In our last blog post, we presented some of the core beliefs regarding Abraham Kuyper’s public theology, which can be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, our allegiance to Him should shape not only the private but also the public aspects of our lives. In Kuyper’s vision, Christ is not just the Lord over ecclesiastical matters, but He is also Lord over public matters like art, science, business, politics, economics, and education. Based on this core conviction, Kuyper served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper, and wrote influential books on theology, politics, and other topics. In recent years a new generation of Calvinists has further developed Kuyper’s original vision of Christ’s lordship over all matters. To understand these recent developments, we must understand neo-Kuyperian theology concerning the relationship between redemptive grace and creation.
Creation and Redemption
In the neo-Kuyperian theological vision, redemptive grace both renews and restores nature. In this vision, God covenanted creation (“nature”) into existence and ordered it by means of His word. At creation, God instructed his image bearers to be fruitful and multiply (interpreted as a social command), till the soil (interpreted as a cultural command), and have dominion (interpreted as a regal command). His image bearers would glorify him by multiplying worshipers, bringing out the hidden potentials of creation, and lovingly managing his world. However, Adam and Eve were seduced by the word that the serpent spoke against God’s word. Since the first couple’s sin, all of humanity has been under the sway of sin.
This original sin can be interpreted as the antithesis to God’s covenant Word. However, more generally, the antithesis is any word spoken against God’s word. It misdirects the human mind and affections by pointing them toward idols rather than toward the one true and living God. So this world is corrupted, but it is not corrupted in its structures, but only in its direction. Consider the words of Bruce Ashford as an explanation of this point:
In other words, sin and evil were not able to corrupt God’s created order structurally or ontologically. Satan and sin are not as powerful as God’s word and therefore cannot destroy creation. They cannot make purely bad what God created originally good. All they can do is misdirect. Thus creation remains good structurally (in its existence and basic order) but has been made bad directionally (as humanity brings out the hidden potentials of creation by building society and culture, but does so in an errant manner, directing it toward idols rather than God).
For these reasons, God sent his Son to restore nature. The salvation provided by the Son is offered to God’s image bearers, but extends beyond them to the whole creation. According to an interpretation of Romans 8:19-22, Christ will liberate creation from the bondage it is now experiencing because of the Fall. One day, He will return to renew and restore his good creation, purifying it of corruption and misdirection, and placing in its midst a majestic city – the New Jerusalem (cf. Revelation 21:1). This New Jerusalem is not simply a heavenly city, but it is thoroughly cultural, characterized by architecture, art, and music. Thus, the metanarrative of Scripture (creation-fall-redemption-consummation) applies not just to the individual Christian, but it appeals to all of creation.
This view of cosmic redemption has two broad implications in this vision. First, since God will liberate creation from its bondage—rather than annihilating it— this affirms that sin did not have the power to corrupt creation ontologically. The created order, even though it has been misdirected, remains God’s good creation. He will renew it and restore it, instead of replacing it.
Second, in this vision, our eternity unfolds in our present universe. This affirms the enduring goodness of the physical and material (i.e. cultural) aspects of our lives. In this vision, God’s redemptive grace is not opposed to nature in that God will completely replace this world with another world. Rather, God accomplishes cosmic redemption by renewing and restoring nature – making it what He always intended it to be. Consider the words of Abraham Kuyper:
For if grace exclusively concerned atonement for sin and salvation of souls, one could view grace as something located and operating outside of nature….But if it is true that Christ our Savior has to do not only with our soul but also with our body…then of course everything is different. We see immediately that grace is inseparably connected with nature, that grace and nature belong together. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 173.
Redirecting the Culture
This vision presents a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. In this vision, believers are called to be transformative or redirective in our social and cultural activities. Within every single vocation that God calls believers, we desire God’s Word to shape our words and activities. Hence, believers inquire about God’s original creational design for a certain activity, then discern the manifold ways it has been misdirected by sin, and finally find ways to redirect that activity or realm towards Christ.
