Living Under Christ’s Kingship
Vol. 1: The Exalted Nature of Christ’s Kingship
Vol. 2: The Kingship of Christ in its Operation
by abraham kuyper
edited by john kok and nelson d. kloosterman
translated by albert gootjes
lexham, 1072 pages, $99.98
Dismissed from the office of prime minister by the Dutch electorate in 1905, Abraham Kuyper quickly learned that his own Anti-Revolutionary party had no further use for him. So he turned back to the Christian journalism on which he had built his reputation. The result was the lengthy Pro Rege, now in English for the first time. The complete work consists of more than one hundred short articles that appeared in carefully planned sequence in his own paper from 1907 to 1911, subsequently published in three volumes, of which the first two are now before us.
His theme was the kingdom of Christ. Invoked confrontationally in Catholic contexts to assert the rights of the Church, and culturally in Protestant contexts to defend Christendom as an alternative to apocalyptic eschatology, Kuyper used the topic to explore how Christianity (especially as organized confessionally in small churches of the faithful) could influence culture. Having tackled the question previously under the heading of “common grace,” he now looked for a more clearly Christological point of entry. The result is this sprawling catechetical venture, embracing themes of Christology, ecclesiology, history, and social criticism.
Kuyper’s manner is self-consciously didactic. He seems to speak from a pulpit with a Bible in hand and a congregation to wag a finger at. He luxuriates in general social observations rounded up with peremptorily declared conclusions, which can sometimes seem very arbitrary. Exaggerated oppositions, over-compartmentalized classifications, silence on what others are thinking or saying (except where they can be dismissed with a wave of the hand)—these are the weaknesses that belong to his communicative strategy. And most trying of all is his confidence that whatever he says is proved at the bar of Scripture, though what he finds in a text and what he makes of a text are rarely distinguishable. The paths of argument are circuitous, and what appears to be firmly settled at one point may turn out to be surprisingly open to qualification later. All that, if we will read Kuyper, we must bear with patience. But if we will let him lead us by the paths of his own choosing, and alert us to the spiritual and cultural challenges he discerns, we shall find ourselves inducted into a vision of the world that deeply impressed its first readers. The list of interesting and distinguished twentieth-century figures who confessed a debt to Kuyper’s influence speaks for itself.
These first two volumes of Pro Rege contain some memorable things. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the opening, designed to engage a conservative readership by shock. Announcing his high admiration for the world of traditional Islam, where religious decline is not as advanced as in the West, Kuyper plunges into a profoundly nostalgic lament for a Christendom that has been swept away by loss of public piety and the technological conquest of nature. To his distressed gaze, the tough fabric of modern idolatry offers no weak point for penetration. Urban massification, technological control, egalitarian communications, loss of educational coherence, the power of finance, and the false spirituality of art all knit together to build the worldly city as a religious surrogate, a Babylon opposed to Jerusalem.
Why is the Christian Church powerless in the face of this demonic force? It has forgotten the kingship of Christ. Though missing from Christian reflection, Christ’s kingship is still at work. New means of communication and transportation may disrupt churchgoing, disturb the peace of the sabbath, and promote religious indifferentism, but they are also the signs of the coming unification of the world under the universal reign of Christ. Thus the narrative of decline feeds gently back into a reprise of the nineteenth-century narrative of cultural triumph. To see the unfolding of the kingdom, Kuyper tells us, requires long historical perspective. Scientific and cultural progress can be seen as a victory over evil spirits through technology—part of Christ’s work to bring creation to fulfillment.
Kuyper is at his most persuasive when he lays out his vision of the moral solidarity of the human race in Christ, the Second Adam, lord over nature and culture. The whole sphere of human society, the ugliness of modernity notwithstanding, is Christ’s to claim; the little flock need not be afraid to emerge from the sanctuary to confess his name in public and do battle for his right. The lament has turned into a summons to cultural ambition. For the Church’s cultural mission cannot float on the cultural stream in a spirit of quiet acceptance. It must exert counterpressure, deploy the hard virtues of courage and endurance, and issue a word of challenge where such a thing is not often heard. The naming of Christ in all kinds of endeavors is paramount, for it is the name that gives cultural engagement meaning as a witness to the hidden wisdom of God. And on this point Kuyper seems still to have something to say to our present condition, living in a world where the question of effective Christian presence is constantly raised but rarely answered persuasively.
Together with a Christological account of the overarching human identity, Kuyper develops a generous and essentially catholic basis for understanding the Church, which must recover a sense of itself as a public body, universally commissioned to assert Christ’s claims in the public realm, united through Christ’s living presence, and present in particular institutional forms apostolically grounded on Scripture and structured by the gospel sacraments. Through common public witness (sadly weakened by a “flippant” tendency to schism over matters of secondary identity), the Church can rediscover its underlying unity in Christ. Though Christian unity cannot be forced, it must not be ignored as the true and natural state of Christ’s body.
