Neo-Calvinism: Abraham Kuyper, Criticisms, Part 1

Pronk notes that there certain problems arose with Kuyper’s theology.

Prior to Kuyper the Reformed, while not denying that the church has a task in society, put the emphasis on the salvation of sinners. Preaching for the Old School Calvinists, therefore dealt with the great Biblical themes of repentance — and then not just daily repentance of believers, but also the initial act of repentance on the part of the unconverted in the church — faith, the new birth, justification, sanctification and so on. But with Kuyper a shift in emphasis took place. Not what the Holy Spirit works in sinners’ hearts through the Word, but what Christians should do to redeem society and culture — that became the important thing.

Now, we considered this problem in the earlier posts on the Third and Fourth Great Awakenings. We Christians have a tendency to emphasize either personal salvation or mission to the world. For some reason, Christians struggle to keep these two in balance.

Therefore, in America, we see churches that all about personal evangelism or all about social justice, but virtually none that manage to do both. Of course, among 19th Century Calvinists, many wouldn’t have seen the urgency of evangelism at all, as some would believe that God elects and God saves and our preaching has nothing to do with it.

Back to the Garden

Kuyper believed that the task God gave Adam before the fall is still the task of Christians today. In fact, he says it is really only Christians who are able to carry out this task properly because they have been regenerated by the Spirit of God and restored into the original relationship which was lost through Adam’s fall.

What was that task? Let us read Gen.1:28, “And God blessed them, etc.[and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”] This verse, Kuyper says, sums up God’s real purpose for man. That purpose, ultimately, is not the salvation of sinners, but the redemption of the cosmos. Salvation is but the means to that end. God’s real purpose in saving us is that we will carry out that original command or cultural mandate first given to Adam and Eve.

So important is this mandate for Kuyper and his disciples that it seems to take precedence over the Great Commission. Kuyper believed that Christ is not only the Mediator of redemption but also Mediator of Creation. That means Christ died not only for lost sinners but also for a lost world or cosmos.

To put it still differently, in Kuyper’s view, predestination does not just concern the salvation of the elect but also the restoration of the entire creation. God in predestination focusses His attention on the whole creation so that the decree encompasses all of history and is directed to the end that He will receive the glory from all the works of His hands. In this way, Kuyper felt, one’s attention is not restricted to the work of particular or special grace, but it also extends to that completely different work of God in the realm of common grace.

Now, Paul clearly teaches something very much like this in Romans 8 and other places.

(Rom 8:20-21)  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

The problem that arose appears to be that Kuyper lost his focus on personal evangelism. Further, Kuyper saw our work in redeeming the Creation as a necessary step in bringing the Second Coming —

For us, Kuyper says, it is certain that the Parousia [Second Coming] must bring us not only a change from the militant to the triumphant church … but also that everything that God has hidden in nature and the world must be brought to light before the end can be ushered in.

This is very similar to contemporary post-Millenniallism, which places on the church the burden of preparing the world for Jesus’ return. This is actually the thought behind Alexander Campbell’s naming of his periodical The Millennial Harbinger, as he saw his work in bringing unity to God’s church as a step toward the coming of the Millennial reign of Jesus.

Imputed righteousness

Not many years ago, [neo-Calvinist] B. Zijlstra … wrote that the church is essentially “redeemed humanity restored to its original task assigned to mankind at the beginning,” and that in his view the missionary mandate of Matt. 28 is basically a republication or restatement of the cultural mandate of Gen. 28.

But is this Biblical Christianity? Hardly. The very notion that Christ’s second coming is contingent on the progress we make with our cultural endeavours is preposterous, to put it mildly. If the timing of our Lord’s second coming has anything to do with our activity it is our involvement in missionary work that is emphasized in the NT. As Jesus Himself states in Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” But what about Gen.1:28? Does it have nothing to say to us today? Yes it does. It cannot be denied that here God speaks of a definite task or mission given to man.

But is this so-called cultural mandate still in force in the same way as it was for Adam? Clearly it is not. The very notion of a cultural mandate has a legalistic connotation. It is a term that does not belong in the context of grace and the covenant of grace. When God gave this mandate, if you want to call it that, the fall had not yet taken place. When Adam sinned, however, he was no longer in a position to carry out this command. It was Christ, the second Adam, who took over this responsibility from the first Adam and fulfilled the task assigned to man at the beginning. No, God did not abrogate His original demand. Rather, in Christ He Himself met that demand. By His obedience He has kept the law for us. The result of His saving work is that the character of our work and activity has fundamentally changed. Good works, cultural or otherwise, are now performed by the believer out of gratitude and never out of fear. Any notion, therefore, that our activities, or the lack of them, could either hasten or delay the return of Christ is to be firmly rejected.

For this and other reasons the term cultural mandate should be avoided. As dr. W.H. Velema says, “as a term it does not show a relation to the work of Christ and puts us all the way back to the starting line… Our work takes place after Christ has brought about a decisive turn in world history.” When the apostles urge believers to perform good works they always join the imperative to the indicative. In other words, the command to work is always issued on the basis of Christ’s finished work. All our spiritual activities are grounded in His saving activity. Neo-Calvinists, with their emphasis on cultural, rather than missionary endeavour tend to lose sight of the fact that believers do their work in the sphere and context of Christ’s soteriological work. This is a tragic error which has hindered the progress of the real work of the Gospel.

The logic is, I think, flawed. You see, the argument makes far too much of the doctrine of imputed righteousness, that is, the Reformation notion that we are credited with Jesus’ perfect obedience. While we are certainly credited with Jesus’ obedience on the cross, and while Jesus did live sinlessly, it’s actually quite difficult to find in scripture the notion that we are credited with Jesus’ general obedience. N. T. Wright has called this teaching into question, and I’ve come to agree, as explained in this earlier post.

One problem with imputed righteousness is precisely what we see in this critique of Kuyper — the idea that we don’t have do much as Christians because we’ve been credited with Jesus’ obedience already. This has, at times, produced some truly awful results, such as this true story where a man had been convinced by his preacher that he’d be forgiven if he were to commit mass murder after becoming a Christian — because he’d accepted faith in Jesus as Messiah — and so he went out and committed mass murder!

You see, imputed righteousness, read too literally, can lead to laziness or antinomianism. After all, under this theory, our own works, good or bad, matter not one whit to God. But it’s just not true. Rather, the scriptures are clear that we are saved to do good works (Eph 2:8-10) and that our leaders are called to equip us for works of service (Eph 4:10-12). And while we should certainly recognize that evangelism is among these works of service, that is not the limit of our duties as Christians.

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