Introduction To Kuyper's Thought

David Naugle, February 2001

Described by his enemies as “an opponent of ten heads and a hundred hands,” and by his friends as “a gift of God to our age,”1 Abraham Kuyper (1837- 1920) was truly a homo universale, a veritable genius in both intellectual and practical affairs. A noted journalist, politician, educator, and theologian with mosaic vigor, he is especially remembered as the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880, and as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905.

The source of this man’s remarkable contributions is found in a powerful spiritual vision derived from the theology of the protestant reformers (primarily Calvin) which centered upon the sovereignty of the biblical God over all aspects of reality, life, thought, and culture. Indeed, as he thundered in the climax to his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”2 On the basis of this theological axiom, Kuyper drew inspiration for the all-consuming goal of his life, namely the renewal of the Dutch church and nation, expressed in these often quoted words.
One desire has been the ruling passion of my life. One high motive has acted like a spur upon my mind and soul. And sooner than that I should seek escape from the sacred necessity that this is laid upon me, let the breath of life fail me. It is this: That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which the Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God.3

Indeed, this is the hallmark characteristic of the “Kuyperian” tradition as it has come to be known, and the concept of ‘worldview’ became a tool in his hands by which he expressed this comprehensive vision of the faith. Over the course of time, Kuyper realized that both obedience and disobedience to God were closely bound up if not identified with a particular persuasion or pattern of life, that is, a worldview.

If non-Christian worldviews characterized by idolatry and religious insubordination are worked out across the whole spectrum of life (which they are), then likewise Christianity must also be articulated in terms of a comprehensive vision of reality engendering the worship of God and submission to his will in all things.4 Indeed, when Kuyper was at the height of his powers, he had just this opportunity—to demonstrate that his beloved Calvinism was more than a just church polity or doctrinaire religion but an all encompassing Weltanschauung—when he was invited to deliver the prestigious Stone Lectures at Princeton University in 1898. These addresses and the book that resulted from them, Lectures on Calvinism, became a second influential source for conceiving of Christianity as a worldview among evangelical protestants.5

The consensus in recent Kuyperian scholarship is that though the Dutch polymath was quite cognizant of the notion of ‘worldview’ early on in his career and even used the word occasionally, nevertheless he did not define it carefully or work it out Calvinistically until the invitation came to give the esteemed lectures at Princeton. If Peter Heslam’s proposal is correct, Kuyper’s reading of James Orr’s recently published book The Christian View of God and the World might have been the turning point, underscoring the value of Weltanschauung in his eyes, and prompting him to cast his entire lectures on Calvinism as a complete belief system.6 Indeed, the similarities between the two thinkers on worldview are remarkable, and it appears that Kuyper drew considerably from Orr’s thought on the topic.7

The following survey of Kuyper’s first Stone lecture on “Calvinism a Life-System” will outline his basic thinking on the topic, marking the point from which the concept of Weltanschauung became a permanent fixture in his thought and writings.8

Kuyper begins by highlighting the common cultural and religious heritage that Europe and America share. Yet as he points out, “the storm of Modernism has arisen with violent intensity” against their revered Christian tradition on both continents, especially in the form of the malevolent influences of the French revolution, Darwinian evolution, and German pantheism. Like Orr before him, Kuyper sees the present cultural moment defined in both Europe and America by a life and death struggle between two antithetical worldviews, or as he calls them, “life-systems.”

Two life systems are wrestling with one another, in mortal combat. Modernism is bound to build a world of its own from the data of the natural man, and to construct man himself from the data of nature; while, on the other hand, all those who reverently bend the knee to Christ and worship Him as the Son of the living God, and God Himself, are bent upon saving the “Christian Heritage.” This is the struggle in Europe, this is the struggle in America . . . .9

Kuyper takes a dim view of the role of traditional apologetics in this single most important battle for the soul of the Western world. He notes that such an approach to defending the faith does not advance the Christian cause “one single step,” and later in his volume he refers to it as “useless,” likening it to the activity of a man trying to adjust a crooked window frame when the entire building is tottering on its foundations.10 Apologists, in other words, must occupy themselves with more fundamental and extensive matters and this is precisely what Kuyper intends to do.

Hence, as Orr proposed in his own lectures, Kuyper argues that a piecemeal apologetic approach must be replaced with a strategy that countered an allencompassing modernism with a comprehensive Christian Weltanschauung. If the battle is to be fought with honor and with hope of victory, then principle must be arrayed against principle: then it must be felt that in Modernism the vast energy of an all embracing life-system assails us, then also it must be understood that we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power. And this powerful life-system is not to be invented nor formulated by ourselves, but is to be taken and applied as it presents itself in history.11

In his concluding lecture on “Calvinism and the Future,” Kuyper reiterates this point with even greater clarity and power:
As truly as every plant has a root, so truly does a principle hide under every manifestation of life. These principles are interconnected, and have their common root in a fundamental principle; and from the latter is developed logically and systematically the whole complex of ruling ideas and conceptions that go to make up our life and world-view. With such a coherent world and life-view, firmly resting on its principle and self-consistent in its splendid structure, Modernism now confronts Christianity; and against this deadly danger, ye, Christians, cannot successfully defend your sanctuary, but by placing in opposition to all this, a life-and world-view of your own, founded as firmly on the base of your own principle, wrought out with the same clearness and glittering in an equally logical consistency.12

For Kuyper, of course, the only expression of Christianity adequate to enter into warfare against the powers of modernity was not to be found in vague versions of Protestantism. Rather, “this manifestation of the Christian principle is given us in Calvinism” which, according to him, had developed the theology of the Reformation more consistently and fruitfully than any other tradition.13 Consequently, there was no doubt in Kuyper’s mind that the subject he would develop and present before his American audience in his Stone Lectures would be Calvinism.

He was quick to clarify, however, that he was addressing it not in a sectarian, confessional, or denominational sense, but rather as a scientific name, developing its connotations not only for the church but across the whole spectrum of thought and life. Thus he presents Calvinism as a total life-system (lecture one), draws out its implications in the areas of religion, politics, science, and art (lectures two through five), and suggests the kind of role it ought to play in the future of the world (lecture six). So conceived and articulated, Calvinist Christianity could take its place along side the other great systems of human thought including paganism, Islamism, Romanism, and modernism, and be effective in the spiritual and intellectual warfare being waged for cultural dominance.14

Of course, Kuyper was anxious to justify his claim that Calvinism was far more than just a church view or religious tradition but an entire worldview. In order to do this, he offers some theoretical reflections on the nature of worldviews. He demonstrates that just like other credible systems of belief, Calvinism is capable of meeting the conditions every Weltanschauung must meet by providing insights into the three primary relationships that make up human existence: to God, man, and the world. Kuyper elaborates upon the Calvinist view of each of these areas, contrasts its position with those of its philosophic and religious competitors, and articulates his conclusions in this succinct summary:
For our relation to God: an immediate fellowship of man with the Eternal, independently of priest or church. For the relation of man to man: the recognition in each person of human worth, which is his by virtue of his creation after the Divine likeness, and therefore of the equality of all men before God and his magistrate. And for our relation to the world: the recognition that in the whole world the curse is restrained by grace, that the life of the world is to be honored in its independence, and that we must, in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life.15

Since worldviews must articulate cogent positions on each of these relationships, so must Calvinism. Since it does, and does so successfully, Kuyper is convinced that it can stand on its own among alternative perspectives. Thus Kuyper affirmed, as Orr also did, that Christianity was capable of “claiming for itself the glory of possessing a well-defined principle and an all-embracing life-system.”16 The contest between the life-systems of modernity and Christianity comes to expression in all the social and cultural domains that Kuyper addresses in his lectures.

However, the rivalry is particularly poignant in science, that is, in theorizing in general, or what the Germans call Wissenschaft, especially in the debate regarding the origin of life. He makes the point that this aspect of the culture war is not between religion and science per se, but between two competing life-systems underlying the two distinctive approaches to scientific investigation. There is the worldview represented by the normalists who assert that the cosmos is in its customary state as its various potentials are actualized by the mechanism of evolution (naturalism). On the other hand, there is the worldview represented by the abnormalists who insist that the cosmos is in an aberrant state because a fundamental disturbance has taken place in the past which can only be remedied by a regenerating power that can restore it to its original goals (theism).

So the origins debate is technically not one of religion and science at all, but between two life-systems underlying the science practiced by the respective groups, each having its own unique set of motivations and assumptions.17 As Kuyper puts it, “. . . the difference between the science of the Normalists and Abnormalists is not founded upon any differing result of investigation, but upon the undeniable difference which distinguishes the self-consciousness of the one from that of the other.”18 In another place, Kuyper argues that because there are basically two kinds of people, there are two kinds of science. The difference between people is established upon their relation to palingenesis, that is, spiritual regeneration. Regenerate people with a Christian worldview produce a roughly theistic interpretation of science, and non-regenerate people with an non-Christian worldview produce an idolatrous science.

While Kuyper carefully nuances his position to avoid absurd conclusions, nonetheless he is clear that the experience of palingenesis, which radically alters the content of human consciousness and reshapes worldview, makes a decisive difference in the way the cosmos is interpreted and science is pursued. Kuyper summarizes his viewpoint, famously known as the “antithesis,” in these words:
We speak none too emphatically, therefore, when we speak of two kinds of people. Both are human, but one is inwardly different from the other [because of palingenesis], and consequently feels a different content rising from his consciousness; thus they face the cosmos from different points of view, and are impelled by different impulses. And the fact that there are two kinds of people occasions of necessity the fact of two kinds of human life and consciousness of life, and of two kinds of science; for which reason the idea of the unity of science, taken in its absolute sense, implies the denial of the fact of palingenesis, and therefore from principle leads to the rejection of the Christian religion.19

The seamless robe of science, according to Kuyper, is torn asunder by the experience of spiritual regeneration which makes a homogeneous approach to the enterprise impossible. Scientific reason is not the same for all people. It depends upon whether or not the scientist has or has not been religiously renewed. There is not a neutral, scientific rationality leading to certain objective and shared conclusions. Instead, scientific theories are a function of the religious backgrounds and philosophical orientations of the scientists or theorists.20

In summary, Abraham Kuyper has bequeathed to the evangelical church the legacy of the Calvinist, Christian worldview. It is a rich description of the faith, zeroing in on the pillar points of creation, fall, and redemption, and characterized by several important themes.

First is the idea that God’s redemptive “grace restores nature,” that is, the salvation achieved by Jesus Christ is cosmic in scope and entails the renewal of everything in creation to its original divine purpose.

Second is the assertion that God is sovereign and that He has ordered the universe and all aspects of life within it by his law and word (“sphere sovereignties”) thereby giving each thing its particular identity, preserving the wondrous diversity of creation, and preventing the usurpation of one sphere of existence over another.

Third is the wholehearted affirmation of the “cultural mandate” in the opening chapters of Genesis, demonstrating that God intends the progressive development of the creation in history as a fundamental human occupation to God’s glory and for the benefit of mankind.

Finally there is the concept of the spiritual “antithesis,” namely that the human race is divided distinctly between believers who acknowledge the redemption and kingship of Jesus Christ and unbelievers who do not, with the concomitant implications of both life orientations across the whole spectrum of human existence. Thus, a spiritually sensitive and holistic interpretation of Christianity that includes the transformation and development of all aspects of human thought and culture is at the heart of the Kuyperian vision.21

Two additional aspects of the preeminent Dutchman’s neo-Calvinistic worldview tradition touched on earlier need to be reinforced by way of summary.

First, Kuyper’s approach to Christianity as a complete worldview provided him with an alternative to traditional apologetic strategies. As mentioned earlier, in his estimation, the rationalist and evidentialist approach to defending individual aspects of the faith based on the assumption of the mind’s ability to decide objectively regarding matters of truth was naive. It must be replaced by a method that recognizes the influence of underlying presuppositions on the mind’s perception of what constitutes reason and evidence in the first place. Apologetic warfare must be conducted at the more basic level of underlying worldviews.

Consequently, Kuyper emphasized the importance of presenting the faith as an complete life-system or fundamental interpretative principle, for what was at stake first and foremost was the very conception and meaning of the universe. Kuyper’s denigration of old school apologetics and his advocacy of a worldview approach fueled the controversy that persists even today between evidentialists and presuppositionalists.22

Second, to extend the previous contribution in another direction, the notion of ‘worldview’ provided Kuyper with a mechanism for critiquing the scientific and scholarly enterprise, broadly conceived. Kuyper showed that human reason is not neutral in its operation, but functions under the influence of a set of antecedent assumptions that condition all thinking and acting. This realization led to a powerful critique of the modern ideal of scientific neutrality and objectivity. Given the recognition that all theorizing arises out of a priori faith commitments, it also encouraged Christian thinkers to undertake their academic projects on the basis of theistic beliefs with confidence. It is hard to overstate the profound impact that this insight has had in engendering a renaissance in Christian scholarship across the disciplines in recent days. 23

Accordingly, George Marsden can speak in cautious terms of “The triumph—or nearly so—of what may be loosely called Kuyperian presuppositionalism in the evangelical [academic] community.”24 Thus, a worldview apologetic and a presuppositional critique of theorizing constitute two additional aspects of Kuyper’s Weltanschauung legacy. This conception of Calvinistic Christianity subsumed under the rubric of worldview was appropriated by Kuyper’s followers—the Dutch neo-Calvinists or Kuyperians25—and passed down to subsequent generations.

Eventually it migrated with them across the Atlantic, and became a significant theme among them as an immigrant community in North America. Both Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario, Canada— where Kuyperian ideals and worldview thinking have flourished—were birthed out of this tradition. From this community of faith, it spread into mainstream American evangelicalism where it has had a substantial impact.

Its more immediate influence, however, was registered through the second generation of Kuyperians in both theology and in an amazingly fruitful way in the Christian philosophy inspired by this tradition.26 His contributions were matched by colleagues and by those following in his wake, especially theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921),27 and second generation Christian philosophers D. H. T. Vollenhoven (1892-1978),28 and most notably, Vollenhoven’s brother-in-law, Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). Among his American disciples, Cornelius Van Til has been an exponent of Kuyperian presuppositionalism par excellence.29

Among this company, I myself, have cast my lot. I would describe myself as a Kuyperian or neocalvinist to a large extent, though there would be some areas of disagreement. His focus on God’s kingship over the whole of life, and his notion of a life system consisting of the themes of creation, fall, and redemption seem to me to be preeminently biblical. It is an interpretation of biblical faith that has opened up a whole new perspective on the majesty of God, the goodness of creation and creaturely life, our humanly fulfilling cultural tasks, the disaster of sin, and the amazing grace of God expressed in Christ Jesus our Lord who has achieved a cosmic redemption. Through the ministry and power of the Holy Spirit, He is restoring genuine believers to their original purposes and the entire creation back to God for our blessing and His greater glory. This perpsective has radical daily implications across the whole spectrum of life, calling us to holiness in everything. This includes the enterprise of Christian higher education here at DBU and for the endeavors of scholarship, study, teaching, and learning for students and professors alike who take seriously the Lordship of Christ over their entire lives and all creation.


1 John Hendrick de Vries, biographical note to Lectures on Calvinism, by Abraham Kuyper (1931; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), iii.

2 Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

3 Quoted in de Vries, “Biographical Note,” iii.

4 R. D. Henderson, “How Abraham Kuyper Became a Kuyperian,” Christian Scholars Review 22 (1992): 22, 34-35.

5 Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1931; reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). For an excellent study of Kuyper’s Stone Lectures, see Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

6 Orr also delivered the Stone Lectures for the academic year 1903-04, an effort which resulted in the publication of God’s Image in Man, and Its Defacement, in the Light of Modern Denials (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905).

7 Heslam shows that both Orr and Kuyper delivered their respective lectures, Kerr and Stone, in order to show that there is an explicit Christian Weltanschauung. He explains other parallels between Kuyper and Orr thusly: “Orr argued that Christianity had an independent, unified and coherent worldview derived from a central belief or principle, an argument which is virtually identical to that of Kuyper on behalf of Calvinism. Kuyper also resembles Orr in his argument that modern worldviews are expressed in a unified system of thought, that they are derived from a single principle and are embodied in certain forms of life and activity, and that they are antithetical to Christianity. Kuyper’s claim, likewise, that Calvinism’s only defense against modernism was in the development of an equally comprehensive worldview, in which principle would be arrayed against principle—is almost indistinguishable from Orr’s argument regarding Christianity.” See his Creating a Christian Worldview, 93-94.

8 Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, 96.

9 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 11. Kuyper takes advantage of this reference to “life system” to mention in a footnote on page 11 Orr’s “valuable lectures” contained in The Christian View, pointing out the difficulty of translating Weltanschauung into English. He notes that Orr employed the literal translation “view of the world,” even though he prefers the more explicit phrase “life and world view.” American colleagues convinced him, nonetheless, that the expression “life system” was as an appropriate synonym with wide currency in the United States. He chose this translation for the title of his first chapter (“Calvinism as a Life-System”), though he interchanges the two expressions later in his lectures, depending upon the context and the nuance of his argument.

10 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 11, 135-136.

11 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 11-12.

12 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 189-190 (emphasis his).

13 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 12.

