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Abraham Kuyper ’s approach to public engagement (his public theology) emphasizes both a “common” element as well as distinctive Christian identity. In this essay Vincent Bacote considers the contrasting approaches to public theology of Max Stackhouse and Ronald Thiemann and then offers a summary of Kuyper ’s public theology. The essay discusses that Kuyper’s work bridges the common and particular and notes that the unifying factor is Kuyper ’s aim to function as a rhetorical public theologian who utilizes many concepts to motivate and mobilize his Christian constituency to public involvement. The essay concludes by indicating four ways that Kuyper’s approach is helpful for reflecting on faith and learning. Mr. Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College.

Why Abraham Kuyper?

My interest in Abraham Kuyper emerged in the early 1990s as I was pursuing a greater understanding of theology and culture. While I had been introduced to his doctrine of revelation by Kenneth Kantzer, I did not know much else of Kuyper’s thought until I read his Stone Lectures on Calvinism. Before the first chapter had ended, I found myself captivated. I was captivated because until that point I had been exposed only to the views of Christians who argued that the primary purpose for Christians to be involved in areas such as politics and art was “witness.” This view of a Christian presence in society leads ultimately to conceptions of public engagement that function as strategies for evangelism. While acknowledging the validity of such approaches, it had often struck me that there seemed to be more that Christians could say about engagement with the public. My initial encounter with Kuyper was my first major exposure to a theological rationale for and approach to Christian public engagement that exceeded a strictly evangelistic emphasis.

Since that initial exposure to Kuyper, I have sought to arrive at a greater understanding of his world and work, and my own work as a scholar and church-man has aimed centrally to develop and perpetuate the best aspects of his work. This article will present my understanding of his public theology as set against the discussion of public theology that has developed in the 20th century. In reading many scholars on Kuyper, one of the most confusing things about his theology of public engagement is that he can seem to hold contradictory positions: on the one hand, when Kuyper emphasizes the doctrine of common grace strongly, his focus on “commonness” can give the impression that not only should Christians be involved in public life, but they should be willing and able to participate in the public with others who are not Christian. When using the concept of antithesis, on the other hand, often Kuyper uses language that suggests strongly that Christian engagement in public life must take place within institutions created by and for the Christian community. This article intends to demonstrate that Kuyper’s approach to public engagement (his public theology) actually bridges both of these concerns and that the unifying factor can be seen in Kuyper’s aim to function as a rhetorical public theologian who utilizes many concepts to motivate and mobilize his Christian constituency to public involvement. We begin with a discussion of public theology.

Public Theology

In this paper, the theological provision of a rationale for and practice of rigorous, active involvement in the public sphere, ranging from politics to education to science to art can be understood as public theology. Specifically, public theology in this sense is not only a theological articulation of the rationale for such public engagement, nor only the attempt to argue that religious convictions play a role in the structure and function of society, but also the consideration of the claim that some theological matters may be at least comprehensible and at most necessary in public discourse among believers and non-believers alike.

Considered historically, the Christian faith has always had some semblance of a public stance, whether as a movement antithetical to the prevailing powers of the day as in the early centuries of the church, or as a potentially conflicted “advisor” with a complex relationship to the political structure of the day post-Constantine. With the advent of the Enlightenment (beginning with Descartes), the manner in which Christian faith related to public concerns became more tenuous, as the “triumph” of secular reason and post-Darwinian science pushed faith-related discourse to the margins of the public sphere, if not altogether into the closet of individual private lives. While a faith with public implications has always had advocates, the influence of faith on the public sphere dwindled (particularly in Western Europe and the United States) to a significant degree by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only among most of the populace but especially among the elites who had the genuine capacity to shape and direct culture and society. If the Christian faith had played an array of advisory roles since Constantine, the result of the post-Enlightenment triumph was the equivalent of a pink slip; the services of the faith were obsolete, no longer required.

The current discussion of public theology can be seen as a response to the privatization of Christian faith after the Enlightenment. For those who sought to advocate some public role for the faith, the pivotal issues in the subsequent debates concerning public theology have related directly to the tension between “common ground” and confessional particularity as seen in Kuyper above. As those in the church and academy have considered this issue, primarily there have been two approaches to public theology that pertain to this paper. Some identify the two approaches as a contrast between the University of Chicago, where “public” refers to the exploration and articulation of common human religious impulses and a view associated with Yale Divinity School that emphasizes describing the distinctive beliefs and practices of Christianity as it takes its place in the public square. The first approach is apologetic, and is best represented here by Max Stackhouse,1 who goes beyond emphasizing religious impulses to placing an emphasis on the possibility of making a public case for theological concepts.2 The second approach is confessional, as represented by Ronald Thiemann.3

Stackhouse defines public theology as follows:

First, . . . that which we as Christians believe we have to offer the world for its salvation is not esoteric, privileged, irrational, or inaccessible. It is something that we believe to be both comprehensible and indispensable for all, something that we can reasonably discuss with Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, Humanists and Marxists. Second, such a theology will give guidance to the structures and policies of public life. It is ethical in nature. The truth for which we argue must imply a viable element of justice, and its adequacy can be tested on that basis.4

Stackhouse observes a crisis in contemporary society that is rooted in part (if not wholly) in a societal amnesia regarding the place of the deep influences of religion in entire fabric of public life, from family to church to corporate and economic life. He suggests that we need to recover a metaphysical-moral vision that will give guidance to the structures of society and provide meaning and value to the various sectors comprising civil society. Stackhouse argues that this kind of theology is not merely confessional, but “engages philosophy and science, ethics and the analysis of social life, to find out which kinds of faith enhance life. . .”5 For Stackhouse, the interaction between religious insight, philosophical wisdom, and social analysis is a key factor in the development of a public theology.6

Certain key theological themes emerge in Stackhouse’s approach to public theology. The doctrine of creation points us to a reality beyond ourselves to whom we are accountable and who serves as the ultimate reference point for how we are to structure our lives together. Liberation emphasizes social change that is reflected by a response to a just God who governs history and eventually will rectify patterns of oppression. Vocation examines how we should order our life together as a community and society. Covenant focuses on how we are to live out our vocations responsibly and leads to accountability in social relationships. It is the community-ordering side of vocation. Moral law attempts to answer the question “Is there right and wrong?” and asserts that there are universally valid moral laws rooted in God. Sin is the recognition of the human tendency for betrayal of ourselves, our neighbors, our world, and God. Freedom answers the question of how such sinful distortion is possible under a sovereign God, and also serves as recognition of humanity’s dual capacity for being genuinely human and genuinely licentious and traitorous. Ecclesiology focuses on the free exercise and critique of religion, and the recognition of the rights of other religious groups to propagate their views of sin and salvation in private and public affairs to the people. This is rooted in the “free-church” tradition, and encourages religious institutions to set forth and clarify the metaphysical moral meanings that give purpose and structure to life beyond particular group loyalties. A confidence in “persuasion” is implicit here, confidence in the ability to persuade others regarding the merits of a particular confessional stance in a reasonable way. The final theme is the Trinity, which leads to a conception of reality in terms of a coherent, integrated diversity. It encourages pluralism but under a greater and final unity.7 The Trinitarian theme points toward a radical appreciation of both transcendence and humanity, viewing both as true but reducing neither to each other.8 For Stackhouse, these themes clarify and communicate the justice of God in a public context and have components of thought that connect to contemporary human affairs and issues of concern. He hopes that modern adaptations of these themes may provide certain clues for constructing a public theology in this postindustrial, global age. To determine the validity of theological positions, Stackhouse proposes the use of the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Stackhouse uses these four “touchstones of authority” but modifies them from an ecumenical viewpoint. This approach is clearly apologetic in its assumption that there cannot only be public discussion but also significant understanding of theological ideas and agreement concerning the relevance (even necessity) of Christian faith to the structure and direction of society.

In Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture, Thiemann defines public theology as “faith seeking to understand the relation between Christian convictions and the broader social and cultural context within which the Christian community lives.”9 Drawing on the work of Clifford Geertz,10 Thiemann desires to set forth a “thick description” of the Christian community and the contemporary context. This descriptive approach is intended to show how a theology shaped by biblical narratives and grounded in the practices and institutional life of the Christian community can provide resources to enable people of faith to regain a public voice in our pluralistic culture. The key challenge is to develop a public theology that remains based in the particularities of the Christian faith while addressing issues of public significance in a genuine fashion. This descriptive approach seeks to identify particular places where Christian convictions intersect with practices that characterize contemporary public life. This is not something that can be known in advance, and the relevance of Christian convictions to public policy issues must be discovered through a process of rigorous inquiry in which faith risks genuine engagement with the forces of public life in pluralistic society. In this element of risk, faith may have to be reshaped and some convictions may be jettisoned after prolonged critical inquiry and engagement with public life.11 A simplied above, Thiemann’s theology is explicitly nonfoundational, eschewing general explanatory schemes and seeking to provide a justification of Christian belief specific to the faith community, an attempt to re-describe the internal logic of the Christian faith.

What characterizes Thiemann’s approach? First, he calls for a recognition of moral and cultural pluralism. Since there is no longer a common morality or culture, Thiemann seeks a path between moral relativism and cultural/religious imperialism and encourages the practice of a positive religious pluralism. The reaffirmation of the role of religion in public life is vital, and while not apologetic in approach, Thiemann seeks to debunk the notion of religion’s absence from public life and to demonstrate that questions of conviction, value, and faith are to be apart of public discourse. As part of this task, confessional public theology seeks a reversal of liberalism’s accommodation to culture. While there is a desire to have religious convictions and theological analyses impact the structure of public life and policy, Thiemann does not believe that there is one solution to this intersection of faith and public life simply as a correlate to maintaining confessional integrity. As a goal, he wants to address the challenge of influencing the development of public policy without seeking to construct a new Christendom or lapsing into a benign moral relativism.12 Much space lies between these alternatives.

Two final characteristics are noteworthy. First there is the acknowledgment that the Biblical narratives demonstrate a way of life and reveal the pattern of discipleship, the way of the cross.13 Last is the belief that worship helps shape public responsibility. An aspect of public theology is rediscovering the link between worship and education, and recognizing that the church can model an approach to life in a pluralistic society. It is also vital to remember that the church’s most important service is to be a community of hope.14

As stated above, this approach is associated with Yale, particularly the postliberalism that is, using George Lindbeck’s categories, “cultural linguistic.”This is an anthropological, community-specific approach that Thiemann uses to provide his “thick description.” He and his fellow postliberals attempt to articulate a public theology which retains the identity of the church in pluralistic context and which tries to argue from an explicitly confessional stance.15

Both Stackhouse and Thiemann exemplify the desire to see the public impact of theology, though they differ fundamentally on the public value of a purely confessional stance. Resisting the post-Enlightenment banishment of theology to the private realm, both approaches to public theology have designs on shaping history as it moves forward by bringing Christianity into the various areas of public life. For the purposes of this article, the central question that remains is “Where does the approach of Abraham Kuyper fit?” How did Kuyper contend with the post-Enlightenment “triumph”? Was his approach to public engagement primarily apologetic with an emphasis on the theological realities that lie deep within social architecture of society, or was it a theology which required the strict maintenance of a distinctive Christian identity, belief, and practice as one engages the public square?Is there any “common” area of discourse and interaction between Christians and others in the public realm, or does Kuyper violate the distinction between these positions?

