Neo-Calvinism: Abraham Kuyper, Introduction to His Thought

These posts will be built around a lecture given by Rev. C. Pronk on neo-Calvinism to the Student Society of the Free Reformed Churches of North America.

For Kuyper the domain of Calvinism was much broader than what most people in his time understood by it. His contemporaries in Reformed circles saw Calvinism as basically an ecclesiastical and confessional movement [correct church order and correct doctrine — sound familiar?]. Reformed or Calvinistic for them meant believing in the depravity of man and his absolute dependence on God for salvation. In other words, they stressed the doctrines of grace or the so-called Five Points of Calvinism in opposition to Arminians and Modernists who denied these doctrines.

Kuyper saw it as his mission in life to convince his fellow Reformed believers that Calvinism was much more than that. It was an all-encompassing world-and-life view, he insisted, which enables us to understand and make sense of reality. Our task as Christians, he said, is to bring the principles of Calvinism to bear upon the world so as to influence and change it, redeeming and claiming it for Christ to whom the whole created order belongs.

The key-concept of Calvinism, according to Kuyper, is the sovereignty of God over the whole cosmos in all its spheres. This Divine sovereignty is reflected in a three-fold human sovereignty, namely in the State, in Society and in the Church.

Kuyper was a TULIP Calvinist. And he wrestled with the same problem we see in modern evangelical and fundamentalist churches — the tendency to define our Christianity exclusively in terms of “going to heaven when we die.” Thus, we argue salvation issues endlessly and we focus on evangelism, but we don’t see our Christianity as deeply influencing other areas of life.

Though he respected God-fearing folks … , he realized that their faith was too inward directed and that they had to be brought out of their religious and cultural isolation. They needed to let their light shine and take seriously their task as Christians in the world, while still showing that they were not of the world.

How did Kuyper convince and persuade his religious constituency? He did so by teaching two seemingly contradictory doctrines, namely those of the antithesis and common grace. The word antithesis is made up of anti, meaning against, and thesis which means proposition, theory or statement. Antithesis, then, means taking position against beliefs held by one’s opponents e.g., in the area of religion and philosophy. According to Kuyper there exists a basic “antithesis” between the church and the world. The redeemed live out of one principle — love for God — and all others live out of the opposite principle, enmity of God, however this might be expressed.

Kuyper saw the line between the church and the world as being about much more than being saved and being lost. Rather, the church was called to a life of active love, whereas the world was infected with enmity toward God.

[Common grace] is the idea that in addition to special or saving grace which is given only to God’s elect, there is also a grace which God bestows on all men. Whereas special grace regenerates men’s hearts, common grace (1) restrains the destructive process of sin within mankind in general and (2) enables men, though not born again, to develop the latent forces of the universe and thus make a positive contribution to the fulfillment of the cultural mandate given to man before the Fall.

Because all men share in this common grace by virtue of the image of God left in them, Christians can and should work together with unbelievers towards improving living conditions, fighting poverty and promoting social justice for all. Besides, Kuyper argued, common grace enables us to recognize and appreciate all that is good and beautiful in the world and allows us to enjoy God’s gifts with thanksgiving. Therefore Christians should be actively involved in the arts and sciences and thus in the development of culture. In this way Kuyper challenged the Reformed community to “purge themselves of their ‘pietistic dualisms,’ their separation of Sunday from the workweek, of the spiritual from the physical — in theological terms, of nature from grace” (James Bratt).

Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace has been called the linchpin of his entire work and thought. By skilfully combining it with the doctrine of the antithesis, he reassured those who were concerned to preserve the difference between church and world, while on the other hand he also satisfied intellectuals within the Reformed camp who appreciated at least some aspects of culture.

Now, I would refer to this “common grace” as the fact that all men are created in God’s image, and while we are all fallen, we aren’t totally fallen. Therefore, even the lost may well share the church’s concerns with poverty or the common good. On the other hand, because the lost don’t have the Spirit and haven’t committed to the Lordship of Jesus, there will inevitably be points where the church and the world must go in different directions.

And I’d agree that Christianity sometimes slips into a modern Gnosticism where we draw too dark of a line between the spiritual and the worldly. After all, God made all seven days of the week, God made all men — the saved and the lost — and God made the government, the creation, and the family. Nothing is outside of God’s sovereignty, and therefore nothing is outside the concern of the church.

