Neocalvinism . . . Abraham Kuyper? Maybe.
Neocalvinism . . . Abraham Kuyper? Maybe.

Neocalvinism . . . Abraham Kuyper? Maybe.

In the thought tradition given impetus by the late 19th and early 20th century's preacher-politician of the Netherlands, Connecticut Congregationalist Clifford Blake Anderson finds a genuinely public and prophetic theology . . . with certain reservations. Chief among these is the question of how any tradition—including neocalvinism—may be prophetically self-critical.

June 1 st 2006
Appears in Summer 2006

As the Curator of Reformed Research Collections in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library, my responsibilities include the supervision of two major research collections: one about the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) and the other about the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Visitors frequently comment on how unlikely it is for the seminary library to promote both collections since the combination of dialectical theology and neocalvinism is well-known among theologians to be volatile. My offhand reply is, that's why we house the collections at opposite ends of Luce Library. Of course, it is easy to segregate collections as a curator. It's less easy to compartmentalize theological traditions as a scholar. Comment's invitation to write on the theme, "Neocalvinism—Maybe?", offers a welcome opportunity to reflect on why I find the public theology of Abraham Kuyper worthy of scholarly attention, alongside the dialectical theology of Karl Barth.

Before I make a case for Kuyper's continuing relevance in the 21st century, it may help if I say a little more about where I am coming from. I have no 'organic' connection to Dutch neocalvinism. Growing up as a Congregationalist (in the United Church of Christ) in Connecticut, I never once heard Kuyper's name spoken from the pulpit. As an undergraduate, I learned Dutch not at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam but rather fortuitously while studying philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. My theological training at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton Seminary did not include any formal study of neocalvinist texts. My first introduction to Abraham Kuyper and the theology of neocalvinism came when Max L. Stackhouse, now the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life at Princeton Seminary, asked me to assist him with the celebration of the centennial of Abraham Kuyper's Stone Lectures in 1998. As I read the Lectures on Calvinism for the first time in preparation for the centennial, I became increasingly taken, like so many others, with Kuyper's depiction of calvinism not simply as a confessional perspective within the Christian church, but as a faith with implications for every sphere of existence, including politics, the arts, and the sciences. Kuyper offered an outward-looking theology, a public theology ready to mix it up with the major social-cultural forces of his era. In retrospect, it may be that Kuyper's call in the Stone Lectures to engage as a Christian in spheres other than academy and the church resonated with the publicly-minded federal theology familiar to me from New England congregationalism (a point Stackhouse, who comes from same the church tradition as I do, has brought home to me).

Abraham Kuyper is not particularly well-known among pastors of so-called 'mainline' Protestant churches. However, I believe that mainline Protestants outside traditional neocalvinist circles might come to regard Abraham Kuyper as interesting and challenging and worthwhile, as I have, because he speaks to a malaise which many pastors of such churches are currently experiencing. In Good News in Exile: Three Pastors Offer a Hopeful Vision for the Church (Eerdmans, 1999), for example, two United Christ of Christ pastors, Martin Copenhaver and Anthony Robinson, reflect along with William H. Willimon of the Duke University Chapel about the growing disestablishment of the mainline churches. Following the general line of argument which Stanley Hauerwas and Willimon put forward in Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon Press, 1989), the co-authors argue that the church should embrace disestablishment rather than continue to adhere to the old synthesis between Christ and culture. They argue that "liberalism" or the conviction that there is "some neutral philosophical ground" upon which conflicting faith-based claims may be rationally adjudicated corrodes the ability of Christians to witness to their Lord. These pastors have come to regard liberalism as a worldview antithetical to Christianity: "Liberalism is the dominant, domineering worldview in our society. It used to look like home to us, but now we view it as the host culture in which Christians and other people of faith are in exile." They worry that mainline denominations, though active politically, have lost a sense of the distinctiveness of Christian political witness: "Denominational gatherings can begin to resemble political conventions, the more liberal denominations talking like Democrats with a slight religious accent, the more conservative denominations saying little that could not be heard at a Republican party rally." The pastors' prescriptions for conducting Christian social action fall somewhat short, however. Although endorsing Hauerwas's claim that "the primary political role of the church is to be the church," the authors also talk about forming "ad hoc" coalitions with non-Christian "fellow travelers." The authors' sense of political responsibility apparently runs too deep for them simply to recommend cessation of their denominations' political advocacy.

