Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Considering a Legacy

Vincent Bacote


October 21, 2011
by Vincent Bacote

What exactly is a Kuyperian?  Some readers of Capital Commentary may have come across this term before but haven’t been sure of its meaning and significance. 

The term is linked to Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a Dutch figure whose life and thought features prominently in the DNA of Center for Public Justice.  Kuyper was born into the home of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk) and was educated in Leiden University, where he was strongly influenced by more liberal theological ideas.  He became a minister in the NHK, but experienced a conversion to a more traditional Reformed orthodoxy due to his reading the Christian allegorical novel The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) and the influence of more conservative parishioners. Even as a young minister he had an interest in public life, and he officially entered politics in 1874 but remained active in church life at the local and national levels.  In 1879 he helped form the Reformed orthodox Anti-Revolutionary Party (as in against the atheistic ideals of the French Revolution), and served as editor for the party’s weekly paper (De Heraut) and daily (De Standaard) for decades.

 In 1880 he helped to found the Free University of Amsterdam, which he believed had an important role to play both in furthering the mission of the church and shaping contemporary culture through its impact on the life of common people.  This university was intended to be explicitly Christian in its worldview across the full range of disciplines. ‘Sphere Sovereignty’ was the title of Kuyper’s inaugural address for the Free University and the label for one of his most well-known ideas.  Kuyper believed that human life is rightly characterized by pluralism with respect to both social structures and worldviews.  God is sovereign over the entire creation, but there is also a derivative sovereignty distributed across social spheres such as the family, business, schools, and the state.  This pluralism of spheres allows for a diversity of worldviews, manifested concretely in a diversity of public institutions like the Free University, where Kuyper taught theology for several years. 

In 1886 Kuyper led the Doleantie, a schism from the NHK prompted by concerns about the national church’s theological liberalism and governance, and in 1892 Kuyper’s group merged with the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Politically, Kuyper increased in prominence in the 1890s and ultimately served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905, though his tenure was unremarkable. 

In 1898 Kuyper gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, which presented Kuyper’s interpretation of Reformed theology.  This perspective, later labeled ‘neo-Calvinism’, saw Christianity as a system which yielded a comprehensive approach to all of life and reality.  In addition to articulating his idea of sphere sovereignty, the lectures also highlighted two of Kuyper’s most distinctive theological emphases: common grace and the antithesis.  Kuyper stressed the importance of common grace (i.e., that which God bestows on all humankind) as the divine restraint of sin in creation that makes possible positive contributions to history and culture from all human beings and thus justifies Christian engagement with the public realm.  Common grace makes it possible to continue obeying the cultural mandate we find in Genesis 1:28.  By contrast, the antithesis distinguished Christians (beneficiaries of both special and common grace) from non-Christians (beneficiaries of common grace only).  Kuyper believed that regeneration yields a distinct epistemological difference that ultimately leads Christians to interpret reality differently (and with better precision). When emphasizing the antithesis, Kuyper heavily stressed the importance of Christian identity; he did not wish for Christians to sacrifice their faith when they participated in the various areas of the public realm. Kuyper never resolved the tension between these two emphases, and his legacy includes those who emphasize one or the other as more central to Christian participation in the world.  The label “Kuyperian” reflects that his continuing influence derives from both the example of his own committed engagement with contemporary culture and of his ideas, which encourage a committed and public Christianity.

—Vincent Bacote is an Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. He is also a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”