Abraham Kuyper and His Public Theology16

Abraham Kuyper was a minister, professor, journalist, and politician (ultimately Prime Minister of the Netherlands 1901-05), often at the same time. His approach to public engagement was framed by the problems raised by the movements and thinkers of the modern era as he sought to represent the kleine luyden, the confessionally orthodox Christians who were at the margins of society. His public theology had to address the ideas and events of his context, so he could bring the influence of Reformed thought into the public of his era creatively and even improvisationally.

As a living expression of public theology, Kuyper sought to engage the challenges of the modern era and was unique in that he was an intellectual who led a popular movement.17 His public theology is expressed clearly in the Stone Lectures at Princeton (1898), but one earlier public event is a pivotal precursor.

Kuyper’s Public Theology In Summary

In 1880, Abraham Kuyper gave the inaugural speech for the Free University of Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit),18 a school intended to be an institution of higher education that not only taught theology, but also science, philosophy, literature, and medicine. The objective of this institution was to provide an approach to higher education rooted in a Reformed worldview.19 This public address is significant because it advocates the existence of a distinctly Christian institution in the public realm. The heart of the address lies in its title, Souvreiniteit in Eigen Kring (translated as “Sovereignty in the Distinct Spheres of Human Life,” or more commonly, “Sphere Sovereignty”). Kuyper’s objective is to argue for a form of pluralism in society rooted in God’s sovereignty and the structure of creation itself. Kuyper argues, in contrast to those who would view the state as possessing unlimited rule, that only God and the Messiah possess such ultimate sovereignty. Then comes Kuyper ’s step toward pluralism:

But here is the glorious principle of Freedom! This perfect Sovereignty of the sinless Messiah at the same time directly denies and challenges all absolute sovereignty among sinful men on earth, and does so by dividing all of life into separate spheres, each with its own sovereignty.20

For Kuyper, there is a sovereignty derivative of God in the great complexity that comprises human existence. In the realms of politics, art, and education (to name af ew),there exist laws of life specific to the particular area.21 Further, because each sphere “comprises its own domain, each has its own Sovereign within its bounds.”22 As noted above, this view of pluralism makes it possible to argue that government, church, and education should all operate under their own authority.

Kuyper made the case for sphere sovereignty with two objectives in mind. First, he wanted to make the argument, in terms of structural pluralism, that education had the right to operate free of government intervention. Second, in this speech he also contended for worldview pluralism, in which he asserts that Christians have the right to operate their own confessionally based institutions in a context that had grown hostile to the Reformed faith throughout the 19th century. Regarding worldview pluralism, Kuyper says,

Shall we pretend to grow from the selfsame root that which, according to the express pronouncement of Jesus’ divine self-consciousness, is rooted entirely differently? We shall not risk it, ladies and gentleman! Rather, considering that something begins from principle and that a distinct entity takes rise from a distinct principle, we shall maintain a distinct sovereignty for our own principle and for that of our opponents across the whole sphere of thought. That is to say, as from their principle and by a method appropriate to it they erect a house of knowledge that glitters but does not entice us, so we too from our principle and by its corresponding method will let our own trunk shoot up whose branches, leaves, and blossoms are nourished with its own sap.23

Notice that Kuyper’s proposal makes room for institutions that represent a variety of worldviews, not just the Reformed perspective.

Importantly, Kuyper’s structural pluralism is not the same as subsidiarity, a Catholic view of social order. As Skillen and McCarthy note,

Kuyper ’s argument is different from that of “subsidiarity” which stresses a natural, vertical hierarchy of responsibilities in social life along with the rightful autonomy of the various parts within the societal “whole” which the state governs. In the subsidiarity argument the state is charged with the protection and promotion of the common good of the whole society, whereas Kuyper is suggesting a more horizontal concept of social spheres, among which the state has less encompassing responsibility.24

Kuyper ’s approach places God above everything, and below him the various social spheres are on the same level, interacting with each other like cogwheels and yielding “the rich, multifaceted multiformity of human life.”25 Given his principal thinking, sphere sovereignty is an idea that provides Kuyper and his followers the opportunity and encouragement to engage the public realm. It inspires Christians to be good stewards of society, while keeping ecclesiastical authority from dictating public policy. For Kuyper there is no way that Christians can stay out of public life, as his most famous quote from the speech propounds: “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!’”26 This rhetorical flourish yields the unmistakable conclusion that if the entire creation is God’s domain, then Christians are compelled to engage the public square, in this case the creation of a university. Equally significant for the central question of this paper is that Kuyper’s argument emphasizes a belief that the various spheres of society have a theological basis while emphasizing Christian distinctiveness as well. The structural and worldview pluralisms articulated demonstrate the tension between an apologetic and confessional approach to public theology.

The Stone Lectures

In 1898, Abraham Kuyper gave the L. P. Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. The six lectures given to this American audience present the most comprehensive articulation of Kuyper ’s thought. Central emphases of Kuyper’s “public theological mission” in the Netherlands are on display here. Of particular interest for understanding his public theology are the theological rationale for engaging public life, sphere sovereignty, and the tension between the antithesis and common grace.

Kuyper ’s objective in the lectures was to set forth Calvinism as a comprehensive life-system that provided a Christian perspective and approach to every area of life. He claimed that Calvinism embodied the ideal of Christianity most accurately (over against Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism) and stood in contrast to major worldviews such Paganism and Islam.27 This approach to Calvinism is not strictly a religious system, but “an all-embracing system of principles”28 that provides an approach to every facet of life, including public engagement.

What is Kuyper ’s theological rationale for public engagement in these lectures? The doctrine of common grace is foundational. Kuyper argues that Calvinism emphasizes not only a particular grace of election but “also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator.”29 He argues that God’s beneficence to the entire creation compels Christians to serve God in every facet of life. For Kuyper, this non-redemptive grace is given so believers honor the world and “in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life.”30 Public engagement is a responsibility of Christians, not an option. As they embrace this responsibility, Christians will discover and develop systems for and approaches to domestic, social, and political life that provide alternatives to other worldviews.