Hope for a better synthesis

Can Abraham Kuyper provide a more adequate solution to these pastors' malaise? Certainly Kuyper shared their critique of liberalism. He, too, worried about the uniformity which liberalism imposes on public discourse. He also thought that the disestablishment of the church could serve the purpose of strengthening the church's witness to Christ in the culture. In his 1873 sermon, Vrijheid [Freedom] (H. De Hoogh & Co., 1873), for instance, Kuyper contended that the church was only then fully emerging from the Constantinian era's attempt to unify it by political force for reasons of political expediency. Society has no use for a church, he wrote, "which hides away in its own insignificance, lives by the favour of those who hate her, and is a subject of mockery rather than a royal herald for the society surrounding it." Kuyper thus agreed that the prevailing liberal synthesis between church and state had to be broken up, even if that also meant breaking apart the ecclesiastical unity which the state had imposed on the church. However, Kuyper did not abandon hope of a better synthesis. He regarded the church's marginalization and exile as temporary expediencies rather than desirable conditions.

Kuyper always maintained that the church, even the church in exile, should stay active in the life of the nation. In his 1887 address, Tweeërlei Vaderland [Twofold Fatherland] ( J. A. Wormser, 1887), he introduced an important distinction between 'fatherland' (today we might prefer to say our 'country' or 'nation') and 'world.' The first, together with all its concomitant social and political institutions, should be regarded as a gift of common grace. The state and the various associations of civil society function to restrain sin and promote human flourishing. The second he identified with the 'world' described in 1 John 5:19—"…the whole world lies under the power of the evil one"—and elsewhere as opposed to the Kingdom of God. The crucial point was not to mistake the 'fatherland' or nation of which we are citizens, however fallen, with the 'world' described in various passages of the New Testament as the antithesis of the Kingdom: "Our earthly fatherland is instituted by God, not to strengthen the anti-divine spirit of the world, but rather to set up a bulwark against the world and to be of service in the affairs of the Lord." If excluded from taking active part as Christians in social and political affairs, Christians should nevertheless not abandon their earthly 'fatherland' as though it were a world filled only with devils so that they might live only for their heavenly 'fatherland.' Kuyper referred to this as the anabaptist solution. Instead, he said, they should develop creative strategies for restoring the social and political institutions of their nation as the bulwarks of common grace God created them to be. For Kuyper, therefore, the internal 'exile' of Christians was never an end in itself, but always a means only. The point of 'prophetic isolation,' he explained to his followers in 1887, was "not at all to place ourselves outside the life of our fatherland, but through our isolation to salvage what has been entrusted to us for that fatherland."

As Vincent Bacote has recently noted in The Spirit of Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Baker Academic, 2005), Abraham Kuyper incorporated aspects from both the 'apologetic' and 'confessional' styles of contemporary public theology. Bacote points out that while Kuyper's concept of common grace inclined him toward the 'apologetic' style, which focuses on identifying commonalities between peoples of different faiths, his concept of the antithesis inclined him toward the 'confessional' style, which emphasizes the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. In effect, Kuyper split the difference between these dominant styles of public theology. His theology thus offers mainline Christians, who worry about the loss of the distinctiveness of their churches' confessions, but who nevertheless wish to stay politically and culturally engaged, a viable alternative to either secular accommodation or 'exilic' forms of separation. In other words, Kuyper combined as forceful a critique of liberalism as Stanley Hauerwas with as genuine a 'social gospel' as Walter Rauschenbusch. (For a comparison between Abraham Kuyper and Walter Rauschenbusch, see John Bolt, "Abraham Kuyper, Leo XII, Walter Rauschenbusch, and the search for an American public theology," in the volume edited by Luis E. Lugo, Religion, Pluralism and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper's Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, Eerdmans, 2000).

Against the sufficiency of scripture?

What holds me back from offering an unqualified 'Yes!' to Kuyper? A primary reason is the collection down the hall. Karl Barth and his Dutch followers (such as Th. L. Haitjema and Heiko Miskotte) raised many objections against the second generation of neocalvinists, particularly after the Synod of Assen in 1926 (see George Harinck, "The Early Reception of the Theology of Karl Barth in The Netherlands, 1919-1926," Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 17, 2001: 170-187). I like to think that the best theology is born from dialectical engagement of clashing opinions, so I try to learn from both Barth and Kuyper. Wilhelm Kolfhaus (1870-1954) also sought in interesting ways to learn from both Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth. But he clearly represented a minority view on both sides of the Dutch theological aisle. In that sense, I am neither a Barthian nor a Kuyperian.

To get a sense of one of these dialectical tensions, let's consider, for example, the objection which the Dutch followers of Karl Barth raised against Kuyper's concept of worldview. Karl Barth himself was, of course, sharply critical of the theological use of the idea of worldview. According to Barth, faith and worldview are antipodal rather than complementary. Barth regarded the concept of worldview as simply another form of human religiosity, which subsumes the eternal Word of God into passing historical forms. In Dogmatics in Outline (Harper & Row, 1959), he therefore advised that "if you are faced with any such general view, you should bracket it, even if it should be called a Christian Weltanschauung." The danger of linking faith and worldview is, of course, that the defense of the faith can tacitly turn into the ideological defense of certain so-called 'Christian achievements,' which, like all human actions, are always inherently ambiguous. Barth's criticisms of the concept of worldview prompted his followers in the Netherlands to criticize in turn and eventually break with many of the Christian associations Kuyper had helped to constitute and develop across the various spheres of human existence.

