We are living in an age of profound cultural shift. Up until the early twenty-first century, Western history was dominated by a form of Christianity that was legally established and culturally honored. While not everyone was a Christian, being a Christian was respectable, and Christianity was generally recognized as the dominant cultural and moral outlook in society.
That has dramatically changed in the last ten years, signaling the end of that cultural establishment. Many Christians feel disoriented. What is this new world, and how should we relate to it?
These are questions that we find ourselves rather ill-prepared to address because up until recently, we could assume things that can no longer be assumed regarding how people think and how they react to Christianity. Amid these changes, I have found considerable help in thinking through these issues in the life and work of Abraham Kuyper.
Kuyper (1837–1920), a Dutchman, lived in a place and time where the issues we face today were already beginning to manifest themselves. He was a pastor in the state Reformed church but eventually broke away from it, concluding that the state church could not be reformed as a whole and believing that there needed to be a faithful church for people to belong to. He also founded the Free University of Amsterdam, so named because it was free from state control. Kuyper believed that it was vital to have a place where Christians could be engaged in top-flight scientific and intellectual activity.
He served a number of years as a pastor but increasingly came to believe the Lord was calling him into politics. He believed that there needed to be a clearer Christian witness in politics in the Netherlands, and in 1874, he was elected to parliament. The Dutch constitution did not allow clergymen to serve in parliament, so he resigned from the ministry. Kuyper felt strongly that he needed to bear witness in the public arena to Christ and to a Christian perspective. He was persuaded that the modern world required new reflection by Christians as to how we would live in it, and he believed that Christian influence was dying.
Kuyper saw a society that said Christians could have their personal beliefs but that their faith was entirely a private matter. Christianity had nothing to say in the public arena, and it would be wrong for Christianity to have anything to say regarding politics. In other words, Christianity is private; politics is public. But Kuyper utterly rejected that notion and insisted that Christians should have a voice in the public square.
Kuyper believed, however, that this voice in the public square should look different from how previous generations had approached it. He noted that our ancestors in the days of Christendom believed that it was the job of the civil government to enforce Christianity and to outlaw all non-Christian religion. In their view, the way forward for Christians was to get the magistrate to do his duty: close the doors of false churches, stop the teaching of anti-Christian ideas at the university, and insist that society be dominated by Christian ideas. Kuyper knew that this way of thinking was present in the confession of his own church. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession discusses the responsibility of civil magistrates, and one of the responsibilities listed in that confession is to uproot the kingdom of Antichrist.
In the language of the sixteenth century (when the Belgic Confession was written), the kingdom of Antichrist was Roman Catholicism. So is it the magistrate’s responsibility to close the Roman Catholic churches? Is that the right thing to do? Is that how we are going to advance the kingdom of Christ? Kuyper said that this view fundamentally corrupted Christianity by turning it into a coercive religion. He noted that when we look at the New Testament, we don’t find Jesus calling anyone to be coercive in matters of religion. We find Jesus being persuasive in matters of religion. We find Jesus seeking to win converts in matters of religion. But, Kuyper said, wherever the civil government tries to enforce religion, it corrupts religion.
Kuyper was so consistent over time that eventually he convinced the Dutch Reformed churches to amend their confession to say that the duty of civil magistrates is to ensure that the gospel may be freely preached—not to stop others from preaching. He believed that Christians needed a whole new perspective regarding how to advance the cause of Christ and speak for Christ in this new world. And this presents an opportunity for us today to rethink our strategies and to find a new way to communicate and advance the cause of Christ.
Kuyper believed that to understand ourselves and to communicate more effectively to the world, we must emphasize certain fundamental Christian perspectives. How did he encourage modern Christians to interact with the world and to see themselves? Let me suggest five points from Kuyper’s life and work.
1. Christians need to see that one of the most basic issues confronting us is, How do we see the world? How do we relate to the world?
According to Kuyper, the basic choice before us is to see the world either as normal or as abnormal. The dominant thinking of the French Revolution, the new science, and the emerging philosophy of the nineteenth century taught that this world is normal—it is the way it has always been.
But Kuyper said that Christians must challenge that attitude and insist that this world is abnormal. It is not what God intended in creation. This is not the world of righteousness that God made; rather, this world is abnormal because of the fall into sin. Interestingly, Kuyper believed that one of the great enemies of a Christian worldview in the nineteenth century was the theory of evolution, because at its heart, evolution says that this world is normal. It claims that the world has been developing and changing according to normal patterns that are scientifically observable. Evolution, therefore, fundamentally denies the doctrine of the fall into sin.
And so, when we look at the world as Christians, we must recognize that our view of the world stands at odds with the way that many others view it, and we must insist that the world is not the way it was meant to be. Consequently, Christians must not only say that the world isn’t as it should be but must also be able to articulate the change toward which we should move.
2. The change that Christians should be committed to pursuing is a matter of reformation, not revolution.
According to Kuyper, the spirit of the French Revolution was to tear down, destroy, and start over, believing that very little of the past could be preserved because the past was corrupt and radical change was needed. But the spirit of Christianity, Kuyper argued, is very different. We as Christians don’t think we are righteous enough to utterly tear down and radically change everything. Rather, we need to be committed to a gradualism that looks for real change and improvement, but not at the cost of denying our history and trying to change everything at once.
This insight from Kuyper remains important today, when much of the new thinking is revolutionary in character: the past must all be denied and changed, and we need to change everything at once. Christians should agree that things must change. There are many things that can be improved. But we can’t do it in a day.
Part of the reason that we can’t do it in a day is that we are sinners along with everybody else. We don’t have infinite wisdom. We don’t see the end from the beginning. We don’t see all the consequences of actions. And therefore, we have to be careful, thoughtful, responsible, and communal in talking about what is happening and what ought to happen. Thus, change must be made in light of a responsibility that we as sinners bear to other sinners and to the world around us.
3. Christians must seriously bear in mind that we are a regenerate people.
Christians are born again. We are new creatures in Christ, and that means we are in fundamental ways different from the rest of the world. Kuyper said we must realize the radical ethical antithesis between Christians and non-Christians. In saying this, Kuyper did not deny that non-Christians are humans and that they should have all the rights of humans. Rather, he insisted that the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating our hearts has made us radically different from what we were and from what the world is. That means we must try to think through the new life that we have in Christ and its implications—not just for us, but for the world. We should not then be surprised that the world will resent this, rejecting our assertion that we are different.
Kuyper believed that one of the ways to enter that struggle is to create Christian institutions where a Christian point of view is allowed to dominate. That’s why he wanted a Christian university. One of the really driving points of Kuyper’s success in the Netherlands was his support for Christian grammar schools and high schools. He believed strongly that the responsibility for education is the responsibility of parents.
4. Christians must understand common grace.
While there is an antithesis between Christians and non-Christians in terms of the regeneration of their hearts, Kuyper affirmed that God’s common blessings in this world give us certain common convictions and goals with which we can cooperate with the unregenerate. There has been controversy of various sorts about what Kuyper called “common grace,” but his desire was to say that it is not that we have a realm of nature that has been unaffected by sin—as many Roman Catholic teachers taught—and to which is added grace to complete what nature began. Kuyper considered the Roman Catholic view insufficiently God-centered. There is no part of creation that has not been affected by sin. The whole creation has fallen in sin. And the fact that non-Christians can do good, brilliant, and beautiful things is not because they share in some uncorrupted part of nature but rather because God has restrained sin from having all the consequences that it might have had in this world. And so, we can cooperate with non-Christians on certain points.
For example, it was not just Christians who have been involved in the pro-life movement over the years. There are others—Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and secularists—who are opposed to abortion. Because we shared a common goal, we can cooperate with them. How do these people who don’t know Christ know that abortion is wrong? Because God has restrained the effects of sin in their lives so that they haven’t embraced every error and every sin in this world.
Sometimes, in our despairing moments, we are tempted to think that things are as bad as they could be. They are not. Because God has restrained sin, many good things have been done in this world because He has maintained a care even for the unregenerate. Non-Christians have accomplished many good things, and we can acknowledge that, share in that, and rejoice in that.
