Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction
Reviewed by David McNutt, Biblical and Theological Studies, Wheaton College
What is the role of theology in public life? How should theology relate to other aspects of our lives? Those who are keen to explore such vital questions will surely benefit from studying the work of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the Dutch neo-Calvinist pastor, theologian, journalist, and politician. Richard Mouw offers one avenue of exploring Kuyper’s theology in this succinct yet insightful introduction. Mouw’s book is an accessible overview of Kuyper’s life and work, and it will serve well those who are seeking to become more familiar with Kuyper’s thought or to orientate their further study of his theology.
Kuyper had what can confidently be described as a remarkable career. It is not an exaggeration to claim that he was among the most influential figures within the religious and political life of the Netherlands for fifty years and that he is among the most significant – and controversial – individuals within the recent theology of the Reformed tradition.1Mouw appropriately calls Kuyper one of “the most energetic ‘multitaskers’ in the history of Christian thought” (x): he served as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, which he later left due to his concerns about its liberal tendencies in order to establish another Reformed denomination; he founded and wrote articles for a newspaper, The Standard; he helped to establish the Free University of Amsterdam, where he taught theology; and he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, a Christian political party, which he led as a member of the Dutch Parliament and even as the Dutch Prime Minister from 1901-05.2 As remarkable as these achievements are, according to Mouw, Kuyper’s true legacy is found in his public theology.
Mouw’s introduction to Kuyper’s thought is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, short and personal – characteristics that are both its strength and weakness. Mouw, President and Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, addresses a number of basic themes of Kuyper’s thought in concise chapters. Given its brevity, the book does not explore these themes with great depth; several of the chapters are very short – sometimes only a few pages – and at times they read more like reflections or musings than full chapters. Taken as a whole, however, the work offers an effective overview of many of the primary aspects of Kuyper’s theology.
This assessment of Kuyper’s thought is also intentionally personal. That is to say, Mouw focuses on those aspects of Kuyper’s work that have been and are particularly meaningful to him, especially facets of his theology of culture. The author recounts that he had previously read some of Kuyper’s material, but he was particularly drawn to his writing on public life in the context of the turmoil of secular university life in the 1960s. The crisis of faith that Mouw experienced during that time was assuaged by Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, the Stone Lectures that he delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898. Mouw explains why Kuyper’s work was so significant to him personally:
In Kuyper’s robust Calvinism I discovered what I had been looking for: a vision of active involvement in public life that would allow me to steer my way between a privatized evangelicalism on the one hand and the liberal Protestant or Catholic approaches to public discipleship on the other hand. I have attempted to walk in this way ever since. (ix)
Such a personal lens brings vibrancy to Mouw’s writing and an attention to the ongoing relevance of Kuyper’s theology – not only within Mouw’s work but also within the broader theological discourse. However, the possible shortcoming of such an approach is that Mouw’s attention to those areas of Kuyper’s theology that have been personally significant to him means that other noteworthy areas of his work may not receive their due consideration. It should be noted that within his other work, Mouw has demonstrated the ability to consider Kuyper’s theology in greater detail and to develop his own theology in the Kuyperian tradition.3 But in this work he offers more of an overview than an in-depth study. Still, Mouw effectively covers a substantial portion of Kuyper’s theology with a personal touch in a relatively short amount of space.
The book is divided into two sections, the first of which addresses some of the primary themes of Kuyper’s theology, especially those aspects that concern the relationship between theology and culture. For example, Mouw emphasizes Kuyper’s affirmation of the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ over all spheres of life, which was famously summarized by Kuyper: “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!’” (4). Related to this is Kuyper’s belief that humanity received a “cultural mandate” from God in creation with the divine command to “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28), which entails a call to all forms of cultural activity. With that in mind, Mouw discusses in greater detail Kuyper’s notion of “sphere sovereignty,” according to which each sphere of life – for example, the family, politics, economics, the arts, and science – has its own place within God’s design of creation and each sphere fulfills different cultural purposes. As such, according to Kuyper, humanity’s cultural life is not meant to be dominated by the church because while such an arrangement rightly points to God’s rule, it places authority over all spheres of life in the hands of the church. Neither is our cultural existence meant to be guided by a secularist view, which, Kuyper argues, rightly removes these spheres from the control of the church but inappropriately and simultaneously removes them from the rule of God. Instead, Kuyper calls for a vision of human culture according to which God rules over all spheres of life, and the church “occupies a specific sphere, an area of cultural activity that exists alongside other spheres” (58). Among the other themes of Kuyper’s thought introduced by Mouw are his affirmations of “pluriformity,” or the many-ness and complexity of human life, the “antithesis” that exists between the reality of humanity’s fallenness and the life of those redeemed in Christ, and his doctrine of “common grace,” according to which God extends favor to all of humanity such that, despite the reality of sin, Christians might discover examples of truth or beauty in the work of non-Christians.
