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Can Kuyper Still Speak?

Might Kuyper’s insights in his own era propel us toward engaging our contemporary neighbours with the gospel in ours?

I still remember the year 1995 because that was when I first encountered Abraham Kuyper. In fact, amidst scores of people leaving Christian Reformed congregations, my family joined the CRC. One of the main reasons we left the Baptist church for Reformed Christianity was that in the neo-Calvinist theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we discovered a way of following Jesus that comprehensively engaged all of life. Until 1995 Jesus was my saviour. But after 1995 I came to realize that when Jesus said that “all authority” had been given to him, he meant it (Matt. 28:18). Here was a non-reductionistic Christianity that grappled deeply with the world’s created goodness, its radical rebellion in sin and God’s cosmic redemptive purposes to restore all things in Christ. I was hooked.

Today I serve the denomination that introduced me to a world-engaging kind of Christian discipleship by directing a Christian study centre which takes its name from Kuyper (www.kuypercentre.ca). Here we seek to mentor students and faculty to “think Christianly” about every area of academic study. Our hope is that just as the Dutch Reformer sought to be a witness to Christ in every square inch of creation, a renaissance of prophetic Christian engagement of all things might take place in our day.

One of the dispatches I’d like to send from the world of campus ministry to church-land is that there are still people like me who are yearning for full-blooded Reformational Christianity. It seems that many Reformed congregations today believe they can manage a fresh expression of God’s spirit within their ministries by buying into the simplistically pre-packaged sermon series and spiritual lingo from evangelical, charismatic, non-denominational and fundamentalist ways of doing church. Ironically, many students I encounter on campus are searching for world-engaging discipleship which has more in common with the theologians of the past than the next hip preacher with a catchy personality and slick worship band. We preachers might be surprised to learn how many people today are tired of pulpit chatter and who are longing instead for a faith that deeply connects the insights of our Reformational heritage with the existential questions being asked today on street corners, in boardrooms and in university labs.

As Reformed Christians, while we don’t take church tradition as authoritative for the life of faith today, what God has done in history can be an inspiring motivation for following Christ faithfully in our own time and place. Does someone like Kuyper have anything to offer us today? Might Kuyper’s insights in his own era propel us toward engaging our contemporary neighbours with the gospel in ours?

Standing before God’s face

The first, and actually most important, reminder our Reformed forebears provide is that the God who is Trinity stands at the centre of reality. As Kuyper said in his 1898 gendered language, “The starting-point of every motive in religion is God and not Man. Man is the instrument and means, God alone is here the goal, the point of departure and the point of arrival, the fountain, from which the waters flow, and at the same time, the ocean into which they finally return” (Lectures on Calvinism, 53). The Reformed worldview does not begin with me, my comfort or my concerns. Reality — past, present and future — is God’s unique project. “It is not God who exists for the sake of His creation; the creation exists for the sake of God” (55). And so when we stand on the front porch of our consciousness and look out at life in this beautiful and broken world, a distinctly Christian perspective begins and ends with the One who holds all things in his hands. In contrast to that, many Christian voices today claim that life is all about us, that what really matters is what we do, and that Jesus affirms us. But Kuyper says “In all religion God Himself must be the active power. He must make us religious, He must give us the religious disposition, nothing being left to us but the power to give form and expression to the deep religious sentiment which He, Himself, stirred in the depth of our heart” (55).

This isn’t meant to suggest that the God who is Trinity stands at a careless, disinterested distance from the created world, as the eighteenth century Deists claimed. While God exists at the centre of reality, in Jesus Christ he stands facing the world unwaveringly intimately. Kuyper reminds us that our covenantal God is universally present to his creation. “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do . . . he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God” (63). The grace of God isn’t just for believers, though; in Kuyper’s understanding of God’s grace it extends in “common” fashion to everything God has made. God isn’t committed to me or my clan or my tribe at the exclusion of my neighbor, my neighbourhood or my next-door nation. My comfort in life and in death doesn’t come at the expense of God ignoring any of his other global children. With the God of Jesus Christ, there is no preferred language, nation, culture or ethnic group. Christ does not send us into his world to perpetuate a sinful system of ethnic hierarchy. And Christ does not rule his church segmented into cultural silos. The one God sovereignly embraces his entire world in the love shown in Jesus Christ. And the Spirit’s goal is to bring all of creation’s beautiful diversity into acknowledgement of the world’s one true King, where each tribe’s unique gifts can be brought together into a symphony of worship.

Church = launching pad

But let’s not forget that there’s more to the life of faith than the realm of personal spirituality or mere church attendance. Christ commissions us for Kingdom work in the whole of life, not merely to cultivate warm fuzzy feelings in our hearts or to warm a pew on Sunday mornings. As shocking as it may sound to us, Kuyper says that “A religion confined to feeling . . . [is] unthinkable” for the Christian. And neither is church the obligatory goal of the Christian life. Rather, at the heart of Calvinism is the Kingdom of God so that “a religion confined to the closet, the cell, or the church, therefore, Calvin abhors” because “God is present in all life” (62). The church is a launching pad, not a holding pen. The church’s role is to equip Kingdom citizens for Kingdom work in the world, not just in the church. Christ calls us to follow him on a path of suffering love and service for a world that’s dying for renewal. Christ does not call his disciples to a life of ecstatic signs and wonders and high-flying euphoria; he sends his Spirit to us so that we might be empowered by God’s Word, discipled into maturity, strengthened in our trust that nothing can separate us from his love, and then sent into a world that needs to see and hear that another world is not only possible but being birthed into reality. There is a strong centripetal force within the church today by which committees, small groups and various other “meetings” have come to monopolize Christian life, leaving little time or energy for acts of service and witness outside the four walls of the church building or the strong social networks we have created. As Kuyper concluded his sermon, “Incarnation of God, the Life-Principle of the Church,” preached on November 10, 1867, in Utrecht: everyone must take the gift they’ve been given by God in science, labour, art, music, education or parenting, and apply those gifts to every sphere and question of life, regardless of the pain and suffering it elicits, so that the entire world might come to know Christ the Lord. Reformational Christianity sends the church into the world to be the salt and light of Christ.

I fully recognize that talk like this these days is often misunderstood as embarrassing, romantic and idealistic nostalgia. The value of Kuyper and other Reformational figures of the past is not to re-introduce the past to our time in a wooden cut-and-paste fashion. Rather, as Kuyper himself said in his farewell sermon July 31, 1870: “Christianity detests a false conservatism that adorns itself with the name of Christianity but is devoid of its power” (Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 71). Rather, “it is our calling to hold fast what we have in Christ in our own time,” and to engage in “the enormous task of bringing the power of the gospel to bear” on the realities of the present (82, 84). It is my hope and prayer that we might still have ears to hear those who have gone before us, rather than settling for simplistic and silly gimmicks that only entertain and sedate.

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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