Lest it seem that I am rather unfairly lifting up an external objection from a theologian operating from a 'wholly other' standpoint, it should be noted that the opposition between the Dutch neocalvinists and dialectical theologians on this point was already largely anticipated by a debate within neocalvinist circles between Abraham Kuyper and his erstwhile colleague Alexander Frederik de Savornin Lohman about the status of the Vrije Universiteit as an association of higher education based on Reformed principles. Many have heard of the external circumstances of their conflict—how Kuyper surprised de Savornin Lohman during the meeting of the governing body of the Vrije Universiteit at the 'Seinpost' in 1895 with complaints about his failure to teach in accordance with Calvinistic principles, which eventually led to de Savornin Lohman's resignation—but fewer realize that one of the questions at stake in that debate concerned the relation between the faith and worldview. In 1899, Kuyper reprised the discussion by publishing a pamphlet—Band aan het Woord: Antwoord op de vraag, hoe is eene universiteit aan het Woord van God to binden? [The connection to the Word: Answering the question, how is a university to be connected to the Word of God?] (Hoveker & Wormser, 1899)—in which he essentially argued against the sufficiency of scripture as a foundation for the Vrije Universiteit (he had lots of arguments for this thesis, such as the fact that Christians of all stripes claim to draw from Scripture but all wind up developing quite different perspectives). In his response—De Waarheid Bovenal: Een Bezwaarschrift [Truth Above All: A Rebuttal] (Kemink & Zoon, 1899)—de Savornin Lohman did not argue against the concept of connecting faith and worldview per se, but he asserted that Kuyper had effectively silenced Scripture's ability to speak against the Calvinist worldview as it had historically developed by requiring professors at the Vrije Universiteit to read Scripture in conformity with the basic principles of that worldview. De Savornin Lohman thought that this hermeneutical rule blocked access to any independent criterion by which to judge the truth of one's worldview. De Savornin Lohman wrote:

For example, let's take the study of law. Undoubtedly, this stands in close connection with life-view [levensbeschouwing]; with time and people; with 'differences between human and human, between people and people, between country and county'; and whoever does not take that into account is being foolish. But the law itself must be tested against and must yield before the truth itself—before the eternal principles which God himself has established and which we, believing Christians, find in and derive from the revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures. Whoever loves 'the truth,' must try to free himself from 'worldviews' [wereldbeschouwingen], provided that he binds himself to God's Word itself.

De Savornin Lohman regarded Kuyper's attempt to bind the development of the Vrije Universiteit to a concrete historical worldview as a threat to the longevity of the university. Quoting Kuyper, de Savornin Lohman commented, "that 'the University endures the ages,' may be so. But 'life—and worldviews,' including those of a single people, sometimes pass quickly by or are driven out by others. As 'foundations' for an institution of such longevity they are not terribly trustworthy." Johann Stellingwerff, a scholar generally quite critical of Abraham Kuyper, has even suggested—in Dr. Abraham Kuyper en de Vrije Universiteit (J. H. Kok, 1987)—that Kuyper's victory over de Savornin Lohmann constituted a turning-point in the history of Vrije Universiteit, making it "an entirely Kuyperian mini-university" rather than a center of free, Christian scholarly inquiry.

In my engagement with Abraham Kuyper at Princeton Seminary, I do not seek to repristinate his worldview, much of which belongs, after all, to a quite different time and place. I do seek to learn from Kuyper how to construe Christianity as a comprehensive faith with implications for every sphere of life. I and others have discovered in Kuyper's theology a rich resource for fostering interdisciplinary conversation between theologians and professionals from other disciplines. Since the founding of the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology, we have sponsored several consultations—on theology and environmental science, on theology and economics, and most recently, on theology and mission—which have brought together theologians and professionals from other disciplines to talk about areas of shared concern. It is remarkable how consistently the Kuyperians on our panels have been able to identify fruitful commonalities with secular scholars without compromising their Christian perspective. The ability of contemporary Kuyperians to speak and to learn from non-Christians in politics, society, and culture without in the process assimilating or accommodating their own confessional convictions provides testimony to the ongoing relevance of his concepts of common grace and the antithesis. While many of the particulars of his worldview are not applicable in our setting, there is undoubtedly still much to be learned from this 19th-century Dutchman about how to conceive Christianity holistically and comprehensively as a faith which affects and shapes every sphere of life.

Topics: Religion
Clifford Blake Anderson
Clifford Blake Anderson

Clifford Blake Anderson is Curator of Reformed Research Collections in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library. He lives in Cranbury, NJ with his wife Rosanna, who is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA).


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