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The Intellectual and Historical Context of “Worldview” in Kuyper’s Thought

James D. Bratt helpfully explains how the construct of “worldview” came into Kuyper’s thought and use and why he found it to be so important:

“Worldview” as an understanding of collective consciousness had its roots in Immanuel Kant’s later work and had steadily gown with the German Romantic and Idealist movements stemming from it. By the 1890s, however, and acute sense of crisis in European high culture drove more thinkers than ever to entertain the concept as a solution to two components in that crisis: the question of cultural authority and the question of cultural coherence. As those issues were perpetually atop Kuyper’s intellectual agenda, “worldview” offered him a way to put Calvinism at the cutting edge of cultural discourse while simultaneously showing his followers that they had as legitimate fvoice in that conversation as their self-proclaimed superiors…

Worldview epistemology fit any number of Kuyper’s desiderata. He welcomed its recognition that everyone, group or individual, operated out of a cognitive framework that was itself not established by reason or science. Contrary to decades of derision from the positivists, it gave people of faith just as good a warrant to stake their claims, and equal potential for realizing those claims, as anyone else. It is “[n]ot as if the knowledge of others rests on intellectual certainty and ours only on faith,” Kuyper declared in opening the Free University. “For all knowledge proceeds from faith of whatever kind. You lean on God, you proceed from your own ego, or you hold fast to your ideal. The person who does not believe does not exist.”

Worldview also promised coherence in a rapidly expanding universe of knowledge, rendering an ordered whole out of what otherwise would remain a jumble of data. Kuyper was particularly emphatic on this point. Unlike some practitioners of the method, he traced every worldview back to a single “fixed starting point,” a leading “principle,” by whose guidance the everyday world was explored, by whose logic a meaningful world was constructed.

Further, as the term implies, a worldview embraces the whole world, the same claim Kuyper was no making for Calvinism among his followers. Worldview thus established a mandate for critical Christian comprehensiveness. Believers had to extend the logic of their faith to sites they had heretofore ignored, had to test anew every theory and practice to see if it was of God, had to reconceptualize every place they had taken for granted or had visited on other terms. If common grace could baptize whole cultures as “Christian,” worldview analysis delved beneath the surface of every project to ferret out its animating faith.

Worldview was also inherently democratic: that is, it assumed a pluralistic situation, was designed for popular reception, and sought to inspire action. As to pluralism, it was to normalize perennial disagreements among schools that Dilthey entitled his definitive essay on the matter “Der Streit der Weltanschauungen,” the conflict of the worldviews. Some of Kuyper’s latter-day progeny have aptly noted that, whereas “philosophy” at the time made claims to universal truth, “worldview” connoted the particular vision of one group or another. Also, philosophy restricted its domain to elite competency, while worldviews aimed to perform philosophy’s functions—to provide answers to life’s fundamental questions—for a wide range of people. Finally, worldview sought to furnish a feedback loop between convictions and experience, each clarifying the other so as to propel action. We can add that “the wide range of people” in question were often newly literate and newly urban under conditions of industrialism, thus living amid an unfamiliar welter of opinion and circumstance. Worldview was first conceptualized this way by Friedrich Engels; it perfectly fit Kuyper’s project.

Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat 205, 207-208

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. 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 Institute.