In a recent, wide-ranging essay in The Atlantic, columnist and political commentator David Brooks explored the decline of social trust in America, which he defines as “the moral quality of a society—of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good.” The sharp, deep divisions in America are on prominent display in this week’s elections and the subsequent fears, uncertainty, and misgivings about our electoral system.
One answer to what Brooks calls America’s “moral convulsion” is a recommitment to reform and renewal of American social institutions. “Social trust,” observes Brooks, “is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings, driving people places, planning events, sitting with the ailing, rejoicing with the joyous, showing up for the unfortunate.” It is built through volunteering at polling places and schools, houses of worship, and charities.
Social trust, in other words, exists within the social and institutional context of solidarity and love, which are expressed in the Pauline mandate: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Brooks was named this year’s recipient of the Abraham Kuyper prize. This year is also the centennial of Kuyper’s death, on November 8, 1920.
The Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper is often introduced with a variety of titles: theologian, pastor, professor, journalist, politician. In reality, Kuyper was an institution-builder—or what we often today call a “social entrepreneur”—par excellence. If the challenge as Brooks identifies it is to reinvest and reinvent social institutions in the 21st century, then the Dutchman provides some important guidance as to how to pursue this pressing task of holistic renewal, even 100 years after his death. Kuyper faced a society with many differences from our own but many similar dynamics as well. Social, economic, and political upheaval and uncertainty marked a Dutch society increasingly divided along ideological and theological lines.
The central insight of Kuyper’s comprehensive program was the priority of the gospel over fallen humanity’s pervasive unbelief in God. The hubris of sinners necessarily leads to idolatry, which takes the modern form of an unbelieving and atheistic revolt against God’s created order. The French Revolution was for Kuyper the most recent and stark example of this pervasive corruption, and in the 20th century, we have seen manifold expressions of this path that leads to death, including violent revolutions, world wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and most recently the political and social challenges of a global pandemic.
The gospel concerns all of God’s originally good and now fallen creation. For Kuyper, this perspective provides a powerful impetus to follow Christ faithfully and fully, both in terms of one’s own individual life as well as corporately as the body of Christ throughout all of society.
A holistic gospel
Isaac Watts’s hymn “Joy to the World” declares that Christ the King “comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” This is one of the central scriptural insights animating Kuyper’s socio-theological vision. Grace—whether preserving (common) or saving (special)—reaches all of life. The idea that our salvation has significance not only for the life to come but also for our lives now is what has attracted so many Christians to the Kuyperian worldview, and it should continue to inspire us today.
Against the comprehensive corruption introduced by the fall into sin, God has acted to maintain the world and save a people for himself. That people, in turn, is called to live redemptively and sacrificially for God’s glory in his world.
This means that the church is tasked with living for the world and not merely seeking to survive in it. It means that Christians proclaim the gospel corporately in worship on Sundays and live out that gospel in their daily lives. The gospel likewise leads us to what Kuyper called an “architectonic critique,” which is a technical way of referring to a world- and life view that brings the radical corrections of special revelation to all aspects of the created order, especially the social order.
Just as the gospel has significance for the Christian life and society, so too unbelief and idolatry have social consequences as well. Turning away from the Creator and seeking ultimate fulfillment in the creation is the hallmark of fallen humanity, taking different forms in different times and places. In the modern world, we may focus on the possibilities of technology and prosperity to deliver us from evil. In our affluence we become enamored of the comforts of this world, forgetting that things are not the way they ought to be and that the Christian should seek ultimate comfort in the knowledge “that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Those are some of the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism, a confession from the Reformed tradition that so powerfully shaped Kuyper’s piety and practice. Kuyper’s embrace of a particular stream of Christianity—the Reformed tradition—shows how a commitment to the common good requires rooting in a singular community. Christ himself is the universal King and savior of the world, who nevertheless was born in a particular—and divinely ordained—time and place.
Principles and pluralism
Kuyper was an unsurpassed culture maker, and many of the institutions he founded and led were focused on the edification and formation of the Dutch Reformed community. Even so, Kuyper fiercely defended the need for other groups to have the freedom and means to form their own institutions. And this concern for authentic public pluralism was not simply pragmatic—it was deeply principled. Only when each faith tradition and worldview was allowed to work out of its own principles could a vibrant public square truly be realized. Kuyper defended:
sovereignty for our principle as well as for the principle of our opponents throughout the sphere of thought. That is to say, just as they employ their principle and its corresponding method to erect a house of knowledge that shines brilliantly (though it does not entice us), so we too from our principle and our method will grow our own plant whose stems, leaves, and blossoms are nourished with its own sap.
Institutional and religious liberty was not just something for the Dutch Reformed but something for Roman Catholics, Jews, secularists, and others as well. The common good might only be realized from the contributions of each particular confession to society.
This kind of pluralism has to do not simply with freedom of thought or individual expression but includes and requires the rights to organize and form institutions as well. This means churches, certainly, but also schools, clubs, magazines, unions, and even political parties. The challenge for such institutions is not only to focus on the formation of character and fostering of virtue for their particular group but also to orient those goods toward the broader society.
For the life of the world
In this way, Kuyper championed an understanding of Christianity that was grounded in the formative practices of the local church in worship and oriented toward the good of the world. “The calling of the Christian absolutely does not lie in the sphere of the church alone,” contended Kuyper.
Christians also have a calling in the midst of the life of the world. And the question as to how this is possible, how it is conceivable that a child of God should still be involved with a sinful world, has a brief, clear, and simple answer: it can and must be because God himself is still involved with that world.
As the apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 6:10, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” There is a proper way of prioritizing our duties to fellow Christians, even as we orient those duties to the common good, the good of all people, even to the point of loving those who we consider—or those who consider themselves—our enemies (Matt 5:44).
Social trust can only be restored and regained in the crucible of social life. This requires building and maintaining Christian institutions of all kinds. But it also requires moving outside the walls of those institutions and engaging, challenging, and even serving our neighbors—Christians or not.
Kuyper spent a lifetime building Christian institutions—a denomination, a university, newspapers, a political party. But after his time as prime minister, he spent the better part of a year on a tour around the Mediterranean Sea. The purpose wasn’t just to fulfill a spiritual desire to visit the Holy Land (though that was part of it). Rather, Kuyper wanted to see for himself the diverse expressions of faith and culture in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He wanted to meet Islam on its own terms and on its own soil. This led him to greater recognition of the dangers of what he considered to be a false religion. But it also led him to see unexpected commonalities and even ways in which Muslims surpassed Christians, such as their religious zeal and piety. (“The indifference toward Jesus encountered in Christian countries … is virtually unheard of in Islamic nations when it comes to Muhammad,” he wrote.)
We may not be in a position to enjoy a subsidized international tour as a former head of state. But we can easily enough get to know our neighbors next door, across the street, or a few blocks over—and serve with them in community groups. One of Kuyper’s lasting lessons for us must be the dual commitment to building vibrant Christian communities and institutions and to orienting ourselves to the service of Christ in the world—including the world beyond the walls of our houses of worship and the borders of our nation.
Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute, an affiliate scholar at the First Liberty Institute, and a general editor of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology.
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