5. Christians must understand the concept of “sphere sovereignty.”
Kuyper had a prophetic sense about him. He was able to anticipate where Western civilization was headed by observing what was happening around him. He believed that Western civilization would split into two dominant directions, one of which would be radically individualistic and would believe that all sovereignty, authority, and foundational direction belong to the individual. The other would believe that the state has all sovereignty and sets all directions. Christians, Kuyper argued, must reject both directions.
The statist direction will surely lead to tyranny, and the way Kuyper describes the danger of that tyranny is remarkably prophetic considering what the West would see in the rise of fascism and communism in the twentieth century. On the other hand, Kuyper said that individualism has its own great dangers. If we believe that sovereignty is vested in the individual, then there will be a call for the individual to do whatever he or she wants.
In twentieth-century America, we have seen the triumph of such individualism. One thing that struck me as a historian when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage was how many Americans just shrugged and said, “Well, OK.” Why is that? Because most Americans were so radically individualistic that they concluded: “If gay individuals want to be married, why not? They are not hurting anybody else.” It’s a radical individualism, and we see that playing out in several of the cultural debates of our time, including transgenderism.
In such a world, there’s no definition. There’s no reality. Kuyper said that we lose touch with the truth if we allow either the state or the individual to become the source of sovereignty and authority. The alternative, according to Kuyper, is to recognize in every circumstance that God is sovereign, and that God remains sovereign in all the relationships of human society. God has not appointed any one institution to dominate the others. Every institution, or what Kuyper called a “sphere,” is responsible directly to God for the way in which that sphere is lived out.
What that meant for Kuyper is that the state has a responsibility from God to promote justice, but the state has no responsibility or authority from God to establish the family, the church, the university, or business. All these spheres derive their character and responsibility directly from God. Kuyper believed that the authority for educating children was not the domain of the state or even the church, but rather the parents. In terms of church and state, the church is only responsible to God for the job that it’s doing. The state has no competence to tell the church how to do its job. No one can make any church more faithful to God and to His Word than God Himself can. It is the church’s responsibility, then, to be the church.
Kuyper said that the great danger of modern thought is that it becomes tyrannical, so either the state or the individual thinks it has all competence and authority regarding what ought to be done everywhere. And Kuyper said that the only real antidote to tyranny is to recognize that God has called each of the spheres to responsibly serve Him in its capacity.
The history of the West in the last two centuries has involved the struggle to avoid tyranny, to keep power limited, and to ensure that the various institutions of life that God has planted will be what God calls them to be. Kuyper said the way that we as Christians must try to implement these insights is by forming organizations and institutions to advance that cause.
He believed that the Christian cause would be advanced by the establishment of strong Christian institutions. Obviously, the church is the central institution. Secondarily, the Christian family is a critical institution. Beyond that, Kuyper believed that we need Christian schools, Christian labor unions, and Christian political parties. He believed that Christians should organize to advance their cause and to insist that their voices be heard in the public arena. That conviction of Kuyper is important for us today, when we are being told that our faith is a private matter and that we shouldn’t speak in the public arena.
What we as Christians must recognize is that we are a minority. And we, like every other minority, have a right to have our voices heard. We have a right to be listened to. Just as both political parties in the United States have listened carefully to various minority voting blocs, we as Christians should seek to articulate our point of view, to articulate policies we would like to see enacted, to advocate protections for our families, and then begin to lobby for those things and help politicians see that we will not vote for people who are against our interests.
But before we can do that, we must know what our interests are. We must be able to articulate them. And that is not an easy task. It is a confusing new world, and Christians have a lot of thinking to do. As we do so, the life and work of Abraham Kuyper can assist us in thinking through these challenging issues, so that in this day of confusion, uncertainty, and unrest, there might be a Christian voice that our society will listen to. And perhaps, by the blessing of the Spirit of God, that voice will succeed in those areas of life where we hope that truth will prevail.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 30, 2022.