by Bob Wheeler
Lectures on Calvinism
199 pp., pb.
One of President Trump’s more controversial cabinet appointments is the Education Secretary, Mrs. Betsy DeVos. Mrs. DeVos is a strong proponent of school choice and voucher programs, and her appointment was strenuously opposed by the public school establishment. Mrs. DeVos is a committed evangelical Christian, and the wife of the heir to the Amway fortune.
As it turns out, Mrs. DeVos has quite an interesting cultural background. She was raised in the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and is a graduate of Calvin College. Both of these, in turn, are the spiritual heirs of a most remarkable figure in church history, Abraham Kuyper, the renowned Dutch theologian, educator, journalist and statesman. Born in 1837, he studied at the University of Leyden and became a pastor in the state supported Dutch Reformed Church. But he also became active in politics; and in both religion and politics he became a leading conservative intellectual, fighting against the liberal and secularizing trends of the day. He was elected to parliament, founded the Free University of Amsterdam, and eventually led a group of conservative dissidents out of the state church. In 1901 he became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, serving until 1905. He died in 1920. The Encyclopedia Britannica described him as “a remarkable man . . .a powerful writer and a speaker with a gift of arresting statement” (1959 ed., Vol. 11, p. 654).
In 1898 Princeton University invited Kuyper to come to America to receive an honorary degree, and while he was in Princeton he delivered the L.P. Stone Lectures in the nearby Seminary. The lectures provide us with an insight into the thinking of this remarkable figure.
It should be noted at the outset that when Kuyper spoke of “Calvinism” he was not referring specifically to what we think of today as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Rather, he was defining Calvinism broadly as a comprehensive worldview centered on the sovereignty of God. The Calvinist worldview, he says, consists of three basic ideas: 1) as human beings we can have a direct relationship with God; 2) There is a fundamental equality of all human beings before God; and 3) the world should be honored as God’s creation.
Kuyper spent most of his lectures describing the influence that Calvinism has had on the course of Western history, advancing “Christian civilization.” This, in turn, leads to what has sometimes been deemed “the cultural mandate.” “Everything that has been created was, in its creation, furnished by God with an unchangeable law of its existence. And because God has fully ordained such laws and ordinances for all life, the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service, in strict obedience” (p. 53). What Kuyper was arguing for, in effect, was the lordship of Christ in every area of life.
In a Christian (Calvinist) state, Kuyper argues, the state would recognize God as the Supreme Ruler, maintain the Sabbath, proclaim days of fasting and prayer, and invoke God’s blessing. But the state would also respect the rights of individual conscience and not interfere in the life of the church.
What prevents Western Civilization from reaching its full potential, according to Kuyper, is the liberal, secularist philosophy that sprang from the French Revolution. Secular thinking is based on the assumption that the world as we see it is normal. Genuine Christianity, however, is based on the exact opposite assumption, that the world is not normal. It has been corrupted by sin and needs to be saved by divine grace. The two viewpoints are diametrically opposed to each other and cannot be reconciled. What the church must do is to challenge the assumptions of secular thought and put in their place a thoroughly developed Christian worldview. This approach leads to what is known today as “presuppositional apologetics.”
Much of Kuyper’s thinking was undoubtedly shaped and influenced by events in his own time. One of the burning political issues of the day had to do with the state supported educational system. The Netherlands, like the U.S. today, had a publicly supported elementary school system. But many Christian parents, like their American counterparts today, chose to send their children to private Christian schools instead. The question then arose as to whether they should have to pay for both the public and private schools at the same time. The proposal was made to have the government provide financial aid to the private schools as well as the public ones, and this was resisted by the liberals in the Netherlands. On this question the orthodox Calvinists found themselves on common ground with the Catholics. A political alliance was formed, which resulted in Kuyper becoming Prime Minister in 1901.
The question raised the deeper issue about the relationship between church, state and the educational system. Starting with the premise that as human beings we are each directly accountable to God, Kuyper argued that the family, church, state and workplace each operate more or less independently of each other, with each following its own God-ordained method of operation. This is what eventually came to known in Reformed circles as “sphere sovereignty.”
Kuyper was conscious of being a part of a “Christian civilization” that could trace its roots back 2,000 years and had been at least nominally Christian since the days of Constantine. Kuyper also say that civilization being threatened by the forces of modern secularism. The question is, what can the Christian do about it?
Kuyper recognized, quite correctly, that Christ should Lord of every area of life. He also recognized that modern secularism operates on a set of assumptions diametrically opposed to those of biblical Christianity. But the question then becomes, what can be done about human society in its present condition? Kuyper relies very heavily on the role of “common grace,” which he describes this way: it is that “by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests the process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator” (p. 30). But this may be ascribing too much to human civilization. While it is certainly true that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45; NKJV), and that “He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way” (II Thess. 2:7), that is a long way from “allowing the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator.” The world is still the world, a human society in rebellion against its Creator. What it achieves it mostly accomplishes in defiance of God.
Significantly Kuyper quoted little Scripture in his lectures, but relied heavily instead on historical analysis. He could look back over the course of Western Civilization and note the role that Calvinism had played in advancing it. But when we turn to Scripture a different story emerges. Instead of “Christian Civilization” we see the kingdom of God; and in order to enter that kingdom one must repent and be born again. The root cause of man’s problem is sin, and the central task of the church is to call men and women to repentance and faith in Christ. The moral tone of human society generally improves only as a result of religious revival.
What, then, is to be gained by Abraham Kuyper serving as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, or Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education? Each of us has an individual calling in life, and we should let our light shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10); be we must be careful to “abstain from every form of evil” (I Thess. 5:22) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (Jas. 1:27). Politics, in particular, can be a morally hazardous undertaking!
Kuyper acknowledged that nothing can be accomplished unless God sends for His Spirit. But he compares Calvinism to an Aeolian Harp – “absolutely powerless, as it is, without the quickening Spirit of God.” But he says “. . .still we feel it our God-given duty to keep our harp, its strings tuned aright, ready in the window of God’s Holy Zion, awaiting the breath of the Spirit” (p. 199). To which we can only say “Amen!”