Lessons from Father Abraham (Kuyper): Christianity, Politics, & the Public Square

by
March 6, 2015

Introduction

Russian winters are not known for affording one a cornucopia of options for how to spend one’s evenings. When the temperature regularly drops to 10 or 20 below zero for months at a time, there is little to do. So when I found myself in Russia during the winters of 1998-99, I had a lot of time on my hands. But that is how I first learned about Abraham Kuyper.

I certainly didn’t enjoy the brutal cold at the time, but in retrospect, I am grateful for those long Russian winters. Without them, I would not have encountered Kuyper’s writings, and thus would have received neither the theological framework I needed for understanding a Christian’s relationship to society and culture nor the theological underpinnings he provided for a healthy view of church and state.

Those years in Russia provided the perfect context for reflecting on these issues, as evangelical Christian influence in Russia had been restricted severely during the Soviet era. I worked as an adjunctive professor at several universities in the city of Kazan. Most of my students were deeply skeptical about whether God existed, whether life had any meaning, and whether there were any moral absolutes. Russia’s cultural institutions—including its government, businesses, marriages, and schools—reflected this deep sense of loss.

During this time, I began to read books by Christian thinkers such as Richard John Neuhaus, Lesslie Newbigin, and Francis Schaeffer. They hinted at an aspect of Christian thought that I seemed to be lacking. But it is Kuyper who caused me to reconstruct my way of thinking from the ground up.

Kuyper lived in nineteenth century Holland, served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper, and wrote influential books on theology, politics, and other topics. His deepest convictions might be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, our allegiance to him should shape not only the private but also the public aspects of our lives. If Christ is Lord, he is not just the Lord over private spirituality or obviously “religious” things, but also Lord over public things like art, science, business, politics, economics, and education. Reading Kuyper got me started on the path toward viewing Christ’s Lordship as directly relevant to public life.

The Fundamental Issue: Nature and Grace

But the reconstruction didn’t happen quickly or easily. Although Kuyper’s theological vision was appealing in many ways, I was unable to embrace it until I laid aside some components of my theological framework with which Kuyper’s vision conflicted. More to the point, Kuyper envisioned a certain relationship between nature and grace, and I had a hard time buying into Kuyper’s vision because I had been influenced by certain competing visions.

Looking back, I now realize that I was just discovering the nature-grace relationship as a fundamental component of any theological framework or theological vision. The question about how nature and grace relate is fundamental, logically prior to discussing the relationships between theology and culture, Christianity and politics, or church and state.

The relationship between “nature” and “grace” is one that can be answered only by looking at the overarching biblical narrative, discerning the meaning of creation, fall, and redemption, and the relation between those three plot movements. How one conceives of the relationship between these various plot movements shapes one’s worldview, theology, and spirituality. It determines one’s view of theology and culture, Christianity and politics, and church and state.[1]

The four views I present here each have proponents that represent the view well and others that represent it poorly. The healthiest members of any category will, in many ways, look more like one another than the other members of the category I have created for them. Thus while adjudicating between these views, it is helpful to see those of other views as fellow travelers toward right belief and practice rather than dismissing them as opponents.

Grace against Nature?

During my earliest years as a Christian, I held a view which can be called “grace against nature.” Although I would not have known to use the phrase, that was my view. The core conviction of this view is that the Fall has corrupted nature ontologically. Sin destroyed the goodness of God’s creation such that it cannot be redeemed. So God will one day destroy it and start over again. Instead of making all things new, he will make all new things.

This vision promotes a distinctive way of life. Since the world is corrupted in its very being, it is not our home. A good Christian should, therefore, withdraw from the evil world and seek a salvation separate from it. A good Christian citizen should speak prophetically against the evil powers in the political realm. And a good Christian scholar should teach and write prophetically against the evil operative in the world’s social structures and cultural institutions. But—and this is paramount—a good Christian has no business trying to “transform” culture. His cultural activities should never be considered redemptive and should not be given labels such as “kingdom work” or “Christian mission.”

This vision has significant strengths, the greatest of which is that it takes sin seriously. Proponents of this view recognize the twisting and corrupting power of sin, and speak prophetically against its manifestations in society and culture.

