Dutch Theologian and Statesmen Abraham Kuyper had a particular knack for taking high-level political theology and–instead of keeping it at an academic level–putting it into popular form for the benefit of the Dutch masses, the middle-class citizens he was burdened to shepherd and lead in both church and state. In many ways, that’s the burden of his work Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto, the first volume of the beautiful collection of Kuyper’s works recently translated by the Kuyper Translation Society in collaboration with the Acton Institute and Lexham Press.
In this manifesto, he attempts to comprehensively lay out a political program rooted in the Calvinist worldview in contrast to the secular, liberal, Modernists inspired by the French Revolution. Through a commentary on the platform of his political party, Kuyper winsomely and popularly articulates a vision of the political life of the nation moving easily from depth-level political theology to the specific policy proposals needed for the good of the people.
Witness, for instance, this rather homely explanation of the concept of sovereignty:
Sovereignty in an absolute sense occurs only when there is an authority that has no other authority over it, that always commands and never obeys, that does not admit of restrictions or allow competition, and that is single and undivided for all that has breath.
I am sovereign in an absolute sense only over that with which I can do what I please. Since as a human being I never possess such unlimited power over anything, it is out of the question that I shall ever possess original sovereignty.
Just because I can draw or write anything at all on the piece of paper in front of me still does not mean that I am a sovereign over that piece of paper. For that paper is hard or soft, fibrous or smooth, of a certain thickness and length, and so on, and I am bound to all these properties. They restrict my power and force me to conform to them. To be sovereign in this case I would personally have to be the maker of that paper, this pen, and that ink, and I would have to make them each time again in order to have them serve my purpose and remove every impediment to my will.
But even if you think that this would be conceivable, I still would not have sovereign power over that piece of paper, since in making it I would find myself bound by the materials and the tools commonly used for the papermaking process, and I would often bump up against the limits of what is possible when I try to introduce still one more improvement or remove one last flaw. I would have to have complete control over those raw materials and those instruments. Assume for a moment that even if that were possible and that in the making of pen and ink I disposed over the same creative freedom, then just to be sovereign in the mechanics of writing I would have to be able to freely determine or alter the laws governing the adhesion of the ink to the nib and the flow of the liquid onto the paper.
-Abraham Kuyper, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto. (pp. 16–17)
From this basis, Kuyper carefully and clearly moves on to establish the limits political power whether of the ruler over the state, the father over the family, or man over beast, and even between the nations. Any who tries to cross these natural boundaries, is transgressing on the only absolute sovereignty of God from whom all natural power is derived and who alone has this power over all and stands as a limit against all authoritarianism. From there, Kuyper contrasts what this understanding of God’s sovereignty means for political sovereignty and the varieties of political visions on offer, and even the specific challenges of Dutch national life.
Obviously, the work shows its time and place. Many of the specific policy proposals of Kuyper’s program are suited only to the Netherlands, with its unique governing structure, national character, and geo-political position at the turn of the century. For one thing, forming an explicitly Christian political party in the United States is simply unworkable. All the same, Kuyper’s program stands as a model for current political theologians in a number of ways.
First, as can be witnessed in the sketch above, much of the theology stands the text of time because it is rooted in the trans-historical truths of the gospel, such as its unique anthropology and eschatology. Kuyper shows time and again the way–without desiring or advocating a “theocracy”–specifically Christian theology ought to inform our political engagement.
Second, Kuyper has a strong sense of both what the program is for as much as what it is against. This is a welcome change from so much negatively-framed political discourse flowing from Evangelical theological camps today. Kuyper’s program was not a retreat, nor a merely conservative reaction, but a positive vision for the common good of the Dutch people.
Finally, as already mentioned, its specificity to the time and place in which Kuyper wrote is an obstacle towards its immediate application. All the same, it can serve as a model for those looking to make their political theology concrete. Upper-level theory is good and necessary, but so is actual policy implementation. Obviously, this is not the step that most of us will be looking to make, as that requires a certain level of technical proficiency in policy matters most do not possess. Still, for those who do, Kuyper’s work will be a stimulating and challenging historical voice to engage with.
From all that I’ve read so far, I’m quite looking forward to the rest of the Kuyper series. And you should be as well.
For more info, go ahead and go to AbrahamKuyper.com. Also, for electronic types, the whole set is available on Logos.
Soli Deo Gloria
What I would be very interested to see is how Kuyper deals with the question of the welfare state. It seems that most conservative Christian political theology seems to assume the welfare state is a necessary evil while liberal Christian political theology never bothers to argue for it in the first place and I’m wondering whether or not Kuyper engages that question.
The short answer is that Kuyper opposed an idea of the welfare state as such. The simple answer is misleadingly simple, though, in that he advocated variously for something like a safety net and his views developed over time. He was also writing before the devastation of the second World War and the rise of Keynesianism; later antirevolutionaries (as well as many neo-Calvinistists today) were far more sanguine about the welfare state. Kuyper was certainly open to specific policies and interventions of a more robust nature in his own time. The purpose of these was always to be limited, temporary, and minimal, and the application would have been in accord with his essentially de-centrist model as outlined in this volume. Our Program deals with some of this, of course, but perhaps the single most accessible piece relevant to this question is his 1891 opening speech at the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, translated as “The Problem of Poverty.” There will be a great deal more in this series relevant to the topic, however, including a new first-ever complete translation of that speech. But that’s where I’d recommend starting in the meantime and I could also recommend some other readings if you don’t want to wait for those later volumes.
Thanks Jordan! My mom actually gave me “The Problem of Poverty” for Christmas last year and I very much enjoyed it, though I had a hard time following his contemporary references to different parties & factions. I’d love to hear what other readings you suggest. Thanks!