Kuyper on Art, Religion, and Sphere Sovereignty

I’ve been thinking about how the arts fit into the relationship between Christ and culture and came across this interesting quote by Abraham Kuyper:

Hence there is no question that, simply as an involuntary result of its opposition to the Hierarchy of Rome, Calvinism should at the same time have encouraged the emancipation of art.  On the contrary, it demanded this liberation and was bound to effect it, within its own circle, as a consequence of its world- and life-view.  The world after the fall is no lost planet, only destined now to afford the Church a place in which to continue her combats; and humanity is no aimless mass of people which only serves the purpose of giving birth to the elect.  On the contrary,the world now, as well as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God, and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation, here on earth, a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God.  To this end He has ordained for this humanity all sorts of life-utterances, and among these, art occupies a quite independent place.  Art reveals ordinances of creation which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.  She is a plant that grows and blossoms upon her own root, and without denying that this plant may have required the help of a temporary support, and that in early times the Church lent this prop in a very excellent way, yet the Calvinistic principle demanded that this plant of earth should at length acquire strength to stand alone and vigorously to extend its branches in every direction.  And thus Calvinism confessed that, inasmuch as the Greeks had first discovered the laws by which the growth of the art-plant is governed, they therefore remain entitled to bind every further growth and every new impulse of art to their first, their classical development, not for the sake of stopping short with Greece, or of adopting her Paganistic form without criticism.  Art, like Science, cannot afford to tarry at her origin, but must ever develop herself more richly, at the same time purging herself of whatsoever had been falsely intermingled with the earlier plant.  Only, the law of her growth and life, when once discovered, must remain the fundamental law of art for ever; a law, not imposed upon her from without, but sprung from her own nature.  And so, by loosening every unnatural tie, and cleaving to every tie that is natural, art must find the inward strength required for the maintenance of her liberty.  Calvin therefore does not estrange art, science, and religion, from one another; on the contrary, what he desires is that all human life shall be permeated by these three vital powers together.  There must be a Science which will not rest until it has thought out the entire cosmos; a Religion which cannot sit still until she has permeated every sphere of human life; and so also there must be an Art which, despising no single department of life adopts, into her splendid world, the whole of human life, religion included.

Lectures on Calvinism, pgs. 162-63. (Bold emphasis added)

Much to chew on here.  I find the distinctions Kuyper makes in the bolded sections fascinating.  He notes that though many cultural activities originate in pagan cultural spheres, there is a need to purge those according to the truth of religion of various “paganistic” forms, retaining only those things which are truly a part of their essential nature.  I find it interesting too to catch a glimpse into the sort-of overarching role that religion plays among the spheres.

Though common-grace and general revelation play in important role in understanding a given sphere, ultimately these must not be allowed to be autonomous from revealed religion.  Thus the sovereignty of the individual spheres is not an absolute or unqualified sovereignty.  God’s word does speak to – even if only indirectly – the contents of a given sphere.  And yet, as Kuyper notes, scripture does not bring everything in creation to light.  Art reveals “ordinances” that scripture has no interest in revealing.  It seems to me that Kuyper manages to affirm robustly both the antithesis, and common grace.  Oftentimes, one simply gets collapsed into the other.

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Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

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