Of course, it is not without weaknesses. The most prominent is related to its chief strength: this view gives sin too much credit. It believes that sin has corrupted God’s creation to the very core. But Satan has no power to make evil what God has made good. Additionally, this view does not work out fully enough the implications of Christ’s universal lordship. Because proponents of this view give sin too much credit, they tend to try to escape God’s good world, and have difficulty coming to grips with its good aspects, and with the way in which the Christian life is inherently cultural and contextual.

Grace above Nature?

I was always a little bit uncomfortable with the grace against nature vision, even when I was a proponent of it. What made me uncomfortable? I didn’t have a cohesive way of comprehending or articulating Christ’s Lordship over anything other than the institutional church, my own private spirituality, and certain other obviously religious dimensions of life. But I wanted a way to make sense of art, science, politics, and other parts of life that were not so obviously religious. I could see both the good and bad present in those dimensions of culture, and wanted to understand how Christians could bring the Christian faith to bear on them. After all, these dimensions—rather than church attendance and private devotions—tend to take up the majority of a person’s waking hours. It was during those years that I began to read books written by Christian thinkers whose vision could be characterized as one of “grace above nature.”

This vision relates grace and nature hierarchically. In this vision, nature is the lower story of God’s world. It is relatively autonomous, and unaffected by the fall in any way that would necessitate grace or redemption. The top floor is more important, but it’s also more damaged by sin.

The “grace above nature” vision relates general revelation to the lower realm of nature and special revelation to the upper realm of grace. In other words, when Christians participate in lower realm activities they draw upon God’s general revelation for guidance, and when they participate in upper realm activities they draw upon God’s special revelation.

This vision has a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. Broadly speaking, the Christian divides his time between the upper and lower realms. In the lower realm (nature), he has a family, a workplace, a community, and certain leisure activities. In the upper realm (grace), he has personal devotions, church attendance, and theology. Grace, redemption, and special revelation are for the upper realm—where they are desperately needed. But they do not need to be brought into the lower realm.

Similarly, this vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian does scholarship. The university is two-realmed. One realm includes natural things such as philosophy, political science, or history. The other realm has the religion department and divinity school. The natural realm operates via general revelation and reason; the realm of grace adds special revelation to the mix. A Christian scholar in the lower realm does not need special revelation because there is no specifically Christian criterion by which a Christian scholar would judge what suits the realm of nature best. Subsequently, Christian scholars who operate in natural disciplines such as history or political science can easily accommodate insights of non-Christian scholars as long as their views are based on general revelation and reason rather than an overpowering ideology or false religion.

This view has significant strengths. Unlike the “grace against nature” vision, it does not give sin too much credit. It rightly recognizes that sin cannot ontologically corrupt what God has made inherently good. However, as with the first vision, this strength also becomes a weakness. The grace above nature vision does not sufficiently recognize the twisting power of sin in the natural realm, nor the necessity of bringing grace and special revelation to bear on activities in that realm. After all, if the roof is leaking, the whole house will have water damage, not just the upper story. In short, this view does not sufficiently recognize the implication of Christ’s redemption and of special revelation for the here-and-now activities of our everyday lives.

Grace alongside of Nature?

A third theological framework is one we can call the “grace alongside of nature” vision. In this way of viewing things, God’s world is divided into two kingdoms—a natural kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.[2] God rules the natural kingdom as creator and sustainer, and does so through common grace and general revelation. He rules the spiritual kingdom as redeemer, and does so through saving grace and special revelation. This kingdom is already manifested in the life and ministry of the church.

Proponents of this vision conceive of the two kingdoms as running on parallel tracks. They may be held in tension with one another, but should never be conflated. A Christian operating in the natural realm should not, as Luther once put it, “drag [Christ’s] words into the law books or into the secular government…With the secular area [Christ] has nothing to do.”[3] The natural realm (kingdom) has its own integrity. The church has its own integrity. The two exist side by side.

Proponents of the grace alongside of nature vision have a distinctive view of how a Christian lives in the world. They encourage us not to “spiritualize” the natural realm by pursuing cultural activities in the hope that we can transform this world, change the culture, create a distinctively Christian civilization, or bring “healing” to the natural realm. Although our work in the natural realm does have real value, it does not count as “kingdom work” or “Christian mission.”

