MINE! Kuyper for a new century

Kuyyper for a new century. Comment presents a condensed version of the "Abraham Kuyper Prize Lecture," delivered at Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, March 29th 2007. The Seminary will likely publish the lecture in full, later this year.

Appears in Summer 2007 Issue: Summer reading
June 1st, 2007

In an essay offering a Jewish assessment of Karl Barth's contribution to "divine command" ethics in his "Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian" (2005), Rabbi David Novak expresses some puzzlement about why Barth was so negative about natural law thinking. He sees Barth as a lot like some prominent Jewish thinkers, teachers who advocate a "retreat into sectarian enclaves, where [people of faith] can live more consistently and continually according to the direct commandments of God." Novak rejects that kind of approach. And having pointed to what he sees as an important weakness in Barth's perspective, Novak suggests a remedy that should gladden the hearts of at least some Reformed Christians. Expressing the wish that Barth "had been more of a Calvinist in his treatment of law," Novak offers, in a footnote, some examples of people whose writings he wishes Barth had read with openness to learning from their views. And at the beginning of his list is "the Dutch Calvinist theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper."

As someone who does his theological scholarship, as the Dutch would say, "in the line of Kuyper," I take much delight in that counsel to Barth. To be sure, in the same breath in which Novak commends Kuyper's thought he also observes that Kuyper "was certainly not in Karl Barth's theological league." This is a legitimate assessment. When it comes to sheer sustained scholarly theological brilliance, Barth was in a league of his own. There are other theological leagues, however, and if we were to do our ranking with reference to a very broad range of roles and activities, Kuyper does stand out as a giant in the league that we have come to think of as public theology. Much of Kuyper's theological output was produced on the run. His theological probings were never far removed from his public commitments as the founder of two newspapers, a university, a political party, and a denomination. In addition, he regularly wrote articles for his newspapers, while also leading his party both as a member of the Dutch parliament and, for a few years, as Prime Minister.

Even when Kuyper sat back and engaged in systematic theological reflection, his thoughts were never far removed from his public roles. Two key themes that Kuyper held in tension within his theological system—the radical antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought on the one hand, and the reality of common grace on the other—played an important role in his political leadership. When Kuyper wanted to rally the Calvinist troops to support an unpopular partisan effort he would preach antithesis, but when the opportunity arose to forge a strategic alliance with another party on a given issue he would remind his followers that God often works mysteriously in the hearts of the unregenerate to restrain their sinful tendencies.

My guess is that Kuyper's common grace preachments are the kind of thing that led Rabbi Novak to suggest that Karl Barth might have profitably interacted with Kuyper's thought. And while I take delight in that piece of counsel, I have my doubts whether Karl Barth would actually have received much help from Kuyper on the topic of natural law in particular. Kuyper's understanding of God's lawful ordering of the universe was of a very dynamic sort. As Kuyper's younger colleague Herman Bavinck put the view: "God does not stand outside of nature and is not excluded from it by a hedge of laws but is present in it and sustains it by the word of his power." Kuyper's God is ever-present to his creation, a cosmic legislator whose law "lays full claim, not only to the believer (as though less were required from the unbeliever), but to every human being and to all human relationships."

While these emphases are clearly grounded in a robust theology of creation, they are also linked to a theology of redemption that features the notion, to use the apt phrase that Albert Wolters chose for the title of his book setting forth the Kuyperian perspective, "creation regained." One of Kuyper's images for Christ's redemptive mission is as a kind of cleaning operation. "Verily," he says, "Christ has swept away the dust with which man's sinful limitations had covered up this world-order, and has made it glitter again in its original brilliancy." Kuyper included the full range of cultural reality within the scope of this cleaning operation.

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