Abraham Kuyper on the Sovereignty of God As Political Limit

Kuyper Our ProgramDutch 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

Some Notes on Bavinck and the Relationship Between Christianity and Culture

After my post the other day, I did a little more digging on the great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. In the midst of my mini-research flurry I found a classic article by Bavinck on Calvin’s doctrine of common grace, which I highly recommend.  Not only is it a top-notch exposition of Calvin’s view of culture and common grace, it is also the work of one of the architects of that great and still influential movement of Dutch Neo-Calvinism. (Not Mark Driscoll and John Piper–think dead guys).

In the introduction to the article he gives his own brief sketch of “certain lines” which Scripture draws for us to understand how we should think about culture and cultural production:

It proceeds on the principle that for man God is the supreme good. Whatever material or ideal possessions the world may offer, all these taken together cannot outweigh or even be compared with this greatest of all treasures, communion with God; and hence, in case of conflict with this, they are to be unconditionally sacrificed. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.” This, however, does not hinder earthly possessions from retaining a relative value. Considered in themselves they are not sinful or unclean; so long as they do not interfere with man’s pursuit of the kingdom of heaven, they are to be enjoyed with thanksgiving. Scripture avoids, both extremes, no less that of asceticism on the one hand than that of libertinism on the other hand.

The recognition of this as a principle appears most clearly in its teaching that all things, the entire world with all its treasures, including matter and the body, marriage and labor, are created and ordained of God; and that Christ, although, when He assumed a true and perfect human nature, He renounced all these things in obedience to God’s command, yet through His resurrection too them all back as henceforth purified of all sin and consecrated through the Spirit. Creation, incarnation, and resurrection are the fundamental facts of Christianity and at the same time the bulwarks against all error in life and doctrine.

This quote doesn’t cover everything, of course.  Still, Bavinck calls our attention to four points Christians need to keep in mind when thinking about cultural life:

  1. pintGod is the good to which all other goods point and to whom none can compare. Focusing on or choosing any created reality over the Creator is spiritual insanity.
  2. At the same time earthly, material, and cultural goods have relative value as long as our enjoyment of them doesn’t descend into idolatry. After all, they are the creation of God. He made them to be enjoyed with gratitude as his gift.
  3. The Gospel should lead neither to ascetism, nor libertinism; not legalism or license. In other words, a pint’s fine, just don’t get plastered and run around with your pants on your head.
  4. Christ, though he sacrificed all human material and cultural goods, has redeemed all in his life, death, and resurrection.

Now, Bavinck goes on to take account for human sin, depravity, and our natural tendency towards idolatry. He points out that in the first few centuries of Christianity, the church had to take a very contrasting stance towards the broader culture because all the cultural institutions of the day were tangled up in explicit idolatry. This is a point we ought to remember as well. At times in our rush to “enjoy culture” we fail to discern the way culture has gone wrong and too easily accommodate ourselves to its prevailing consumerism and nihilistic self-indulgence. Still, any criticism or antithesis against the culture we engage in needs to be set within the broader context of affirming the God’s good creation. The problem isn’t having some stuff, it’s obsessing over stuff and denying justice to the poor in our acquisition of it; the problem isn’t sex, it’s the abuse and perversion of sex as a unitive act into a self-centered assertion of the ultimacy of my own wants and desires.

Boiling it down to one verse, we need to remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy that, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim 4:14) This keeps us both from gnostic rejection of what God has made and pagan idolatry of it. Instead, culture becomes an opportunity for joyful gratitude overflowing into the worship of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria