Thursday, April 03, 2014

Whose Reformed Tradition? Which Kuyper?

Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land 

The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” This article is a contribution to the project's literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the second of three articles (see the first here) written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

by Joshua Harris 

One of the clear advantages of understanding problems of social justice from a position of faith is the relative solidarity that comes with a common recognition of certain intellectual figures and traditions as, in some sense, authoritative. Aristotle warned us long ago that politics “is not an exact science,” so simple “scientific” appeals to non-personal authorities such as conclusions reached from deductive reasoning or empirical facts cannot by themselves settle debates about complicated questions such as “What is the role of the State in issues of social justice?” For this reason, among many others, Christians do well to consult the intellectual figures that have helped shape the faith tradition to which they belong. If we are products of our forefathers and mothers, then contemporary Christian leaders have a responsibility to interpret them with faithful, critical rigor. 

When it comes to questions about the integration of social justice and faith in the Reformed tradition in particular, few names mean as much as the Dutch social philosopher and theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, who inaugurated the energetic theological movement known as “neo-Calvinism,” also founded the Free University of Amsterdam and was even Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. These accomplishments and others give remarkable credence to perhaps his most famous theological commitment: namely, the oft-quoted line, “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!’” Kuyper’s legacy offers more than a few practical and theoretical resources for contemporary issues surrounding the relationship between social justice and faith. It should come as no surprise, then, that answers beginning with “Kuyper said/thought/taught…” tend to demand more attention than others. 

Along with the blessings that come with inheriting the imagination of such powerful figures, however, come some inevitable curses—at least one of which includes prickly disagreements about what Kuyper did, in fact, say/think/teach. Indeed, our humble Justice and Faith research team is identifying these kinds of disagreements as a primary theme arising from the many ways in which Christian Reformed congregations understand the relationship between social justice and faith. Tradition matters, but it is not univocal. 

Perhaps the most consistent interpretive disagreement in this context among Reformed intellectuals is the aforementioned question about the role of the State in matters of social justice. For Kuyper, does the State have a positive role in enacting justice in our communities? Or, by contrast, is the great Dutch theologian a champion of a limited State that preserves justice in our communities by refusing, when at all possible, to act coercively? 

Among some of the most prominent advocates of the latter interpretation of Kuyper are researchers associated with the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hunter Baker, Jordan Ballor and Catholic conservative Michael Novak draw attention to passages like the following from Kuyper’s The Problem of Poverty (quotes courtesy of the Acton blog): 
Socialists constantly invoke Christ in support of their utopias, and continually hold before us important texts from the Holy Word. Indeed, socialists have so strongly felt the bond between social distress and the Christian religion that they have not hesitated to present Christ himself as the great prophet of socialism.[1] 
The socialists so flatly reverse [this] when they preach it: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33). For both rich and poor, Jesus’ teaching simultaneously cuts to the root of sin in our human heart.[2]  
The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.[3] 
In these cases, Kuyper does indeed seem to be concerned with what he perceives to be a dangerous conflation between Christ’s salvific power and the State’s power to distribute resources created in the economic sphere of society according to the needs of those who are less fortunate. These strong words warn Reformed Christians that bloated welfare programs—even if they are born out of good intentions—are symptomatic of an overreach of the State’s power. These sentiments seem to square rather nicely with a “classical liberal” understanding of the role of the State in regards to social justice matters: namely, that private individuals and institutions of voluntary cooperation are primarily responsible for addressing such issues—not the centralized concentration of coercive power that constitutes the State. 

Despite these clear proclamations, however, many other contemporary interpreters of Kuyper seem to have at least comparable grounds for reading him as a strong proponent of a State with an active role in addressing issues of social justice. Influential Reformed intellectuals such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, James K.A. Smith, Richard Mouw and Bob Goudzwaard tend to draw attention to alternative passages in Kuyper’s impressive oeuvre (quoted from an article in Markets and Morality by Goudzwaard): 
In earlier days a law on labor should not have been possible, because … every relationship (of labor) with other social groupings did not exist in a way which is relevant for public justice.… But since then the situation in Europe has changed to such a high extent, that one may ask with very good reason (alleszins met recht): Why deny any longer to labor its own rights and legal forms of life, which are demanded by the very character of its nature?[4]  
The root principle of the French Revolution is its God-provoking cry “neither God nor master”—the ideal of humanity emancipated from God and his established order. From this principle extend two lines, not just one. The first is the [liberal] line along which you move in making up your mind to break down the established order of things, leaving nothing but the individual with his own free will and imaginary supremacy. Alongside this runs another line, at the end of which you are tempted not only to push aside God and his order, but also, now deifying yourself, to sit on God’s throne, as the prophet said, and to create a new order of things out of your own brain. The last is what social democracy wants to create.[5] 
Here, Kuyper urges his readers to consider the changing climate of Europe—one that has forgotten the contingency of the individual not only in her immediate society, but also before God himself. While still not an advocate of a large, impersonal State apparatus, Kuyper is equally critical of liberal individualism. Thus, according to this alternative reading, the kind of classical liberal society championed by the Acton Institute is not at all what Kuyper advocates. Indeed, actively ensuring “public justice” is the primary task entrusted to the State. 

While these kinds of interpretive disagreements can be frustrating for those who fall on either side of such debates, what projects like Justice and Faith can offer is a renewed perspective on the importance of rigorous, sustained dialogue about the tradition of which Christian Reformed congregations are a part. At least one side is wrong, and it is important to work towards understanding the reasons why.

[1] Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty (Sioux City, IA: Dordt College Press, 2011), 27.
[2] Ibid., 39-40.
[3] Ibid., 78.
[4] Abraham Kuyper, Architectonische critiek, fragmenten uit de sociaal-politike geschriften van dr A. Kuyper, translated by Bob Goudzwaard (Amsterdam: Paris, 1956), 115.
[5] Kuyper, Problem of Poverty, 120.

Joshua Harris holds an MA in Philosophy from Trinity Western University, where he defended a thesis exploring the possibility of understanding Thomas Aquinas as a mediator in contemporary debates arising from the so-called "analytic-continental divide" in the twentieth century. As a PhD candidate in Phlosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, his research interests include philosophy of language, philosophical theology and Christian social thought.

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  1. Thanks for this helpful survey of the different interpretations of Kuyperian thought, Josh. I've encountered both the right and left variants, but until now I haven't seen them distinguished clearly - your differentiating between the Acton Institute interpretation and the Calvin College interpretation is quite useful. My impression of Kuyper has been marked by a vague sense of respect (for the ideas in his essay "Calvinism and Politics", etc), but this vagueness might not be entirely my own fault - perhaps instead it's due to the ambivalences in his own thought which have been taken up recently in opposing directions.

  2. Thanks, Josh, for this thought provoking article about Abraham Kuyper. I was shocked a while ago when told that at a museum about Apartheid in South Africa there is a display about Abraham Kuyper. Apparently it names him as the one who provided the theological framework for Apartheid (Sphere sovereignty meaning that the whites are sovereign in their separate sphere, the blacks in theirs, the coloureds in theirs...). This is another dimension of social justice that people can understand different texts from Kuyper saying contrary things. I'd rather think that Kuyper agreed with our current understanding of the unity of the Church and our multi-racial identity as the diverse yet undivided people of God. It would make an interesting study.

  3. Josh,
    Thanks for an insightful and helpful demarcation of "right" and "left" Kuyperianism! In your research have you found Kuyper to be ambiguous enough to fall on either side at various times or have you found that he's a largely consistent thinker who lends himself to a pluriformity of interpretations?

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  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. These kinds of fundamental disagreements can signal a lack of clarity in an innovative thinker such as Kuyper, but at least as often I think they can show us the shortcomings of our own version of the Left/Right spectrum. There's no reason we should have to choose between being serious about social justice issues (Left) and being justly critical of a bloated, impersonal state apparatus (Right). In my mind, one of the most important lessons we can learn from Kuyper's doctrine of sphere sovereignty these days is the following: namely, that it is just as possible for the state to overreach in its power as it is for the exchange-based economy to overreach in its power. If we don't keep this in mind, we have a tendency to slide down one or the other side and lose both.