An Analysis of Kuyper’s Lecture: Calvinism a Life System, Part 2

im000337_1.jpgIn light of this comprehensive view of the Christian life, it is natural that another strong feature of Kuyperian thinking is an opposition to “escapism.” The Roman Church had abandoned any interest in a Biblical transformation of culture thus the holy life was equated to a monastic life,[1] since anything outside the Church was considered to be under possession. Kuyper opposed this dualism and emphasized that God is redeeming the world, thus “serving him in the world becomes the inspiring impulse,”[2] and the Church provided the strength to fight worldly temptations. Indeed there was no need to hide within the confines of the Church.

Unlike any other religious expression, only Calvinism urges God’s people to invade the streets of civilization with the message of the triumph of Christ over all things. It is in the people of God, through the Divine Presence, that Calvinism surges as the “required condition for the advancement of human development to a higher stage.”[3]

Strengths and Weaknesses

Richard Mouw once observed that “Calvinists specialized in cleaning up sewers-not only in the spiritual sense, but sometimes also quite literally!”[4] Indeed, Kuyperianism[5] offers the Christian ways to live in a society, rather than merely tolerating it. Ecclesiastical engagement has its limitations and sooner or later, people will begin to ask questions pertinent to their responsibilities at home and at work. This is Kuyper’s greatest strength.

There are certain areas of concern, which would be deemed areas of weakness in Kuyper’s thesis. Absent from Kuyper’s development of Calvin’s ideas is a high view of the sacraments. Kuyper summarizes the role of the Church as a place where God’s people can garner strength to face the evils of the world’s temptations.[6] Indeed, it may not have been in Kuyper’s interest to add positive thoughts on Sacramentology (though he often appears to chastise Rome’s sacerdotalism).[7] Nevertheless, it is hard to conceive of a more nurturing experience for the Christian in the world, than to embrace the fullness of Christ’s New Covenant sign given for His people in bread and wine. In Kuyper’s lecture on Calvinism and Religion,[8] he castigates Roman Catholic priestly intervention, claiming that it interrupts communion with God.[9] Kuyper’s reaction to Rome’s ecclesiastical practices and to a lesser extent Lutheranism seems to have diminished his interest in a Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper.

Another weakness in Kuyperian or Neo-Calvinistic thought refers to its understanding of Old Covenant revelation. Kuyperianism does not believe in an immediate application of civil penalties in modern society. In fact, some Kuyperians, like many other evangelicals, find the idea of Old Testament civil application immoral.[10] Instead they opt for a Democracy, where pluralism is embraced. Kuyper was concerned that if one religion ruled, the Church would become tyrannical. Thus, government was to rule not according to God’s revealed word in Scripture, but God’s revelation in nature. Pluralism-the refusal to accept any religion as the ultimate standard-was the ultimate consequence for denying an explicitly Christian society.[11] On the other hand, and ironically, Kuyper argues for certain Christian principles to be established in a society.[12] Kuyper does affirm that “all ethical study is based on the Law of Sinai,”[13] but never develops the application of the Moral Law to a society. This is a great weakness in Kuyper’s thought. If Kuyper had followed Puritan thinking more closely, perhaps the idea of a pluralistic society would have vanished from his writings. Pluralism is diametrically opposed to the exclusive message of Christianity. Van Til argued that epistemologically one begins either autonomously or theonomically. This same principle applies to ethics. A society either derives its ethical standards from Biblical Law or some variation of Natural Law. Though Kuyper dismissed Natural Law as an epistemic foundation, nevertheless, he implicitly leaves the door open in the area of ethics, since he did not connect the Law of Sinai with its corresponding laws-civil/judicial laws.[14] This is made clear in Kuyper’s outrage over the death of Michael Servetus in the 16th century. According to Kuyper, Servetus’s death was unwarranted. The blame is in the “unanimous and uniform advice of Calvin and his epigonies, who demanded intervention of the government in the matter of religion.”[15] Kuyper seems opposed to state intervention in religious matters, but again, what can be considered non-religious in a society? There may be a legitimate dispute over what form of government is best-whether federalism, where certain issues such as capital punishment are left to the individual states or if this authority rested in the Federal government alone–but the question of whether the state may interfere in public blasphemy or other forms of open rebellion is an issue addressed clearly in the Older Covenant.[16] The killing of a man, who openly blasphemed the Trinity and mocked the Orthodox Faith, is certainly justifiable in Biblical terms and thus to be punished by death. Kuyper further notes disapprovingly of Servetus’ death when he writes:

Notwithstanding all this, I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after-effect of a system, grey with age, in which Calvinism found its existence, under which it had grown up, and from which it had yet been able entirely to liberate itself.[17]

Kuyper sees the death of Servetus as a lasting bad seed from the Calvinistic tree that needs to be purged. Calvin tried in vain to persuade Servetus to recant of his heresies; in the end, Calvin was unable to change Servetus’ mind.[18] Finally, it seems plausible to make one more critique of Kuyper’s ideology: Though honorable in his intentions, Kuyper failed to see the vast implications of Biblical revelation for modern society. In Oliver Woods’ article Abraham Kuyper: God’s Renaissance Man, he observes the following:

Kuyper’s commitment to pluralism betrayed his poetic dedication to affirm God’s holy statutes in church and state, in home and school. The third article of the Anti-Revolutionary 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.[19]

The conscience of the civil magistrate is unstable in all its ways. When the government submits to some general guidelines of pluralism and libertarianism, the future of such enterprise guarantees the demise of the state and its turning over to the very systems Kuyper opposed-Humanism and Modernism.


[1] Ibid. 29.


[2] Ibid. 30.

[3] Ibid. 38.

[4] Mouw’s Musings. Blog Page.

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He also makes a few distinctions between Kuyperianism and John Yoder’s Anabaptist theology of life.  He recently delivered several lectures at The Abraham Kuyper Consultation at Princeton 2007.

[5] I am using “Kuyperianism” and “Calvinism” as synonymous terms, unless otherwise noticed.

[6] To my limited knowledge, Kuyper did not develop a robust view of the Church in any of his writings. For instance, Kuyper spoke little, if at all, concerning the role of the Sacraments in preparing Christians to face the onslaught of the world’s philosophies.

[7] Professor Frame argues: “Kuyper seems to have thought of the church as one among a number of equal agencies, including family, state, university, etc. I don’t think he gave adequate attention to the centrality of the church in biblical theology.” (Personal correspondence).

[8] Kuyper, 49.

[9] Ibid. 49.

[10] Professors from Calvin College and Seminary are little concerned about the application of Biblical Revelation to modern society. They are more interested in applying natural law than revealed law. Neo-Calvinists think it is immoral to apply Biblical law because we no longer live in a theocracy such as Israel did.

[11] It appears that Kuyper confused the rule of God in society (theocracy) with the rule of the Church (ecclesiocracy). No advocate of Theonomy embraces the latter. The ideal Biblical picture is that Church and State work side by side submitting to one Lord.

[12] In his third lecture, Kuyper speaks about the duty of a government to stop blasphemy from taking place. However, what is his Biblical basis for this? You cannot establish this much from Romans 13. Why did he not make the next move and ground it in Biblical case laws? Professor Frame answers these questions in the following manner: Kuyper’s exclusion of blasphemy was on the ground that God is the foundation of the state. So K. thought that to exclude blasphemy was not to impose the theology of any sect on the state. He resisted imposing other biblical teachings on the state, because he thought that (apart from the Urim and Thummim) the state was not competent to decide what theology was right. (Personal correspondence)

[13] Kuyper, 72.

[14] Though Professor Frame disagrees with some theonomic authors, he has done the most superb exegetical job in combining Kuyperianism with a robust view of Biblical law. Also, for an excellent and fair treatment of Theonomy’s theses, see Vern Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Poythress offers a 50 page critique of Greg Bahnsen’s theonomic theses. He gives particular attention the exegesis of Matthew 5:17. Whether he succeeds is another question. In my assessment, once one accepts the idea of the application of Biblical Law, he has by default become theonomic in his viewpoint, though there may be varying nuances. Perhaps my former professor Dr. Mark Ross distinguishes best when divides the theonomic camp into soft and hard Theonomy. If this distinction stands, then Frame and Poythress would be soft; Bahnsen and Rushdoony would be hard. I would find myself in the latter camp most of the time.

[15] Kuyper, 99.

[16] Deuteronomy 21:18-2. The example of the disobedient son is portrayed as a public death penalty. One may argue that this was not a state-level execution, since the local community and the parents were involved in this execution. But the principle is that God has authorized the state (however defined) to use the sword accordingly (Romans 13).

[17] Kuyper, 100.

[18] There is a false notion that Calvin ruled Geneva with an iron fist. This is erroneous. Calvin did not ultimately make decisions of life and death. This was left to the city rulers. It was by their hand that Servetus was put to death, though Calvin never tried to stop it.

[19] Woods, Oliver. Online. July/August 2002. The Christian Statesman.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Abraham kuyper, Calvin/Calvinism, Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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