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Christian Politics according to Abraham Kuyper

By Irving Hexham

[First Published in CRUX, Vol. XIX, No. 1, March, 1983:2-7]


Over the last few years evangelical Christians in North America have undergone a remarkable political transformation. Until about ten years ago, many evangelicals were convinced that religion and politics did not mix and should not be mixed. Today, however, many believe that Christianity and politics cannot be separated.

The majority of the newly politicized evangelicals are fundamentalist supporters of the New Christian Right. A small minority are on the radical left. What is surprising about this development is that some leaders on both left and right trace their political thought to the work of the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). It may therefore be helpful to take a look at his life and his political thought, in order to seek to understand something of the roots of the contemporary evangelical political movement. The latter is found most recently stated in the Stone Lectures, regarded by Kuyper as an authoritative statement of his views The Stone Lectures were delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898 and are published under the title Lectures on Calvinism (Amsterdam, Hoocker and Wormser Ltd., 1898).

In addition to discussing politics Kuyper also includes in his Lectures on Calvinism his views on religion, art and science. By becoming familiar with Kuyper's arguments in this monograph, readers should be in a position to evaluate the conservative politics of writers like R.J. Rushdooney, Tim LaHaye and Francis Schaeffer, as well as the radical thought of groups like the Toronto-based Committee for Justice and Liberty - all of whom owe an intellectual debt to Kuyper.

Kupyer - The Man

Abraham Kuyper was born 29 October 1837. His father was a Dutch Reformed Church minister who preached a watery version of evangelicalism. As a student Kuyper attended the Middleburg Gymnasium and Leyden University, where he gained the highest academic honours. After receiving his doctorate in theology in 1863, he was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. His first parish was the small northern fishing village of Beesd. Here he encountered what he regarded as backward, ignorant parishioners steeped in traditional Calvinist doctrines. In attempting to educate these folk and to enlighten them to the truths of the modern world, Kuyper was himself converted from the advanced theological liberalism of his university training to a living faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. As a result of this deeply emotional experience he re-evaluated his theology and returned to Calvinist orthodoxy.

In 1867 he moved from Beesd to Utrecht and in 1870 to Amsterdam. During these years he developed a comprehensive world-and-life view to express his living faith and Calvinist convictions In 1869 he met Green van Prinsterer, a fellow Calvinist, who had founded a small Calvinist grouping in the Mitch parliament based upon what van Prinsterer called "anti-revolutionary principles". Kuyper supported van Prinsterer's ideals and helped found the first modern Dutch political party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party.

After two years as editor of De Standard, a daily newspaper, Kuyper entered parliament to represent the new party. In 1880 he founded the Free University of Amsterdam. Due to disagreements with the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church, Kuyper led a cessation movement in 1896 to found his own independent Reformed Church. The following year his political activities saw fruit in constitutional reforms and the extension of the franchise to many people, including members of his party, who up till then lacked the vote. These changes led to an electoral victory that brought the Anti-Revolutionaries to power in 1889 with a small majority.

Several years later, in 1891, Kuyper began a series of attacks upon capitalism in which he pleaded for a form of Christian socialism. As a result the right-wing of his party broke away to form the Christian Historical Party in 1893-94. It was not until 1901 that Kuyper's Anti-Revolutionary Party gained undisputed power in parliament, and Kuyper became Prime Minister, a post he held until 1905 when he was defeated at the polls after bitter labour disputes and revolutionary ferment by socialist opponents. He retired from active politics in 1913 and died seven years later in 1920.

Kuyper's Christian Perspective

Declaring conservatism dead and liberalism dying, Kuyper sought to re-create a Christian perspective on politics and society that would form the basis for Christian social action. This he envisaged as an integral part of a Christian world-and-life view based upon the Scriptures and their interpretation within the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition. Although he wrote profusely in Dutch on theology, art, politics, education and a host of other topics, only a few of his writings are available in English translations. The most comprehensive statement of his position in English is to be found in the previously mentioned Stone Lectures. The remainder of this article will consist of an exposition and critique of Kuyper's views as set out in these lectures.


