In this reflection, the author shares some insights he has found in Kuyper that can inform his discipline of computer science and engineering. He begins with a critique of a speculative idea Kuyper proposed about how the “greater things than these” referred to in John 14 might refer to technology. The reflection then presents five ideas from Kuyper’s writings that exemplify how his work might be fruitfully applied to issues in modern technology. These ideas include the impact of automation, the importance of a comprehensive life and worldview, the notion of common grace, the assertion that there are no neutral spaces, and finally the importance of a personal faith commitment (or palingenesis). The reflection concludes with a reminder to avoid what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the notion that all ideas from the past ought to be discarded in favor of the new. This reflection illustrates how, like a prospector, we can sift and mine the resources from the Christian past, in authors like Kuyper, to help inform our contemporary time, including in matters related to modern technology. This reflection came out of a presentation given by the author at the 2018 Kuyper Conference held in Grand Rapids, MI, on May 1, 2018. Derek C. Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI where he currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair.

Introduction

As a son and grandson of post-World War II Dutch immigrants to Canada, the name Abraham Kuyper was not unfamiliar to me. Kuyper was a nineteenth-century Dutch theologian, philosopher, journalist and statesman who remains influential in many Reformed circles. Besides becoming prime minister of the Netherlands and founding a university, Kuyper wrote over twenty thousand newspaper articles and numerous multivolume books.1 For a time my grandparents attended the Reformed Church in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerk), a denomination that Kuyper had helped to establish in the late 1800s. As a young person, I recall hearing the oft-cited quote from Kuyper that “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!’”2 I grew up during the microcomputer revolution, nearly a century after Kuyper’s era, and went on to study electrical engineering. During this time, I began to wonder: what are the implications of my Christian faith for the “square inches” of modern digital technology?

If one examines pictures of Abraham Kuyper, he appears as a somewhat dour figure far removed from our modern context. What could we possibly glean from this nineteenth-century thinker that might inform the development and use of technology in the twenty-first century?

I worked for a number of years as an engineer in industry and, to be frank, aside from the “every square inch” slogan, I was not very familiar with most of Kuyper’s work. It was only after a career change from industry to becoming a Christian college professor that I had the opportunity to become more familiar with it. I began with reading accessible secondary sources like Richard Mouw’s friendly book, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction.3 Gradually, I began to appreciate how Kuyperian thinking might provide resources making sense of my own discipline. Thankfully, an increasing number of Kuyper’s prolific writings are now being translated into English.

As people living in the modern digital age, we are accustomed to witnessing rapid change. Textbooks on technology are continually being obsoleted as new developments unfold. In this context it seems absurd to suggest that written relics from over a century ago (or, indeed, even from a decade ago) might speak to our current context. We forget that people in previous generations also had to grapple with technological change. While each generation is influenced by the spirits of their age, we are called to discern by the light of Scripture what it means to be faithful in our times. Abraham Kuyper wrote prolifically on a wide range of topics at the turn of the twentieth century, including technology. His discussions about technology were often placed in the wider context of science, but in various places he specifically deals with technology itself. Although he was certainly influenced by the optimistic era of modernism, he strove to apply Christian thinking to his time.

To be sure, not everything Kuyper wrote still holds up today, and he certainly had his own blind spots, errors, and shortcomings. In fact, historian James Bratt suggests that Kuyper was “a great man but not a nice one.”4 Nevertheless, there are many insights to be found in Kuyper that can help guide us in our current technological age.

This reflection begins by critiquing a speculative (and perhaps outlandish) idea that Kuyper proposed concerning technology. Next, I explore five other resources mined from Kuyper’s writings that exemplify how his work might be fruitfully applied to issues in modern technology. These examples illustrate that, like a prospector, we will need to sift carefully through the products of the past to discern value, but there is value to be found!