This is done out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of obedience, and a matter of witness. Since Christ’s lordship extends to all of creation, then it must extend to all cultural activities. Thus, Christ’s saving Lordship should be conveyed not only by our words but by our cultural deeds. And we do so as a preview of Christ’s coming Kingdom, when he will renew this heavens and earth. God’s redemption and restoration transforms us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives, and redirects our lives comprehensively. Kuyper writes,
In short, everything is his. His kingdom is over everything….His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, of all spheres, of all creatures. On Kuyper, 147-148.
Thus every act of obedience—whether in prayer or in politics, in evangelism or in economics—is a part of Christian mission, a manifestation of kingdom work. Because the antithesis is operative as a misdirecting agent in every part of creation and culture, we should draw upon God’s thesis (i.e. God’s word) to redirect all activities in our lives.
Redirecting Public Theology
Most importantly for the sake of our discussion, this vision has a distinctive view of public theology. If God’s sovereign authority holds for every sphere of life and if his word is relevant to every sphere, then politics and the public square are no exception. Kuyper exemplified this conviction in his own life. He drew upon the “grace restores nature” framework in order to shape his understanding of politics and the public square.
First, this vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian should do academic scholarship. It views every academic discipline as an opportunity to view God’s world through the lens of his Word. Kuyper writes,
He who lives from, and consistently within, the orbit of Revelation confesses that all Sovereignty rests in God and can therefore proceed only from Him; that the Sovereignty of God has been conferred absolute and undivided upon the man-Messiah; and that…every…sphere of life recognizes an authority derived from him. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 468.
A Christian scholar who believes that redemptive grace restores nature will recognize that his field of study, has an authority derived from Christ. His discipline operates within a sphere that has a unique God-given principle at its core, shaping the discipline’s goal as well as its appropriate parameters. It is within this framework that Christian higher education can thrive.
Second, this vision strongly encourages believers to approach any aspect of public life by discerning God’s creational design for that aspect (thesis), discerning the various ways in which these aspects have been corrupted and misdirected by sin (antithesis), and working to redirect them toward Christ. Similar to the views of Luther and Calvin, our engagement in the public sphere cannot and should not be done in reliance upon general revelation alone. Christians should allow our specifically Christian beliefs and commitments to inform our views on social, cultural, and political issues.
Third, this vision causes us to avoid an improperly coercive relationship between church and state. Kuyper’s answer to the church-state relationship was the sphere sovereignty concept discussed in our last post. Kuyper argued that God ordered creation in such a way that there are multiple spheres (such as art, science, religion, and politics). God is sovereign over the spheres and each sphere exists directly under God’s authority (rather than under the church’s authority).
Fourth, this vision makes a distinction between the institutional church and the organic church, and applies that distinction to public square activities. The church, as an institution, gathers weekly to preach the word and to administer the sacraments. However, the church is also an organism – a covenantal body of believers who scatter throughout society and culture during the week. While the institutional church may have indirect influence on politics and the public square by shaping its members into Christian disciples, it should not exert direct influence. However, the organic church—the covenanted members of the church—may exercise direct influence in politics and the public square, by applying their discipleship to public matters when opportunity arises and expertise allows.
Much more could be said here, but the “grace restores nature” framework provides the theological foundation for discussion Kuyper’s (and neo-Kuyperian) public theology. There are many who interpret this vision as “redeeming the culture” or “transforming the culture”. However, this would be a mischaracterization of the views of many neo-Kuyperians. Many neo-Kuyperians understand that any cultural transformation will be neither comprehensive nor enduring, until the day when Christ Jesus transforms the world. All of these activities are done out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of witness and obedience, and in the hopes that the Christian community can provide a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom. Kuyper applied this vision in a very helpful way to politics and the public square. He emphasized God’s sovereignty over every sphere of culture, including church and state. He provided a way for church and state to relate to one another properly, without one domineering the other. He sought to avoid the twin extremes of a naked square on the one hand, or a theocracy on the other. Kuyper grasped one great truth—that Christ’s lordship is universal—and sought to apply it wisely and consistently to life on this earth. And from that we can all benefit.