For Kuyper Calvinism is "a theory of ontology, of ethics, of social happiness, and of human liberty, all derived from God" (p. 9). He notes that unlike Lutherans, Calvinists did not include the name of Calvin in the church denominations they founded, but preferred to call themselves Christian Reformed. Hence he says Calvinists have been known by many names in different countries, and adds, "it may be said that the entire field which in the end was covered by the Reformation, so far as it was not Lutheran, and not Socinian, was dominated in the principle by Calvinism. Even the Baptists first applied for shelter at the tents of the Calvinists" (p. 11). Thus the difference between the centre and the circumference could vary greatly and produce many different types of Calvinist organization and expression, but essentially, all "such general systems of life" revolve around three fundamental relationships. These relationships are 1) our relation to God; 2) our relation to men; 3) our relation to the world" (p. 16).

As examples of what he means, Kuyper argues that Paganism is a life-system that worships God in the creature. This worship results in a distortion of man's other relationships by allowing some men to become demi-gods and thus creating caste systems in society. At the same time, too high an estimate is placed an the idea of nature, which leads to a deification of the world. Kuyper offers similar interpretations of Islam, Romanism and Modernism, all of which he contrasts with Calvinism. It is in Calvinism alone, he argues, that one can find the right balance between these vital relationships.

According to Kuyper's understanding of Calvinism, God enters into immediate fellowship with his creature, Man. This, Kuyper declares, is the true meaning of the doctrine of predestination. So, according to this doctrine, our entire human life is placed immediately before Cod. ensuring, as a result, the equality of all men before God and with each other (p. 18). The world itself is to be honoured not because it is divine, but because it is a divine creation - the handiwork of God. Practically, this means for the Christian that "the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and Instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position of life.... Thus the puritanic sobriety went hand in hand with the recognition of the entire life of the world. . ." (p. 31).

Sphere Sovereignty

The third lecture in the series is entitled "Calvinism and Politics". Here we find a brief, but dense outline of Kuyper's political theory distilled from his great work, Ons Programme (Our Program, 1878). He argues that the determinative principle for Calvinist political theory is "the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos" (p. 99). From this statement of principle he deduces three realms of sovereignty; the State, Society and the Church. He then refers to these realms or areas of relationship as integral wholes, which he calls "spheres". In this way he speaks about his political principle as the application of the principle of "sphere sovereignty" to politics (p. 116).

The State

The first application of this notion is to the State. Kuyper does not define what he means by the State, but assumes that his hearers are in agreement with him as to how the State is to be understood. What he seems to mean by "the State" is civil government as recognized both by the citizens of a country and by foreign powers.

Mankind, Kuyper argues, is organically related by blood so that one humanity exists throughout all time. But because of sin and the Fall, Man's original unity has been fractured, and political life has become a necessity.

Had there been no Fall, there would have been no need for the establishment of the structures of the State. Instead, all men would be governed through family relationships. Thus politics and the State are unnatural developments in human history, the State being a mechanical structure imposed upon the natural organic relationships that bind men together. "God has instituted magistrates, by reason of sin" (p. 102). Therefore, from the viewpoint of God's original creation the State ought not to exist, but in the light of the Fall it must exist to restrain evil and make life in a fallen world tolerable.

Kuyper rejects all theories that imply a social contract as tire basis of society because these are based upon the notion of "the people" as the primary element in the State. He asserts that "No man has the right to rule over another man, otherwise such a right necessarily, and immediately becomes the right to the strongest" (p. 103). Like Calvin, Kuyper does not believe that any one form of government is in itself right for all times and places. Rather, the form that government takes is bound up with changes in historical and social circumstances. This position he traces back to Augustine.

In Kuyper's view, ail life systems are to be seen in terms of their deep roots in the past and the ways in which they combine various elements from preceding systems of government. Christians are to seek godly government without demanding a set form. In saying this, Kuyper rejects the idea of a theocracy, which he argues was restricted to ancient Israel.

He sums up Calvinist political thought in three theses:
1) God only - and never any creature - is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of the nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by His Almighty power, and roles them by His ordinances.
2) Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And
3) In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.