In the second section of the book, Mouw turns to a consideration of the relevance of Kuyper’s theology for the twenty-first century.4 In many cases, Mouw suggests, Kuyper’s thought can be updated effectively and perhaps surprisingly employed within today’s context. For example, he points to the possible contributions of Kuyperian theology within the relationship between Christianity and Islam, his affirmation of Christ’s absolute lordship that is sometimes absent from an overly personalized evangelicalism, and his encouragement for Christians to be engaged in public life. In other cases, however, Mouw points to some of the shortcomings of Kuyper’s work. For example, he critiques the “fairly limited role” (99) that Kuyper gave to the church within his construal of cultural life. Much more seriously, Mouw points out that Kuyper’s theology unfortunately and undeniably contained racist elements that contributed to the Afrikaner apartheid thinking that characterized white Dutch culture in South Africa. Such beliefs, Mouw rightly states, require not just updating but “straightforward repudiation” (81).
There are, of course, other aspects of Kuyper’s theology that Mouw wholeheartedly embraces, yet there are many facets of Kuyper’s thought that could be explored in greater detail. To take but one example, Mouw briefly discusses the implications of Kuyper’s theology for the sphere of the arts – a particular interest, Mouw notes, within his own congregation, Bel Air Presbyterian Church. However, much more could be said about this issue than what Mouw is able to discuss in such a short space. Kuyper stands as one of the few theologians in the Reformed tradition – along with fellow Dutch neo-Calvinists Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), and Hans Rookmaaker (1922-77) – who has given significant space to a consideration of the relationship between theology and the arts.5 Such contributions are crucial in a tradition that is often better known for the admonitions of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin regarding the arts.6 With that in mind, those seeking an extended discussion of a particular aspect of Kuyper’s theology will benefit from reading Mouw’s introduction as a means of orientation before undertaking further study. In this particular case, Kuyper addresses the arts in his lecture “Calvinism and Art” from his Lectures on Calvinism.7 Within this lecture, he discusses why Calvinism did not develop a specific artistic style, how it informs an understanding of the nature of art, and the ways that Calvinism actually contributed to the advancement of the arts. For example, in his consideration of the arts as gifts given to humanity by God, Kuyper refers to the task of the arts to anticipate the restoration of creation in the midst of its brokenness:
Standing by the ruins of this once so wonderfully beautiful creation, art points out to the Calvinist both the still visible lines of the original plan, and what is even more, the splendid restoration by which the Supreme Artist and Master-Builder will one day renew and enhance even the beauty of His original creation.8
As this one example demonstrates, Mouw’s brief study does not exhaust the breadth and depth of Kuyper’s theology. However, that is not its goal; it seeks, rather, to introduce readers to the work of a theologian who was influential in his day and remains so in ours. With that in mind, those seeking an overview of Kuyper’s thought from someone who has been personally transformed by his theology and who thus believes that Christians should care deeply about the broader culture will be indebted to Mouw’s work.
Cite this article
- For more on the Reformed tradition in general, see, for example, Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011); James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010); Joel R. Beeke, ed. Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust: 2008); and Donald K. McKim, Introducing the Reformed Faith: Biblical Revelation, Christian Tradition, Contemporary Significance (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
- For a more complete biography of Kuyper, see, for example, Frank Vandenberg, Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960).
- See, for example, Richard J. Mouw, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012); Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World(Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010); Praying at Burger King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007); Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today’s World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004); and He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
- For other efforts to consider the relevance of Kuyper’s theology for today, see, for example, E. M. Conradie, ed., Creation and Salvation: Dialogue on Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for Contemporary Ecotheology (Leiden: Brill, 2011); Vincent Bacote, The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005); and Luis E. Lugo, ed., Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000). See also the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (www.ptsem.edu/kuyper).
- For more on the Dutch neo-Calvinists and their relationship to the arts, see, for example, Jeremy S. Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999).
- For more on the Reformed tradition and the arts, see, for example, William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
- Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism and Art” in Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1931), 142-170. For more on Kuyper’s Stone Lectures, see, for example, Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
- Kuyper, “Calvinism and Art,” 155.