Abraham Kuyper: Calvinism as a life-system

In his lecture entitled Calvinism a Life-System, Abraham Kuyper argues that

Two life systems are wrestling with one another, in mortal combat. Modernism is bound to build a world of its own from the data of the natural man, and to construct man himself from the data of nature; while on the other hand, all those who reverently bend the knee to Christ and worship Him as the Son of the Living God, and God himself, are bent upon saving the ‘Christian Heritage.’ (Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1931. pg. 11)

This “Christian Heritage” Kuyper spoke so strongly about was nothing more than Calvinism. It was Calvinism that had liberated European countries and that brought about prosperity to the United States (Ibid. pg. 14). In order to preserve the Christian Heritage, Kuyper would call the church to abandon any modernist approach to life and embrace the all-encompassing worldview of Calvinism. There were only two options: those who follow man’s ways and those who bend their knee to Christ’s ways. As Cornelius Van Til once said: “There is only autonomy or Theonomy.” (Page. 134 of Christian Theistic Ethics; many thanks to John Muether for the reference)

Kuyperian thought teaches that Calvinism “claims to embody the Christian idea more purely and accurately” (Lectures on Calvinism, 17) than other religious manifestations. Instead of placing the Christian religion alongside other religions such as Paganism and Islamism, Kuyper sees that Calvinism itself embodies true Christianity for it provides an entire life-system; a life-system that seeks to furnish human society with a different method of existence, and to populate the world of the human heart with different ideals and conceptions (pg. 17).

The great disputes of the sixteenth-century centered primarily on John Calvin and Martin Luther. The two Reformers differed in their understanding of the sacraments, and for the sake of this study, on their view of Christianity and Culture. The Reformational tradition of Martin Luther has focused much of their attention in the two-kingdom perspective. According to Professor John Frame: ((Frame teaches at RTS/Orlando)) “that view states that there are two kingdoms of God, one, as Luther put it, the kingdom of God’s left hand, the other the kingdom of his right hand. The former is secular, the latter sacred. In the former, God rules by law, in the latter, by his word and Spirit.� ((John Frame. The Chalcedon Foundation. Online. Law and Gospel. 4 January, 2002. http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/0201/020104frame.php)) In the Lutheran view, the two shall not mix. The sacred kingdom focuses on sacred things like the sacraments and the preaching of the Word; whereas the secular kingdom propagates an antithetical message. Hence, any attempt to sacrilize the secular is in vain. Any idea of a Christian culture is anathema to Lutheranism. On the other hand, the Calvinian (or Calvinistic) worldview denies so strong a dichotomy. Though Calvinistic teaching would heartily emphasize a strong view of the church, nevertheless, Calvinism would also affirm the application of Scriptural principles in all of society, including the civil sphere. As Frame writes: �The biblical view of civil government does not require us to force unbelievers to behave as Christians in every way, but it does call upon us to restrain their (and our!) sin in certain areas. We should be active in society to promote those godly standards.� ((See Law and Gospel)) Though Kuyper praised Luther�s heroic initiative in the Reformation, nevertheless, Kuyper saw Luther�s position as incomplete in terms of applying a full Reformation. Hence, Kuyper writes: �But when the question is put, Who has the clearest insight into the reformatory principle, worked it out most fully, and applied it most broadly, history points to the Thinker of Geneva and not to the hero of Wittenberg? ((Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1931. pg. 22))

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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10 Responses to Abraham Kuyper: Calvinism as a life-system

  1. John Muether says:


    CVT’s quote on theonomy vs. autonomy comes from p. 134 of Christian Theistic Ethics. As T. David Gordon (Grove City College) has observed, in context CVT is making a general observation about basic ethical commitments and he is intentionally refusing to draw any conclusions about the Old Testament legal code.

    Re Calvin vs. Luther, I would caution you against drawing too sharp a distinction here. There is a lot more two kingdoms thought and far less transformationalism in the Genevan Reformer than neo-Calvinists care to admit.


  2. Uri Brito says:

    Aha..many thanks for the page number. I do realize Van Til was not making a case for the Old Testament civil code…if he did…Van Til would have been fired just like Professor Bahnsen did from RTS/Jackson. At the same point, neither was Kuyper making a theonomic defense, though whether his principles of civil government derive from natural law or not, they appear at times to be close to Biblical penology.
    As for your second point, your friend Bryan Estelle and I had this 20 minute discussion on this very issue…I certainly don’t claim to have your historical expertise, but what would someone like yourself or WTS/Cali. say concerning Calvin’s sermon in Deuteronomy, where he makes strong civil applications for the disobedient child for instance…? Would you say that he was relying mainly on natural law principles, even though he was exegeting the text of Deuteronomy?
    John, you may remember that R.J. Rushdoony also felt that Calvin was somewhat ambiguous in this issue of applying the Mosaic code to Geneva’s, however, Calvin appeared to be less ambiguous in his preaching. My theory may be somewhat at odds here, but for the last five years I have come to the conclusion that the Calvin of the Institutes was less theonomic than the Calvin of the Sunday morning pulpit.
    Concerning Kuyper, I simply don’t think neo-Calvinism goes far enough in their calvinism. Neo-Calvinists are just like neo-conservatives (i.e. Bill Buckley): they want total change, but get total disaster (Iraq War in this case).

