We are coming up rapidly on the 125th anniversary of the delivery of the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Reformed pastor, polymath, university president, newspaper publisher, and soon-to-be prime minister of the Netherlands. Kuyper’s impact on the religious and political history of his own country was immediate and profound. His influence in North America was (at least initially) much more localized and gradual. Half a century ago, the 75th anniversary would have been noted in certain precincts of Toronto, Grand Rapids, and Sioux County, Iowa, but not much beyond them. Since then, however, Kuyper’s name and ideas (or at least versions of them) have spread beyond the confines of the Dutch immigrant denominations that originally laid claim to him, into the broader evangelical culture.
This wider attention to Kuyper’s ideas and heritage can be a mixed blessing. Kuyperian catchphrases (a Christian world- and life-view, every square inch of creation, sphere sovereignty) are often deployed with little sense of how they functioned within Kuyper’s own context and whether they can survive the transfer to our own context with their meaning intact. In recent years, for example, Christian Dominionists in the United States have joined the Kuyper-quoting brigade, with the result that secular commentators have accepted their appropriation of Kuyper as a valid representation of Kuyper’s own thought. Clearly, some clarification is needed, both to save Kuyper from some of his would-be disciples, and to consider the question whether Kuyper’s thought does, in fact, have continuing relevance for our circumstances.
The most recent attempt to provide such clarification is Calvinism for a Secular Age: A Twenty-First-Century Reading of the Stone Lectures, edited by Jessica R. Joustra and Robert J. Joustra (IVP Academic, ). The editors have assembled nine authors to examine Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, in terms of their ideas, the history of their reception in North America, and their prospects for future influence. Kuyper biographer James Bratt offers a helpful historical preface. The core of the book consists of six chapters corresponding to the six lectures themselves, to which we will return shortly. A seventh chapter, by Wheaton College theology professor Vincent Bacote, examines the issue of Kuyper’s troubling views on race. In Chapter 8, historian George Harinck delves into the complicated textual and translation history of the lectures, arguing that this history shows that from the outset Kuyper intended the lectures to be “the international introduction to [Dutch] neo-Calvinism” (p.188).
The six authors who examine the lectures themselves are all inheritors of that internationalization. There may be a few cradle-Kuyperians in the group, but others describe encountering Kuyper’s thought as young adults, and finding in it resources that helped them integrate important aspects of their lives with their faith. Nearly all have some affiliation with universities or institutes in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, or the U.K. that bear the imprint of Kuyper’s influence. They all write to a common outline, consisting of three sections headed by questions: What did Kuyper say? What did Kuyperians do? What should we do?
Chapter 1, “Kuyper and Life-Systems,” is by Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary. Mouw was one of my mentors at Calvin College, where he taught philosophy for many years. I admired the way he combined a cheerful confidence that his Calvinist Christian faith had something important to say to the world with a humble willingness to hear what other traditions had to offer. That attitude is on display here as well, as he regretfully notes Kuyper’s sometimes dismissive and polemical tone toward those who view the world differently than he does. Yet, he is persuaded by Kuyper’s basic insight regarding the power of our presuppositions to generate a “worldview” that then shapes our lives in significant ways.
Mouw might have noted the tendency of presuppositional worldview-thinking to become rigid and mechanical, leading to a simplistic and antithetical view of the history of culture. Perhaps this tendency flows from an overly-intellectualized understanding of humanity. Some thinkers in the tradition (for instance, James K. A. Smith and James Olthuis) are seeking to broaden the scope of worldview-thinking to emphasize emotional and volitional aspects of worldview, in addition to the intellectual. Perhaps their contributions could have been highlighted.
In Chapter 2, James Eglinton (University of Edinburgh) takes up the topic “Kuyper and Religion,” which examines Kuyper’s second lecture on “Calvinism and Religion.” At the outset, he seeks to position Kuyper over against 20th century theological critics of religion like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, arguing that “Kuyper’s lecture aimed to redeem religion by showing it at what he believed to be its very best: in Calvinism as the religion of (all of) life lived in God’s presence (coram Deo)” (35).
This strategy is problematic in at least two ways. First, it fails to reckon with the ambiguity in the term “religion” itself. The semantic field covered by the term as used by Bonhoeffer, for instance, may be quite different from that implied in Kuyper’s usage. It is possible that their differing use of the term obscures a significant overlap in their intentions, namely, to free the Christian faith from confinement in a ghetto of “religious” interiority and metaphysics, so that what Bonhoeffer termed “the profound this-worldliness of Christianity” might come to expression.