Proponents of this vision also have a distinctive view of how a Christian should do scholarship. They argue that believers should take the task of scholarship seriously in the natural realm, and can do so by utilizing general revelation and relying on common grace. For them, biblical revelation is not necessary for shaping non-religious scholarship in the natural realm. In relation to politics and the public square, they rightly recognize the danger of the state coercively imposing religion on its citizens, but tend not to bring special revelation into their interactions unless opposing views are being carried on the back of overpowering ideology or false religion. As in the grace above nature vision, this view seeks to draw appropriate boundaries between nature and grace. Jesus belongs in the church; he doesn’t belong in the laboratory or the public square, per se.

This vision has great strengths. It grapples with how best to take both nature and grace seriously, and how best to live Christianly in the various spheres without confusing the differences between them. However, in my opinion, this vision does not sufficiently recognize the misdirecting power of sin in the natural realm, nor the implications of Christ’s redemption in the here-and-now activities of our everyday lives. It does not recognize fully enough the epistemological insufficiency of general revelation for natural realm activities, or the breadth of the Bible’s relevance to our cultural activities. Finally, and as a result of the insufficiencies just mentioned, this view can foster an unhealthy social and cultural passivism.[4]

Grace Renews and Restores Nature

In Kuyper’s theological vision, grace renews and restores nature. In this vision, God covenanted creation (“nature”) into existence and ordered it by means of his word. His covenant word still holds for all of our creational life. In fact, we can speak of God’s word as his thesis for the world, and of sin as the antithesis to it. This sort of language requires some unpacking.

At creation, God instructed his imagers to be fruitful and multiply (a social command), till the soil (a cultural command), and have dominion (a regal command). His imagers would glorify him by multiplying worshipers, bringing out the hidden potentials of creation, and lovingly managing his world. However, Adam and Eve were seduced by the word that the serpent spoke against God’s word. Since the first couple’s sin, all of humanity has been under the sway of this antithesis.

The antithesis is any word spoken against God’s word. It misdirects the human mind and affections by pointing them toward idols rather than toward the one true and living God. So this world is corrupted, but not in its structures. Instead, it is corrupted in direction.

Sin and evil were not able to corrupt God’s created order structurally or ontologically. Satan and sin are not as powerful as God’s word and therefore cannot destroy creation. They cannot make purely bad what God created originally good. All they can do is misdirect. Thus creation remains good structurally (in its existence and basic order) but has been made bad directionally (as humanity brings out the hidden potentials of creation by building society and culture, but does so in an errant manner, directing it toward idols rather than God).[5]

In the aftermath of the Fall, God sent his Son to make right what had gone wrong. The salvation provided by the Son is offered to God’s imagers, but extends beyond them to the whole created realm. We are told that Christ will liberate creation from the bondage it is now experiencing because of the Fall (Rom 8:19-22). One day he will return to renew and restore his good creation (Rev 21:1), purifying it of corruption and misdirection, and placing in its midst a majestic city, the New Jerusalem. The Bible’s description of the New Jerusalem is thoroughly cultural, characterized by architecture, art, and song.

At least two aspects of this cosmic redemption are significant for our present discussion. First, the fact that God will liberate creation from its bondage—rather than annihilating it—affirms that sin did not have the power to corrupt creation ontologically. The created order, even though it has been misdirected, remains God’s good creation. He will renew it instead of replacing it.

Second, the fact that our eternity plays out in a physical and material universe affirms the enduring goodness of the physical and material (i.e. cultural) aspects of our lives.

So God’s grace is not against nature. Neither does it float above nature. And it does not merely exist alongside of it. God’s grace renews and restores nature, making it what he always intended it to be. Kuyper writes:

For if grace exclusively concerned atonement for sin and salvation of souls, one could view grace as something located and operating outside of nature….But if it is true that Christ our Savior has to do not only with our soul but also with our body…then of course everything is different. We see immediately that grace is inseparably connected with nature, that grace and nature belong together.[6]

This vision has a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. As believers, we are called to be redirective in our social and cultural activities. In whatever realm of society or culture we find ourselves—art, science, politics, business, or education—we want God’s incarnate and written word to shape our words and activities. We inquire about God’s creational design for a certain activity or realm, then discern the manifold ways it has been misdirected by sin, and finally find ways to redirect that activity or realm towards Christ.

We do so out of love for Christ and our neighbor. We do so as a matter of obedience: Christ’s lordship is as wide as creation and therefore as wide as culture. We do so as a matter of witness: Christ’s saving Lordship should be conveyed not only by our words but by our cultural deeds. And we do so as a preview of Christ’s coming Kingdom, when he will renew this heavens and earth.