[T]he world is not the result of human effort but the fruit of divine grace. But not only that, common grace also showed that such institutions as the government and the law, the arts and sciences were not just products of grace but means of grace — instruments whereby God restrained sin and enabled man to develop creation as He had originally intended.

And this is, I think, also true. You see, the contemporary church flees both the arts and the sciences. The church flees the arts because artists are often not Christian and because we tend to see Christianity as being all about getting certain intellectual truths right. We fail to see that we worship a creative Being, who is best worshiped creatively.

And we flee science because our faith is weak and so we fear that science will destroy our faith. But if God really created the heavens and the earth, then science will declare the glory of God.

Study your history. Science has rid the planet of some of the worst of all diseases. Science has given us a level of prosperity that even the kings of old would envy. Science is therefore an instrument of God’s grace — whereby God allows his people to be blessed in his creation. But we refuse to give God the glory.

It is the idea that in addition to special or saving grace which is given only to God’s elect,
there is also a grace which God bestows on all men. Whereas special grace regenerates
men’s hearts, common grace (1) restrains the destructive process of sin within mankind in
general and (2) enables men, though not born again, to develop the latent forces of the
universe and thus make a positive contribution to the fulfillment of the cultural mandate
given to man before the Fall.
Because all men share in this common grace by virtue of the image of God left in them,
Christians can and should work together with unbelievers towards improving living
conditions, fighting poverty and promoting social justice for all. Besides, Kuyper argued,
common grace enables us to recognize and appreciate all that is good and beautiful in the
world and allows us to enjoy God’s gifts with thanksgiving. Therefore Christians should be
actively involved in the arts and sciences and thus in the development of culture.
In this way Kuyper challenged the Reformed community to “purge themselves of their
‘pietistic dualisms,’ their separation of Sunday from the workweek, of the spiritual from the
physical-in theological terms, of nature from grace” (James Bratt).
Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace has been called the linchpin of his entire work and
thought. By skilfully combining it with the doctrine of the antithesis, he reassured those who
were concerned to preserve the difference between church and world, while on the other
hand he also satisfied intellectuals within the Reformed camp who appreciated at least
some aspects of culture.
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21 Responses

  1. Jay,
    Great post. Thanks for pointing out that many/most Calvinists understand Calvinism as “an all-encompassing world-and-life view” based on the underlying principle, that God is sovereign over all his creation. There is nothing that man or Satan can do to ultimately frustrate his will.

    When speaking about common grace you said:
    “I would refer to this “common grace” as the fact that all men are created in God’s image, and while we are all fallen, we aren’t totally fallen. Therefore, even the lost may well share the church’s concerns with poverty or the common good…”
    Of course we agree here but we need to understand how Calvinists understand totally fallen or depraved. I simply wish to make a point about total depravity – the “T” in TULIP. Total depravity is frequently presented by non Calvinists as saying it means that man is as bad as he could be. Of course that is a caricature. Total depravity means that the totality or all aspects of man’s being has been touched by sin to the point that he will not choose God unaided by the Holy Spirit. His intellect, his will, his health, his emotions etc. have all been touched by sin. I could be worse than I was/am. I had the potential to be a Hitler or Pol Pot. but most fallen men do not exhibit their depravity to such extreme degrees.

    So how far did man fall? I have used a simple illustration as follows – obviously it will not be precise in every way, but it seems to communicate to CofC folk I know.
    1. Did I fall into a ditch alongside the road and pull myself up out of the muck by my bootstraps and walk home and talk a shower?
    2. Did I fall off a 100 foot cliff where I lay wounded and unconscious at the bottom. After a while I came to and began the tough process of climbing back up the cliff. It was so hard but I did all I could. There were places I simply could not do it and God helped me or even carried me through some of those roughest spots and eventually I made it to the top again. OR
    3. Did I fall into the abyss where I was utterly, hopelessly and helplessly lost, but God saved me.

    Calvinist opt for number three. Others generally do not. I do know of a few Arminians that do opt for number three, but they seem to be the exception.

    I know it is not your purpose to discuss the five points here but since it does get mentioned I couldn’t resist adding my comment. No response is anticipated.
    Peace,
    Randall

  2. Actually the T stands for “total hereditary depravity” – we are “fallen in body and soul” because we have inherited the original sin of Adam. Few have an issue with total depravity – Romans 3:23 nor with its physical as well as spiritual effects Romans 8:20-21. The debate is over the exact hereditary nature of that depravity. That we inherited the physical effects of sin – death, disease, et al, is undeniable. The question that remains is “did we inherit the sin itself along with the guilt of that sin or did we inherit the propensity to sin and thereby the guilt of sin is our own?”

    For fun, here are the rest…

    U – “unconditional election” – the saved are chosen because god wants to choose them and not because of some merit of their own.

    L – “limited atonement” – Christ’s death was only for the elect not for everyone.

    I – “irresistable grace” – the called cannot resist their calling.

    P – “perseverance of the saints” – once saved always saved. Even if a believer falls away, such a falling is only temporary.

    Of these statements only “U” would be unquestionably accepted by the majority of the frequent posters here. Also it should be noted that none of these ideas or concepts originated with Calvin or his followers but have been debated points for most of the history of the Church. The TULIP was not designed to be a tool of Calvinistic propogation but was crafted to be a convenient debating guide for use against the Arminians.

    Side note – I have yet to meet a “pure” Calvinist who agrees with every one of these points.

  3. A quick check of my Moody’s Handbook of Theology supports Randall’s definition of the doctrine of depravity. The term “total hereditary depravity” (defined by Todd) combines the doctrine of depravity and the doctrine of imputed sin. It has been helpful to me understand these as distinct doctrines.

  4. Thanks for the sharing your perspective. I don’t recognize your name so I don’t know how familiar you may be with Jay and many of his readers that comment here. This is a Church of Christ blog and nearly everyone has close connections (mostly likely a member) of the CofC. Therefore I would suggest that very few of the people that comment here would accept even one of the five points of TULIP – (which I believe were identified in response to the five points of Arminianism following the Dutch Remonstrance).

    Nearly everyone on this blog accepts DAISY rather than TULIP.
    Peace,
    Randall

  5. I agree with your statement (Jay) “Now, I would refer to this “common grace” as the fact that all men are created in God’s image, and while we are all fallen, we aren’t totally fallen.” I understand the context in which you said that not to mean that a lost man can assist in some way with his own redemption.

    By “Total Depravity” (which is inherited in my view) many Calvinists do not believe unsaved man is as bad as he can possibly be but rather that he is as depraved as he can be. It speaks of his total inability to put himself in good standing with God. I think we all agree that the lost man is not seeking after God, has not appitite for the things of God, they are foolishness to him. Depravity, Calvinism is not in the context of human society or morality, but in the context of relationship to God.

    Inherited? Absolutely. “…who are by NATURE children of wrath”. Very small children must be taught to do good, doing bad things comes as standard equipment. Of course they are not in danger of hell but just as soon as they are old enough to know right from worng they will do wrong things on purpose with forethought. That sets them at odds with God and classifies us all as “depraved” as related to God and His righteous demands of holiness.

    Royce

  6. I’ve never been comfortable with Calvin’s view of the church or Hobbes’ view of the state, but if you put them together, you’ve got pretty much the best Sunday comic strip of all time.

  7. I myself am a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, seventh in an unbroken line of baptism from Barton Stone, by training one of the righteous, by inclination one of the irritatingly self-righteous. This blog is a part of my morning and evening routine. I post on average once or twice a week, more or less consistently depending upon the topic of discussion. If you wish I shall present my curriculum vitae to the credentials committee. (Please, oh please be chuckling at least.)

    I was trying to point out that most posters here would agree with the concept of unconditional grace – we are saved by God’s work, not by our own. I do believe most of the posts I have read here over the past two years have supported that concept.

    As for the rest of the tulip, I don’t think most of us would agree with them as stated as they tend to represent merely a portion of the biblical picture not a complete one. I was merely providing them because they had not yet been stated and will undoubtedly come in handy eventually in this discussion.

    As for THP or TP I’ll have to wait until I get my library unpacked to get my source. (Moving and don’t yet know where to – anybody need a slightly used semi-progressive pulpit minister?)