  3. Joshua says:

    Do you have a copy of The Standard Bearer, Bahsnen’s Festchrift? In it Chris Strevel does a good job of handling the question of Calvin’s seemingly different views of the Mosiac penatlies in the Institutes vs his Sermons on Deut. Well worth reading…the whole book!

  4. Uri Brito says:

    Thanks Joshua. I will take a look at it as soon as this hectic semester is over. By the way, great blog…keep it up.

  5. John Muether says:

    Yes, I think there may be some tension between Calvin’s Institutes and his sermons. And it is not fair to expect Calvin and other early Reformers to have church-state relations completely sorted out.

    But now I am left scratching my head over your labeling Wm.F.B.Jr. as a neo-con. This is the man, remember, who described conservatism as standing athwart history, yelling stop. I think your taxonomy needs work. But glad you are wary of the neo-calvinists.


  6. Uri Brito says:

    John, maybe we are defining terms differently here. Modern neo-cons, for instance, like Bill Kristol and others have had a particularly strong influence in developing American foreign policy and were a great force in leading America to this disastrous war.

    ‘Tis true that Bill Buckley has certainly changed his positions on many issues (he now favors the legalization of marijuana ; which I think is wise), of greater importance he has spoken against the Iraq War from the start. However, his reasons against the war are more pragmatic than they are constitutional. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Buckley’s National Review, particularly in its early days, was instrumental in propagating what Michael Harrington coined: Neo-Conservatism. Economist Lew Rockwell has detailed that in his articles (lewrockwell.com). In my perception, no neo-conservative magazine has done more to propagate pro-war, pro-Middle-east invasion policies than the writers of National Review (of course, the Weekly Standard has had its share of blame; and yes, I am well aware that Buckley no longer owns the National review, though it is undeniable that his influence is immense still)

    Paleo-conservatives like myself can smell neo-cons miles away…and the National Review espouses in large part neo-conservative ideas. This should be clearly seen in the mere fact that Rush Limbaugh treats Bill Buckley as if he were a god. This is enough for me.
    Wikipedia lists these magazines affiliated with neo-conservativism:
    Political magazines featuring neoconservative ideas:

    * Front Page Magazine
    * The National Interest
    * National Review
    * Policy Review
    * The Public Interest
    Perhaps this great and feisty quote from one of my heroes Thomas Di’Lorenzon should settle it-at least for me:
    “Namely, Buckley professed to be an advocate of “freedom” and of a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores” (to supposedly fight the Cold War) at the same time. This is an impossibility. Buckley’s totalitarian bureaucracy is, and always will be, the deadly enemy of freedom. He was the original neocon, which is to say, the original neoconman.”–Thomas Di’Lorenzo

  7. Uri Brito says:

    Errata: Buckley was not opposed to the war from the start…after the war was on its way, he came to his senses.

  8. John Muether says:

    I can’t help but think that you neo-sniffing nose is way off here, Uri. Buckley was conservative before conservative was cool. Contemporary neo-cons are no more in his debt than the paleos, and you divorce yourself from that tradition at your own loss and peril. Above all, don’t dismiss him because of Rush’s approbation. That superficial guilt by association should not be “enough” for someone as thoughtful as you.

  9. Uri Brito says:

    John, I completely agree. I do not dismiss Buckley’s influence in the conservative movement…I simply disagree with the consequences of much of his thoughts and his followers. One great contribution by Buckley was his combination of conservative moral thought with political libertarianism. For instance, he supported Goldwater’s campaign…further as I mentioned in an above quote, I find much sympathy with the older and more philosophically mature Buckley, whose vision of recovering a libertarian framework to the conservative movement has led him to oppose this dangerous and unconstitutional war.
    Beyond that, I think some of his novels are cool…in fact, I found an old novel of his at Salvation Army…aha.. I am also economically conservative. All in all, if Buckley’s legacy is based on the Pro-Bush/Cheney National Review positions, I will be deeply saddened. I much more prefer that he is known for his love of good wine (see latest edition of National review). Though temptations are many, I try not to divorce myself from certain people merely because of disagreements. One example in case, even the rude and nutty John Robbins makes a helpful contribution once in 50 years…to hit it a little closer to your home…even the former OPC thinker Lee Irons has helpful commentary (as in his latest post concerning the FV bruhaha). Further, believe it or not, I still think Luther is cool and that his cursing revolutuion has opened up the Reformed world to vocabulary unknown to our forefathers.

  10. Baus says:

    I thought you may be interested in The Kuyperian:

    I am both a neocalvinist (kuyperian) / reformational (dooyeweerdian) and an “Austrian”/ libertarian. I get your point about Buckley, being familiar with Rockwell and Co. [I’m a Constitutionalist supporter of Ron Paul]

    See my paper on Societal Sphere Sovereignty:

    On Kuyper, Calvin, and Luther on the two kingdoms…
    too many (natural law folk) confuse the anithesis (kingdom of darkness vs. kingdom of God)
    sphere sovereignty (state; church; and other societal communities).
    See the difference?

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