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.

Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA


Abraham Kuyper on Scripture, Part 3

This post stands in line with a couple of posts I did over a year ago (Here and Here).

In his The Work of the Holy Spirit, Abraham Kuyper notes that the biblical writers did not wait to start writing scripture until redemption had been fully accomplished and revelation had been fully received.  Rather, revelation grew throughout redemptive history with some writers having different knowledge of revelation than other writers who lived at different times.  All of this, however, does not change the fact that what we have now is the fullness of revelation for this present age.

Kuyper writes:

[A]lthough in the Old Dispensation [i.e., the OT] redemption existed partly already in Scripture, and the Psalmist shows everywhere his devotion thereto, yet Scripture could be used so to a small extent only, and needed constant supplementing by direct revelations and prophecies.  But now, Scripture reveals the whole counsel of God, and nothing can be added to it.  Wo [sic] to him who dares diminish or increase this Book of Life which discloses the world of divine thought!

“The Scripture a Necessity” in The Word of the Holy Spirit.  Pg. 63.

Such an approach helps us to understand theologically the literary additions evident throughout God’s word.  In fact, Kuyper explains that there are two horizons to consider when interpreting a given text; the horizon of the “contemporary generation” and the horizon of “the Church of all ages”:

[T]he Spirit’s preparation and preservation and preservation of Scripture is not subordinate, but prominent with reference to the life of the entire church.  Or to put it more clearly: if prophecy, e.g., aims first to benefit contemporary generations, and secondly to be part of the Holy Scripture that is to minister comfort to the Church of all ages, the latter is of infinitely higher importance.  Hence the chief aim of prophecy was not to benefit the people living at that time, and through Scripture to yield fruit for us only indirectly, but through Scripture to yield fruit for the Church of all ages, and indirectly to benefit the Church of old.

“The Holy Scripture” in The Work of the Holy Spirit. Pg. 59.

I have two thoughts in response.  First, Kuyper does us a great service in reminding us that regardless of how the biblical texts were originally understood, how they are understood now – in the time after they were canonically re-signified and finalized as being part of Christian scripture – is primary and most important.  This does not mean that earlier editions of books (i.e., books not yet edited by later prophetic scribes) can’t teach us about the emphases of the final form of the book.  It does, however, mean that what is canonical now is this present text.  Isaiah 1-66 is canonical for the Christian church, not First Isaiah (Isa 1-39).  Zechariah 1-14 is canonical for the Christian church, not First Zechariah ( Zech 1-8).  It is the present text that is the canonical text for the “church of all ages.”

Second, note that here too while Kuyper tempers, he does not disparage the work of historical criticism.  (I cited an important quote from Kuyper on front at the bottom of this post.)  Though historical critical work cannot provide the exhaustive approach necessary for theological interpretation of the Bible as God’s word to his church, it can be used in a believing manner to assist interpreters in reading these finalized editions.  Confessional scholars – who often conflate what the texts mean with what they meant – do well to consider the literary development of the texts in order to best understand the emphases of their present form.  But in all of this, Kuyper reminds us that the present form of the text is the text that now reveals the whole counsel of God and is of “infinitely higher importance.”


Abraham Kuyper on Scripture, Part 2

This is a continuation of material from the previous post on Kuyper’s approach to the inspiration of God’s word.

Although the Holy Spirit spoke directly to men, human speech and language being no human inventions, yet in writing He employed human agencies.  But whether He dictates directly, as in the Revelation of St. John, or governs the writing indirectly, as with historians and evangelists, the result is the same: the product is such in form and content as the Holy Spirit designed, an infallible document for the Church of God.

Hence the confession of inspiration does not exclude ordinary numbering, collecting of documents, sifting, recording, etc.  It recognizes all these matters which are plainly discernible in Scripture. Style, diction, repetitions, all retain their value.  But it must be insisted that the Scripture as a whole, as finally presented to the Church, as to content, selection, and arrangement of documents, structure, and even words, owes its existence to the Holy Spirit, i.e., that the men employed in this work were consciously or unconsciously so controlled and directed by the Spirit, in all their thinking, selecting, sifting, choice of words, and writing, that their final product, delivered to posterity, possessed a perfect warrant of divine and absolute authority.

“Inspiration,” in The Work of the Holy Spirit, Pgs. 77-78. (Bold emphasis mine.)