  8. Hi,

    You might be interested in these resources I have put up on Abraham Kuyper:
    http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/kuyper.htm

    Blessings,

    Steve

  9. Todd,
    I did not mean to question your CofC credentials and please forgive me for not recognizing your name.

    I was/am surprised that you believe that most that read this blog believe in unconditional grace. It is my opinion that most that read this blog believe man must meet and maintain several conditions IN ORDER TO (caps for emphasis only) receive and maintain themselves in a state of grace. That has been the CofC tradition since before my birth in the middle part of the 20th century.

    I acknowledge that even in the CofC I have heard sermons on God’s unconditional love for his people – last time at least five years ago. However, when pressed most will back well away from the unconditional part of it.

    During Sunday School classes I have led I have asked the class what we must do to be a recipient of God’s unconditional love and gotten lists as long as my arm. Definitionally, if a person has to meet any condition then the love/grace is not unconditional. So it is simply an inconsistency taught in a few CofCs. Also, I know only a very few that would affirm the total depravity.

    Therefore, I must maintain that most in the CofC hold to DAISY rather than TULIP.
    Peace,
    Randall

  10. I do not at all disagree with your assessment my dear Randall, I would merely move the argument of the necessity of works to the “Perseverance of the Saints” category as opposed to the “Unconditional Grace” category.

    Perhaps my difficulty is I am looking at TULIP as a theological progression –
    our state,
    God’s response,
    its effect,
    its methods,
    our new state –
    as opposed to a theological state where all elements are functioning equally accross the life of the believer at all times. i.e.

    TULIP would present the following faith journey:
    1. We begin broken and fallen,
    2. God provides special grace to save us based on His love for His creation and not our own worthiness,
    3. That solution is limited to those who are the called,
    4. The called must come when called, and
    5. Those who have received that special grace are eternally secure.

    1 does not continue to be true – because of 2-4 we are no longer fallen but regenerate.
    5 is true because 2-4 have made us regenerate.
    If 5 is not true (because the believer appears to remain unregenerate) then 3 and 4 have worked together to exclude 2 and therefore the subject remains at 1.
    That at least is my understanding of the systematic application of the TULIP.

    (To be fair – even the TULIP undermines the concept of U accross the board as the individual’s salvation depends upon God’s calling that particular individual and saving grace is “special” grace not “common.” Therefore the unconditional can only apply to God’s initial decision to save mankind from sin no tto its application to the “elect.”)

    Now for clarity please provide us a breakout of DAISY so we can clearly compare apples to bananas.

    God bless, and let the games continue.

  11. The “P” in TULIP for me is not “Perseverance of the Saints” but rather “Perserverance of the Holy Spirit”.

    Why do we persevere (obey)? Because “It is God who works in you both to WILL and to DO for His good pleasure”. (Phillipians 2:13)

    We who are justified obey by God’s design. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

    “God prepared beforehand that we should….” New Covenant living because of the circumcision of Christ cutting away the flesh and replacing it with a new heart with God’s law written upon it. This grace gift teaches us to say NO to unrighteousness.

    Who then can claim “I did it!” “I performed well enough to get into God’s grace” (or stay in it)? Boasting is excluded.

    Royce

  12. Todd,
    Thanks for the reply and the explanation. I am happy to see that you place so much emphasis on God’s action in our salvation. It appears that we share that point of view.

    My previous was not intended to say what you believe about salvation, but rather how the CofC has viewed how we get/stay saved. The five finger preaching many of us grew up with placed all the emphasis on what WE do rather that what God does. So I still think the CofC in a very broad sense holds tightly to DAISY rather than TULIP.

    So what is DAISY? I was hoping you would ask! We are all familiar with TULIP and you even discussed the acronym in an earlier comment. The semi-Pelagians aslo have a flower and it is the Daisy in stead of TULIP. To be very specific – pick up a daisy blossom and hold it in your left hand between your thumb and forefinger. Now with your right hand begin to pluck off the petals one at a time while repeating the following words: He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me, He loves me not …. 😉
    Peace,
    Randall

  13. Oh Randall, ROFL!

    BTW this slightly used semi-progressive is no longer available. Thanks and praise God.

  14. I guess I am the only one of Jay’s regular readers who would disagree with all of Calvinism.

    Calvinism comes with a built-in dichotomy. In an effort to uphold God’s sovereignty (which is certainly valid) it claims that God solely decides who to save without any input from his creation. This leads to the dilemma: if God loves the whole world (John 3:16), why does he refuse to save it? Why would the atonement be limited if he desires all men to be saved? This is what lead many leading Calvinists of past generations to the eventual conclusion that God will save everyone (universalism). To believe otherwise means God does not love his entire creation.

