The history of Christian approaches to culture clearly enters a stage of transition in the work of Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). VanDrunen argues that Kuyper retained enough of the important categories of two-kingdom theology to be categorized squarely in its line of thought. In fact, even one-kingdom proponents such as Jeremy Begbie acknowledge this, especially citing the fact that Kuyper grounded culture in the created order rather than in redemption.1 Others, however, disagree, arguing that Kuyper moved significantly enough away from two-kingdom thinking, especially with his view of natural law. John Frame, for example, calls VanDrunen’s claim a “very implausible position.”2
Despite this debate, Kuyper at very least serves as a transition figure between typical two-kingdom articulations and more of a transformationalist approach. He certainly articulates several things differently than two-kingdom theologians before him, such as explaining that the antithesis that exists is between worldviews,3 articulating the commonality between kingdoms in terms of “common grace,”4 and differentiating between the church as institution (which is limited to specific ecclesiastical matters) and the church as organism (which encompasses all of life for the Christian and extends to any sphere in which he finds himself).5
Where Kuyper especially begins to blur distinctions between the two kingdoms is with his argument that Calvinism is an entire worldview that applies to every aspect of the Christian’s life. He resembles the two-kingdom doctrine with his idea of “sphere sovereignty,” teaching that each sphere of human activity, including the ecclesiastical and civic, was distinct from every other sphere and exerted no authority over another. But he also argued strongly that Christ exerted Lordship over each sphere. Likely his most famous quote articulates his conviction on this point: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”6
This in itself was no different than Luther and Calvin’s beliefs that God instituted and rules the governments of both kingdoms, but where he begins to be somewhat ambiguous is when he discusses how Christians relate in non-ecclesiastical spheres and the relationship between common grace (which accounts for commonality between kingdoms) and special grace (which specifically involves spiritual matters). Kuyper teaches that when a Christian involves himself in civic or cultural matters, he is operating as the organic church in a realm governed by common grace, yet as a Christian who has been influenced by special grace, he can exert that influence of saving grace even upon otherwise common spheres.7 Carson summarizes Kuyper’s point here:
Because all truth is God’s truth, because nothing we legitimately study is unrelated to Christ, Kuyper felt compelled to demonstrate how Christ’s sovereignty operates in every sphere. At least during the first half of his career, Kuyper pursued these lines while insisting on the distinctiveness of the church, on the uniqueness of the special grace that Christian alone have received. By setting up a Christian university and by establishing a Christian trade union and a Christian political party, all the while underlining the Christ is Lord of all, he was simultaneously insisting that there is unique insight in the Christian revelation and that Christians are mandated to affirm Christ’s Lordship in every sphere. The result is a vision that emphasizes the uniqueness of the church and of what is now often called special revelation, while equally underscoring the importance of what was later called the cultural mandate.8
This allows Kuyper to posit the possibility of a “Christian society,” or at least “Christian” aspects of a society.9 By this he does not mean that every person, or even a majority of persons, in such a society would be Christians, but rather “it means that in such a country special grace in the church and among believers exerted so strong a formative influence on common grace that common grace thereby attained its highest development.”10
VanDrunen sees this way of articulating things as dangerous since it blurs the dual mediatorship of the Son of God that Calvin articulated. By using “Christian,” Kuyper is arguing that that the Son is exerting rulership over the civic sphere as “Christ,” a title that refers to his redemptive role rather than simply his role as creator. This ambiguity, VanDrunen suggests, leads Kuyper’s followers to transition their understanding of the Son’s relationship to culture as one of redemption rather than simply creation. Whether Kuyper was a two-kingdom proponent who articulated some of his beliefs ambiguously or a emerging transformationalist, there is no doubt that how he articulated the relationship between the church and culture significantly influenced future generations and did impact the popularity of the transformationalist approach.
What is particularly interesting in Kuyper’s work is that he is the first in the present survey to discuss “culture” per se, the idea having only recently reached its present form in the work of British anthropologist Edward Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871). Prior to Kuyper, discussions of Christian interaction with unbelievers referred primarily to political, civic, and social issues; Kuyper continues these themes but adds specific reference to culture.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.