Building on this foundation Kuyper goes on to discuss the sphere of society. This sphere, he maintains, includes the family, business, science, the arts and so son. It stands in antithesis to the State. Society, he declares, is not one whole, but a number of diverse parts. Each part has "sovereignty in the individual social spheres and these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and the state cannot intrude here" (p. 116). The family is the basis of all human social relations, and as such is based upon the primal blood relationship. Thus society functions organically and may be compared at this level to a plant. In society "the chief aim of all human effort remains what it was by virtue of our creation and before the fall - namely, domination over nature" (p. 117).

By contrast to this view of society, government is a mechanical device, which is set over peoples. Its essential characteristic is its power over life and death, which ought to be exercised in the administration of justice. This has a twofold application: 1) to maintain internal justice; 2) to care for the people as a unit at home and abroad. But because government is mechanically imposed upon the organic spheres of society, friction occurs between different social areas and the government. Kuyper says "the government always inclined with its mechanical authority to invade social life, to subject it and mechanically to arrange it" (p. 120). At the same time, Kuyper argues that the various social spheres will endeavor to throw off all restraints of government. Thus men will be continually faced with the twin dangers of Statism and anarchy. But Calvinism, Kuyper maintains, avoids these extremes by insisting on the sovereignty of God and the rightfulness of a plurality of social spheres "under the law", which is maintained by tile government (p. 121).

Within the social sphere Kuyper finds numerous other spheres. He divides these into four main groups: 1) the sphere of social relationships where individuals meet and interact with each other. This he sees as the sphere of personality; 2) the corporate sphere, which includes all groupings of men in a corporate sense. Here he includes the university, trade unions, employers, organizations, companies, etc.; 3) the domestic sphere, which deals with family issues and includes marriage, "domestic peace", education and personal property; and finally 4) the comunal sphere, which includes all groupings of men in communal relationships. This he takes to mean streets, villages, towns, cities, etc. Each of these spheres, Kuyper argues, has its own pattern of development and individual laws over which God reigns and the State has no power to alter.

Duties of the State

The State itself has three duties to perform. They are: 1) to draw a boundary between the different social spheres to avoid social conflict. Thus, there is a boundary between the domestic and the corporate life of man. For example, the worker should never be misused by his employer in such a way as to deprive him of a home life or private interest, because such a development would mean that the corporate sphere has illegitimately invaded tire domestic sphere; 2) to defend individuals and weak elements within each sphere. In saying this Kuyper appears to envisage a subdivision of each social sphere into further spheres. Within the domestic sphere, for example, there is a separate sphere of education, which must not be confused with the sphere of marriage, or vice versa; 3) to coerce all the separate spheres of society to support the State and uphold its legitimate functions. Thus, each sphere has an obligation to render whatever dues necessary for the maintenance of the overall unity of society as protected by the State (p. 124-125)."

The Church

Kuyper's final sphere is the sphere of tire Church. While admitting that a divided church presents many problems, he believes that implicit in Calvin's teaching about liberty of conscience is the ideal of a free church in a free society. On the top of his newspaper De Standard was the motto, "a free Church for a free State". While acknowledging that unity between churches has an aesthetic appeal, he argues that the government must suspend judgment in this area and allow divisions to exist amongst Christians because "the government lacks the data of judgment and would infringe" on the sovereignty of the Church (p. 136). He concludes from this that while extreme forms of puritanical church order are to be avoided, allowances must be made for historic and cultural differences between denominations, and in saying this is prepared, as was Calvin, to accept Roman Catholics as allies against atheism.

The Individual

Kuyper concludes with a short section on the "sovereignty of the individual person" it, which he argues that "conscience is never subject to man but always and ever to God Almighty" (p. 139). This leads him to declare that "liberty of speech and liberty of worship" (p. 141) are essential in a just society. Yet, like John Stuart Mill, Kuyper seeks to limit such liberty to "mature men", and doubts that "backward people" can be granted such liberty. In this, as in all his arguments, Kuyper's overall aim is to enable "every man to serve God according to his own conviction and tile dictates of his own heart" (p. 142).