At the same time, the strategy risks evading the ways in which Barth’s or Bonhoeffer’s critique of “religion” might challenge aspects of Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism. Eglinton recycles a conservative talking-point alleging that Bonhoeffer’s critique was “motivated by the ease with which Nazism had co-opted the feeble liberal Christian religion of its day” (33), implying that it would not apply with equal force to more orthodox expressions of Christianity. This is questionable on historical grounds, but also theologically. Bonhoeffer called for “a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming like Jesus’s language,” and this call can serve as a challenge to all forms of Christianity, including Neo-Calvinism.
Eglinton goes on to present a clear and helpful exposition of Kuyper’s notion of religion, noting in particular its Christological foundation in his “Logos doctrine,” which understands Jesus Christ as the Eternal Logos who creates and sustains all things, and who therefore is lord of all (40-41). Since Christ is the eternal Word, his will for the cosmos must presumably come to expression in “ordinances of God” for every aspect of life. Kuyper is explicit that these ordinances regulate our bodies, our thoughts (logic), our imagination (aesthetics), and our morals, that they “descend to the smallest and most particular details,” and that they are as unchangeable as God Himself (Lectures, 70-72).
However, neither Eglinton nor Kuyper offers an account of how those ordinances are communicated to us. If Kuyper is assuming that Scripture is the source of these ordinances, one must ask: By what hermeneutical principle can such comprehensive, specific, unchanging ordinances be derived? Or, if natural law plays a role, whose interpretation of that natural order can bear the weight Kuyper would lay upon it? Most importantly, what relationship do these ordinances bear to the Jesus of the Gospels, in contrast to the cosmic Logos?
On the topic of “Kuyper and Politics,” Jonathan Chaplin (Cambridge) emphasizes that the “idea of a free and robust civil society is at the heart of Kuyper’s political project” (53). He explains Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty from this perspective, noting that the third Stone Lecture is focused on “structural pluralism,” the fostering of organic, local, and non-governmental forms of social participation, over against the “mechanical” power of the state, which in his view ought to function more as a neutral referee with respect to the other spheres. Kuyper says little here about “confessional pluralism,” the idea that people should be able to organize their activity in the non-governmental spheres around their religious identity – even though this is the aspect of Kuyper’s political philosophy that has had the greatest impact. In the Netherlands, it paved the way for “pillarization,” the organization of schooling, labor unions, and other sectors of civil society based on Protestant, Catholic, or secular principles. Among Kuyper’s followers in North America, Chaplin notes, almost all the emphasis falls on advocacy for confessional pluralism (p. 64).
In Chaplin’s extensive footnotes, he examines the background of Kuyper’s political thought in both the Calvinist tradition and contemporaneous European thought (58). He also notes some of Kuyper’s oversimplifications regarding “the classical liberal tradition” (61), and his inconsistencies regarding the duties of the state toward religion (68-69). Chaplin might have ventured to compare sphere sovereignty with the idea of “subsidiarity” that was emerging at about the same time in Catholic social thought. In addition, he does not address the applicability of Kuyper’s political theory within the rather different ground rules of American church-state relations.
The chapter on “Kuyper and Science” is by Deborah Haarsma, currently president of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting constructive dialogue between faith and science. Haarsma was raised in an evangelical setting that prioritized the “full-time” vocations of missions or ministry over “secular” pursuits. As a student at Bethel College, and later as a professor at Calvin College, she was exposed to Kuyper’s ideas, which enabled her to see her emerging vocation as a research astronomer as an equally valid and total response to God’s call on her life. She regards Kuyper’s chapter on “Calvinism and Science” as a “gem,” but not a flawless one. She lauds Kuyper’s insistence that “a Christian worldview gives us the appropriate presuppositions for doing science,” but she notes his failure to distinguish between different aspects of science that might call for different assessments of the relationship between science and faith.
Haarsma recognizes “a broad and practical commonality across worldviews in the methods and findings of science due to the common grace of reason and God’s general revelation in nature. The differences in worldview show up primarily in the presuppositions and implications of science, sometimes quite strongly as an antithesis” (90, emphasis mine). Kuyper’s failure to make these distinctions had consequences, in Haarsma’s view, for his understanding of biological evolution. His antithetical rejection of the thoroughly naturalistic implications of what Haarsma terms “atheistic evolutionism” (as a presupposition) led him to repudiate as well the valid methodology and findings of evolutionary biology. Haarsma argues that those well-established results do not depend on atheistic assumptions, and do not by themselves lead to the conclusions that Kuyper feared.
