While Abraham Kuyper’s life and legacy has very much to commend itself, one of its less felicitous contributions has been its peculiar outlook on philosophy. Though Kuyperianism has in many ways detached itself from Kuyper and become an independent thing, saying both more and less than Kuyper himself, it is still the case that its foundational philosophical components can be traced back to Kuyper, particularly the insistence that Christianity has its own unique philosophical system, based upon a rejection of natural philosophy (ie. “Greek” thought) in favor of a positively “Biblical” one, and a prioritization of epistemology and its accompanying subjectivist elements: worldviews, paradigms, and values. Rather than accepting a form of Realism, Kuyper instead promoted Idealism, and a form of Idealism which was heavily indebted to modern German philosophy, particularly Kant and Hegel.
The relationship between Kuyper and German philosophy was more than a mere similarity of terms. He was trained in it and continued to appeal to its major thinkers throughout his career. James D. Bratt explains:
This was the language of Immanuel Kant, indicating that from Scholten Kuper was acquiring philosophical along with theological habits. The philosophy proved to be just as lasting as the theology, and of much greater consequence for Kuyper’s long-term influence as a thinker. His key proposal would come in the area of epistemology, the theory of how humans acquire knowledge or certify truth. Here, in contrast to other contemporary Protestants of orthodox hue, Kuyper would combine Reformed Christian and German Idealist sources. Scholten again showed how. Though he advertised Modernism as a response to the rising tide of science, in fact an Idealist set of presuppositions controlled all of Scholten’s thinking, including his empiricist claims. The course of human history to him remained more Hegelian than Darwinian, not an evolutionary struggle in which materialist nature selected among random variations, but a saga of Mind asserting ever more control over matter, of Will becoming ever more infused with Right so as to infuse Mind with a yearning for the Good. Reason within—especially what Kant had called “practical reason,” anchored in the moral will— still shaped the world without, and could have, must have, increasing effect over time, as all the heirs of Hegel knew.
That Kuyper swam in these waters at Leiden is particularly evident from the way he treated Modernist theology in a major public address he delivered a decade later, after he had converted to orthodoxy. Again, extrapolation backwards from that text requires caution, but the leading question in the speech is unmistakably the epistemological question of “appearance” vs. “reality.” How he and the others packing Scholten’s lectures had grasped at the parade of German philosophers which there passed in review, Kuyper recalled: “People turned their gaze on the hieroglyphics of Kant’s oracular language, bathed in Jacobi’s streams of feeling, raved a while about Fichte’s Idealism of the Ego and Non-Ego, hoped for a moment to find firmer ground in Schelling’s Gnosticism, and at last gaped at the dizzying mental gymnastics whereby Hegel won admiration as an athlete.” None of it had worked, the now orthodox Kuyper of 1871 concluded, but that did not lead him to dismiss it all as a bad dream or to celebrate the succeeding Realist turn instead. Rather, the latter represented a deeper sinking still, “back to the lowest level of spiritual existence… fashioning an idol out of gross empiricism.” The new “realism threatens us with a real danger,” Kuyper continued. “The distance from its base to the fatal abyss of materialism is easily measured, and we are well on our way to it.”
We will return to how Kuyper resolved the appearance-reality issue later, but we need to pause first to register how deep and permanent was the impact of German Idealism on his thinking. For both theological and political reasons, Kuyper would always denounce Hegel’s nomination of the State as the true incarnation of the divine; yet Kuyper literally could not think outside the Hegelian method by which Mind(s) developing down through time constituted the essence of history. In 1892, thirty years out of university and defending Christian orthodoxy from its latest and most fearsome scorner, he scolded that, “not a single element surfaces in Nietzsche that does not stem, by legitimate descent, form the premises of Schelling and Hegel.” On the other hand, the theological summa he was writing at the same moment took its method from Fichte, and his final word on epistemology warned that “whoever neglects to maintain the autonomy of the spiritual over against the material in his point of departure will eventually come to the idolization of matter via the adoration of man.” On this score he gave tribute where it was due: “Whatever bloody lashings Kant brought us, he was nevertheless the one who released orthodoxy” from the “cookie-cutter” superficialities of rational supernaturalism. Kant had endowed the far better project of framing “a Christian worldview” in which reason put together the world on Christian premises. This was Kuyper’s own signal endeavor, and he confessed that it “owe[d] to the powerful command with which the Athlete of Koningsberg dared to direct his operations from the subject”— that is, from the convictions of the thinker instead of the world thought about.
Vocationally, too, the Germans cast their spell. As he sent off his finished dissertation, Kuyper penned an Idealist rhapsody to Jo about the study where he had just expended so much effort— and where he would like to spend the rest of his life. Gazing at the flowers in his window, the pictures of his friends all around, and “above all the busts of great men… and the products of learning and good taste on my table and bookcase,” he rhapsodized: “Oh then I feel so infinitely much richer, more blessed and happy” than in contemplating a career of practical routine. “Here I have faith and hope for the future, for here I see what man can be; here I create my world around me, for [now quoting in German] here my heart is my world!”
The orthodox Kuyper who spoke in critique of Modernism in 1871 would fault it at just this point. Modernism was but a human projection, he concluded, a beautiful fantasy spun out of the imagination, doomed to shatter against the hard rocks of fact. All the more surprising, then, to see how much of the method he retained— that is, to see what constituted “reality” for Kuyper and to which “facts” he appealed. His speech presented no “positive” case from evidence, even the evidence of Scripture or dogmatic theology. It invoked not the prestige of science but the dangers of scientism. The real issues of life were being fought out on a supernatural level invisible to the human eye, Kuyper averred, and to comprehend that scene he conducted his listeners through the channels of inward experience, calling upon poets to mark the way. He turned to “Hamlet” for the test of adjudicating between appearance and reality, and he illustrated the perils of imagination by comparing the world and real-life deeds of poets famous —Dante, Goethe, Schiller— and now obscure— Gottfried Burger and Friedrich von Matthison.
(Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, Eerdmans 2013, 30-33).
Dr. Bratt goes on to show how Kuyper was also a promoter of Romanticism, appealing to the German literary and artistic movement Sturm and Drang to address questions that his contemporaries were attempting to answer with the natural sciences or politics. The significance of this for today should not be underestimated, as both Kuyper’s friends and critics are too quick to refer to him as a Biblicist. While Kuyper was definitely an orthodox Reformed thinker and thought of his philosophy as “Biblical,” certainly in his own self-identification, it is still the case that his philosophy was actually a species of the larger German thought of the 19th century.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.