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Citizen Kuyper: Born-Again American

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'“ said Abraham Kuyper (1837—1920), a Dutch pastor-theologian by training and jack-of-many-trades by vocation. To say he practiced what he preached would be an understatement. From university founder and newspaper editor to party activist, statesman, and church reformer par excellence, Kuyper strove to live and teach in hopes of saving humanity–starting with his own beloved Netherlands–from gliding into the maw of modernity.

With ni Dieu, ni maitre (“No God, no master”) as the ideological mainspring of modern life, Kuyper saw the need for the church to preach the sovereignty of God. In particular, he believed that if Christians spoke and lived as if the lordship of Christ began this side of the veil, their testimony would not only draw others into the kingdom of God but also protect society at large from tyranny. Kuyper's doctrine of sphere sovereignty, which distinguishes society from the state, protects “social spheres” such as the family, business, science, and art from the encroachment of politics, and frees the church to proclaim the gospel without state regulation. Does this mean there is a Christian system of organizing or regulating these various spheres?

More Poetic than Priestly or Philosophic

C. S. Lewis once said that “the New Testament gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like.” He hastened to add that it does not, however, give a blueprint for a Christian government. Alas, this has not kept folks from trying, which makes a consideration of Kuyper's public theology all the more instructive–and timely, given American evangelicals' resurgence in political affairs over the past thirty years.

John Bolt, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, offers a labor of love that encourages political participation by Christians while correcting certain excesses that have marred attempts to bring the reign of Christ into the public square. At almost five hundred (extensively footnoted) pages, A Free Church, A Holy Nation ranges far and wide to cover the breadth of Kuyper's service to his church and nation. But as the subtitle suggests, the book's length owes more to a demonstration of Kuyper's civic affinity to the United States than to an explication of Kuyper's Dutch-Calvinistic theology as such. In fact, Bolt argues in a substantive introduction that Kuyper's public career is more poetic than priestly or philosophic. Kuyper engaged the Dutch masses through “a remarkable imaginative facility to use and apply scriptural imagery, Dutch national history and mythology, and a grand historical sense of providential purpose.”

Bolt's emphasis on Kuyper's appeal to the imagination, as opposed to reason, follows from Kuyper's critique of modernity as the product of the atheistic French Revolution. By lauding “human autonomy and scientific reason,” the Enlightenment philosophes liberated human beings from all transcendent authority, including what the Declaration of Independence calls “the laws of nature and of nature's God.” This set the stage for tyranny, whether by a minority or majority of individuals.

So how does the American Revolution, with its Lockean pedigree, not only avoid the rhetorical wrath of Kuyper but also garner his utmost praise? Kuyper saw the Spirit of '76 as a “Puritan/Calvinist spirit,” which understood political freedom as the blessing of a sovereign God and not the grant of a sovereign state. Seeing government as only one of several institutions God ordained to order their freedom, Americans would keep government from meddling with other social institutions (such as the church) and thereby preserve what he called “the free life of free citizens.”

Building on Kuyper the poet, Bolt defends the need for an American public theology. After a long hiatus for the better part of the twentieth century, evangelical Americans returned to the public life of the nation in the 1970s with more zeal than knowledge. But now with a Christian, civic heritage to draw upon and a vanguard of evangelical intellectuals offering serious Christian reflection on history and politics in an increasingly secularized academy, the time is ripe for Christian activists to consider another evangelical voice. Kuyper's public career, convincingly portrayed in A Free Church, A Holy Nation, offers an apt guide and inspiration for evangelical Americans yearning to bear witness to their citizenship in the Kingdom of God as they engage the work-a-day world.

Aversion to Tyranny in All Its Forms

The bulk of the book comprises two parts: first, a historical contrast of Kuyper's American bona fides with foreign commentators on the American regime, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and Pope Leo XIII, in addition to native observers, such as Jonathan Edwards and Walter Rauschenbusch; second, a comparison of contemporary approaches to applying the Gospel to public life with Kuyper's own public theology. This latter section addresses political theories informed by “God talk” that spans the political spectrum–from liberation theology to dominion theology–in addition to those supposedly offering a “third way” alternative to the Right/Left partisan divide. Bolt invokes more than enough names to keep the comparative critiques lively and informed.

Given Kuyper's project to re-Christianize Holland through public appeals to the nation's heritage and free proclamation of the Gospel, some critics might associate his party activism with a theocratic agenda. Bolt quotes Kuyper to the contrary, highlighting his aversion to tyranny in all its forms, whether atheistic or religious. Bolt argues that only a “structurally pluralistic” society would satisfy Kuyper, who saw the need for both the church and the state to stay within the confines of their authority and competence in order for both to flourish. The concept of simul iustus et peccator–the person of faith as righteous by divine imputation but still savoring of original sin–should inform all human institutions until Christ's return.

Bolt concludes his book with a critique of Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (1999), by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, a book that downplays the significance of concerted political action by Christians for the sake of increased individual testimony. Arguing that their call for political disengagement is tantamount to “self-censorship,” Bolt suggests that Kuyper's public theology offers a more biblical alternative: “For Kuyper, this distinctly Christian associational life was, in fact, a mandate of the organic unity of the body of Christ.” In Tocquevillean fashion, examples would include private schools, labor unions, philanthropic societies, and even political action groups formed by Christians as an expression of their discipleship in a free society.

In the preface, Bolt shares about a recent visit to Calvin College and Theological Seminary by the Rev. Dr. Kwame Bediako of Ghana. After recounting the political turmoil of West Africa, Professor Bediako was asked if the region “was not badly in need of its own Thomas Jefferson.” He replied, “What Africa needs even more today is its own Abraham Kuyper.” It is a lesson that resonates all the way through to the appendices of this fine book, and one that should inspire citizen-Christians to redouble their efforts to think through and practice what we preach throughout every square inch of our society.