The Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper founded two newspapers, a university, a political party, and a denomination. Nor was he content to start something and then move on to quite a different project. During his career, which lasted from his ordination in the 1860s until his death in 1920, he regularly wrote articles for his newspapers; he taught theology at the Free University; he led his party both as a member of the Dutch Parliament and, for a few years, as prime minister; and he played an active role in the life (and controversies) of the Dutch Reformed churches.

Kuyper visited the United States in 1898, to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. To observe the centennial of that visit, Princeton invited Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff to be this year's Stone Lecturer. Wolterstorff focused his lectures on political thought, describing his views as "in the line of Kuyper." The Princeton event, held this past February, drew an audience of over 300; it also featured two days' worth of seminars (cosponsored with Princeton Seminary by the Free University, Calvin College, and the Center for Public Justice) on Kuyper's thought, with presenters from the United States, Canada, England, the Netherlands, and South Africa.

The influence of Kuyper's thought has long been felt in the Reformed—especially Dutch Calvinist—branch of American evangelicalism, but the Princeton conference displayed a renewed interest in his thought, especially as it applies to contemporary challenges in public discipleship. His views were compared to the Puritan political traditions, the liberal "social gospel" theology, and recent themes in Catholic social thought.

Princeton ethicist Max L. Stackhouse, a principal organizer of the centennial celebration, saw the gathering as an important step in what he described as a "quest for a new public theology that will provide a viable alternative to both liberationism and a laissez faire ideology." Stackhouse, who was once an assistant pastor in a Unitarian congregation, describes himself as a "convert" to Reformed thought. "It happened when I began reading the Puritans," he says; "I now see the Reformed heritage as at the center of future ecumenical thinking about our Christian responsibilities in the world."

Abraham Kuyper also came to Reformed orthodoxy by way of conversion. Entering the pastorate steeped in the liberal theology that he had been taught at the University of Leiden, he encountered parishioners who exhibited a vibrant evangelical faith. One of them, Pietje Baltus, a miller's young daughter, boycotted his worship services because of the content of his preaching. When Kuyper visited her, she refused to shake his hand. Instead of being offended, Kuyper listened carefully. Later he wrote: "I did not set myself against them, and I still thank my God that I made the choice I did. Their unwavering persistence has been a blessing for my heart, the rise of the morning star in my life."

Article continues below

Having embraced evangelical Calvinism, Kuyper ever thereafter placed a strong emphasis on personal piety. In the midst of his busy public career, he wrote hundreds of meditations about the need for the individual believer to turn away from the demands of the active life and retreat into that very private sacred space where the soul is alone with her Maker.

In addition to his celebration of the experience of a Savior's love, he also placed a strong emphasis on the supreme lordship of Jesus Christ over all spheres of creaturely life. Kuyper's followers are fond of quoting the manifesto he issued at the Free University's inaugural convocation: "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!' "

One of Kuyper's most original themes is his idea of "sphere sovereignty." God, he insisted, built into the creation a variety of cultural spheres, such as the family, economics, politics, art, and intellectual inquiry. Each of these spheres has its own proper "business" and needs its own unique pattern of authority. When we confuse spheres, by violating the proper boundaries of church and state, for instance, or reducing the academic life to a business enterprise, we trangress the patterns that God has set.

As a Calvinist, Kuyper also believed in the pervasive reality of sin. In our present fallenness, the state has a special obligation to patrol the boundaries that separate the spheres. But governments too are affected by sin. Indeed, the "antithesis" between sin and grace cuts through all the spheres. Nevertheless, the original glory of God's creating purposes has not been completely dimmed. Not only are Christians called to show forth obedience to God's rule in all areas of life, but the presence of "common grace" in the world guarantees that glimmers of created goodness will shine through even where Christ's lordship is not acknowledged.

Kuyper's perspective on social issues has much in common with the views being put forth today by thinkers who are concerned with the proper shape of "the good society." A number of North American social critics (Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, and Mary Ann Glendon among them) have emphasized in recent years the important role that "mediating structures" play in providing a buffer zone between the individual and the state. Families, churches, and service organizations protect us from the all-encompassing tendencies of the state, on the one hand, and an isolated individualism, on the other.

Article continues below

Like these contemporary thinkers, Kuyper was eager to curb the power of the state. The various cultural spheres do not exist by governmental permission. They are established by God, and no human authority has the right to violate the Creator's intentions. Kuyper would appreciate the emphasis these days on "mediating structures," but he would be nervous about any tendency to spell out their importance in purely pragmatic terms. Families and artists' guilds are useful, in Kuyper's scheme, not merely for their strategic importance in limiting the range of governmental authority, but because they play a positive role in God's designs for helping people to flourish.

Kuyper's contemporary disciples face the challenge of defending his emphasis on the multiplicity of created spheres in a time when the fragmentation of human life is all too obvious. Don't we already compartmentalize our lives too much? Do we really need an elaborate theological justification for doing so? The New Age movement responds to the fragmenting of our lives by inviting us to transcend apparent polarities—public versus private, science versus the mystical—with the promise of new experiences of "connectedness." The radical postmodernists, on the other hand, encourage us to embrace fragmentation by rejecting "totalizing metanarratives" and resisting "the tyranny of wholes."

Kuyper's perspective suggests a way of avoiding these conflicting prescriptions for our present-day ills. The created "spheres," as he saw things, are not completely disconnected. They are a part of a larger created reality whose unity we can fully grasp only by developing a comprehensive "biblical world-and-life view" (one of his favorite phrases). The diverse arenas of human interaction are ultimately coordinated and linked in their mutual relationship to the transcendent will of the God who reveals his creating and redeeming purposes to us in the Scriptures.

We will not grasp the unity, then, by positing the "inner" connections of things that seem polarized. Only God's authoritative Word can shed the light that is necessary to illumine our postmodern pathways. In the Scriptures we learn that the creation is a cosmos and not a chaos, and that while the structures of creation are presently fallen, God still sustains them by his power and redeems them in Jesus Christ, in whom "all things hold together" (Col. 1:17).

Article continues below

If Kuyper's thought is to contribute significantly, though, to the contemporary dialogue about public discipleship, it needs updating. He was given to racist comments and often used uncharitable terms in describing other Christian traditions. And he proclaimed the supreme authority of the ascended Christ in a manner that could easily encourage a Christian "takeover" mentality.

The resources for this necessary updating can be found within his own life and witness. In some of his writings he showed a remarkable sensitivity to the plight of the poor and oppressed—and he could even sound like a feminist at times! More important, his devotion to Christ occasionally demonstrated a deep sensitivity to nontriumphalist themes. The noted Kuyper scholar George Puchinger reports that a crucifix hung on the wall above Kuyper's bed. As he lay dying, no longer capable of speech, with his children gathered around him, Kuyper pointed to the image of the Savior on the cross. This is a picture of Kuyper's faith that should loom large in the much-needed effort to explore the contemporary relevance of his public theology.

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.