To this encompassing ecclesiological foundation there is added a severe Reformed superstructure, shaped by the perennial danger of unfaithfulness and by the congregational principle that every member of the local church must be known—and judged!—by minister and elders. Do the generous foundation and narrow superstructure live together comfortably? Each reader will answer that question for himself. The point to notice, however, is that in either case it is the public character of the Church on which Kuyper insists. The demand for Christian unity and the demand for Christian discipline turn on the same point: There has to be a body of Christ in the world that is what it says.
The kingship of Christ, then, describes a social and cultural presence for the Church in the world, as a mission and a challenge to the prevailing cultural norms. But it is also used in two other ways. It distinguishes the divine work of salvation from his providential sustaining of the world order. And it speaks of the moral authority that energizes Christian believers. That these three uses do not always lead to the same conclusions is one thing that makes Kuyper’s arguments sometimes baffling. His treatment of politics is a prime case. While insisting that Christ’s kingship must not be spiritualized, Kuyper says that it must not be politicized, either. For while his dominion has everything to do with public cultural endeavor in science, agriculture, poetry, education, and music, it has nothing to do with civil government (paradoxically the sphere of Kuyper’s own public endeavors!). In this way, Kuyper saves the face of a Reformed tradition that assigns the civil state to God the Father’s care, the Church to the care of the Son.
Is not the idea of a heavenly “king” without political authority a bad case of “spiritualizing” (a harsher term might be “mythicizing”)? It raises problems enough for the traditional political analogies, on which much of Kuyper’s rhetoric depends. It deprives him of the use of some of the most fruitful biblical material for reflecting on authority, that of the Hebrew kings. It raises problems for his own programmatic boast that there is “not a square inch . . . over which Christ does not say ‘Mine!’” And it raises problems for Christian politics itself, ambiguously placed among the spheres of Christian service.
Yet having sharpened the opposition between political authority and the authority of teachers, parents, and moral examples, Kuyper softens the contrast again by allowing the principle that grace perfects nature to cover both types of authority equally. We may hope, then (encouraged by a passing remark of the editors), that in the third volume Kuyper will not enforce his separatist logic to the last degree, but will use his principle of common grace to bridge the work of politics and Christian witness. Anything less would surely undersell what Christian democratic politics in the nineteenth century, and not least the Anti-Revolutionary party of the Netherlands, had achieved.
A similar problem, breeding even more confusion, arises with ethics, which Kuyper believes lies (in part) outside the sphere of Christ’s kingly rule. He divides the virtues between “natural” and “Christian,” offering no account of the distinction except that “Christian” virtues are confined to the activities of disciples. The Dutch Education Law was therefore wrong to require that all children should be taught them. Do Christian virtues, then, correspond to the tradition’s “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and love, as contrasted with the “cardinal” virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice? And would it be very wrong to try to help schoolchildren understand that there might be such virtues as hope and love, transcending the strict this-worldly logic of prudence, justice, and not crying when you fall down on the playground? Or are the Christian virtues something else, special church practices, perhaps, which could have no application outside the world of pastors and elders and missionary collections? I confess to finding this a very barren piece of schematization.
To appreciate Kuyper as a figure of historical interest, one need do no more than read an encyclopedia article. In undertaking the labor of putting his words into print in English (in two very handsomely produced volumes), the editors display their confidence that he deserves more than historical interest, and their confidence is surely justified. But they are at something of a loss as to how to commend his vision to the modern Christian reader, whom they fear will find him too “nineteenth-century Dutch,” especially in his view of the family. But any reader taking up a text from the past must be prepared to encounter historical difference. We read old books to hear a word spoken from one era to another, to be challenged by an assumption that has since turned into a doubt, a doubt that has become an assumption.
And since much of the interest of a text out of the past lies in what it has accepted and what it has refused to accept from the commonplaces of its time, the editors could have done more to place Kuyper among his contemporaries, highlighting the decisions that were his to make. It was inevitable that he would assume that a husband was head of a household, and that the wife stayed at home. It was not inevitable that he denied the enduring significance of Israel’s land and politics. It was not inevitable, within months of the outbreak of the Great War, that he would think that the European arms race was a security for world peace. These things were hotly debated. And it was even less inevitable (for among Protestants it was very rare) that he would believe in visible unity as the natural condition of the Christian Church. We need to know why Kuyper thought as he did when others thought differently, and what were the peculiar achievements of his thought that made exciting openings for his followers.
Behind Kuyper’s public front of self-conscious Christian orthodoxy grounded plainly on the Scriptures, there lay a speculative, roaming, sometimes willful, and often courageous mind for the problems of his day. There is no simple application of his thoughts to our modern situation. But it would be hard to come away from reading him without a sense of renewed excitement. He had the confidence to seek to comprehend a wide range of concrete social questions under the proclamation of the achieved work of Christ. Whatever we think of the detailed results, that alone gives us plenty to think about and to be grateful for.
Oliver O’Donovan is professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh.