A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper

Read the first six posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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In our discussion of a Reformed Baptist perspective on public theology, we have recently been examining the Reformed confessions. In today’s article, we will begin our discussion of some more recent developments regarding Reformed perspectives of public theology. In our view, no modern discussion on Reformed public theology can be presented without discussing the contributions of Abraham Kuyper. By becoming familiar with Kuyper’s approach to public theology, readers should be in a position to evaluate the politics of writers like Francis Schaeffer, Tim LaHaye (and many of the members of the Christian Right movement), and Tim Keller – all of whom owe an intellectual debt to Kuyper.

As a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and a leader in the first modern Dutch political party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, Kuyper sought to re-create a Christian perspective on politics and society that would form the basis for Christian social action. He envisaged this as an integral part of a comprehensive Christian worldview based upon the Scriptures and their interpretation within the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition. Although he wrote copiously in Dutch on theology, art, politics, education, and a host of other topics, only a few of his writings are available in English translations. The most comprehensive statement of his position in English is to be found in the Stone Lectures, which were delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898 and are published under the title Lectures on Calvinism. This article will consist of a brief exposition of Kuyper’s views as set out in these lectures.

Calvinism as a Worldview

For Kuyper, Calvinism is “a theory of ontology, of ethics, of social happiness, and of human liberty, all derived from God” (p. 15). Thus, Kuyper saw Calvinism, not merely as a system of doctrine, but a comprehensive worldview. In its essence, the heart of Calvinism (and any other worldview) revolves around three fundamental relationships: “(1) our relation to God; (2) our relation to men; and (3) our relation to the world” (p. 19). As example of this interpretation, Kuyper argues that Paganism is a distinct worldview that worships god in the creature. This worship results in a distortion of man’s other relationships by allowing some men to become demi-gods and thus creating caste systems in society. At the same time, too high an estimate is placed on the idea of nature, which leads to a deification of the world. Kuyper offers similar interpretations of Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Modernism – all of which he contrasts with Calvinism. It is in Calvinism alone, he argues, that one can find the proper balance between these vital relationships.

According to Kuyper’s understanding of Calvinism, God enters into immediate fellowship with mankind. So, according to this doctrine, our entire human life is placed immediately before God, ensuring the equality of all men before God and with each other (p. 27). The world itself is to be honored not because it is divine, but because it is a divine creation – the handiwork of God. Practically, this means for the Christian that “the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position of life” (p. 31).

The third lecture in the series is entitled Calvinism and Politics. Here we find a brief, but dense outline of Kuyper’s political theory distilled from his great work, Ons Programme (Our Program, 1878). He argues that the foundational principle for Calvinistic public theology is “the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos” (p. 99). From this statement, he deduces three realms of sovereignty which he calls “spheres”: the State, Society and the Church. In this way he speaks about his political principle as the application of the principle of “sphere sovereignty” to politics (p. 116).

The Sphere of the State

The first application of this notion of sphere sovereignty is to the State, which seems to refer to the civil government. Kuyper sums up Calvinistic political thought in three theses:

  1. God only – and never any creature – is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of the nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by His Almighty power, and rules them by His ordinances.
  2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy.
  3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.

Kuyper argues that mankind is organically related by blood so that one humanity exists throughout all time. However, because of sin and the Fall, mankind’s original unity has been fractured, and political life has become a necessity. If the fall did not exist, there would have been no need for the establishment of the structures of the State. Rather, all men would be governed through family relationships. Thus politics and the State are unnatural developments in human history – the State being a mechanical structure imposed upon the natural organic relationships that bind men together. “God has instituted magistrates, by reason of sin” (p. 102). Therefore, from the viewpoint of God’s original creation, the State ought not to exist, but in the light of the Fall, it must exist to restrain evil and make life in a fallen world tolerable – a view reminiscent of Augustine’s Two Cities.

In arguing for his third thesis, Kuyper does not believe that any one form of government is in itself right for all times and places. Rather, the form that government takes is bound up with changes in historical and social circumstances, which is a position he traces back to Augustine. Christians are to seek godly government without demanding a set form. In saying this, Kuyper rejects the idea of a theocracy, which he argues was restricted to ancient Israel.

The Sphere of Society

Building on this foundation, Kuyper goes on to discuss the sphere of society. Society, he declares, is not one whole, but a number of diverse parts which includes the family, business, science, the arts, and etc.. In particular, Kuyper divides the social sphere into four main groups:

  1. the sphere of social relationships where individuals meet and interact with each other;
  2. the corporate sphere, which includes all groupings of men in a corporate sense such as universities, trade unions, employers, organizations, companies, etc;
  3. the domestic sphere, which deals with family, marriage, education, and personal property; and
  4. the communal sphere, which includes all groupings of men in communal relationships such as streets, villages, towns, cities, etc.

Each part of these spheres, Kuyper argues, has “sovereignty in the individual social spheres and these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and the State cannot intrude here” (p. 116). In society “the chief aim of all human effort remains what it was by virtue of our creation and before the fall – namely, domination over nature” (p. 117).

By contrast to this view of society as a natural, organic institution, government is a mechanical device, which is set over peoples. Its essential characteristic is its power over life and death, which ought to be exercised in the administration of justice. This has a twofold application: 1) to maintain internal justice; 2) to care for the people as a unit at home and abroad. However, since government is mechanically imposed upon the organic spheres of society, friction occurs between different social areas and the government. Kuyper says “the government is always inclined with its mechanical authority to invade social life, to subject it and mechanically to arrange it” (p. 120). At the same time, Kuyper argues that the various social spheres will endeavor to throw off all restraints of government. Thus men will be continually faced with the twin dangers of statism and anarchy. But Calvinism, Kuyper maintains, avoids these extremes by insisting on the sovereignty of God and the rightfulness of a plurality of social spheres “under the law”, which is maintained by the government (p. 121).

Thus, in relation to the social sphere, the State itself has three duties to perform. They are: 1) to draw a boundary between the different social spheres to avoid social conflict. Thus, there is a boundary between the domestic and the corporate life of man. For example, the worker should never be misused by his employer in such a way as to deprive him of a home life or private interest, because such a development would mean that the corporate sphere has illegitimately invaded the domestic sphere; 2) to defend individuals and weak elements within each sphere; 3) to coerce all the separate spheres of society to support the State and uphold its legitimate functions. Thus, each sphere has an obligation to render whatever dues necessary for the maintenance of the overall unity of society as protected by the State (p. 124-125).

The Sphere of the Church and the Individual

Kuyper’s final sphere is the sphere of the Church. While admitting that a divided church presents many problems, he believes that implicit in the doctrine of the liberty of conscience is the ideal of a free church in a free society – hence, the motto “a free Church for a free State”. While acknowledging the benefits of a genuine unity between churches, Kuyper argues that the government must suspend judgment in this area and allow divisions to exist amongst Christians because “the government lacks the data of judgment and would infringe” on the sovereignty of the Church (p. 136). He concludes from this that while extreme forms of church order are to be avoided, allowances must be made for historic and cultural differences between denominations.

Kuyper concludes with a short section on the “sovereignty of the individual person” in which he argues that “conscience is never subject to man but always and ever to God Almighty” (p. 139). This argument leads him to declare that “liberty of speech and liberty of worship” (p. 141) are essential in a just society. Yet, like John Stuart Mill, Kuyper seeks to limit such liberty to “mature men”, and doubts that “backward people” can be granted such liberty. In this, as in all his arguments, Kuyper’s overall aim is to enable “every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart” (p. 142).

Concluding Thoughts

Kuyper’s discussion of sphere sovereignty has a number of similarities with Luther’s Two Kingdoms model of public theology, but there are some important differences. Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty deals with different areas into which human life under Christ’s lordship are to be divided; they do not designate the eschatological distinction between this age and the age to come, which is central to the doctrine of two kingdoms. Thus, the concept of sphere sovereignty should be interpreted as a sociological concept that may be consistent with, but different from the two kingdoms doctrine. The two kingdoms model not only represents two spheres (because they denote two governments), but they also denote two overlapping ages.

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In the next article, we will develop these points in more detail and examine how Kuyper (and many current neo-Kuyperians) grounded his understanding of public theology based on an emphasis on creation-fall-redemption and the relationship between grace and nature.

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36 thoughts on “A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper

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  27. Reblogged this on The Road of Grace and commented:

    In continuing our discussion at CredoCovenant on public theology, I took some time to write about the influence on Abraham Kuyper on Calvinist social thought. This particular article focuses on the concept of sphere sovereignty, which I think becomes more and more important based on the current trend of regarding the expansion of government authority and power. Enjoy!

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  36. Pingback: A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part IX – 1 Corinthians 15-16 | Reformedontheweb's Blog

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