In his lecture on “Calvinism and Politics,” Kuyper revisits the idea of sphere sovereignty. Kuyper’s purpose in 1880 was to make a place in society for a Christian university (and for institutions representative of other worldviews, even if non-Christian). His purpose in 1898 was to demonstrate the broader idea that Calvinism led to a particular kind of political conception.31 In this instance, Kuyper argues for three distinct spheres in the public realm: state, society, and church. As Kuyper stated eighteen years earlier, the root principle of Calvinism was the sovereignty of God over the entire cosmos, and the three spheres derive from God’s primordial sovereignty.32 Each of these spheres possesses its own authority within itself. In the state, Kuyper argues that as a result of sin, God instituted ruling authorities for the purpose of governance. He suggests further that Calvinism leads to a form of government structured as a republic, and that this was Calvin’s preference.33 Though he argues that ultimately God provides this form of public rule, he is adamant that it is not a theocracy:

A theocracy was only found in Israel, because in Israel, God intervened immediately. For both by Urim and Thummim and by Prophecy; both by His saving miracles, and by His chastising judgments, He held in His own hand the jurisdiction and the leadership of His people. But the Calvinistic confession of the sovereignty of God, holds good for all the world, is true for all nations, and is of force in all authority, which man exercises over man; even in the authority which parents possess over their children.34

God’s sovereignty is mediated through human authority, including government, and therefore is not the direct rule characteristic of a theocracy. Moreover, while this chapter makes clear that Kuyper desired government according to divine ordinances, it should also be clear that he had no desire to structure society according to the exact dictates of Mosaic law.

In society, Kuyper argues that God has given sovereignty in the individual social spheres “in order that it may be sharply and decidedly expressed that these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and that the state cannot intrude here, and has nothing to command in their domain.”35 The individual social spheres (such as business, family, educational institutions and guilds) have the liberty to function on their own according to divine ordinances that God has established for each one. This does not mean that the government can never intervene, but only becomes involved when differing spheres clash, when there is an abuse of weaker individuals within spheres, or to coerce all of the spheres to contribute to the maintenance of the state’s natural unity.36 Above all, the state should protect the liberty of the various social spheres, allowing them to flourish.

The church has sovereignty within the state, but not in a Constantinian fashion where the church takes on the role of the most influential advisor.37 Kuyper contends that Calvinism allows the government to rule apart from the direct influence of the church. While the magistrates are to rule according to God’s divine ordinances, they have independence from the church and God’s word rules through the conscience of those invested with governmental authority.38 Additionally, the church allows liberty of conscience, speech, and worship in society, though individuals within local churches are subject to the judgment of the clergy.39

Kuyper’s expression of sphere sovereignty in the Stone Lectures sets forth a view of a pluralistic society in which God’s sovereignty is differentiated throughout three major spheres (though there are many smaller individual spheres in society) which respect each others” boundaries. In this view, the Calvinistic principle yields a non-theocratic, republican society which promotes the development of the created order when the spheres operate as God intended.

Where do the antithesis and common grace come into tension?40 Kuyper’s lectures on science and art reveal this tension without adequate resolution, but the lectures continue to suggest avenues of public engagement for Christians. In the lecture “Calvinism and Science,” initially Kuyper argues that common grace leads to a love for science and that it gives science its own academic domain, but then he makes a stark contrast between two kinds of science.41 There are those he calls Normalists, who only look at natural data, and there are Abnormalists, who look at the natural realm but find their ideal norm in the Triune God. The ultimate difference between these two is “two kinds of human consciousness: that of the regenerate and the unregenerate.”42 In effect, this means that Christians and non-Christians have different kinds of minds, and the result is that they perceive the entire universe differently and develop approaches to science that reflect their perspectives. Kuyper does not argue that only one group should do science, but that each should be allowed to pursue the discipline in its own circles.43 In this lecture the antithesis is set forth as fact to be acknowledged by Christians and others in the society.

In the lecture “Calvinism and Art” Kuyper argues that common grace enables the production of art and inspires Christians and non-Christians alike.44 Rather than contending for a particularly Christian conception of art, Kuyper asserts, “Calvinism, on the contrary, has taught us that all liberal arts are gifts which God imparts promiscuously to believers and unbelievers, yea, that, as history shows, these gifts have flourished even in a larger measure outside the holy circle.”45 Art is truly “commonly” produced. In addition to arguing that God gives artistic abilities to all kinds of people, Kuyper has another objective. While a part of Kuyper ’s objectivein this lecture is to argue that Calvinism has emancipated art from the church (particularly the Roman church), he wishes also to assert and promote the view that the world of art (painting, music, and poetry) should develop to its fullest in its expression of all of life.46 This development can occur by Christians or non-Christians. The important point is that the realm of art, whether it is related to the church or not, should enjoy the support of Christians.

Kuyper’s argument for art is in direct contrast to his perspective on science, as Peter Heslam observes:

That Kuyper was able to display a positive approach to the arts was largely due to his doctrine of common grace, which in this lecture, in contrast to his lecture on science, is emphasized at the expense of his doctrine of the antithesis, which plays no significant role. This discrepancy is one of the clearest indications of what is perhaps the central tension in Kuyper’s thought between the antithesis and corresponding isolation on the one hand, and common grace and corresponding engagement and accommodation on the other.47

In the Stone Lectures, Kuyper leaves this tension unresolved, but he does achieve his objective of finding ways to encourage Christian engagement of the sciences and patronage of the arts.