14 Here is where I see Kuyper and Orr deviating in their respective purposes. On the one hand, Orr’s concern was to spell out the essence of the Christian worldview theologically, centering his presentation on the incarnation; Kuyper on the other hand was concerned to demonstrate the implications of the Calvinist worldview culturally, showing the relevance of reformed theology across the whole of life. For an expanded treatment on the cultural implications of Calvinist theology, including a discussion of Kuyper’s perspective, see Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1959).

15 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 31.

16 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 32. Albert Wolters has pointed out that as a worldview, Calvinism is eminently comparable to Marxism in its comprehensiveness and direct applicability to the total range of cultural phenomena and intellectual concerns. See his, “Dutch Neo-Calvinism: Worldview, Philosophy and Rationality,” in Rationality in the Calvinian Tradition, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983), 117.

17 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 130-136.

18 Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 138 (emphasis added).

19 Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, intro. Benjamin B.
Warfield, trans. J. Hendrik De Vries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980),

20 While such an understanding of scientific theorizing is explicitly religious, Kuyper’s proposal anticipates aspects of Thomas Kuhn’s postmodern paradigm thesis by seven or eight decades. Nicholas Wolterstorff has offered some sharp criticisms of Kuyper’s concept of two people/two sciences, arguing against what he calls its “religious totalism” in his essay “On Christian Learning,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 56-80.

21 Albert M. Wolters, “The Intellectual Milieu of Herman Dooyeweerd,” in The Legacy of Herman Dooyeweerd: Reflections on Critical Philosophy in the Christian Tradition, ed. C. T. McIntire (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), 4-10.

22 See the excellent discussion illuminating this issue by George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 122-52. Recent contributions to this debate on apologetics include R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, Zondervan, 1984); Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1995); Steven B. Cowan, ed. Five Views on Apologetics, Counterpoints Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

23 Both Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have extended this aspect of the Kuyperian tradition. In his famous address “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984), Plantinga has advised Christian academics (philosophers in particular) to take certain biblical doctrines as assumptions in their philosophic work. Similarly, Wolterstorff in his equally influential Reason within the Bounds of Religion, 2d ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984) has argued that the religious commitments of the Christian scholar ought to function as “control beliefs” in the devising and weighing of theories. The success of the Kuyperian vision in academic life has been noted in the popular press. See Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly 286 (October 2000): 55-76.

24 George Marsden, “The State of Evangelical Christian Scholarship,” The Reformed Journal 37 (1987): 14. See also Richard J. Mouw, “Dutch Calvinist Philosophical Influences in North America,” Calvin Theological Journal 24 (1989): 93-120.

25 The phrase “neo-Calvinism” was originally coined by Kuyper’s opponents, but was eventually accepted by him and his followers since it suggested that their views were not simply a restatement of the reformer’s original convictions, but were a positive and progressive development of them. In due course, the eponymous adjective “Kuyperian” was used synonymously with “neo-Calvinist” to designate this revival movement that stemmed from the prodigious thought and industrious activity of its founder.

26 See Richard J. Mouw, “Dutch Calvinist Philosophical Influences in North America,” Calvin Theological Journal 24 (1989): 93-120.

27 In a booklet titled “Christian Worldview” (Christelijke Wereldbeschouwing) written in 1904, Bavinck presents a version of the Christian faith that stands in the neo-Platonist tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. A few years later in 1908 when his own opportunity to present the Stone Lectures at Princeton arose, Bavinck articulated a conception of ‘worldview’ similar to Kuyper’s, describing it as the pretheoretical substructure to all forms of theoretical thought. In these lectures he referred to Wilhelm Dilthey’s recent publications in which he described Weltanschauung as the subterranean well spring of the sciences. From Albert Wolters, “On the Idea of Worldview and Its Relation to Philosophy,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 21.

28 D. H. T. Vollenhoven, who was professor of philosophy at the Free University from 1926-63, argued that Calvinistic philosophy was not the same as world and life view, but was “the latter’s scientific elaboration. ”See Wolters, “On the Idea of Worldview,” 22.

29 As Van Til himself testifies, he always sought to work “in Kuyper’s line,” rejecting traditional apologetics and taking up his position in the Christian theistic system as the fundamental presupposition of his thought. As he puts it, “Calvin was right. We must not, like the Greeks and the scholastics after them, engage in vain speculations about the essence of God. We must not, like Descartes, start from man as a final point of reference in predication. We must listen to what God has told us about himself, and about ourselves, and our relation to him throught [sic] Christ in Scripture as our Creator-Redeemer.” Van Til’s comments are found in response to an article on his apologetics by Herman Dooyeweerd in E. R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 92.

<< Home

Powered by Blogger.