If we are able to transform culture, then so be it. But that is not the ultimate goal. Any cultural transformation we see will be neither comprehensive nor enduring, until the day when Christ Jesus transforms the world. In other words, we are not in this to “win” a culture war. Only Christ wins. We do these things out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of witness and obedience, and in the hopes that we as a Christian community can provide a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom.

God’s redemption and restoration transforms us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives. Kuyper writes, “In short, everything is his. His kingdom is over everything….His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, of all spheres, of all creatures.”[7] Christ’s redemption redirects our lives comprehensively. Thus every act of obedience—whether in prayer or in politics, in evangelism or in economics—is a part of Christian mission, a manifestation of kingdom work. Because the antithesis is operative as a misdirecting agent in every nook and cranny of creation and culture, we should draw upon God’s thesis to redirect our activities in every nook and cranny.

This vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian should do scholarship. It views every academic discipline as an opportunity to view God’s world through the lens of his Word. Kuyper writes, “He who lives from, and consistently within, the orbit of Revelation confesses that all Sovereignty rests in God and can therefore proceed only from Him; that the Sovereignty of God has been conferred absolute and undivided upon the man-Messiah; and that…every…sphere of life recognizes an authority derived from him.”[8] A Christian scholar who believes that grace restores nature will recognize that his field of study, whether avowedly religious or not, has an authority derived from Christ. His discipline operates within a sphere that has a unique God-given principle at its core, shaping the discipline’s goal as well as its appropriate parameters.[9]

Christianity, Politics, & the Public Square

This vision, unsurprisingly, has a distinctive view of how the Christian should act and interact in politics and in the public square. If God’s sovereign authority holds for every sphere of life and if his word is relevant to every sphere, then politics and the public square are no exception. Kuyper exemplified this conviction in his own life. His early years were spent fruitfully as a pastor, until he became increasingly cognizant of the need to shape Dutch politics. So he started a national newspaper, let a political party, was elected to the Dutch parliament, and even served as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Along the way, he drew upon the “grace restores nature” framework in order to shape his understanding of politics and the public square. Kuyper’s “grace restores nature” paradigm is particularly helpful in thinking through politics and public square interaction, and for several reasons.

First, and as a very broad principle, this vision encourages citizens to approach any aspect of public life by discerning God’s creational design for that aspect (thesis), discerning the various ways in which these aspects have been corrupted and misdirected by sin (antithesis), and working to redirect them toward Christ. This work of redirection cannot and should not be done in reliance upon general revelation alone. General revelation has never been enough to guide our lives; even before the Fall, God spoke to man and woman in the Garden. We should allow our specifically Christian beliefs and commitments to inform our views on social, cultural, and political issues, even if we do not always articulate our views in the public square with explicitly Christian language.

Second, this vision promotes a “principled pluralism” in the public square. We live in a time between the times, in a fallen world that awaits its renewal. Until that time of renewal and restoration, public life will always and necessarily be to some extent plural. There will be no ultimate or comprehensive consensus on the nature of justice, the good life, or other issues of significant public import. We want to gain consensus in the public square whenever and wherever we can, but we don’t want to coerce or impose a Christian lifestyle on others. We should employ our Christian beliefs to work for justice and peace, to alleviate injustice and suffering, to gain consensus on significant public issues when we can, and to promote the overall flourishing of society. In other words, we should not seek a theocracy. We should promote the type of religious liberty that our Baptist forebears championed to the point of death.

Third, and related to the previous point, we want to avoid an improperly coercive relationship between church and state. Kuyper’s answer to the church-state relationship was “sphere sovereignty.” He argued that God ordered creation in such a way that there are multiple “spheres” of culture, such as art, science, religion, and politics. God is sovereign over the spheres. Each sphere exists directly under God’s authority (rather than under the church’s), and in fact possesses a unique God-given principle which forms its center and outlines its circumference. What governs economics may not be appropriate in governing the family, or vice versa.

