The Cultural Tactics of Abraham Kuyper
Biblical analysis: Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty was not tempered or conditioned by the Biblical doctrine of civil covenant and Biblical law. Consequently, he has been rightly accused of being a pluralist. Kuyper himself admitted to being an advocate of “principled pluralism”; it was in fact his answer to the humanist drive for cultural hegemony.
MYTH: Principled pluralism is a viable strategy for Christian cultural renewal.
The doctrine of sphere sovereignty, together with his teaching on common grace and anti-thesis, provided the rationale for his coalition with the Catholics against the humanists. In the anti-thesis Kuyper recognized the stark contrast of the struggle between the state-sovereignty of the humanists and the sovereignty of God championed by the Christians.
On the other hand, the doctrine of common grace permitted him to unite with Catholics as co-belligerents against the humanist juggernaut. This was remarkable, given the bloody struggle between Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland during the days of William the Silent, some 300 years before. However, the doctrine of common grace taught that God held the total depravity of man in check so that even the unregenerate might exercise their natural gifts in pursuit of social stability.
Kuyper’s commitment to pluralism betrayed his poetic dedication to “affirm God’s holy statutes in church and state, in home and school….” cited above. The third article of the Antirevolutionary Party platform, Ons Program, exposes the frailty of the tactics Kuyper employed for achieving this end. “…the authority of the state is bound by God’s ordinances, not directly…but only via the consciences of persons in positions of authority.” It should be self-evident that such a tactic explicitly removes civil authority from the Word of God and posits it in the vacillating conscience of the civil magistrate.
Kuyper’s coalition government was able to assume control from 1888 to 1938 because he had earlier pressed for expansion of the electorate (12% in 1870 to 49% in 1896). This extension of the franchise based merely on the qualification of paying taxes, produced short-term dividends, but paved the way in the long-term for an even more secularized state.
Following in the footsteps of William & Mary, Kuyper made the mistake of equating political participation (e.g., the right to vote) with freedom. Perfect liberty under the law of God may exist apart from the right to vote. It is not the right to vote, per se, that guarantees freedom, but rather the commitment of a nation to rule in terms of submission to the Law of God. A pirate crew might exercise the right to vote within their society of evil, as when Long John Silver’s band of cutthroats presented him with the “black dot” in Treasure Island.
This does not at all preclude the doctrine of sphere-sovereignty rightly understood. Kuyper’s conclusions relative to sphere-sovereignty were not consistent with the doctrine itself, which he ably expounded. Apart from the civil covenant, Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere-sovereignty gave birth to his vision of a pluralistic society. No covenantal limitations were to be placed on any faction within Dutch society.
In ancient Israel “strangers in the land” were excluded from participation in the civil government. They were, however, treated as equals under the law of God and thus enjoyed true liberty. Under Biblical law, Israeli citizens were commanded to give them special consideration. They were grouped with “widows and orphans” as part of the vulnerable class in society that was worthy of special treatment, such as a portion of the tithe. Divine sanctions of the severest nature were placed on the Israelite who would dare to mistreat the stranger.
Corrective or prescriptive actions: The key lesson that emerges from the life of Abraham Kuyper is the futility of even the most effective political reforms apart from covenantal commitment. As we have noted above, the battle had been conceded over two centuries earlier in the Dutch rejection of the Solemn League and Covenant. At the heart of this issue lie some penetrating questions. “Should the covenant-breaking humanist be granted the right to political participation in a Biblically covenanted society?” Should the captain of a ship grant the right to vote to a mutinous crew? The covenant-breaking humanist is usually not so overtly mutinous; typically he pleads for tolerance – until he is in control. After that the suppression of Biblical liberty proceeds relentlessly, as 20th century Holland and America bear witness.
Nor did Kuyper’s immediate use of his newly won political liberty contribute to freedom long-term. Rather than pressing for the abolition of government support of education, Kuyper fought for and won public funding for private schools. Although the goal was to secure equality for private education, this law ensured the inevitable subordination of private education to the government. According to professor of history, James McGoldrick, “When the party obtained public funds for private schools it agreed to accept universal suffrage, a democratic goal of the socialists.” He went on to assert that “Whatever immediate gain public funding of private schools had produced, one eventual effect was to strengthen the socialists.” (God’s Renaissance Man, p. 225)
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Is the civil covenant merely an anachronism of the Old Testament era? Does God take the Biblical covenant seriously? The answer would have to be an unqualified “yes”, judging from the incident in Genesis, in which Moses’ son was very nearly executed for his father’s failure to apply the sign of the covenant.
The individual or the nation that treats God’s civil covenant as irrelevant or inconsequential can expect to suffer the consequences – and the consequences are deadly. Thus, as we attempt to apply the Biblical principles of war to our culture, we must simultaneously press for renewal of the Biblical, civil covenant, recognizing that its acceptance is impossible apart from widespread personal regeneration in conjunction with and preparatory to, cultural reformation.
Case Closed: Abraham Kuyper has been called by some “God’s Renaissance Man”. Tragically, this appellation is distressingly accurate. While he spoke and wrote the language of “God’s Reformation Man”, in too many cases – government education, natural law, pluralism, national autonomy – Kuyper reverted to the Renaissance.
Abraham Kuyper inherited an admittedly difficult situation from his forbearers and persevered remarkably over a lifetime of service to his Lord. His life posed a considerable roadblock to the humanist onslaught that had arisen in his day. However, the life of Abraham Kuyper is a stark reminder that the Christian activist must carefully examine his practice to ensure that it lines up with his belief. It is all too easy to deviate, not recognizing that consequences for the next generation may be devastating.
Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview (Eerdman’s: Grand Rapids, MI, 1998)
James I. McGoldrick, God’s Renaissance Man ( Evangelical Press: Auburn, MA, 2000)
John Bolt, A Free Church, A Holy Nation (Eerdman’s: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001)
Cornelis van der Kooi & Jan de Bruijn, Kuyper Reconsidered (VU Uitgeverij: Amsterdam, 1999)
Luis E. Lugo, Religion, Pluralism, & Public Life (Eerdman’s: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000)