This is all helpful, but it leaves some significant questions unresolved. For instance, does the tension between antithesis and common grace represent a productive dialectic in Kuyper’s thought, or does it function more as a theoretical get-out-of-jail-free card? Science done by Christians is fundamentally antithetical to humanistic science, until it isn’t; then we appeal to common grace. Or, common grace allows Christians and humanists to engage together in the scientific enterprise, until it doesn’t; then we wield the antithesis. Each notion seems unfalsifiable, since the Kuyperian can simply switch between them at will.
Additionally, Haarsma’s distinctions don’t address the possibility that, on occasion, widely accepted findings in a scientific field might raise challenges for Christian doctrine as we currently understand it. Evolution certainly did so regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve, and arguably more is at stake here than merely adjusting our ideas about the literary genre of Genesis 1-3. Similarly, the science of human sexuality is converging on the view that same-sex attraction is a normal (if statistically less common) feature within the human population. What does that mean for St. Paul’s insistence in Romans 1 that it represents an eruption of perverse abnormality? May Christians simply toggle between acceptance and rejection of scientific consensus as their theology dictates?
In addition, sometimes challenges from beyond the boundaries of the faith open important new vistas for theology and discipleship. That is clearly the case with Christian environmental concern. Kuyper himself was no budding tree-hugger, insisting that “the earth with all that is in it, had, according to God’s Will, to be subjected to man” (Lectures, 130). Like nearly all theologians of his era, he saw the cultural mandate in terms of subduing and dominating nature (Genesis 1:28), rather than serving and protecting it (Genesis 2:15). Ecological consciousness came into Christianity from the outside or from the margins of faith; yet, once it appeared on faith’s horizon, it generated vital insights into Scripture and new paths for obedience to God. What would it mean to acknowledge, with gratitude and humility, the influence of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson on our faith?
Given the few pages at her disposal, one could hardly expect Haarsma to raise, much less dispose of, all these issues. But if the tradition flowing from Kuyper’s thought and practice is indeed a living one, expansive and open to the future, they will need to be addressed with clarity and honesty.
Like Kuyper himself, Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin begins her chapter on “Kuyper and Art” in a somewhat defensive posture. She notes that Calvinism, with its aniconic theology and liturgy and its iconoclastic history, is not usually identified as a patron of the arts, particularly the visual arts. She explains Kuyper’s three-fold response to the charge of Calvinist aesthetic sterility. First, he claimed that Calvinism emancipated art from its religious tutelage, respecting the sovereignty of the art-sphere in relation to religion. Second, this independence freed artists to reclaim their proper focus on the ideal of beauty as established in Greek antiquity. Here he appeals to common grace to explain how the pagan Greeks were granted the ability to lay down the basic and unalterable principles of art for the future. Third, he notes that under Calvinist auspices in the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, art turned away from depictions of mythological and royal images, to focus on everyday life and the common man. Kuyper attributes this turn to the egalitarian implications of the doctrine of election.
Not all of these arguments are of equal weight, in Dengerink Chaplin’s view; she is particularly skeptical of the causal relation implied in Kuyper’s third argument. She might also have noted Kuyper’s near total lack of regard for the art of his own era (which, just in France, would include Manet, Monet, Seurat, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Gaugin, Rodin, and Kuyper’s erstwhile countryman Van Gogh), or for Asian or African art. Nor does he have anything to say about music, beyond a nod to some Calvinist hymnographers, in an era that heard Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Elgar. But perhaps Kuyper’s selective attention and sweeping dismissals would not by themselves invalidate his basic approach, if later thinkers could apply that approach to generate insight about the art of their own era.
Dengerink Chaplin argues that there is in fact a productive tradition of Kuyperian thought in aesthetics, offering sketches of four thinkers in particular: Hans Rookmaaker, Calvin Seerveld, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Lambert Zuidervaart. Each of these thinkers deploys Kuyper’s insights in his own way. For example, Rookmaaker leans toward an antithetical rejection of modern art, while Seerveld appeals to common grace to justify his more appreciative posture; Wolterstorff criticizes the insularity of the “art world,” whereas Zuidervaart seeks to protect it from the control of the market or the state. But they all agree that it is vital for Christians to engage with – and engage in – the arts. It might have been helpful to include voices of actual artists who have been shaped by Kuyper’s ideas, as well as philosophers.
