Having given his name to an international theological and political movement, indeed an ism, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Abraham Kuyper is not more widely read outside of Dutch-speaking audiences. Of the North American followers claiming his name, relatively few have read any of Kuyper’s works outside of the Stone Lectures. A significant minority has perhaps read Principles of Sacred Theology and The Work of the Holy Spirit. But there are hundreds of others pieces of literature, at least ten of which could be considered major works, which go unread because, to many, they are unreadable, available only in Dutch. This is, no doubt, why the adjective “Kuyperian” has modified so many different and often incompatible ideas over the years. It is also why James. D. Bratt’s new biography of Kuyper is so important. Though no substitute for the primary sources, Dr. Bratt’s work provides a succinct and somewhat systematic introduction to Kuyper’s thought, especially the parts of it which had previously been closed off from the ordinary English or American reader. For many, it will be the first time to read Kuyper on a whole range of issues.
One of the biggest surprises (though not to students of neo-Calvinism) awaiting the reader of Dr. Bratt’s biography is the section on Kuyper’s politics. We have noted while interacting with Dr. Alan Carlson’s works here and here that Kuyper’s politics constitute something of a “Third Way” beyond Capitalism and Socialism. The historical name, however, is that represented in the title of Dr. Bratt’s biography: Christian Democracy. Kuyper, along with the Roman Catholic social and political theory of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, advocated for a social-democratic politics which defended the rights of workers and sought to protect the family from the advances of the industrial revolution. This specific theory, however, was grounded in a more basic understanding of politics and statecraft, one which Kuyper attempted to expound at some length.
Dr. Bratt explains that Kuyper began by asserting that all of human society was founded on “God’s ordinances.” While not a theonomist, Kuyper definitely did believe that there was a unique Christian perspective on society and politics, and he thought that Christian theology provided important guidelines and directives for a properly organized state. Kuyper referred to these as divine “ordinances” and “eternal principles.” Dr. Bratt writes:
These “eternal principles” were “valid for all nations and in force for all times.” They would be the enduring teloi of creation, better restored to human sight by the corrective lenses of God’s revelation. A truly Christian politics must advocate these principles and might even render them into law for a whole nation…
When Kuyper first listed the ordinances in 1873 they numbered five: (1) that a nation is “an organic whole” and “not an aggregate of individuals”; (2) that “justice” must prevail over “the fortuitous success of violence” among (and, one may infer, also within) nations; (3) that “imperialism” is intolerable, being a reflection of “Caesar” instead of “Christ”; (4) that God is to be obeyed against the contrary assertions of any “earthly authority,” as is the legitimate power within any sphere over against unwarranted imposition from the outside; and finally (5) that “the struggle for freedom and progress” bears a “sacred” character. (142-143)
One curious feature of Kuyper’s thought, however, is the fact that he did, in fact, advocate for the secularization of the State. He believed that a form of associationalism, what he called “sphere sovereignty,” would better preserve both freedom and collective virtue and dignity, and this required a certain amount of secular space. Kuyper did allow for majoritarian parliamentary principles, and so he would refer to The Netherlands as a Christian state, but this was always in terms of culture rather than constitutional foundation. Dr. Bratt notes that this was actually a continuation and extension of ideas which were earlier laid out by Johannes Althusius and then, later, by the German Historical School. For Kuyper, however, it was simply called “Calvinism.”
Of the traditional “three jurisdictions” (though Kuyper departed form this means of classification), the family was clearly central for Kuyper. It was the primary seat of civic dominion in the world:
The family… was for Kuyper first in every sense of the term. It was the first institution to appear in history and seeded all the rest. Its health was the foundation and surest barometer of a society’s wellbeing. It grew from nature, prospered by nurture, and properly taught its members how to balance personal autonomy, mutual dependence, and due responsibility—that is, it was society in miniature. Likewise its authority was the source of, model for, and limit upon the state. Properly functioning, it also exhibited church-like qualities in being crowned with love and becoming a school for morals. It set the first limit on individualism and initiated the delegation of powers central to consociational theory. If school and church each had a discrete article in the program, the family bore upon many. That complicated policy formulation at three points in particular. The state might mandate education, but the family—the “father,” Kuyper clarified—defined its terms. The state must promote public health by ensuring pure food and water, among other measures, but it might not violate the family’s rights of conscience and make vaccination compulsory. To prevent anomic individualism, the franchise should be extended to all heads of households, not to all adult persons. Normally, that meant voting by husbands/fathers; otherwise, by widows/mothers. (144-145)
Indeed, Kuyper opposed universal suffrage for exactly this reason. It was the family or “household” which ought to be represented in the State and not the individuals considered in themselves.
This focus on the family did not, however, make Kuyper into an American-styled conservative. To the contrary, his political philosophy was:
…a linking of the old antirevolutionary critique to the emerging industrial economy in defense of worker’s rights; in program, a leftward track that turned the Antirevolutionary Party into a thoroughgoing Christian Democratic organization, purged of the old elite who had tried to keep it safe for conservatism. When these “aristocrats” saw Kuyper in this decade, they saw red—in both senses. (215)
Dr. Bratt continues:
For economic conservatives (that is, neoliberals) and American evangelicals, who assume an automatic affinity between their respective positions, Kuyper’s deliverances will be bewildering at best, outrageous at worst. With intense and often heated rhetoric “Christianity and the Social Question” denounced laissez-faire capitalism as inimical to human well-being, material or spiritual; as out of tune with Scripture and contrary to the will of God; as the very spawn of “Revolution.” The “Revolution” Kuyper named here was the French, but he could just as well have used “Industrial,” for the principles behind and the attitudes stemming from both constituted the deeper revolution in consciousness that Antirevolutionary thinking had always faulted most. Wherein did this revolution lie for economics? In replacing the spirit of “Christian compassion” with “the egoism of a passionate struggle for possessions,” Kuyper said. In the abrogation of the claims of community for the sake of the sovereign individual. In the commodification of labor, which denied the image of God and the rightful claims of a brother. In the idolization of the supposedly free market, which deprived the weak of their necessary protections, licensed the strong in their manipulations, and proclaimed the consequences to be the inevitable workings of natural law. In the advertising that inculcated a covetous consumerism as the norm of human happiness. The French Revolution, but as Kuyper repeated throughout his work, also the “utilitarian,” the “laissez-faire,” and the “Manchester” schools, which were the philosophical apologists for industrial capitalism,
made the possession of money the highest good, and then, in the struggle for money… set every man against every other…. As soon as that evil demon was unchained at the turn of the [nineteenth] century, no consideration was shrewd enough, no strategy crafty enough, no deception outrageous enough among those who, through superiority of knowledge, position, and capital, took money—and ever more money—from the socially weaker.
And since “it cannot be said often enough,” as Kuyper intoned in “Sphere Sovereignty,” that “money creates power,” the new bourgeoisie soon took command of the state, overriding its divine mandate to protect the weak and turning it into an engine of their own interests.
That natural law, however, made Kuyper doubt progressive proposals to correct economic abuses by legislation or regulatory reforms. With an eye toward the “laissez-faire” Liberals’ massive public investments to promote commercial enterprise in the recent past, and the crony capitalism of the current Dutch Indies scene, Kuyper declared: “the stronger, almost without exception, have always known how to bend every custom and magisterial ordinance so that the profit is theirs and the loss belongs to the weaker.” Of course, specific reforms might be legitimate. In Manual Labor Kuyper countenanced changes in inheritance laws to protect the poor, a break with the Netherlands’ historic free-trade policy to protect domestic labor. But besides being prone to elite cooptation, such gestures amounted, Kuyper jibed, to calling upon the physician when an architect was really needed. That is, “[w]e must courageously and openly acknowledge that the Social Democrats are right” to insist that the evils and inequities of the current Dutch situation stemmed from “the entire structure of our social system.” Socialists were wrong in the blueprint they drew up, he hastened to add, but even there, not so much for the design of the interior as for neglecting to lay the foundations of the house in God’s eternal ordinances. Kuyper repeated that these broad principles were laid out along “clearly visible lines” in scripture and creation, and then repeated it again, as if sheer insistence would obscure the conflict within his own movement over how those ordinances applied to current conditions. (224-225)
To ground Christian Democracy’s emphasis on labor in a more basic philosophy, Kuyper gave what he believed to be the controlling principles of “Calvinism”:
First and foremost, he asserted a preferential option for the poor. Jesus, “just as his prophets before him and his apostles after him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the poor and oppressed.” Granted that the poor are no better than the rich, Christ and Scripture always reproved their sins more gently than those of the wealthy. So did Kuyper’s Utrecht sermon of 1869 with regard to “worker and master.” Second, the merit of any economic system, both as to its theory and practice, had to be measured by the respect it exercised for human beings as bearers of the image of God and by the basic security it provided for human existence. Reducing laborers to a factor of production violate their dignity and the divinely mandated use of their God-given creative powers, which properly make work an opportunity and a blessing. Third, solidarity was both the biblical ideal for human society and the pragmatic grounds for its true flourishing. God created human beings to live relationally with each other and the natural order under the canopy of transcendent norms… Kuyper’s economics, like his politics, was first to last a communal theory with a communal ethic. In particular, it assigned property rights not a primary but a derivative standing that brought them “hobbling up at the rear of the unavoidably righteous demand” for a genuine social life. And to that end it assumed that people, together, could both understand and competently modify market operations. (225-226)
Dr. Bratt sums up Kuyper’s economic thought, writing:
Kuyper’s economics thus resonated with his political theory and with some perennial notes of Calvinist social thinking. He was again more concerned with whole integrated systems than with individual parts. He showed a typical Calvinist ambivalence toward wealth—it was more a proving ground for than any proof of salvation. Greed now joined aggression as the worst expression of collective depravity, and a balance of powers was again arrayed to control them. Kuyper’s distinctive contribution to this tradition was the constellation of vigorous localism, praise of diversity, and principled pluralism that he asserted in the face of industrial consolidation and labeled “sphere sovereignty.” In his own movement, his speech, like Leo’s encyclical, launched a tradition of social critique that was purposefully Christian, critical of the political economy of Left and Right, and aimed at keeping intellectuals engaged with their blue-collar brethren. (228)
It would be quite false to assert that every aspect of Kuyper’s thought is equally helpful. Certainly his combination of secularism and sphere sovereignty stands in contrast to the earlier magisterial tradition. Still, his approach to uniquely modern challenges is instructive, and the fact that it fits into neither “right wing” nor “left wing” political grammar ought to teach us an important lesson about the limitations of today’s imagination. “Third Way” economics– indeed Third Way Politics!– must be engaged if one’s civic theology is to be truly Calvinistic, whether it be the paleo or neo variety.
That this option has been temporarily lost, even among some of the sons of Kuyper, only means that the Protestant resourcement cannot content itself simply with the 16th and 17th centuries. It must claim the full inheritance of Reformed Christendom. It must do this critically, to be sure, but this can only begin with a renewed exposure to the ideas and arguments themselves. And so we can thank Dr. Bratt for allowing this dialog to begin anew, and we can look to Kuyper for one example of how Calvinism was applied to modern political thought.
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.