No sphere should be sovereign over the others, which is to say that each sphere has its own autonomy in relation to the other spheres. For example, the institutional church should not control the government or the arts or science. Conversely, the government should not seek to usurp that which belongs to the church. Each sphere should respect the integrity of the other spheres, and no sphere should encroach upon the territory of the others. Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty is a system of checks and balances, only at the ontological rather than political level.[10]

There is, however, one important caveat. Kuyper’s paradigm allows the government a limited jurisdiction over the other spheres—a sort of tie-breaking vote. In Kuyper’s view, as Richard Mouw notes, government should interfere with the spheres in order to help adjudicate disputes, defend the weak versus the strong, and cause citizens to support the state personally and financially.[11] Nonetheless, government should not claim sovereign authority over the other spheres and should use its power to help the other spheres flourish. In this respect, Kuyperian sphere sovereignty works well in tandem with Peter Berger’s “mediating structures.” Kuyper’s spheres form the deeper structure underlying Berger’s mediating structures.

Fourth, this vision makes a distinction between the institutional church and the organic church, and applies that distinction to public square activities. The church is an institution, the work of human hands. It gathers weekly to preach the word, administer the ordinances, sing, pray, read Scripture, and fellowship. But the church is also an organism, a body of covenanted people who are alive in Christ, and who scatter throughout society and culture during the week. While the institutional church may have indirect influence on politics and the public square by shaping its members into Christian disciples, it should not exert direct influence. However, the organic church—the covenanted members of the church—may exercise direct influence in politics and the public square, by applying their discipleship to public matters when opportunity arises and expertise allows.

Much more could be said in Kuyper’s favor. Suffice it to say that I find Kuyper’s grace restores nature framework and his application of it to politics enormously fruitful. It could (and, I wager, should) be adapted to help American Christians carve out a faithful presence in our twenty-first century context. Kuyper’s political theology could help us avoid the dichotomies that press themselves upon us—either statism or ecclesiasticism, secularism or theocracy, liberationism or libertarianism.

Drawing upon Kuyper’s thought will not be easy, and it is not a panacea for our American ills. It has deficiencies all its own, and even its strengths must be kept in context, as Kuyper’s ideology was crafted in a different era and country. But serious engagement with Kuyper’s thought cannot but help as we forge a path of faithful Christian commitment in the twenty first century.

Conclusion

I am grateful for what I have learned from Abraham Kuyper. First and foremost, his grace restores nature vision serves as the healthiest framework for understanding life in God’s world. Although the other grace/nature visions have their own strengths, the grace restores nature vision best captures the biblical teaching and best prepares us for Christian living.

Second, Kuyper applied this vision in a very helpful way to politics and the public square. He emphasized God’s sovereignty over ever sphere of culture, including church and state. He provided a way for church and state to relate to one another properly, without one domineering the other. He sought to avoid the twin extremes of a naked square on the one hand, or a theocracy on the other.

Kuyper grasped one great truth—that Christ’s lordship is universal—and sought to apply it wisely and consistently to life on this earth. And from that we can all benefit.

[1] For introductions to these competing theological visions, see Al Wolters, Creation Regained, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) or Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 51-66.

[2] There is no single set of labels for the two kingdoms. For example, Luther referred to left-handed and right-handed kingdoms. Other proponents speak of a common kingdom and an eschatological kingdom. Yet others refer to a natural kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.

[3] Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Mount,” in Jaroslav Pelikan, trans., Luther’s Works 21 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 90.

[4] Karl Barth famously argued that the “two kingdoms” theology operative in 20th century Germany paved the way for a dangerous social passivism that actually served to strengthen natural paganism instead of restricting it.

[5] The terms “structural” and “directional” are terms contemporary theologians use to describe Kuyper’s views. See Wolters, Creation Regained, 87-114.

[6] Abraham Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 173. Emphasis original.

[7] Abraham Kuyper, E Voto Dordraceno. Toelichting op den Heidelbergschen Catechismus, vol. 4., 465-66. Cited by Timothy P. Palmer, “The Two-Kingdom Doctrine: A Comparative Study,” in Steve Bishop and John H. Kok, On Kuyper (Sioux City, Iowa: Dordt, 2013), 147-148.

[8] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 468.

[9] For a concise argument in favor of this view, see Alvin Plantinga, “The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship,” in Seeking Understanding: The Stob Lectures 1986-1998 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 121-161.

[10] James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 132-35.

[11] Richard Mouw, “Some Reflections on Sphere Sovereignty,” in Luis E. Lugo, ed., Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 89.


Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.