For Kuyper, It was not the desire to ensure one's own personal salvation that inspired Christians, but rather their love for God and their desire to bring all areas of life under his Lordship. Through his emphasis on creation-fall-redemption Kuyper brought a more comprehensive understanding of Calvinist theology and motivations to his work than either Weber or Troelsch in their reporting of Calvinism as outside observers. It is also important to realize that Calvinism is not static, and that in developing Calvinist theme Kuyper was simply carrying on the task of reformation begun by Luther and formulated by Calvin.


Before moving on to the main criticism of Kuyper's work, which concerns his model of society, a number of ambiguities in his writings should be noted. Kuyper refers to spheres within society, but what does he mean? If these spheres are to be understood as observable entities, why don't all men recognize them? If, on the other hand, they are meant as socially constructed "social facts" in a Durkeimian sense, how do men come to recognize them? In talking about spheres, Kuyper refers to them as "relationships", which indicates that he had such an idea in view.

Equally important to note is his observation that some societies are "less developed" than others. This seems to indicate that in certain societies a particular sphere may be "missing" - a point taken up by Dooyeweerd in his development of Kuyper's thought.

His reference to the sphere of the State as being "above" the sphere of society is puzzling. What is the relationship between the State and society? In a similar way, he seems to say that the family takes its form from the State, while insisting at the same time that the State is distinct from society. Here his views seem very unclear.

Sin and the State

At times Kuyper almost falls into tile class of theologians who say that the state is a result of sin. Yet a careful reading of his work shows that his view is not that simple. He definitely speaks about the State being a result of sin in its present form. In this sense he sees the State's primary task as the maintenance of law and order. But he also seems to allow for the development of State-like functions in a non-fallen world. What these functions would be he never develops, but the fact that he allows lot them is important.

More Fundamental Relationships

Kuyper bases his analysis of man and society upon what he calls the "three fundamental relationships" (p. 14). These begin with man's relationship to God - although his analysis does not force one to accept his view of God. By "relationship to" he means something like Paul Tillich's understanding of "ultimate concern". How men view their relationship to God, or whatever is the central issue of their lives, affects all of their lives. In this he is also very close to Weber's understanding of religion. The second relationship is that of man to man, and the third of man to the world. In all of these relationships Kuyper sees the God-man relationship as determinative. How men view their relationship to God (or whatever they see as ultimate) will affect all other important relationships. In God or an idol men find the starting point that integrates the whole of their existence and provides unity to their lives.

Problems and Appreciation

The problem one faces in attempting to evaluate Kuyper's work is the fragmentary nature of his thought and the prolific nature of his writings. Kuyper uses analogy and imagery to great effect and tends to bewitch the intellect rather than clarify issues. With these skills he was a great politician and leader because he could offer his followers a vision to follow. But for the distant observer who tries to analyze what he is saying his work presents many problems. Great ideas are thrown out, but again and again the questions are raised, "What do they mean?" How call these visions be translated and transformed from nineteenth century Dutch society to twentieth century North American society? Kuyper's work is perhaps itself more of a vision and model than a blueprint to be followed. Yet, having said this, concepts such as the distinction between the organic nature of society and mechanistic nature of the State are both helpful and informative. He manages to blend two dominant models of society in one political theory. In doing this he brings together the mechanistic image of the state, which is usually associated with radical political thought, with the organic image of society favoured by conservative thinkers. As a result, he produces a political theory that is neither radical nor conservative, but which has the potential to be a truly Christian third way, incorporating true understanding of man's state found in both radical and conservative theories.


Kuyper thus provides Christians with a uniquely Christian vision of the state and society. Unlike other Christian thinkers he does not adopt a conservative or radical stance, but creates his own view, based on scripture, which allows for both continuity arid change in society but which maintains, above all, the Biblical emphasis on justice. Since his day, many Christians have lapsed into either radical or conservative political thinking without adequate models upon which to build their own distinctly Christian theories. By stressing the importance of relationships and seeing he reality of conflict between social forms and the State, Kuyper offers Christians the basis of a position that can be developed into a dynamic and viable Christian alternative to present secular challenges.