is one of Kuyper’s most thorough articulations of the institute/organism distinction. Kuyper argues that there are two modes of the church’s existence. The institutional church is the gathered church, organized under pastoral leadership for teaching the Bible, administering the sacraments, and exercising church discipline. The organic church is scattered throughout the culture as Christ’s ambassadors. These two modes of the church’s existence are interdependent yet distinct and are both critical to its life and mission. The institutional church provides structure, direction, and support for the organic church as it flows out into all parts of society.
Second, “Twofold Fatherland” clearly lays our Kuyper’s understanding of how the church must relate to culture. Kuyper argues for the existence of three societies: the earthly homeland, the heavenly homeland, and the sinful world. Kuyper attempts to give dignity to Christians’ lives in the earthly homeland, while warning of the complete brokenness of the sinful world. Christians must be good citizens of their heavenly and earthly homes. Although a Christian’s earthly home has been distorted by sin, the Christian’s life can either be lived in harmony with the heavenly fatherland and in worship to God or lived in rebellion toward God’s design.
Towards the end of his career Kuyper produced a second trilogy, which draws and expands upon his work in Common Grace. First published in 1911, Pro Rege witnesses Kuyper revisiting various themes such as family life, church, the arts, science, and politics. His aim is to explore the implications of Christ’s rule, as both Creator and Redeemer, over the spheres of “everyday life” (2: xviii). Compared to his previous trilogy, the antithesis between the believer and unbeliever is emphasized to a greater degree. Common grace may create a shared cultural life between Christian and non-Christian; however, sin ultimately renders this shared life a zone of conflict. Whereas Common Grace stresses that God’s creational design is not aborted by sin, Pro Rege stresses that, in light of sin, all things must be brought under the redemptive lordship of the King.
In the initial volume of Pro Rege, Kuyper argues that while Jesus is Lord over all facets of life, his rule occurs in two different ways. Over the church, Christ’s rule is direct: He is the church’s origin and head, uniquely dictating the patterns and purposes of its earthly life. However, his rule over the rest of created life is indirect, mediated through creational structures, whose origin and design were established by Christ as Creator. In comparison to bringing the institutional church under Christ’s authority, bringing the rest of the spheres under Christ’s rule is much more challenging. After all, one must discern the original creational design of each sphere of life in order to “heal” them from the sickness of sin (p. 313). Both regenerate and unregenerate humanity, through common grace, can draw out the potencies of the created order and work alongside one another for the common good. However, the light of the gospel can further assist Christians in perceiving the proper structure and direction of God’s creation. Indeed, such is the calling of the church as organism: With the light of the gospel, the church is scattered into each sphere of life in order to redeem it.
No doubt readers will take issue with Kuyper at some points, for example his language regarding race and colonialism. Additionally, Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty, while a powerful conceptual tool, will need to be contextualized to concrete political situations. Nevertheless, these volumes not only provide helpful instruction on how to construct a theological lens through which to view all of life, but they also provide a much-needed example of innovative orthodoxy. Kuyper skillfully takes the rich resources of orthodox and historic Christianity, applying them with theological creativity to his unique cultural moment. Kuyper’s example should give the contemporary church hope that we can do the same. We look forward with great anticipation to the completion of this series, including the remaining volumes of Common Grace and Pro Rege, and the forthcoming works On Charity & Justice, On Islam, On Business and Economics, and On Education.