Bruce Ashford, who contributes the chapter on “Kuyper and the Future,” begins (like Haarsma) by sharing his initial encounter with Kuyper’s ideas at a crucial point in his early adulthood. Living in Russia as it emerged from decades of aggressive secularism, he found that Kuyper’s “public theology” helped him make sense of that experience; and on his return to the United States, Kuyper’s analysis seemed no less salient to his homeland. So, he fervently echoes Kuyper’s plea in the final lecture to reclaim culture from the “malaise” of liberal modernity under the banner of Neo-Calvinism.
Ashford leans heavily toward the antithetical (and even apocalyptic) pole of Kuyperian thought. Enlisting ideas from sociologist Phillip Rieff, he laments the severing of social order from sacred order that makes our cultural institutions into “deathworks” (135); and he includes a lengthy quotation from Polish philosopher (and Law & Justice Party politician) Ryszard Legutko bemoaning how the “liberal democrats” of the European Union have been more effective in their totalitarian secularism than the Communists (141). He insists, like Kuyper, that liberal interpretations of Christianity are impotent against the modernist juggernaut, and that only a resurgent orthodoxy can prevail (138). The evils to be resisted include internationalism (though also “a resurgent ethno-nationalism”), the weakening of religious and familial institutions, “transgenderism and transhumanism,” and “critical gender, race, and sex theory” (140-143). At times, he sounds as if he is calling on Christians to “storm the cockpit” in a last-ditch attempt to regain control over our cultural aircraft.
One might wonder whether such militant rhetoric can be combined (as I am certain Ashford would want) with political civility and compromise in a pluralist society. And one might ask if there is anything that Neo-Calvinists should be learning from their secular, liberal rivals. Ashford’s provocative chapter certainly sets the table for that discussion.
In his chapter on “Kuyper and Race,” Vincent Bacote relates not only a “Kuyper conversion experience” but also a “Kuyper crisis experience” – the moment he encountered passages in the Stone Lectures that revealed deeply racist attitudes, which (as it turned out) were also reflected elsewhere in Kuyper’s writings. Like many other readers of Kuyper, he was forced to apply a little “critical race theory” to the lectures by asking just how deep the racism went. Was it a wart that could be scraped off the surface, a tumor requiring surgical removal, or a fatal genetic disease? Bacote opts for a hermeneutic of retrieval, seeking “to evaluate Kuyper in a way that helps us to make the most of what he offers even when critiques are offered” (147). We should appropriate Kuyper in the way that Kuyper recommended appropriating Calvin: not reverent repristination, but realistic renewal. This renewal may include “look[ing] within Kuyper’s work for trajectories that counter negative beliefs and practices on race” (158). One such trajectory, he suggests, is found in Kuyper’s vision of human equality before the face of God, which should deter us (though it did not always deter Kuyper) from ranking persons, cultures, denominations, or genders, and instead encourages us to seek signs of God’s common grace in diverse human circumstances.
Bacote describes this as “stewardship of [Kuyper’s] legacy,” and the whole book can be viewed as an exercise in such stewardship. There may come a time when the Stone Lectures will best serve that legacy by staying on the shelf, but – these authors insist – that time is not yet.
 See Katherine Stewart, Opinion | The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage – The New York Times (nytimes.com) (January Kuyper11, 2021); and Opinion | A Christian Nationalist Blitz – The New York Times (nytimes.com) (May 26, 2018).
 See, for example, his Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009); and You Are What You Love; The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016).
 See his essay, “A Vision of and for Love: Toward a Christian Post-postmodern Worldview,” in Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 77/1, art. #28 (http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/koers.v77i1.28)
 Haarsma has undoubtedly given this issue some thought. See Loren Haarsma, When Did Sin Begin? Human Evolution and the Doctrine of Original Sin (Baker Academic, 2021).
Professor Timmer, this is marvelous. Thank you. Your summaries of the Kuyperian dilemmas are masterful. One note: Mark Stoll demonstrates in his illuminating book, Inherit the Holy Mountain, that Calvinism (not Dutch Calvinism) actually played a great part in Environmentalism.
Thanks, Daniel, for the reference to Stoll’s book, which I will follow up on. I know that Calvin offers some powerful tools for thinking about creation in a more holistic way. In CARING FOR CREATION, Cal DeWitt even quotes a passage from Kuyper’s exposition of John 3:16 about God’s love for “the world” which sounds very eco-friendly – IF Kuyper intended to include nature as well as culture in the scope of “the world.” (I’d like to think that he did, but I’m not sure.) But much of the emphasis in the Kuyperian tradition has fallen on human civilizational unfolding rather than understanding and living in harmony with ecosystems that exist beyond the reach of our so-called cultural mandate.