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Abraham Kuyper’s Approach to Culture

This entry is part 7 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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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.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Jeremy S Begbie, “Creation, Christ, and Culture in Dutch Neo-Calvinism,” in Christ in Our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World : Essays Presented to Professor James Torrance, ed. Daniel P. Thimell and Trevor A. Hart (Allison, Park, PA: Pickwich, 1989), 126. []
  2. John Frame, The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology (Whitefield Media Productions, 2011), 148n6. For a fuller evaluation of this claim, see Timothy P. Palmer, “The Two-Kingdom Doctrine: A Comparative Study of Martin Luther and Abraham Kuyper,” Pro Rege 27, no. 3 (March 2009): 13–25. []
  3. “School will form itself against school, system against system, world-view against world-view” (Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931], 117). []
  4. “We must distinguish two dimensions in this manifestation of grace: 1. a saving grace, which in the end abolishes sin and completely undoes its consequences; and 2. a temporal restraining grace, which holds back and blocks the effect of sin. The former . . . is in the nature of the case special and restricted to God’s elect. The second . . . is extended to the whole of our human life” (Ibid., 168). []
  5. Abraham Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. Mr. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 194–99. []
  6. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. Mr. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. []
  7. “The institute does not cover everything that is Christian. Though the lamp of the Christian religion only burns within that institute’s walls, its light shines out through its windows to areas far beyond, illumining all the sectors and associations that appear across the wide range of human life and activity. Justice, law, the home and family, business, vocation, public opinion and literature, art and science, and so much more are all illuminated by that light, and that illumination will be stronger and more penetrating as the lamp of the gospel is allowed to shine more brightly and clearly in the church institute” (Kuyper, “Common Grace,” 194). []
  8. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 214. []
  9. “The church as organism may even manifest itself where all personal faith is missing but where nevertheless some of the golden glow of eternal life is reflected on the ordinary facades of the great edifice of human life” (Kuyper, “Common Grace,” 195). []
  10. Ibid., 199. []