    To say that a man (or woman) must show some interest or initiative does not negate the sovereignty of God, rather it shows how it works. God decided on what basis he would accept mankind. His choice was faith. To say that God causes faith with no input from the person leads us right back to the question, why isn’t everyone saved?

    Regarding depravity, I believe it is a mistake to teach that we are all born sinners. Rather, I would suggest that what is more accurate is to say that we are born spiritually dead (unconnected to the Holy Spirit).

    We are not born with our conscience telling us “do what is sin.” When we are born our conscience urging us “do what is right.” The problem is that since we are born unconnected from the Holy Spirit, we try to come up with what is good on our own and come to many faulty conclusions. When we plug into the Holy Spirit at baptism, suddenly our conscience knows what is right, it no longer has to guess.

    There are a lot of things I don’t agree with anymore that were standard CoC doctrine but this is one where I believe we’ve hit the nail on the head. Calvinism, in it’s honest efforts to emphasize God’s sovereignty, has left us either with universalism or a God who only loves part of his creation.

  15. 2. God provides special grace to save us based on His love for His creation and not our own worthiness

    If God loves everyone (and he does), why only special grace? Why not make grace available to all?

    If you love all your children — unconditionally — how do you elect some to live and some to die? How would electing only some of your children show your glory? It would certainly show your sovereignty, but not your glory, much less your love.

    It is argued that they all deserve death. But then why save any? If saving a few shows God’s glory, why doesn’t saving even more show his glory all the more?

  16. I like “DAISY,” as it’s very apt as to what I grew up with. It is not, however, the only alternative to Calvinism.

  17. Thanks, Joe.

    PS to all — Is Neo-Calvinism not worth discussing?

  18. I think Neo-Calvinism as a concept is fascinating . . . but, then again, I also think that Post-Millennialism is fascinating. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to buy into either of them. 😉

  19. Jay,
    Of course the confusion here is in saying that God loves everyone the same, or that he loves all unconditionally. In scripture we read of Jesus speaking to some and saying they are of their father, the devil. All through scripture we see God making choices for one and against the other. (Romans 9 is a really good example of this.) We should be careful not to confuse the US constitution and the intellectual currents of then and now with the scriptures.
    Peace,
    Randall

  20. This is where an honest study of Romans 9 comes in: “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” (verse 22)

    Knowing a bit about the crowd here, I would say that most, if not all, have enjoyed a study of Romans 9 in the past, and might even now be reaching for a favorite commentary on it. What I mean by “honest” is being prepared to say, “If God does create some for destruction, so be it. It’s His world, His story, His plan. I’m ok with that.”

    We will not be able to understand most of what God does, or what He decides to do while in our mortal forms. The good news is, this understanding is not necessary for completing the mission.

    In the parable of the sower, we’re told that we have a field. The road, rocks, and thorns are each lessons in ignoring distractions that look like positive results. No farmer in his right mind cares for those three areas. He concentrates on the field that he plowed, and everything going on inside of that field’s borders.

    Each man of God has a field, with boundaries. The boundaries will hopefully increase over time (he who is faithful with little…). If the Holy Spirit is moving you to work your field, there will be increase. It is wise to ignore the possibilities outside those borders – i.e., “Why would God let the seed grow in the rocks and thorns, but not let it be part of the harvest? Why would He let a bird take what would otherwise grow?” Or stated another way, “Why does God’s field have to have borders (limited number of people saved)? If the Word is so powerful that it can grow anywhere, why not let it (and save everybody)?”

    Interestingly, though, God makes it clear in Hebrews (both 8 and 10, I think) that the flaw in the slaw of the Old Law was the people. So the New Covenant would not depend on people being able to carry out the Law, but on God’s ability to “write it on their hearts”. So the idea that the number of people saved being limited because the people refuse to choose to obey is not a complete explanation as to why God would save some and not others.

    God has put boundaries on His field. It is a deep mystery, indeed.

  21. I don’t recall arguing from the Declaration of Independence (the Constitution says nothing of all men being created equal). I’m quite comfortable arguing from John 3:16 and —

    (2 Pet 3:9) The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

    (1 Tim 2:3-4) This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

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