Cultural Engagement & Natural Law Ecumenism
Considered a century removed, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) lived a life that defies categorization. He was a parliamentarian, a prime minister, a pioneer and founder, an administrator, an editor, and an educator. Perhaps most significantly, Kuyper was a public theologian, and in some quarters of Protestant Reformed Christianity his legacy endures with surprising potency.
Kuyper is best known for three emphases: "sphere sovereignty," "antithesis" (between faith and the world), and "common grace." In contrast to antithesis, common grace (de gemeene gratie) places an accent on our shared humanity and common moral ground, and hence on public participation and social responsibility. Common grace may be summarized as God's preserving and sustaining work in the created order. In Kuyperian thought, common grace both justifies and bridges the antithesis.
That is to say, common grace does not work against special or saving grace, despite the tendency in contemporary Reformed circles to pit one against the other. The two work together, in the same way that grace builds upon and completes nature. This represents the complementarity of general and special revelation. Common grace, as Kuyper understood it, is not some sort of modern theological innovation; rather, it prevents a culturally irrelevant and ineffectual Christianity insofar as it understands that God has gifted everyone to contribute to the common good.
Kuyper & the Moral Order
Morality, Kuyper insists against the modern—and we might add, ultramodern—ethos, cannot be "created by us at will"; it must transcend us. The eternal principles of God's character apply to the social-political realm, "not directly" or "by the pronouncement of any church," he adds, but through conscience and an awareness of divine ordinances. How does Kuyper understand "divine ordinances"? In his second Princeton lecture, part of the 1898 Stone Lecture Series at Princeton Theological Seminary, he observes: "All created life necessarily bears in itself a law for its existence, instituted by God Himself. There is no life outside us in Nature, without such divine ordinances—ordinances which are called the laws of Nature."
But a qualification is in order: the term "nature," he cautions, is acceptable provided that we understand thereby "not laws originating from [or in] Nature but laws imposed [from the outside] upon Nature." Based on comments regarding common grace and science, Kuyper appears to be offering this caveat in response to the regnant metaphysical materialism that proceeded from the Darwinism of his day, which, he points out, "leads to atheism" and "denies that we are formed according to the image of God."
What precisely is the character and constitution of these divine ordinances? They are the "servants of God" in that they regulate every aspect of creation—material and non-material. "Moral life," Kuyper observes, "just like physical life, is subject to laws and influences that are determined by God, not man. We are all obliged to follow these laws and obey those influences." There are ordinances "in logic" which regulate our thoughts, ordinances "for our imagination" in the domain of aesthetics, and indeed ordinances "for the whole of human life in the domain of morals" (emphasis present). These moral ordinances, moreover, govern "the mightiest problems and the smallest trifles" and are "urged upon us as the constant will of the Omnipotent and Almighty God, who at every instant is determining the course of life, ordaining its laws and continually binding us by His divine authority."
And lest the Christian believer wrongly assume that these "general moral ordinances," expressed in the "Law of Sinai," differ in any way from "more special Christian commandments," Kuyper is adamant that such a distinction is "unknown" to God, since they are part of creation. Kuyper is quick to address the false assumption, perhaps in his day held by many Christians, that the moral law does not exist for all time and that it is superseded by Christ. With rhetorical force he asks:
Can we imagine that at one time God willed to rule things in a certain moral order, but that now, in Christ, he wills to rule it otherwise? As though He were not the Eternal, the Unchangeable, Who, from the very hour of creation, even unto all eternity, had willed, wills, and shall will and maintain, one and the same firm moral world-order!
And while Christ "has strengthened in us the ability to walk in this world-order with a firm, unfaltering step," the world-order itself, Kuyper notes, "remains just what it was from the beginning." In fact, it lays full claim "not only to the believer (as though less were required from the unbeliever)" but "to every human being and to all human relationships."
