Abraham Kuyper: A Christian Worldview
McKendree R. Langley
It has been a hundred years since Abraham Kuyper came to America to deliver his famous Stone Lectures on the subject of Calvinism at Princeton Theological Seminary. Those on campus at that time included Professors B. B. Warfield and Francis L. Patton (who was also President of Princeton University); future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson taught political science at Princeton University. Those not yet on campus, but who would later be influenced by Kuyper, included J. Gresham Machen, 17, of Baltimore, and Cornelius Van Til, 3, of Grotegast, Groningen province, the Netherlands.
Kuyper’s great contribution at Princeton a century ago, which is still relevant today, is the fact that the Christian faith is both for salvation and for the rest of life. He was sobered by the total challenge of secularist unbelief that had been unleashed on Christendom by the French Revolution of 1789. In contrast to that, Kuyper articulated a powerful apologetic or a Christian worldview. Later this world-view greatly influenced the thinking of Cornelius Van Til at Princeton and Westminster Seminary.
This great Christian leader from Amsterdam communicated powerfully to masses of ordinary people that they needed to have
a Christian way of looking at life—personal, church, and public—that is based on Bible truth. This Reformed worldview is always needed, even though a Christian political party is not suitable for America today (as it was one hundred years ago in the Netherlands). But most important, Kuyper’s witness of a worldview can help us keep our spiritual balance in a secular culture that is increasingly given over to the demons of unbelief.
A century ago Kuyper was preparing to become the premier of the Netherlands. (He served as head of the Dutch government in The Hague from 1901 to 1905.) Thus, it was no accident that in addition to speaking in New York, Philadelphia, and Grand Rapids, he also met with President William McKinley at the White House in Washington.
Consider Kuyper’s wide and remarkable experience by the time he arrived at Princeton. He had earned a Th.D. from Leiden, had undergone a lengthy conversion experience that was completed in his first parish, and had served eleven years in the pastorate. He had organized a Christian political party, called the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and had led that party in thirteen national parliamentary campaigns. He had been a member of parliament, his party’s chairman and parliamentary leader, and a major opposition leader in parliament. He had founded and edited a Christian daily newspaper, The Standard. He had organized the Christian school movement known as the School with the Bible, and was the leading founder of a Reformed university called the Free University of Amsterdam.
By the time the speaker from Amsterdam arrived at Princeton, he had written an amazing 4,700 front-page editorials in his daily newspaper. Shortly after leaving Princeton, he became the Dutch premier.
Kuyper as a Journalist
As a journalist, Kuyper wrote his newspaper editorials with such clarity that he gripped the hearts and minds of the Reformed common people. For example, in The Standard for June 8, 1877, during an election campaign, our newsman set out some basic Christian principles that were applicable to his situation, but which had much wider implications:
1. The idea that people decide what is normative in life (called popular sovereignty) is opposed to the Word of God, which teaches that God is sovereign as the final lawgiver.
2. Christians confess the relevance of God’s Word even for politics, rejecting a vague concept of natural law or human reason.
3. The office of the state has been ordained to be God’s minister for justice through the conscience of public officials who believe in his ordinances.
4. Educational responsibility rests with parents and not with the state. The idea that, for financial reasons, Christian people have only a secularist public school open to them must be rejected.
5. A Christian political movement such as the Anti-Revolutionary Party must maintain its independence (from all forms of humanism and nonbiblical political views), based on the Bible.
In a follow-up commentary in The Standard on September 18, 1877, Kuyper remarked that the cosmic struggle between belief and unbelief was seen in the controversy between public and Christian education. He correctly observed:
Those who have definitely broken with Christendom defend the religiously neutral public school with all their might. They may claim that such a school is not anti-Christian, but that is what it promotes. Christians, on the other hand, recognize that education in Christian virtues without Christ leads to doctrinal vagueness. They deny that Christian education leads to rank intolerance. The Liberals in public express their hatred for Christian education, while many Christian schools witness to the truth of our claims.
In the 1877 election campaign, Kuyper’s party won 14,500 votes and four seats (for a total of ten, including incumbents). That was a small number, but it was significant for the underdog party. Likewise, the School with the Bible was gaining more support.
Kuyper as the Dutch Premier
In August 1901, Kuyper became the premier of the Netherlands at the seat of the Dutch government in The Hague. His parliamentary majority included his own Anti-Revolutionary Party and the Catholic Political Party. The minority opposition included the Liberals and the Socialists.
Early in December 1901, Premier Kuyper presented an official statement to clarify his government’s position. He said there were two types of Christian principles: the first were those related to salvation, and the second were those related to natural life (or common grace), including public affairs. Thus, he brought Christian principles to bear on matters concerning citizens, families, employers and employees, marriage, schools, churches, and government. He felt that in a democratic society it was appropriate for believers to organize on the basis of Christian principles with a common agenda to protect the Christian basis of society. At the same time, he respected the right of the secularist parties to promote their own agendas.
The basic political clash in parliament, he went on, was between those who believed that matters of public law must take God Almighty into consideration and those who did not. The state, he insisted, must take into account what the Bible says about the social consequences of sin.
While noting that his was a coalition government between Anti-Revolutionaries and Catholics, the premier said that each party had an independent existence and constituency. The governing program was a compromise between these two parties to build on the Christian foundations of the nation to meet the needs of the times. Seeking the righteousness of God in public affairs, declared the premier, would lead to national blessing.
Included in this agenda were bills for school reform, which would give full equality (including a voucher system) to Christian and Catholic schools, for liquor law reform to curb drunkenness, for housing codes to promote public health, for social security benefits for illness and old age, and for tax reform.
1. Kuyper’s lectures on Calvinism at Princeton a century ago gave the English-speaking world some much-needed exposure to his Anti-Revolutionary or Reformed worldview. These Princeton lectures were actually the tip of the iceberg as far as his popular apologetic was concerned. Kuyper’s worldview found its greatest expression in his political career, both in his newspaper journalism and as premier of the Netherlands. In public affairs, Kuyper articulated a broad concept of common grace as the basis for understanding our role in the world. He explained that God’s restraint of sin made life possible, so that the church could witness to the gospel.
However, Kuyper’s suggestion that Christians can participate in a democratic, pluralist environment has been largely ignored by Calvinists. For this reason, we have looked at some details of that worldview. He used the issues of fair play for Christian schools and his government agenda as opportunities to express his Christian worldview.
2. Kuyper’s perspective is still relevant today, because he thought in terms of the basic clash between the Christian and the secularist worldviews—belief versus unbelief in every area of life. Yet, at the same time, he saw that Christ is the Lord over the nations as well as the Head of the church. This understanding set the stage for the later work of Van Til in apologetics, which has blessed many believers.
3. As a journalist, Kuyper wrote for common people—farmers, fishermen, and shopkeepers, as well as school teachers, students, pastors, and businessmen. His message was simple, yet profound: the great principles of the Christian faith concerning sin, salvation, and stewardship need to be applied in all areas of life for God’s glory.
In America today, a Christian political party would not be viable because of our two-party system, but there is always a need for believers to get involved in Christian organizations of all kinds for witness and positive influence. But above all, we should be encouraged to discern the clash of unbelieving influences in society with the holy standards of our Lord. This will help us make God-honoring decisions affecting ourselves, our children, our schools, our churches, and our country.
Kuyper’s greatest legacy is the witness of a worldview—a witness that is greatly needed in our dying culture.
Mr. Langley is a member of Calvary PCA in Willow Grove, Pa., and a lecturer at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 1999.