The Separation of Church and Art

There is a trend among evangelicals to engage in social reform without first developing a coherent social philosophy to guide the agenda. To bridge this gap, Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering together to translate Abraham Kuyper's seminal three-volume work on common grace (De gemeene gratie). The below excerpt is from Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, the first published selection from the broader project forthcoming later this year from Christian's Library Press. Common grace, as Kuyper conceived it, was a theology of public responsibility and cultural engagement, rooted in Christians' shared humanity with the rest of the world. Kuyper did not intend these volumes to be academic tomes. They were popular works—collections of newspaper editorials written over a sixyear period—in which he equipped common people with the teaching they needed to effectively enter public life. Kuyper neither politicized the gospel to accommodate his agenda nor did he encourage his followers to develop a siege mentality in isolation from the rest of the world. As Kuyper writes in his introduction to the volumes, "If the believer's God is at work in this world, then in this world the believer's hand must take hold of the plow, and the name of the Lord must be glorified in that activity as well."

This three-year project involves the complete translation of Abraham Kuyper's three volumes, totaling over 1,700 pages. The first volume is scheduled to appear in fall 2012.

During his life, Kuyper labored tirelessly, publishing two newspapers, leading a reform movement out of the state church, founding the Free University of Amsterdam, and serving as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Popular in our time for his devotional work, Kuyper's Wisdom & Wonder displays his talents as a public theologian, focusing on his comprehensive and Reformed vision of science and art, still relevant for Christians today.

In this excerpt from his first chapter on art, Kuyper outlines a basic history of art in relation to religion, arguing that it properly stands in its own, independent sphere, founded upon God's common grace that fills and preserves His creation. Kuyper contends that since the Reformation, art has been set free from being wholly subservient to the Church. Careful in affirming its ecclesiastical independence not to condemn art per se, however, Kuyper then describes the proper relationship, as he sees it, of the two spheres of art and religion. He writes, "The separation between church and art… does not at all bear the character of a complete separation between art and religion."

Wisdom & Wonder will be available this coming November at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and will appear with an introduction by Vincent E. Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, and a foreword by Gabe Lyons and Jon Tyson. The following excerpt is presented here to offer readers a foretaste of the larger work.

For more information on the Common Grace Translation Project, including ways to order Wisdom & Wonder, visit

–Jordan J. Ballor & Stephen J. Grabill

As long as the religious idea draws its strength only from beholding nature, religion performed in the idolatrous temples bears a merely sensuous character and art dominates within the temple.

As soon as spiritual revelation returned in Israel, a spiritual sphere came to stand alongside the sphere of the sensuous, and both spheres found their interconnected expression in the rich symbolism of Zion's temple. As the spiritual revelation reached its culmination in Christ, the symbolic was pushed back by the spiritual, and the apostolic epistles show us nothing less than a purely spiritual veneration among the apostolic churches. As soon, however, as the church expanded among the nations, who were already by nature dependent on the sensuous, lush symbolism crept back into the church. During the iconoclastic controversy, the spiritual reaction appeared powerless to cast off the yoke, so that worship continued to display a highly symbolic character for many centuries.

This touched the nations of northern Europe. However, after the Reformation a new spiritual reaction arose that this time triumphed, introducing in northern Europe a kind of worship that sought its power only in the spiritual beauty of the soul. Once it had achieved this position, spiritual veneration was increasingly able to survive, leading with observable progress increasingly to despising all outward display and to establishing worship in spirit and in truth to be the core of worship.

This process leads to the question: Does this course of events warrant the conclusion that therefore art is condemned, and art is to be considered by spiritually oriented Christians as an evil to be opposed?

That question can be answered only in the affirmative if one views art merely as a parasite that can grow only by being attached to the stem of ecclesiastical life. Burdening the sacred with what drives the spiritual into the background, all for the sake of the growth of art, is the honorable reputation of religion, in which case we must declare without hesitation that it would be better for all art to disappear than that the spiritual character of our Christian religion would be injured. A people can live and grow without art, if necessary, but not without religion.

But is that the proper question? Or should we not rather acknowledge that in its initial appearance, art was powerless in learning to walk, had it not been held by the reins of the priest? Should we not acknowledge that once it had achieved further development, art could appeal in every possible way to an independent, free, and autonomous existence?

To see this clearly, we obviously need to investigate the essence of art more deeply, something we can undertake only in a subsequent section. But at this point, we can already observe that so much of art, with its diversity, could emerge at first like an ivy vine curling around the sacred, and only in a later stage of development grow into an entirely independent plant.

In this connection, we recall education with all its branches, an enterprise that initially among both pagans and Christians leaned upon and was supported by the sacred and the holy, but thereafter came to stand on its own legs, and only in that independent position developed its proper essence. Only because art was itself religion, and thus constituted an integral element of religion, could its right of independence be contested. By contrast, everyone knows how rarely one finds pious and zealous confessors of the Lord's name in the art world, and conversely, how in broad circles of the artist's life, even the moral ordinances are treated lightly. From this we can already surmise how by nature the artistic genius and the spirit of divine adoption are scarcely twin sisters.

So the outcome has shown how, after receiving their divorce papers from the ecclesiastical domain at the time of the Reformation, the arts hardly disappeared from view. Far rather was it the case that art everywhere ensured that henceforth it could lead an independent existence. The outcome has shown the wonderful ways that art has succeeded in this endeavor.

It cannot be entirely denied that this has led in part to making art a worldly pursuit, indeed, to secularizing art, to say nothing of misusing art to satisfy sinful desires. We will return to this as well.

But let it be said that in no case can this abuse of freedom be advanced as proof that art has no right to its independent existence. In our human life, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that eventually does not misuse for sinful purposes the freedom it acquires. Observe how, time and again, freedom of conscience is abused for blasphemy, or, if you will, how the sovereignty that God grants to a prince or a ruler is abused for oppressing, tyrannizing, and weakening a people. By itself, it is completely true that after its liberation, art became worldly, in this sense, that it ceased to inhabit sacred space and came to be mixed in with ordinary civic life.

Abraham Kuyper

The inspiration of art never belonged to particular grace, but always proceeded from common grace. It is exactly everyday human living that constitutes the broad arena where common grace shines, and simultaneously the arena where art constructs its own temple as well.

This in no way entails, however, that therefore art henceforth should be permitted to derive its motives no longer from the sacred, or that art no longer possesses a calling to glorify God's name. Leaving aside architecture for the moment, which naturally comes up in connection with building churches, there is not only art of a higher order that, from the moment it began to reveal its independent character, has at the same time received its richest motives from the holy and the sacred. It could not have been otherwise.

Artistic genius and nobility of soul are not mutually exclusive, and wherever artistic genius may dwell within a noble soul, how could the artistic eye be closed to the entirely singular exaltedness that focuses on the name of Christ? Why should an image, an embroidered scene, an oratorio, or a hymn be produced only for ecclesiastical use in order to inspire the gifted creator of these artifacts with sacred passion? Art also enjoys its lower and higher spheres of development, and how could it be any other way than that in its higher spheres art must ascend to the sublime, and in that sublimity, it automatically encounters the wonders of religion, incorporates them, and reproduces them in artistic form?

The separation between church and art, therefore, does not at all bear the character of a complete separation between art and religion. Instead, the bond between both is guaranteed in the ideal character of both, so that if people refuse to permit the refined religious impulse to affect art, that defect belongs not to art as such but to the impiety of those advocates.