Kuyper’s description of the work of the biblical writers (sifting, collecting of documents, etc.) is very similar to expressions used in present day formulations of the organic growth of the biblical text.  That he essentially describes the task of prophetic editing and redacting exhibits remarkable sensitivity to the Bible’s compound nature at the human level.  And yet, whether the biblical writers/editors were conscious or unconscious about what they were doing in their arrangement of the texts, Kuyper insists that everything they did was “controlled and directed by the Spirit.”

That the Scriptures themselves present a number of objections and in many aspects do not make the impression of absolute inspiration does not militate against the other fact that all this spiritual labor was controlled and directed by the Holy Spirit.  For the scripture had to be constructed so as to leave room for the exercise of faith.  It was not intended to be approved by the critical judgment and accepted on this ground.  This would eliminate faith. Faith takes hold directly with the fulness of our personality.  To have faith in the Word, Scripture must not grasp us in our critical thought, but in the life of the soulTo believe in the Scripture is an act of life of which though, O lifeless man! art not capable, except the Quickener, the Holy Ghost, enables thee.  He that caused Holy Scripture to be written is the same that must teach thee to read it. Without Him this product of divine art can not affect thee.

“Inspiration,” Pg. 78.

It seems to me that the things described here by Kuyper are some of the most difficult for believing readers to get their minds around.  After all, if we concede too much to critical assessments of the text, we would seem forced to take a leap of blind faith when affirming the inspiration of the Bible.  To take such an approach, however, is misguided.  Kuyper does not cast this argument in terms of faith vs. reason, but in terms of belief vs. unbelief.  Yes belief that this very Bible is God’s word is rational, but it is not something that fallen humans are willing to admit as rational.  After all, they reject the premise of the argument: that human reason itself is fallen in sin.

Kuyper presents us with what I believe is a helpful model for use when evaluating the finds of historical-critical studies.  Rather than agreeing with the fundamentalists and unbelieving-critics that such textual features are unbecoming of God’s word, believing-critics do better to recognize that the Bible – yes, this very Bible – is God’s word!


Abraham Kuyper on Scripture, Part 1

I was struck by what Abraham Kuyper had to say about the features of the Biblical text and the inspiration of scripture.  The more I read by the Amsterdam theologians, I’m intrigued by their open-mindedness to certain trajectories in biblical studies (especially in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s when critical studies were much less refined than they are today).  While leaving a great deal of room for critical engagement with the difficult features of the Bible, they staunchly affirm the inspiration of that very text.

Kuyper writes:

It does not alter the case that the Holy Scripture shows so many seams and uneven places, and looks different from what we should expect. The chief virtue of this masterpiece was so to enfold God’s thoughts in our sinful life that out of our language they could form a speech in which to proclaim through the ages, to all nations, the mighty words of God.  This masterpiece is finished and lies before us in the Holy Scripture. And instead of losing itself in criticizing these apparent defects, the Church of all ages has received it with adoration and thanksgiving; has preserved it, tasted it, enjoyed it, and always believed to find eternal life in it.

“The Scripture a Necessity,” in The Work of the Holy Spirit, pg. 64.  (Bold emphasis mine.)

It is interesting that Kuyper notes “seams” and “uneven places”; the very things that critical readers address on a daily basis.  But Kuyper does not concede to either the fundamentalists or to the unbelieving-critics by saying that such troublesome things are not becoming of something called “God’s word.” While it may at times look “different from what we should expect,” the problem lies not with God’s word, but with our fundamentalist impulses that attempt to force God’s word into a model that is sensible to us.  Instead, we receive this very word – with all its unevenness – as the word of God and confess that we find life in it.  We do not insist that life can only be given via a Bible with no tensions, seams, and difficulties.

Kuyper goes on to address historical and critical studies of the Bible:

Not as tho critical and historical examination were prohibited.  Such endeavor for the glory of God is highly commendable. But as the physiologist’s search for the genesis of human life becomes sinful if immodest or dangerous to unborn life, so does every criticism of Holy Scripture become sinful and culpable if irreverent or seeking to destroy the life of God’s Word in the consciousness of the Church.

“The Scripture a Necessity,” pg. 64. (Bold emphasis mine.)

The key for Kuyper is that historical-critical study of the Bible is a common-grace enterprise.  Though it can be misused, it only becomes sinful when used to “destroy the life of God’s Word in the consciousness of the Church.”  In fact, Kuyper recognizes that critical approaches can (and indeed ought) to be done by believing-critics Soli Deo Gloria!


Kuyper on Children and the Lord’s Supper

CoverIn his helpful little booklet, The Implications of Public Confessions (trans. Henry Zylstra, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1934]), Abraham Kuyper wrote about the aspects of public confession of faith.  In it he commented on baptized children and the Lord’s Supper: should kids partake?

An infant “is not yet qualified to receive the sacrament of nourishment.  We must remember that the sacrament of the holy supper requires that only he may partake of it who has made his confession and his deeds a matter of personally appreciated responsibility.  Hence, it is inevitable that some years must elapse between these two sacraments in the life of every individual; as many years, in fact, as are required to make his confession and his approach to the Lord’s table a morally responsible action.  The intervening time may not be longer than that and it may not be shorter….”

“The number of those intervening years is not the same for all.  Some are qualified for public confession at sixteen, others at twenty-three years of age….  Irrespective, however, of whether the holy supper be divided from baptism by sixteen years or by twenty-three, the close relationship between the two remains the same.  Throughout those years baptism sounds the plea: Seek the Lord’s holy supper.”

See pages 16-17 for the above quote.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Kuyper on Covenants (Works/Grace) Part III of III

Ending (for now) this series of posts on Kuyper’s clear affirmation and appreciation of the CoW/CoG distinction, we see how Kuyper views pre-fall Adam in contrast to the Christian.  Again, this is taken from The Work of the Holy Spirit (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900).  It should be read with the first two similar posts (parts I & II), though also note it is from a different context in the book (pages 273-4). 

“God’s word teaches the following differences between the two [pre-fall Adam and the Christian]: 1) Adam’s treasure was losable, and that of God’s children is unlosable.  2) The former was to obtain eternal life, while the latter already possess it.  3) Adam stood under the Covenant of Works, and the regenerated under the Covenant of Grace.  These differences are essential, and indicate a difference of status.  Adam did not belong to the ungodly that are justified, but was sinlessly just.  He did not live by an extraneous righteousness which is by faith, as the regenerated, but shone with an original righteousness truly his own.  He lived under the law which says: ‘Do this, and thou shalt live; if not, thou shalt die.'”

“Hence Adam had no other faith than that which comes by ‘natural disposition.’  He did not live out of a righteousness which is by faith, but out of an original righteousness.  The cloud of witnesses in Heb. xi. does not begin with sinless Adam, but with Abel before he was slain.”

Still more: “The fathers have always strongly emphasized this point.  They taught that Adam’s original righteousness was not accidental, supernatural, added to his nature, but inherent in his nature; not another’s righteousness imputed to him and appropriated by faith, but a righteousness naturally his own.  Wherefore Adam needed no substitute; he stood for himself in the nature of his own being.  Hence his status was the opposite of that which constitutes for the child of God the glory of his faith.”

Now he criticizes: “[Some] imprudently teach that sinless Adam lived by the righteousness of Christ.  Let them be careful of the consequences.  Scripture allows no theories which obliterate the difference between the Covenant of Works and that of Grace.”


sunnyside wa

Kuyper on Covenants (Works/Grace) Part II of III

Continuing on the theme of Kuyper and the CoG/CoW distinction, note the following, taken from the same context of the previous post (Part I) (The Work of the Holy Spirit [New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900], 49-50). 

“…The Scripture and the Confession of our fathers emphasize the doctrine of the Covenants; for the difference between the Covenant of Works and of Grace shows the difference between two orders of spiritual things.  They who teach that the new birth merely imparts a higher nature remain under the Covenant of Works.  Theirs is the wearisome toil of rolling the Sisyphus stone up the mountain, even tho[ugh] it be with the greater energy of the higher life.  The Scriptural doctrine of Grace ends this impossible Sisyphus task; it transfers the Covenant of Works from our shoulders to Christ’s, and opens unto us a new order in the Covenant of Grace in which there can be no more uncertainty or fear, loss or forfeit of the benefits of Christ….”

Again, it gets better. “The work of re-creation has this peculiarity, that it places the elect at once at the end of the road.  They are not like the traveler still half way from home, but like one who has finished his journey; the long, dreary, and dangerous road is entirely behind him.  Of course, he did not run that road; he could never have reached the goal.  His Mediator and Daysman traveled it for him and in his stead.  And by mystic union with his Savior it is as tho[ugh] he had traveled the whole distance; not as we reckon, but as God reckons.”

I believe Kuyper here sounds like Vos, Bavinck, and the last half of Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 60.  If you’re not convinced, or if you want to hear more of Kuyper on the CoW/CoG distinction, stay tuned.  There is going to be a part III of this post.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa