Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920) was a Dutch Christian, university founder, and politician. In 1874 he was elected to his nation’s lower house of Parliament and served there until 1877 after which he left politics for a time and founded the Free University of Amsterdam. In 1901, Kuyper returned to politics as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, a post he held until 1905.
During 1898, Kuyper visited the United States and delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. These lectures were later published in book form becoming “Lectures on Calvinism.”
It’s from one of these lectures, “Calvinism and Politics,” that I take the title and subject of this post. In that lecture, Kuyper lays out what I believe to be one of the most biblically sound models for the relationship among government, church, family and the individual.
All governments claim a degree of sovereignty over their people. The question, Kuyper says, is from what source does that authority flow? The answer is, that authority flows from God alone:
In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow-man in any other way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.
Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism (p. 77). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
This is as opposed to what Kuyper calls “Popular-sovereignty” and “State-sovereignty.” Popular-sovereignty believes ultimate power is vested with the people. This is the model on which the French Revolution was built, pure democracy. On the other hand, you have states such as Nazi Germany and, currently, North Korea, where the state is sovereign over all things. Interestingly, Kuyper, when writing this in 1898, identified the German Empire as an example of this kind of government. Clearly, Germany’s National Socialism of the 1930s didn’t appear from nowhere but grew up from already plowed soil. A sober warning.
In the first of these models, the individual is subservient to the tyranny of the majority, in the second the state becomes an almost mythical being to whom all must swear allegiance. In neither model are the rights of the individual and the freedom of the church protected because in neither model are any constraints placed on the sovereign whether that is the majority of the voters or a dictator.
But, when governments recognize they answer to something higher than the ballot box or the politburo, the stage is set for each institution of society to operate freely within their sphere, under the sovereignty of God. Kuyper calls this “sovereignty in the sphere of society.” Such governments recognize that right and wrong are not determined by election results or the whims of an all-powerful state but by the eternal principles laid out in God’s word. They are constrained by unchanging and unchangeable standards above and apart from themselves. This was the philosophy behind the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, that there are universal standards which no state has the right to violate. This was also the philosophy behind the constitutional form of government set up in the United States in the eighteenth century.
Under sovereignty of the sphere, each institution, the government, the church, the family, the arts, business, etc. is answerable to God within the sphere of their responsibility and function. No sphere owes its existence to any of the others but operates independently under God’s sovereignty:
In a Calvinistic sense we understand hereby, that the family, the business, science, art and so forth are all social spheres, which do not owe their existence to the state, and which do not derive the law of their life from the superiority of the state, but obey a high authority within their own bosom; an authority which rules, by the grace of God, just as the sovereignty of the State does.
Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism (p. 82). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
In other words, the state is not all-supreme. It, like any other sphere, has its proper place and calling and cannot usurp the authority of other spheres. So, in this model, the state cannot decide church doctrine and teaching or dictate who she can and cannot admit to membership. The church, in turn, cannot make civil laws or execute murderers, for that function has been given by God to the civil government. In a sphere sovereignty model, the civil government cannot dictate what marriage is. All they can do is defer to the eternal design set forth by God. They can make laws regarding marriage but they cannot change what it is, because that is outside their sovereign sphere, indeed outside the sovereign sphere of all earthy institutions, including the Supreme Court:
From the duality of man and woman marriage arises. From the original existence of one man and one woman monogamy comes forth.
Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism (p. 83). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
What we are witnessing in the west today is a move away from sphere sovereignty and its constraints of constitutional and eternal law and toward one or both of the other models. Kuyper says governments, by their nature, tend to usurp the authority of the other spheres if not constrained, becoming like an octopus with tentacles reaching into all aspects of life.
Our goal, therefore, must be to shore up and restore those constraints. This is the underlying issue behind all issues of concern to the believer. A government operating within its God-ordained sphere of administering justice and rewarding good (Romans 13:4) would not countenance the murder of 300,000 children in abortion. Such a government would not place its boot on the neck of Christian bakers or photographers who refuse to use their art to promote that which they find morally objectionable. Such a government would, through its policies and laws, encourage marriage, the family, thrift, private property and hard work – not because such things are agreeable to fifty-one percent of the voters or to whoever currently occupies the White House, but because such things are right and good and honorable in-and-of-themselves.
A people therefore which abandons to State Supremacy the rights of the family, or a University which abandons to it the rights of science, is just as guilty before God as a nation which lays its hands upon the rights of the magistrates. And thus the struggle for liberty is not only declared permissible, but is made a duty for each individual in his own sphere. And this not as was done in the French Revolution, by setting God aside and by placing man on the throne of God’s Omnipotence; but on the contrary, by causing all men, the magistrates included, to bow in deepest humility before the majesty of God Almighty.
Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism (pp. 90-91). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
Apart from this understanding, that ultimate authority is from above, tyranny always reigns. Only a recovery of that understanding and a return of government to its proper sphere will truly address the issues our culture faces. Any solution short of that is just a Band-Aid.