Kuyper ’s lectures at Princeton display the basis for his public theology (common grace), an approach to society under God’s sovereignty, and the central tension in his thought between antithesis and common grace. His version of Calvinism not only promotes, but also prompts Christian public engagement in all areas of life. It is true that in certain arenas this engagement is in a Christian circle, while in others it is in the midst of society in general. Either way, there is a call to the responsibility for discovering God’s ordinances and developing the potentialities of creation. This reveals Kuyper as neither fully apologetic nor exclusively confessional. How should this tension be understood, or even resolved?

Conclusion: Abraham Kuyper’s Rhetorical Public Theology

It is notable that a portrait of Abraham Kuyper’s public theology emerges from the context of public address. Though he was a prolific author, it is in his public addresses that Kuyper sets forth his public theology in the best way. In the public forum, Kuyper presents a public theology that contains elements of confessional and apologetic public theology, but he achieves his intended effect primarily through rhetorical power. Labeling Kuyper’s approach as rhetorical emphasizes his position as a public figure who used the tools of journalism and public address considerably. The power of his words, as well as their content, were important. Often his arguments are carried in rhetoric that moved his audience to action, though the Stone Lectures was before an American audience that experienced a display of Kuyper as more of an academic than political statesman. Before making the case for Kuyper as the rhetorical public theologian, it is important to address specifically the relation to the approaches to public theology presented above.

Kuyper ’s affinities to Stackhouse and Thiemann are very significant. By his focus on common grace, recognition of pluralism in civil society, and his emphasis on the search for the ordinances of creation, Kuyper has certain elements in common with Stackhouse. More specifically, there is overlap with Stackhouse’s themes, though Kuyper does not use identical language. A good example would be Stackhouse’s theme of liberation, which uses language that speaks of social change especially in terms of rectifying patterns of oppression. As the above articulation of his mission reveals, Kuyper ’s entire public project can be construed in part as a liberation mission for the kleine luyden who were relegated to the margins of society. Another good example is that Stackhouse’s theme of moral law bears resemblance to Kuyper’s search for divine ordinances and the theme of ecclesiology fits Kuyper’s desire for worldview pluralism in society. Kuyper does not make reference to any quadrilateral, but an overview of his work will reveal that he utilizes Scripture, Tradition and Reason variously, though not in identical ways to Stackhouse.

With his focus on antithesis, Kuyper, like Thiemann, desires to find a way to maintain the integrity of Christian confession while participating in public life. Thiemann’s characteristics that reaffirm the public role of religion and the desire to have religious convictions and theological analysis affect the structure of public life and policy find resonance in Kuyper’s emphasis on sphere sovereignty (particularly its initial articulation in 1880 and the emphasis on worldview pluralism) and the Stone Lecture on Science. A final comparison is noteworthy. While Kuyper was very creative in crafting neo-Calvinism in a way that served his public aims (a view shared by scholars sympathetic and critical), it must be said that, unlike Thiemann, he would not suggest potentially radical alteration of the tradition as a possible result of the search for effective public engagement (though Kuyper’s theologically conservative critics in the Netherlands feared this very thing). While these apologetic and confessional aspects are significant elements, Kuyper does not land decisively or exclusively in either camp. Perhaps Kuyper’s public theology canbest be characterized by what yielded its greatest influence: through rhetoric.

John Bolt suggests that it might be best to perceive Kuyper as a poet. By focusing on his rhetorical and mythopoetic perspective rather than strictly his theological and philosophical ideas, one arrives at a view of Kuyper ’s public theology that helps explain his public effectiveness.48 Bolt argues:

To understand Kuyper’s success as a movement leader, emancipating and prodding into action the marginalized Dutch orthodox Gereformeerde kleine luyden, we must see him reviving and using a Dutch, Christian-historical imagination through powerful rhetoric, well-chosen biblical images and national mythology. That is what I mean by Kuyper as “poet,” a man of rhetoric and mythos more than a man of logos and wetenschap. Here we find a unity to Kuyper’s multifaceted career as churchman, theologian, journalist, politician. Kuyper knew triumphant political technique was not enough, politics alone cannot save the world. What then? Few have stated it better in our era than Alexander Solzhenitsyn who learned it from Dostoyevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” That is, it is art, the historical mythology imaginatively captured in a peoples” literature, paintings and festivals, the iconographic emblems; it is these that stir hearts and mobilize hands to change the world. Good art nourishes our capacity for self-transcendence, and is our only access to other people’s experience, including that past. Literature is “the living memory of a nation . . . [that], together with language, preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”49

In what way does Kuyper the artist stir hearts and mobilize hands? One way that he did this was by invoking the names of Willem Bilderdijk and Isaac da Costa in a speech entitled “Maranatha.” 50 By reference to these two figures, Kuyper invoked the national spirit in his people. Further, Kuyper tied biblical images into national history, as when he launched the weekly newspaper De Standaard and invoked a day of Dutch liberation.51

Bolt also notes Herman Bavinck’s comparison between Bilderdijk and da Costain an 1897 celebration of the twenty-five years for De Standaard, where the literary edge is given to Kuyper. Additionally, Bolt points to James Bratt’s comparison of Kuyper with Martin Luther King. This comparison reveals, significantly, that both King and Kuyper were authors but are regarded best as orators, and that both menutilized the imagery from national history to rouse their constituency and advance their cause.52 This should not diminish Kuyper as a theological force, but place emphasis on the role of public oral expression as central to his mission.53

Kuyper’s rhetorical approach is also found in Jan de Bruijn’s article “Abraham Kuyper as a Romantic.” In this article, there are two aspects of romanticism worthy of note. First, there is the tendency to think in terms of opposites. Kuyper often used this approach when articulating the validity of the Christian position over against another worldview or political system, from Pantheism to Socialism to the French Revolution. This tendency is also evident in the manner that Kuyper often opposed his Calvinist principles against other systems of thought and practice. A second key aspect of Kuyper’s romanticism is the “predilection for the dramatic moment, for poses and theatricality . . . used like brilliant actors.”54 While harder to perceive in the Stone Lectures, this element can be seen clearly in a survey of some of Kuyper’s speeches, such as the closing words of “Sphere Sovereignty,”“Maranatha,” or “The Blurring of the Boundaries.” The use of the dramatic moment served Kuyper’s rhetoric well, winning over his audience. In the following description of Kuyper, de Bruijn reveals the potency of Kuyper as a romantic rhetorician:

Kuyper was a man of many qualities. His personality was masterful, his knowledge exceptionally wide-ranging; he was a skillful teacher and polemicist; his energy was tireless and he was a brilliant organizer and a tactical genius. Last but not least, with his baroque eloquence with which he repeatedly urged his followers on, he turned the middle classes into a political force, thus radically altering the political balance of power in Holland. It is no wonder that his supporters revered him as a prophet, as a leader sent by God, as the “Lord’s anointed” who like a second Moses had led them to the Promised Land. Kuyper, too, saw himself in this light and as a romantic he could make good use of historical and biblical imagery, symbols and myths to emphasize the special and sacred nature of his struggle and leadership.55

Of all the qualities listed, it is Kuyper ’s eloquence and rhetorical use of imagery that made him such a forceful public influence. Like Bolt, de Bruijn suggests that Kuyper’s use of artistry provided the greatest force in mobilizing the kleine luyden. If Kuyper understood himself as the one sovereignly appointed by God to serve as the Moses of his people, it required such artistry combined with skillful language. The presentation of his views that Christians should be involved in every area of life came clothed in the words of a leader who wanted people to be not only theologically orthodox but also energetically engaged in the tasks of liberation and social change.

Labeling Kuyper’s public theology as rhetorical does not mean that Kuyper did not have convictions that lay beneath his exceptional public artistry. An idea such as sphere sovereignty, for example, was not a mere instrument employed in the service of Kuyper’s ambition. Rather, Kuyper utilized his mythopoetic imagination as the means for persuading his public of his theological or philosophical positions and for motivating them to action. Furthermore, it is important to recall that Kuyper maintained that there were divine ordinances which could be discovered and set forth as a guide for society, and that his goal was not to merely amaze audiences with poetic language, but to prompt them to public engagement, a goal that he accomplished. Additionally, one cannot neglect Kuyper ’s emphasis on common grace and antithesis56 as the chief rationales for forms of participation in public life, and in articulating these opposing tendencies, Kuyper does not abandon argument as much as creatively use rhetoric (as seen in the Stone Lectures).

Abraham Kuyper is not presented often as a theologian who utilized rhetorical genius as a primary means for motivating and mobilizing his audiences, yet he is regarded often as one who did not neatly resolve the tensions in his theological rationales for public engagement. If one places rhetoric at the front, it helps to explain why he does not resolve, in a final, tidy fashion, the greatest tension, between common grace and antithesis. Putting rhetoric at the fore emphasizes Kuyper’s ultimate goal: the mobilization of Christians for public engagement and greater public influence in the Netherlands. Depending upon the circumstance, Kuyper would emphasize either commonness for the purpose of “going public” in non-church realms, or antithesis when the necessity of distinctive Christian public engagement was the objective. Much of Kuyper ’s public theology addressed particular situations. His public life demanded an episodic approach to theological issues, in turn producing moments of great emphasis on commonness or great articulations of Christian distinctiveness. To label Kuyper a rhetorical public theologian is not a refusal to deal with tension, but an embrace of the complexity of Kuyper’s public theological task.

Is Kuyper’s approach a way forward for the ongoing discussion of public theology? Yes and no. In the sense that his approach brings to the fore the significance of using a skillful rhetorical imagination while one aims for prompting Christians toward public engagement, Kuyper ’s approach sheds light on an area that is not often addressed in the realm of public theology. The emphasis on rhetoric is not helpful in resolving the issues of commonness and distinctiveness between Christians and non-Christians, because it does not focus on the epistemological questions regarding the noetic effects of sin and the subsequent comprehensibility of Christian theological language and concepts. Perhaps the best conclusion of the matter is to note that in spite of the less than tidy resolution of a vital question, Kuyper himself was not deterred from charging into the public square that had been declared off-limits to Christian faith. Even if one emphasizes the confessional over the apologetic, the very least that we must do is follow Kuyper and others into the public arena and sort out the issues as we bring faith to bear on society.

What then does Kuyper’s public theology mean for an institution that strives to integrate faith and learning? Kuyper ’s approach is vital for a number of reasons. The first is due to one of the strongest currents that runs throughout the Kuyperian paradigm: a potent creation emphasis. Kuyper’s approach carries with it the view that the entirety of creation belongs to God, that though the world is fallen it remains the creation that was declared “very good” in Genesis 1:31. When I teach the doctrine of creation, I emphasize this point heavily because many students approach their Christian lives as an act of escape from the sinking ship that is creation. A Kuyperian approach corrects this improper emphasis. When students understand that the biblical warnings about loving the world really refer to the “world system” that opposes God’s desire for human practice upon the terrain of creation and that it does not condemn the creation itself, they begin to move toward a view of Christian life that includes stewardship of the created order. This approach to stewardship brings together faith and learning because the emphases in other disciplines are now validated. For example, God can be glorified in the scientist’s laboratory, in the exploration of human longing expressed by poets and novelists, on the artist’s canvas, and in the historian’s examination of influential persons, societies and ideas. These and other disciplines are not sideshows when set against “spiritual” matters, but instead are vitally important human activities that have the potential to enhance human lives. A Kuyperian creation emphasis also keeps the doctrine of creation itself from being hijacked by discussions on the origins of humans and the cosmos. The Kuyperian approach recognizes origins as a small part of a doctrine that has profound implications for the way that we live. To put it differently, the discussion of origins focuses on the beginning of things, but what about the rest of human activity beyond its origin? There is at least as great a need to emphasize the thoroughgoing nature of our stewardship as there is to argue about origins. It is the recognition of our stewardship of the creation that leads to the integration of faith and learning. In fact, a Kuyperian approach unifies faith and learning by rendering the academic disciplines valid.

A second significant benefit of Kuyper’s approach comes from the tension between common grace and antithesis. While the tension was never resolved by Kuyper, these two emphases work well together for thinking about how to approach faith and learning, which is in actuality a public exercise (we teach and model before students how faith intersects with all of reality). A good example of how this works was expressed by one student in my political theology class. He pointed out the example of how a confessionally Christian education (at any educational level) can actually provide training that produces better “public” citizens. Though their education is rooted in a particular worldview (emphasizing antithesis), they are not prepared for life in an enclave but for a life of stewardship of the creation as stated above (public engagement is prompted by common grace). It is true that these citizens are not people who would enter the public square with any illusions of neutrality (as if such a position exists), but they would function in every area of life as people who seek the common good. In a similar manner, a Kuyperian perspective can inform one’s approach to a Christian education. Where I teach, we are not aiming to produce graduates who are concerned exclusively with vitality of the Christian community. In the best cases, we are helping to produce young adults who function as thoughtful and involved citizens of the church and larger society. Common grace and antithesis work together to encourage distinctive Christian public engagement. In faith and learning terms, that means a confessionally-based education that yields graduates who serve everyone. The aim is to have graduates who understand that their service throughout society will be refracted through a Christian worldview that informs their understanding and practice in business, education, science, art, and other vocations. Hopefully, most students will become people who see that their faith has great significance for the life within the church and without.

A third benefit comes from the idea of sphere sovereignty. This is associated with Kuyper ’s famous “one square inch” quote,57 and the question of its value is important because of its potential impact on a Christian approach to politics and society. The concept of sovereignty in each sphere is beneficial for helping students move toward thinking about a principled pluralism in society. Rather than having a conception of society as strictly under the control of the state or understanding the state as the only significant social structure, sphere sovereignty recognizes that the family, education, business, the church, and the state (and other spheres) all have an integrity of their own. The resultant pluralism is one which acknowledges God’s sovereignty over the various domains of life and which recognizes that there is a divine concern for the different areas of life. Put differently, sphere sovereignty helps students consider the manner in which God’s authority is mediated in society. Applied more directly to the realm of politics, sphere sovereignty provides a means of thinking about the best ways to be obedient to the divine commands to love others and do justice in the public realm. By promoting a respect for the various spheres, Kuyper’s concept raises, at the very least, the question of how Christians can best promote a just society so that life flourishes in all of its dimensions. Sphere sovereignty does not necessitate a particular political stance on the conservative, libertarian, liberal or socialist spectrum, but does help Christians think about how to create a civil society that allows for the healthy debate among various views, particularly when one considers the worldview pluralism emphasis in Kuyper’s 1880 speech. Does sphere sovereignty promote or require the advent of Christian political parties and institutions? Not necessarily, though Kuyper’s example demonstrates one manner in which a case is made for confessionally-based public associations and institutions.

A final vital emphasis is the emphasis on rhetoric itself. As stated above, the alue of Kuyper ’s rhetorical approach is that it leads to an emphasis on the verbal stewardship of ideas. The choice of metaphors, historical references, and biblical images should not be done haphazardly. Kuyper’s example reveals the good thatcan result from creative, imaginative use of language when conveying ideas in the public realm. If students studied some of Kuyper ’s speeches, at the very least they would find inspiration for thoughtful, creative, and distinctively Christian public discourse. In a culture where a casual approach to language often prevails, Kuyper’s rhetorical example illuminates the importance being a steward of our language, especially when we are addressing public concerns from the standpoint of our faith.

As much as I would like all of my students to become as Kuyperian as myself, more realistically I hope that the example of Kuyper’s public theology will permeate my own approach to education so that I can communicate effectively one option that unifies faith and learning. I believe it comes through with clarity, but the refinement process continues.

Cite this article
Vincent Bacote, “Abraham Kuyper’s Rhetorical Public Theology with Implications for Faith and Learning”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 407-425


  1. There are other authors who take an apologetic approach, though they do differ on manyissues. See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Plu-ralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981); Robert Benne, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theologyfor the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); and Glenn Tinder, The Politi-cal Meaning of Christianity: an interpretation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,1989).
  2. The term “apologetic” here refers strictly to the idea that theological ideas and concepts canbe intellectually accessible outside the community of faith, though it does not imply thatthere is no need for the difficult task of translation in public discourse. This approach doesnot imply only one method of persuasion, nor does it require a philosophical commitment tofoundationalism or non-foundationalism.
  3. Among other confessional theologians, most of whom can be loosely identified as“postliberals”, see William Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a PluralisticConversation (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1989); George Lindbeck, The Natureof Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984);Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: Univer-sity of Notre Dame Press, 1983); and John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public andPolitical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). Thiemann’s work sets forth this approach to pub-lic theology more than adequately. He does have differences from the others, particularlyHauerwas and Lindbeck, but they all share certain core similarities.
  4. Max L. Stackhouse, Public Theology and Political Economy: Christian Stewardship in ModernSociety (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1987), xi.
  5. Max L. Stackhouse, “Public Theology and Ethical Judgment,” Theology Today 54 (July 1997):168.
  6. For example, see Ibid and Max L. Stackhouse, Peter L. Berger, Dennis P. McCann, and M.Douglas Meeks, Christian Social Ethics in a Global Era (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).
  7. For a specific example of this theme, see Max L. Stackhouse, “The Trinity as public theol-ogy: Its Truth and Justice for Free-Church, Noncredal Communities,” in Faith to Creed, ed. S.Mark Heim (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1991).
  8. All themes taken from Stackhouse, Public Theology and Political Economy, 18-34.
  9. Ronald F. Thiemann, Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture (Lou-isville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 21.
  10. See Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in TheInterpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 10.
  11. Thiemann, Constructing A Public Theology, 22-23.
  12. Characteristics 1-5 summarized from Ibid., 38-43.
  13. Ibid., 63-71.
  14. Ibid., 112-125.
  15. A specific example of Thiemann’s approach to public theology is his Religion in Public Life:A Dilemma for Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996).
  16. George Puchinger, Abraham Kuyper: His Early Journey of Faith, ed. George Harinck, trans.Simone Kennedy (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998), 27-28. The implication of Kuyper ’svision of public theology is one which is not satisfied with confessionalism alone. For him itis of paramount importance that religious convictions move outside of the confessional en-clave and into public life.
  17. James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1998), 2.
  18. For a detailed approach to the origin of the Free University of Amsterdam, see Wayne A.Kobes, “Sphere Sovereignty and the University: Theological Foundations of AbrahamKuyper”s View of the University and its Role in Society” (Ph.D. diss., The Florida State Uni-versity, 1993).
  19. Louis Praamsma, Let Christ Be King: Reflections on the Life and Times of Abraham Kuyper (Jor-dan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1985), 73-76.
  20. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. JamesD. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 467.
  21. Ibid. Kuyper does not give a number of spheres, saying, “The name or image is unimpor-tant, so long as we recognize that there are in life as many spheres as there are constellationsin the sky.”
  22. Ibid.
  23. 3Ibid., 484-485.
  24. Abraham Kuyper, “The Antirevolutionary Program,” in Political Order and the Plural Struc-ture of Society, eds. James Skillen and Rockne M. McCarthy (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 241.
  25. Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” 468.
  26. Ibid., 488
  27. Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton(New York: Revell, 1899), 13.
  28. Ibid., 16.
  29. Ibid., 30-31.
  30. Ibid., 33.
  31. As in his speech on sphere sovereignty in 1880, Kuyper sets his approach to the socio-political world in contrast to the radical democracy of the French Revolution and the all-embracing State rooted in Hegel’s philosophy (Calvinism, 108-115).
  32. Kuyper, Calvinism, 99.
  33. Peter Heslam argues that Kuyper is disingenuous on this point and states that Calvin in hisInstitutes (IV.xx.8.) showed a distinct preference for aristocracy. See Peter S. Heslam, Creatinga Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998),144.
  34. Kuyper, Calvinism, 107-108.
  35. Ibid., 116.
  36. Ibid., 124.
  37. Ibid., 128-129; Kuyper wishes to distance himself from Calvin’s role in the death of Servetus,and he contends that the principle which led to this unfortunate incident lies inConstantinianism, not in the essential principles of Calvinism.
  38. Ibid., 133-135.
  39. Ibid., 138-141; elsewhere, Kuyper argues that it was the “Calvinistic Netherlands” (Kuyper’s term) that promoted freedom of thought and expression throughout society, even if there was a state church. He says, “Whosoever was elsewhere straightened, could first enjoy the liberty of ideas and the liberty of press, on Calvinistic ground”(Calvinism, 141).
  40. For a study on antithesis and common grace in the Dutch Calvinist tradition, see JacobKlapwijk, “Antithesis and Common Grace,” in Bringing Into Captivity Every Thought: CapitaSelecta in the History of Christian Evaluations of Non-Christian Philosophy, eds. Jacob Klapwijk,Sander Griffioen, and Gerben Groenewoud (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991),169-190.
  41. Kuyper, Calvinism, 155-172.
  42. Ibid., 183.
  43. Ibid., 184.
  44. Ibid., 217.
  45. Ibid., 216.

  46. Ibid., 221.
  47. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, 222.
  48. For a detailed view of this, see John Bolt, A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper”sAmerican Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 3-79. An abbreviated summary ofthis chapter can be found in John Bolt, “Abraham Kuyper as Poet: Another Look at Kuyper”sCritique of the Enlightenment,” in Kuyper Reconsidered: Aspects of His Life and Work, eds.Cornelis van der Kooi and Jan de Bruijn. VU Studies on Protestant History (Amsterdam: VUUitgeverij, 1999), 30-41.
  49. Bolt, “Abraham Kuyper as Poet,” 34-35.
  50. Abraham Kuyper, Maranatha, in Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 215-216.
  51. Bolt, “Abraham Kuyper as Poet,” 38
  52. Ibid., 40.
  53. It is also noteworthy that Bavinck is seen as the summit of neocalvinist dogmatic theology,which makes sense given his greater academic theological output. The bulk of Kuyper’swriting reflected his great intellect but was in the form of editorials and speeches.
  54. Jan de Bruijn, “Abraham Kuyper as a Romantic,” in Kuyper Reconsidered, 43.
  55. Ibid., 50
  56. Interestingly, de Bruijn notes that Kuyper was a divided personality, which could helpexplain why common grace and antithesis are never resolved fully. He says, “For like everyromantic, Kuyper was not a unified personality; he was no simple one-dimensional figure,but possessed an extremely complex character structure, composed of different layers andoften contradictory tendencies, wishes and emotions. In many respects he was a divided andtormented person whose life was not easy and who suffered periods of deep depression.However, he survived because of a faith that expressed itself on the one hand in mysticallongings, and on the other in an unremitting, almost compulsive activity and struggle torealize his religious ideals” (“Kuyper as a Romantic” in Kuyper Reconsidered, 45). An interest-ing question is: Was Kuyper ’s primary concern the practical achievement of his goals ratherthan the precise articulation of a theological construct to undergird his mission?
  57. Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” 468.

Vincent Bacote

Wheaton College
Vincent Bacote is professor of theology and director of Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College.