Kuyper wishes to be clear: "all ethical study is based on the Law of Sinai, not as though at that time the moral world-order began to be fixed, but to honor the Law of Sinai, as the divinely authentic summary of that original moral law which God wrote in the heart of man, at his creation, and which God is re-writing on the tables of every heart at his conversion."
This is none other than the natural law.
Kuyper & Roman Catholicism
Kuyper, of course, is well known for his strong disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church—disagreements that are delineated in considerable detail in his Princeton lectures. In his first lecture, "Calvinism a Life-System," he says that Calvinism posits "no mediate communion between God and creature, as Romanism does." The problem with Rome is that it places itself "between the soul and God." Elsewhere Kuyper offers a similar criticism of the Roman Catholic Church: it does not aid and build the layperson in terms of personal faith; it imparts, rather, an "implicit faith," which fails to anchor Christian doctrine.
Relatedly, Romanism places every human relationship in a hierarchy, almost a religious caste system. What's more, as developed in the medieval period, the Church dominated and guarded every aspect of social life, thereby becoming an obstacle to social development. And where escape from the world has been chosen, it has often been monastic or clerical in nature.
In his second Princeton lecture, "Calvinism and Religion," Kuyper insists that Roman Catholicism encourages the sacred-versus-secular dichotomy, as opposed to emphasizing the priesthood of all believers and the nobility of non-ecclesial callings. Furthermore, it encourages an unhealthy mysticism rather than public theology. "Not Bernard of Clairvaux but Thomas of Aquino, not Thomas à Kempis but Luther . . . have ruled the spirits of men," he retorts. For by its very nature, mysticism "strives rather to avoid contact with the outside world."
In terms of the cultus, as Kuyper sees it, Roman Catholicism's preoccupation with sacrifice, the altar, and priesthood together take away from their eternal expression through Christ, resulting in an unhealthy sacerdotalism. In measuring various social, economic, and political developments on several continents around the globe, Kuyper laments the backwardness and under-development of the nations of the south, whether in southern Europe or in Latin and South America, where the Catholic Church "has full sway." Finally, and perhaps most severely, Kuyper declares, "Rome says 1517 led to 1789 [i.e., the French Revolution]. We say Roman Catholicism is responsible in church and state for 1789, as an illegitimate mother. Thus we cannot join Rome."
Kuyper & Common-Cause Cooperation
These are strong words. And yet, in his critique of "Romanism" Kuyper makes some rather remarkable concessions—concessions that require our attention. Despite his harsh (and many) criticisms, in surprising though select ways he identifies elements of Roman Catholicism that are "commendable" and have "our warm approval." Kuyper is able to praise Catholicism for its unity and coherence as a "life-system," much in contrast to Protestantism, which for him is splintered and moving "without aim or direction."
He is impressed by the "marvelous energy displayed in the latter half of this century by Rome." This is doubtless a reference to Pope Leo XIII's important 1891 social encyclical Rerum novarum, in which the pontiff addresses "the social question." The pope and Kuyper share important common ground, namely, a similar vision of humanity and society as well as an antipathy toward the socialist/collectivist "solution" being offered in their day. Elsewhere, in The Problem of Poverty, Kuyper writes, "We must admit, to our shame, that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social problem. Indeed, very far ahead. The action of the Roman Catholics should spur us to show more dynamism." And here he acknowledges explicitly that Leo's encyclical "states the principles which are common to all Christians and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots."
Hence, Kuyper asks of his fellow Reformed that they "not too hastily dismiss this question" of common ground with Roman Catholicism. In his sixth Princeton lecture, he insists:
Though the history of the Reformation has established a fundamental antithesis between Rome and ourselves, it would nevertheless be narrow-minded and short-sighted to underestimate the real power which even now is manifest in Rome's warfare against Atheism and Pantheism. Only ignorance of the exhaustive studies of Romish philosophy and of Rome's successful efforts in social life . . . could account for such a superficial judgment.
What needs emphasis is Kuyper's concession that two specific realms—creedal confession and morals—are "not subject to controversy between Rome and ourselves." Moreover, "what we have in common with Rome concerns precisely those fundamentals of our Christian creed now most fiercely assaulted by the modern spirit." And while on particular points of ecclesiology and theology—for example, Rome's teaching on justification, the Mass, the invocation of saints, and purgatory—Kuyper's Calvinism is "unflinchingly opposed to Rome," Kuyper can contend that these differences are "not now the points on which the struggle of the age is concentrated." Rather, "the lines of battle," as he views them, are drawn as follows:
• Theism versus atheism and pantheism
• Human fallenness versus human perfectibility
• The divine Christ versus Jesus the mere man
• The cross as a sacrifice of reconciliation versus a mere symbol of martyrdom
• The Bible as inspired by God versus a purely human product
• The Ten Commandments as ordained by God versus a mere archaeological document
• The eternally established ordinances of God versus an ever-changing law and morality spun out of human subjectivity
"Now, in this [cultural] conflict," Kuyper maintains,
Rome is not an antagonist, but stands on our side, inasmuch as she also recognizes and maintains the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Cross as an atoning sacrifice, the Scriptures as the Word of God, and the Ten Commandments as a divinely-inspired rule of life. Therefore, let me ask[,] if Romish theologians take up the sword to do valiant and skillful battle against the same tendency that we ourselves mean to fight to the death, is it not the part of wisdom to accept the valuable help of their elucidation? Calvin at least was accustomed to appeal to Thomas of Aquino. And I for my part am not ashamed to confess that on many points my views have been clarified through my study of the Romish theologians.
What's more, Kuyper concludes, "we should not lose sight of the fact that in Christian works and devotion Rome still outstrips us."
Protestant unity with Roman Catholics on basic creedal matters and on the cultural front, despite Kuyper's strong criticisms of Rome, is borne out by the fact of the Anti-Revolutionary Party's coalition with Catholic members of the Dutch Parliament, which resulted in Kuyper becoming Prime Minister in 1901. In fact, eleven years prior, a Protestant–Roman Catholic coalition had secured passage of the Education Act, which allowed public funding of private education. It is fair to say that by encouraging common-cause cooperation with Catholics, Kuyper was instrumental in helping dissolve some of the Protestant–Roman Catholic antagonism that had built up over the previous 300 years.
Common Grace & Common Ground
The character of common grace in Kuyperian thought is mirrored in its accent on our shared humanity, common moral ground, and public responsibility based on the created order. As a theological reality, it has its roots in the absolute sovereignty of God, a sturdy doctrine of creation, and a full-orbed, all-encompassing understanding of redemption.
One domain needing greater attention among "Reformed" types in particular is that of moral law. As Kuyper and his Roman Catholic counterparts understood, moral law is the means by which God governs the universe. Kuyper understands moral law in terms of "divine ordinance," and this moral law is woven into the very fabric of creation. In Ons Program, published in 1879 and intended as a theological and ideological commentary on political involvement in the Netherlands, Kuyper speaks of the "natural knowledge of God," accessible to all human beings, and "universal moral law." This universal moral law, moreover, "was ingrained in man before his fall" and,
however weakened after the fall, still speaks so sharply, so strongly, so clearly among even the most brutalized peoples and the most degenerate persons that Paul could write: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts mean while accusing or else excusing one another." (emphasis in original)
This, of course, is none other than the language of natural law. Thus it is that Kuyper can speak of "the ordinances of God" which direct and preserve all of human life and form the underpinnings of common grace. These laws or ordinances, in turn, facilitate what Kuyper referred to as "sphere sovereignty" (soevereiniteit in eigen kring) or "structural pluralism," developed at some length in his third Princeton lecture, "Calvinism and Politics." Common grace, supported by divine ordinances, makes civil life possible, based on moral principle and shared morality. At bottom, justice is impossible without the moral law. In Kuyper's understanding, justice derives from divine ordinances.
In addition to Kuyper's insistence that two realms—creedal confession and morality—are the basis for Protestant–Roman Catholic unity, a further bit of evidence indicates that natural law represents common ground between Kuyper and Roman Catholicism. In 1897, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his editorship of De Standaard, Kuyper stated what was his one great passion in life: "to affirm God's holy statutes" in all of life and "to engrave God's holy order," known through creation and Scripture, "upon the nation's public conscience."
While we might wonder—quite legitimately—why the grammar of "natural law" or "the law of nature" is not part of Kuyper's vocabulary, we must recall the dominant ideological tendencies of his day—the late nineteenth century—when the influence of Darwin, Hegel, Kant, and Spencer is prevailing. Recall, too, his qualification of the term "nature" noted earlier: he was willing to accept it provided that we understood thereby "not laws originating from Nature but laws imposed upon Nature." In any event, Kuyper is at home in the natural law tradition—a tradition that is acknowledged by Calvin himself.
Two In-House Problems
In Kuyper's day, there was a problem in the Christian church, as there was even in Calvin's, and as there is—it needs pointing out—in ours. This problem, developed extensively in the Princeton lectures, is the tendency either toward capitulation to contemporary secularizing assumptions or toward isolation from the culture. Capitulation or isolation—in Kuyper's thinking, this twofold problem called for a "third way." While social liberals, in Kuyper's view, were all too ready to ignore the antithesis, Anabaptist and pietistic types suffered from a stunted view of creation and redemption, resulting in a fleeing or withdrawing from the culture in ways that discounted the church's "cultural mandate." Anabaptism, for Kuyper, "in its effort to evade the world," adopted "the monastic starting-point, generalizing and making it a rule for all believers" (emphasis present). Common grace, in bold contrast, should render us "duty bound to take all civil life under its guardianship and to remodel it." Kuyper's social philosophy "embraces all of this world here below with all that belongs to this life by virtue of creation and common grace." Redemption, therefore, entails a "creation regained," in the words of writer Al Wolters.
In our day, there is an additional problem, and it is also "in-house." It is the widespread tendency among Protestants—indeed, among both revisionists and orthodox types—to be suspicious of or to reject natural law thinking. This bias seems to be rooted in a mentality that assumes that natural law is a medieval construct (and hence outmoded), or that it is chiefly a "Catholic" thing (and hence skews the nature-grace relationship while being insufficiently Christocentric), or that it doesn't account for cultural diversity and "pluralism" (and hence is "imperialistic").
What needs emphasis is that the magisterial reformers—Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and others—all affirmed the natural law. Given the strong emphasis on human depravity in Calvin's theological system, many believers today assume that Calvin had a dim view of the natural law, in contrast to his Catholic counterparts. Such, however, is not the case. And while natural law is not a major focus of the Protestant Reformers when compared to, say, justification, Calvin is keenly aware of Paul's argument in Romans that the Gentiles "show the work of the law written on their hearts" (Rom. 2:15).
Calvin's uses of the law in his Institutes of the Christian Religion—ceremonial, judicial, and moral—mirror his conviction that there are aspects of human law that are both binding and non-binding. Calvin is a Thomist in assuming that, from natural instinct and our social nature, human beings are disposed to regulate themselves by moral law. The seeds of just laws, he insists, are "implanted in the breasts of all without a lawgiver." Furthermore, they remain unaffected by the vicissitudes of life, so that "neither war nor catastrophe nor crime nor disagreement can alter these moral intuitions." Nothing can destroy "the primary idea of justice" that is planted within the human soul.
How corrupt is the human heart, according to Calvin? Thoroughly. Is there any realm of human experience unaffected by sin? Emphatically not. Notwithstanding this reality, neither Calvin, nor Kuyper for that matter, can be interpreted as teaching that humans are incapable of basic moral reasoning. Calvin sides with St. Paul: "natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance while it proves them guilty by their own testimony." The Reformer acknowledges that despite "man's perverted and degenerate nature," the image of God is not "totally annihilated and destroyed"; rather, "some sparks still shine" in human creation. Kuyper would agree.
While an examination of influential post-Kuyperian "Reformed" voices that questioned or rejected natural law thinking—for example, Herman Dooyeweerd a generation later, Helmut Thielicke, and Karl Barth—is beyond the scope of the present discussion, it does need emphasizing that an inaccurate (or outdated) account of contemporary Roman Catholic teaching, coupled with Protestants' worry that natural law either is insufficiently Christocentric or misconstrues nature and grace, has contributed to the Protestant dilemma to the present day. Add to this the influence of people like John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and other Anabaptist scholars, and Protestants remain generally suspicious of natural law ethics. Happily, in the last decade there has been something of a renewal of natural law thinking in some corners of Protestant thought—clearly not everywhere, but here and there. This, surely, is a critically important ecumenical development. In Kuyperian terms, it is indispensable for a sturdy public theology.
Kuyper & the Catholic Catechism
At bottom, Kuyper's concept of "common grace" is underpinned by his belief in a "universal moral law," and this accords with Catholic—and classically Christian—teaching on the natural moral law. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which represents that church's official position on matters doctrinal and social, affirms the natural law with its ramifications in Part 3, Section 1. The broader contours of the natural law, as affirmed in paragraphs 1954 through 1964 of the Catechism, are as follows:
• The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables human beings to discern through reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.
• It is written and engraved in the soul of each person.
• It states the first and essential precepts that govern the moral life and thus is the light of understanding placed in us by God.
• It is universal in its precepts; hence, its authority extends to all people.
• It finds its application in various ways in different cultural contexts, yet within this diversity it binds humans together by common moral principles.
• It is in conformity with our created nature, the image of God; it prohibits what is contrary to our nature and prescribes what is essential to the good and human flourishing.
• It is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history.
• It provides the solid foundation on which human beings can build the structure of moral rules to guide their choices and moral obligations.
• It is a law that cannot be abrogated and that sin cannot efface.
• It is the basis for civil and positive law, and it prepares human beings for the reception of grace.
• It is summarized in the precepts of the Ten Commandments.
To read the Catholic Catechism as a Protestant is to be surprised at the convergence of Catholics and Protestants in important theological contexts, especially with respect to justification, faith, and grace, which are treated in both Part One and Part Three. This "convergence" has been demonstrated in our lifetime by several remarkable developments—not unrelated to each other—that require Protestants to reevaluate what Jaroslav Pelikan called the "tragic necessity" of the Reformation divide. Such a reevaluation is fitting in 2018, the year following the 500th anniversary of the Reformation's beginning. Clearly, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, things are not as they were in 1517. In the words of two religious historians, "Protestants are duty-bound to try to understand the tragic dimensions of the Reformation."
Consider, for example, the Lutheran–Roman Catholic dialogues on justification that extended through the 1980s, resulting in the significant document, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, published in 1999 by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. Or the Vatican's official response to the Joint Declaration, which acknowledged that while significant areas of theological difference have not been eliminated, "a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification" in fact exists. Or consider that both Catholic and Protestant writers of our generation are writing on the similarities of "sphere sovereignty" and "subsidiarity." Or consider the many Protestant admirers of John Paul II, not least because of the timeliness and trenchant nature of cultural criticism found in his encyclicals. Or the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, birthed in the early-to-mid 1990s and continuing to the present day. Or the September 2011 address by Benedict XVI to the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, which stressed the importance of our "shared foundation" in light of worldwide challenges to the faith. Or the recent document "From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran–Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017," crafted in preparation for commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Lo and behold, if all this were not enough, the Vatican announced in January 2017 that it would be issuing a stamp with a picture of Martin Luther on it. Without question, the possibilities that now exist for genuine ecumenical dialogue, theological discussion, and common-cause cooperation are infinitely greater than even a generation ago.
Let it be said, as well, that the things Kuyper believed represent no mere "lowest-common-denominator" approach to ecumenical relations, which was so fashionable in much of the twentieth century. They represent, rather, an ecumenism rooted in faithfulness to the historic Christian tradition and are necessary for the cultural mandate before us.
Kuyper & the Culture
Over a hundred years removed from us, Abraham Kuyper found common ground with Roman Catholics through his teaching on common grace and universal moral law. This common ground is none other than the natural law, as both classical Christian social teaching and the Catholic Catechism bear witness. Kuyper was dismayed by the church's uncritical acceptance of society's increasing secularization as well as by her ineffectual social witness. In the words of Max Stackhouse, Kuyper recognized that "the well-being of the soul, the character of local communities, the fabric of the society at large, and the fate of civilization [all] are intimately related and cannot be separated from theological and moral issues."
As students of Kuyper are quick to point out, this remarkable man found little appeal in world-fleeing pietism, theocratic triumphalism, or social-gospel liberalism. His was a robust, active vision that avoided privatized faith, eschatological top-heaviness, and the attenuation of truth. Biographer James Bratt expresses it well: "Kuyper did not want a naked public square but a crowded one." Indeed. His idea of the public square, moreover, was that of a structured pluralism, with Christians contending in the public square.
This makes rather remarkable the decision by Princeton Theological Seminary to rescind the 2017 Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life, which was to have been awarded to Rev. Tim Keller at the April conference, "Neo-Calvinism and the Church," sponsored by the seminary's Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology. Remarkable and yet predictable, given the state of the Protestant mainline. Keller, the well-known founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, was to have been honored with the award in light of his demonstrated "innovation" and "excellence" in public theology. Princeton Seminary president Craig Barnes, in announcing the reversal only two weeks before the April event, claimed to be responding to protests from students and PCUSA pastors who denounced Keller's (and his PCA denomination's) view of both the ordination of women and same-sex causes.
The Kuyper Prize is awarded each year to "a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the 'spheres' of society." The recipient of the prize typically delivers the opening keynote address at the Kuyper conference. Past recipients include Congressman John R. Lewis (2015); Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Yale University (2014); Marilynne Robinson, writer and Pulitzer Prize winner (2011); Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (2010); Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy emeritus, University of Notre Dame (2009); Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary (2007); and Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of the Netherlands (2004).
What may be said, at the very least, of the seminary's decision is that it is un-Kuyperian in the extreme. Kuyper desired a lively and pluralistic public arena—an arena in which Christians were free to contend. Clearly, the seminary cannot tolerate such pluralism. And although it claims to tolerate—or even encourage—"diverse viewpoints" on the matter of sexual ethics, it clearly cannot tolerate divergence or disagreement of any kind. In truth, it is saying that disagreement on matters of gender and sexuality dare not be tolerated. And therewith it is declaring that historic Christian orthodoxy is unacceptable.
But Kuyper would have none of this, were his voice allowed in the public sphere today. While sexual ethics was not the watershed issue—and hence the litmus test—of his day as it is of ours, he did decry the church when and where she capitulated to the cultural Zeitgeist. In this regard, we very much need an Abraham Kuyper in the twenty-first century—updated and chastened, to be sure, since he was a man of his time. His courageous spirit is desperately needed in Protestant circles.
If we update Kuyper's program where needed and push it in a fuller ecumenical direction, the fruit might be rich beyond measure. And it may well be that the unity between Catholics and Protestants (at least, what faithful Protestants remain in the North American context) on theological essentials and moral first principles, in the end, is no luxury. That unity, rather, may be an absolute necessity and prerequisite for survival as we attempt to demonstrate a robust and faithful Christian presence in a hostile cultural environment in the years ahead. •
This essay is a modified version of an address he delivered on April 8, 2017, at the conference "Neo-Calvinism and the Church," sponsored by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary.
J. Daryl Charles is a 2018 affiliated scholar of the Acton Institute and also serves as a contributing editor to the journal Providence: Christianity and American Foreign Policy. An affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute, he is the author of Natural Law and Religious Freedom (Routledge, 2017) and Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008). He is a contributing editor to Touchstone.
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