Greater Things Than These?5

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

These were the words of Jesus to his disciples in John 14. What do these puzzling words refer to? Can we really do greater things than Jesus? Kuyper speculates on this passage in a thought-provoking section of his book Pro Rege. He poses the question as follows:

Since Christ emphatically declared that something greater and higher than was displayed in his works would go forth from his church [see John 14:12], the complicated question arises as to where we are to look for those “greater works” and where the “greater works” are to be found.6

Kuyper begins his speculation by asserting that at creation humankind had a certain “power over nature” that enabled us to exercise dominion over many things. Much of this, he suggests, was lost after the fall. He argues that “[t]he dominion over nature that humanity had from its very creation was broken through sin and curse.”7 However, he speculates that this “dominion over nature” did not disappear all at once but continued in a weakened form. He writes, “For some time it still operated among all people in a weakened form, but its nature was eventually changed so that it developed into pagan magic and therefore died out…”8 Curiously, Kuyper illustrates this idea by referring to Pharaoh’s wise men who, he suggests, retained some of this residual “knowledge of nature” that has since been lost.

Pay careful attention here. There is no doubt that antiquity had received a knowledge, an instinctive knowledge of nature, and that, at the time, secrets still existed that gave people a certain amount of power over nature. It is easy to laugh this off as the figment of one’s imagination, but Scripture teaches us otherwise. It says that the wise men in Egypt indeed performed things that we would not be able to imitate. This can be explained only as a mysterious and instinctive knowledge of nature’s power that has since been lost.9

Kuyper continues by observing that after the fall our knowledge of creation grew slowly through “instinct” and “experience.” Kuyper compares this to the farmer described in Isaiah 28, who receives practical agricultural instincts and knowledge from God. Kuyper notes how in more recent times our knowledge of creation has significantly deepened, and he argues that this comes through scientific research and the deliberate study of nature. In addition to the farmer’s instincts, we now understand soil chemistry, plant biology and animal physiology. Likewise, Kuyper describes how modern research has informed cooking, art, medicine, and even parenting. Kuyper writes “[a] much greater power over nature became ours when, by research and reflection, humanity penetrated through to the very essence of nature and learned to put the powers hidden within her into service.”10

Kuyper is careful to acknowledge that our “power over nature” is not “higher” than the power displayed in Christ’s miracles, but he contends that it is greater in the sense of its long-term impact:

This power is not greater in the sense of manifesting a higher power. Nothing surpasses the calming of wind and storm on the sea of Gennesaret, the multiplication of loaves, and the raising of the dead. Nevertheless, the power that has now been given to us is indeed something greater when we consider its extent, scope, and longevity. Everything Jesus worked through his power of miracles was directed to one specific circumstance, for one specific sick person, to one specific demon-possessed person, and was limited in one specific place. By contrast, this second, mediate power over nature, which we now have, exercises its work and influence among all countries and nations equally from one century into the next. It is a blessing to thousands simultaneously in all their distress and diseases. 11

Kuyper concludes as follows:

It sounds strange to our ears that our power over nature surpasses Jesus’ power in miracles. But this nevertheless allows us to explain fully how Jesus – knowing what he would bring about and establish in and through us through later development – could tell his disciples that they would perform things that were greater than those visible in his miracles.12

In a sense, Kuyper speculates that science and technology will enable us to do “greater things than these.” Although I am an engineer and computer scientist, I confess to being uncomfortable with Kuyper’s speculations on this. Perhaps Kuyper’s questionable interpretation of the verse is a reflection of the era in which he lived, a time of considerable optimism in the development of science and technology.

Influences from Modernism

Kuyper lived at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during the height of modernism. Evidence of this optimism can be found in various places in his writings. For example, in Wisdom and Wonder, Kuyper writes that “today science stands at the beginning of its great accomplishments; and why anyone familiar with the arena of science anticipates with joy the progress in the sphere of science that is to be expected in this twentieth century.”13 Elsewhere Kuyper writes about how science and technology have enabled us to “stretch out our wings” to reach and see further than ever before:

A bright stroke of sunlight has broken through the clouds that used to darken life. What the preceding generation did not know has been revealed to us. Through the microscope our eyes see what theirs did not see, and our arm reaches ten times as far as theirs. Distances have shrunk; separation between one country and another has been undone by various means of powerful communication. Almost every barrier that used to offer resistance has been broken through. We stretch out our wings in all directions as never before.14

Kuyper joined the “chorus prophesying even greater glories to come in the twentieth century” including “such feats as his country’s recent conquest of time and space via the railroad and telegraph, and it promised reductions in the high rates of child mortality that troubled his soul.”15 Concerning medical science, he wrote about its extraordinary impact:

Medical science may have gone awry in many ways, but to it still belongs the honor that in God’s hands it has been the instrument for relieving much suffering, for curbing many diseases, and for disarming much latent evil before its outbreak. Natural science has armed us in extraordinary ways against the destructive power of nature, and has subjected that nature to our dominion.16

Despite the fact that technology can go “awry,” Kuyper points to a redeeming use for technology. He also marvels at how technology provides power and control over nature:

The powerful wind that drives the current of life and determines its course originates from material interests, the intellect, and technology’s control over nature … the heroes of the modern spirit of the age are the great philosophers, leading scientists, and those who can work magic with electricity and technology.17

It strikes me that these quotes seem to be gushing with technological optimism. However, if I am honest, as someone trained as an electrical engineer, I can also be swept up admiring the feats of those who can “work magic with electricity.” The current advances in areas like medicine, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and communications technology are quite remarkable. However, problems occur when appreciation for creational possibilities turns into a trust in technology.

Despite his admiration for the advances of his day, Kuyper acknowledges the effects of sin on science and technology. He remains clear that sin does not thwart God’s original intentions in the cultural mandate. Our cultural work (including technology) can, in principle, be directed in God-honoring ways. Despite my discomfort with Kuyper’s interpretation regarding the “greater things,” I have found some insightful ideas in his writings which can help us navigate our work with modern technology.

Helpful Resources from Kuyper

The following sections present five helpful resources I have uncovered from various places in Kuyper’s writings which can inform our approach to modern technology. The first resource is his writing on the topic of automation, an issue that was as important in Kuyper’s day as it is in ours. The second resource is Kuyper’s insights on the impact of a comprehensive life and worldview. The third resource is the concept of common grace. The fourth resource is the idea that there is no neutral space. And finally, the fifth resource is Kuyper’s observations about the impact of technology on faith and the importance of palingenesis, a topic of timeless importance. What follows are summaries of each of these resources from Kuyper.

Technology and Automation

Kuyper lived during a time that was profoundly shaped by the prior industrial revolution, an era which brought immense changes in labor and technology. He observed how the development of machine automation can lead to the under-valuing of workers:

Next to that we place the incredible revolution wrought by the improved application of steam power and machine production. This has freed capital almost completely from its earlier dependence on manual labor. The workingman’s muscle power and his resourcefulness and traditional skills in many ways have turned into dead capital; his value now lies almost entirely in servicing machines according to set instructions. The magical operation of iron machines has unfortunately led the capitalist to regard his employees as nothing but machines of flesh that can be retired or scrapped when they break down or have worn out.18

The problems which he highlights are not unique to his time; they persist in our own era. In particular, the “magical operation of iron machines” has been greatly enhanced by recent advancements in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Automation now threatens many more jobs and many workers also face the prospect of being “retired or scrapped.”

Kuyper used strong words to condemn this development in his book Christianity and the Class Struggle, connecting it to a violation of the sixth commandment:

To mistreat the workmen as a “piece of machinery” is and remains a violation of his human dignity. Even worse, it is a sin going squarely against the sixth commandment, thou shalt not kill, and this includes killing the worker socially.19

Kuyper suggests that the sphere of government has a role to play in ensuring justice for worker. He strongly contends that although the government must not meddle in various societal tasks, its duty is to uphold justice. When one part of society tramples over the domain of another, the government must intervene. It must not grant an “assurance of justice to one sphere and withhold it from another.” The government must “help labor obtain justice, and also for labor there must be created the possibility of independently organizing and defending its rights.”20 In our current context, as we face the prospect of increasing automation driven by artificial intelligence, there may be a role for government to ensure justice for labor. Some modern economists have begun exploring what role the government might take to develop policies addressing the impact on labor from increasing automation.21 As in Kuyper’s time, we need to ensure that technology is employed in such a way that it serves people rather than the other way around. As someone who teaches computer scientists, I need to instill in my students a sense of justice and responsibility regarding the human impact of the tools they create.

The Importance of Worldview

Kuyper suggests worldviews are comprehensive and find expression in every area of life. In comparing modernism and Christianity, Kuyper writes that “[t]wo life systems are wrestling with one another, in mortal combat.”22 Kuyper sketches the implications of worldview in the Stone Lectures, devoting an entire lecture to the areas of religion, politics, science, and art. If he were giving his Stone Lectures today, I would not be surprised if digital technology figured prominently in his talk. His writings are helpful guides in uncovering the way that world-and-life views impact our cultural work. Like other cultural activities, the direction of technology is shaped by the worldview presuppositions of the computer scientists and engineers who construct them.

In another provocative part of Kuyper’s writing, he explores the implications of worldview on scientific inquiry. He follows a line of thought leading to the notion of two different kinds of science. He explains his line of reasoning as follows:

If it is established that there are two kinds of people who differ in principle in their ego and in their inner consciousness, then the scientific inquiry of each cannot proceed hand in hand…. Inevitably a twofold kind of science must arise in parallel, on the one hand, the science of those taking their starting point in the spirit of the world, and on the other hand, the science of those taking their starting point in the Spirit who is from God.23

Kuyper talks about “two kinds of people” – those who are born again and those who are not, leading to two kinds of science (and by extension, one may imply two kinds of technology).

Elsewhere, Kuyper is a little more nuanced in his analysis, suggesting that there is not a difference in the “lower kind of science” which deals with counting and measuring, but as you move to “higher forms of science” the differences become more apparent.

there is not a difference in the “lower kind of science” which deals with count- ing and measuring, but as you move to “higher forms of science” the differences become more apparent.

To the extent that results are governed by factual observation, obtained by weighing and measuring and counting, all scientific researchers are equal. As soon as people move above this lower kind of science, however, to higher forms of science, at that point the personal subject makes a contribution, in terms of which the difference between the “natural” man and the “spiritual” man comes into play.24

The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff provides a helpful commentary on this notion from Kuyper:

Faithful scholarship will, as a whole, be distinctive scholarship; I have no doubt of that. But difference must be a consequence, not an aim. And if at some point the difference is scarcely large enough to justify calling this segment of scholarship a ‘different kind of science’—Christian science in contrast with competitors which are non-Christian—why should that, as such, bother us? Again, isn’t faithful scholarship enough? Difference is not a condition of fidelity—though, to say it once more, it will often be a consequence.25

Wolterstorff’s insights provide a helpful guide by building on Kuyper. Although difference may or may not be present, faithfulness ought to be the goal of Christian scholarship and, by extension, the goal for technology.

I find this a key challenge for myself and for Christian engineers and computer scientists: how can we be faithful in the ways we design technology? What difference, if any, do our worldview presuppositions make in the way we design (and use) technology? Already as a young engineer working in industry, I began to wonder about these questions. It turns out that these questions are not new; each new generation of Christians need to answer these for their given context.

Common Grace and Technology

Common grace is another helpful concept described by Kuyper. Common grace responds to the difficult question: “How does the world go on after sin’s entrance and how is it possible that ‘good’ things emerge from the hands of humans within and without a covenant relationship with God?”26 Kuyper observes all the wonderful cultural contributions brought forward by those who are not Christians:

In modern times as well, no one can deny that in the disciplines of astronomy, botany, zoology, physics, and so on, a rich science is blossoming. Although being conducted almost exclusively by people who are strangers to the fear of the Lord, this science has nevertheless produced a treasury of knowledge that we as Christians admire and gratefully use.27

Furthermore, Kuyper observed that many advances in science and technology are made by people who are “strangers to the fear of the Lord,” and that the church “almost never takes the lead in such things”:

And in order for us to understand this better, even to avoid misunderstanding, it is far from unusual that God opens the eyes, not of his servants, but of the unbeliever who rejects Him. Those of the World are often more richly endowed with inventions and discoveries than those who walk in the Light. In fact, it is not unusual that those of the World enjoy the fruits of their inventions and discoveries long before the Lord’s disciples do. Regulars at many a pub already enjoyed electric light and heat, while in countless churches the faithful still suffered bitter cold in the low light of dusk during late afternoon services. It rarely happens that the church leads in such things, at least not in Europe.28

This observation rings true. As an engineer working in industry and later as a graduate student, it seemed to me that “[t]hose of the World are often more richly endowed with inventions and discoveries than those who walk in the Light.” Why is that so? Jacques Ellul also wrestled with these ideas in his book, The Meaning of the City. He observed how already in Genesis the first people at the forefront of technological developments were in the line of Cain.29

Kuyper describes common grace as the “kind of natural blessings that visit the redeemed and unredeemed alike” which enables cultural development to advance.30 Kuyper’s concept of common grace can help us reconcile why it seems that most of the accomplished engineers and computer scientists in places like Silicon Valley are not Christians.31 Kuyper refers back to John Calvin, suggesting that in areas like art, God bestows these gifts as “testimonies of the Divine bounty.”32 And we must not hesitate to take these discoveries (what Augustine referred to as the “treasure of the Egyptians”) and employ them in the service of the Lord.

No Neutral Space

Technological instrumentalism is the assumption that an artifact is “just a neutral tool.” This notion is not uncommon in some technical and engineering circles. Kuyper’s idea of “no neutral space” refutes the idea of technological instrumentalism. Kuyper takes considerable efforts to refute the tendency towards a sacred/secular dualism, reminding us that Christ is Lord over every square inch: “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God…”33 Kuyper’s notion that we stand coram Deo (before the sight of God) reminds us that also in our technical activities, our work is a response to God. We can detect in Kuyper’s writings the beginnings of the distinction between structure and direction, a helpful concept that I learned from a former colleague, Albert Wolters. In this context, structure refers to “the order of creation” and the “creational constitution” of things. In contrast, the direction refers to “the distortion or perversion of creation through the fall.”34 We see evidence of this notion in Kuyper who observes how creational “treasures” like chemistry, technical arts, and the telegraph are not neutral, but can be directed either towards good or evil:

God has even arranged things such that sin can misuse these instructions for its benefit. Chemistry, for example, teaches us how to counterfeit foodstuffs; the thief and swindler makes use of the telegraph the way you do, but for his evil plans; technical arts can deliver to the murderer a refined weapon, so much deadlier in his hands. So all this common knowledge will be a common commodity for humanity, for good and ill. It is and remains “common grace”, and on the day of judgment, the individual and humanity both will be held responsible for whether they used the treasures of “common grace” to repel or exacerbate misery and trouble.35

Once it is recognized that technology is not neutral, the question will naturally arise: in which way is it directed? Whether it is the telegraph in Kuyper’s day or artificial intelligence in our own time, “the individual and humanity both will be held responsible” for how we direct these cultural activities.

Technology and Personal Faith

Kuyper also observed how science and technology impacted people’s personal faith. Kuyper wrote about the spiritual pitfalls that come with increasing power over nature:

What the preceding generation did not know has been revealed to us. … How, then, can those who are fully aware of humanity’s growing power today and know no higher grace still feel what the previous generations felt? Given the way things have turned out, that feeling of profound dependence … had to weaken in a generation that has overcome these hardships and feels in many respects as if it can govern the future.36

Kuyper recognizes that the triumphs of technology had the effect of reducing people’s dependence on God. He continues:

The universal dominion that we have achieved over the powers of nature has stimulated humanity’s feeling of power and thus has significantly weakened humanity’s feeling of dependence. Therefore, it had to lead to a dampening of religious life, to a reduction in the sphere of piety, to a cooling of the devotion of many.37

This “feeling of power” can be sensed also today. There is an “engineering mentality” which sees all problems as technical problems that are amenable to a technical solution.38 This is an occupational hazard for engineers, and Christians are not immune from it. The danger is that faith is relegated to a “sphere of piety” while we rely more on technology in other parts of our lives. As we are seduced into placing more trust in technology, our sense of dependence on God weakens.

The trust in technology, sometimes referred to as technicism, is a form of idolatry in which trust in the Creator is replaced with trusting something in creation. Technicism can be defined as the “pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific-technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress.”39 Some have gone so far as to look to technology for a solution to the problem of death, predicting a day when humans will be able to download their brains into a computer and live forever in a virtual paradise.40

While Kuyper attributes a decline in religious life to a weakened sense of dependence brought about by power over nature, he also digs deeper. He reflects at length on how the practices and habits that accompany technical change impact faith. In particular, he identifies the “loss of the calm and quiet in which the pious life used to flourish so abundantly.”41 He observes the frantic pace of modern life which disrupts home life: “[n]early everyone is chased out of the house early every morning, many no longer even take their meals at their own table, and so we no longer enjoy the atmosphere of the home or gather together around the Word of God when we ought to give thanks to him for what we just enjoyed.”42 He continues by listing the many technological developments that intrude into our lives reducing our capacity for rest and quiet:

But now every perimeter of rest has been dismantled. Electrical wires connect cities and towns to each other, and one country to another. Rail tracks span an entire continent. Mail ships cross all seas … People in villages do not notice this, but visit a world city and you will see how thousands upon thousands gallop through it during the daytime, as well as throughout the evening with the help of lights. They even add a part of the night to that already tumultuous day. There was a time when mail was delivered at most once per day, but now as many as eight to ten daily deliveries constantly inundate you with new messages and new questions. The telegraph overwhelms you with urgent messages. The telephone distracts your attention from your work. It is no longer possible to walk calmly through big cities, but electric trams are waiting to transport you from one side of the city to the other in one large sweep. Everything is done in haste without leaving you time to think…43

Although these words were written over a century ago, I find them recognizable in our current struggles with digital devices. One could easily substitute the words “telegraph” and “telephone” in the above text with their modern equivalents: “the internet overwhelms you with urgent messages” and “the smartphone distracts you from your work … without leaving you time to think.” These passages illustrate that some of our contemporary challenges are not unique to our time.

After describing the decrease in dependence that power over nature has brought, followed by the “unrest of modern times,” he describes a third issue “which could be referred to as the human mind’s preoccupation with all things.”44 In a section of Pro Rege titled “Distracted Thinking,” Kuyper writes about a topic which has become a modern epidemic with the rise of digital devices. He describes how newspapers are full of details from faraway countries which “grips and interests you, and a part of your mind is once again unwillingly and imperceptibly occupied by something that lies beyond the sphere of your life.”45 It inundates you with “everything noteworthy in science,” as well as sports, special events in agriculture, industry, and commerce in a “mountain of information.”46 He describes people whose “minds are inundated, occupied by the sheer amount of knowledge and information about all sorts of things that bombard them day after day.”47

He may as well be describing the torrent of digital information delivered to us each day through news channels, email, and social media. I can personally identify with the challenges of “distracted thinking.” These same issues are echoed in the themes of many modern writers reflecting on digital culture. In books like The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes about how “[d]ozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”48

These passages illustrate there are resources from the past which may be beneficial in our modern digital age. Kuyper not only describes problems we wrestle with today but begins to point a way forward: “[e]ach of us must, on the one hand, exert ourselves to participate in the life of our time, while on the other hand we must continue to protect the freedom of our mind and force it to concentrate on what matters.”49 This is particularly important when there is “almost nothing in the entire inundating stream that works either to confirm the faith received or arouse a deep religious reflection, and even less to entice humanity to seek and thirst after its God.”50 Kuyper recommends moving from the “many, the varied, and endlessly distinct to the coherence of all things, penetrating through to the One from whom everything comes.”51 These words speak to me personally, a reminder to set aside the “inundating stream” of information in order to spend time reflecting on what matters.52

Palingenesis

Here we catch a glimpse of the importance of personal piety to Kuyper. Besides his academic writings, Kuyper also wrote a book of devotions titled Nabij God te Zijn (Near Unto God).53 He understood the problem of intellectualism and the tendency to dwell on the head and neglect the heart. Kuyper’s writings emphasize the importance of regeneration or “palingenesis.” Kuyper uses the term “palingenesis” deliberately, a word from the biblical text used for personal rebirth (Titus 3:5) as well as the rebirth of the cosmos (Matt. 19:28).54 In his book Drie Kleine Vossen, Kuyper identifies three common pitfalls, including intellectualism. He writes: “What we must have is not thinking and reasoning heads on a stake, but heads with a heart under them and with two legs brought in motion by real life.”55 For those who work primarily with their minds, like those in engineering and computer science, we must not neglect the heart and a right relationship with Jesus Christ. Kuyper compares intellectualism to an administrator with a list of goods stored in a warehouse:

You sit so comfortably in the office, rather than between the crates, bales and barrels in the warehouse. … Your list, of course, isn’t worth a dime; the value is in the goods down on the warehouse floor. Yet you’d much rather have the tidy list, than to have to deal with the contents of the warehouse … you don’t have to get your hands dirty or get hurt by splinters or spikes … However, the lists don’t represent an actual worth, an experiential reality. Instead, they are only a reflection of reality.56

We must not forget that “lists” of concepts (including the lists in this reflection) aren’t “worth a dime” without a living faith. In his recent book about the contours of the Kuyperian tradition, Craig Bartholomew writes, “The kingdom is first about coming into a right and living relation to the King, and cultural engagement follows from and always builds on this experience.”57 This is a pastoral reminder for me, as someone who delights in the world of ideas, to remember to keep the main thing the main thing. In his forward of To Be Near unto God, Kuyper writes:

Intellectualism produces, as it were, beautifully shaped, finely cornered and dazzlingly transparent ice-crystals. But underneath that ice the stream of the living water so easily runs dry. There may be gain in doctrinal abstractions, but true religion, as shown in the warm piety of the heart, suffers loss … Contemplative thought, reflections and meditations on the soul’s nearness unto God tend merely to correct the above-named error; tend to draw the soul away from the abstract in doctrine and life, back to the reality of religion; tend, with all due appreciation of “chemical” analysis of the spiritual waters, to lead the soul back to the living Fountain itself, from whence these waters flow.58

Recent ethical issues in digital technology highlight the need for more than technical skills; we need engineers and computer scientists who have a “right and living relation to the King” and carry out their work from that reality. We do that with the help of the Holy Spirit. Kuyper, who also wrote on the Holy Spirit, noted that “the work of the Holy Spirit consists in leading all creation to its destiny, the final purpose of which is the glory of God.” Technology, as well as people, need to be aligned with the final purpose, or telos, of creation, which is the glory of God (Pro Rege).

Conclusion

Although Kuyper was a figure from the time of my great grandparents’ generation who knew nothing of the electronic marvels that we take for granted today, he has some valuable insights for our time. The notion that whatever is out of date is to be disregarded is what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”59 This attitude is an occupational hazard in a fast-paced discipline like engineering and computer science, where the old is discarded and the new and novel is celebrated. It has been helpful to explore a historical Christian thinker like Kuyper, even though some of his ideas may be speculative or a reflection of his time. I am grateful for the resources from the Christian past which can help inform not only our faith, but also our engagement with contemporary developments like digital technology.

Cite this article
Derek C. Schuurman, “On Kuyper and Technology, or How a Voice From the Past Can Speak to our Digital Age”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 161-174

Footnotes

  1. James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), xiii.
  2. Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 4.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, xxii.
  5. This section is based on a column published in Christian Courier. See Derek Schuurman, “Kuyper on the ‘Greater Things,’” Christian Courier (May 14, 2018): 15.
  6. Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege, volume 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 154-155.
  7. Ibid., 158.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 134.
  10. Ibid., 159.
  11. Ibid., 165.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 2011), 45.
  14. Kuyper, Pro Rege, 44.
  15. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 199.
  16. Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder, 97.
  17. Kuyper, Pro Rege, 39.
  18. Abraham Kuyper, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 332-333.
  19. Abraham Kuyper, Christianity and the Class Struggle (Grand Rapids: Piet Hein Publishers, 1950), 57.
  20. Ibid., 58.
  21. For example, see Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 206-247.
  22. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 11.
  23. Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder, 80-81.
  24. Ibid., 79.
  25. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “On Christian Learning,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, eds. Paul A. Marshall, Sander Griffioen and Richard J. Mouw (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 70.
  26. Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder, 26.
  27. Ibid., 52-53.
  28. Abraham Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, volume 2 (Amsterdam: Höveker & Wormser, 1903), 513. Excerpt translated here from the original Dutch by Carina Schuurman.
  29. Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).
  30. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper, 68.
  31. I would add that there are notable exceptions to this, see Skip Vaccarello, Finding God in Silicon Valley: Spiritual Journeys in a High-Tech World (San Diego: Creative Team Publishing, 2015).
  32. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 153.
  33. Ibid., 53.
  34. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 59.
  35. Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, 512-513. Excerpt translated here from the original Dutch by Carina Schuurman.
  36. Kuyper, Pro Rege, 44-45.
  37. Ibid., 46.
  38. Craig Gay, Modern Technology and the Human Future (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2018), 34.
  39. Egbert Schuurman, Faith and Hope in Technology (Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2003), 69.
  40. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin, 2005).
  41. Kuyper, Pro Rege, 46.
  42. Ibid., 50.
  43. Ibid., 50-51.
  44. Ibid., 56.
  45. Ibid., 59.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid., 62.
  48. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (New York: W. W. Norton Press, 2010), 115-116.
  49. Kuyper, Pro Rege, 61-62.
  50. Ibid., 62.
  51. Ibid., 63.
  52. For more discussion on this, see Derek C. Schuurman, “Modern Devices and Ancient Disciplines,” Faith Today (November/December 2017): 39-41.
  53. A contemporary English abridgment of this devotion is also available. See James C. Schaap, Near Unto God: Daily Meditations Adapted for Contemporary Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
  54. Craig Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 31.
  55. Abraham Kuyper, Drie Kleine Vossen (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1901), 22. Excerpt translated here from the original Dutch by Carina Schuurman.
  56. Ibid., 14. Translated here from the original Dutch by Carina Schuurman.
  57. Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, 32.
  58. Abraham Kuyper, To Be Near unto God, trans. John H. de Vries (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2005), 15-16.
  59. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: HarperOne, 1955), 254.

Derek C. Schuurman

Calvin University
Derek C. Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.