Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was born into the home of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk). His education in Leiden University was strongly influenced by J. H. Scholten (1811–85), who modelled for Kuyper an emphasis on the logical development of ideas from root principles and an orientation to the primary ideas of the Reformation. Kuyper embraced modern theology, and became a minister in the NHK, but experienced a conversion to a more traditional Reformed orthodoxy due to his reading of the Christian allegorical novel The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) and the influence of parishioners. Kuyper entered politics in 1874 but remained active in Church life. In 1879 he helped form the Reformed orthodox Anti-Revolutionary Party, and served as editor for the party’s weekly paper (De Heraut) and daily (De Standaard).
In 1880 he helped to found the Free University of Amsterdam, which he believed had an important role to play both in furthering the mission of the Church and in shaping contemporary culture through its impact on the life of common people. ‘Sphere Sovereignty’ was the title of Kuyper’s inaugural address for the Free University and the label for his idea that human life is rightly characterized by pluralism with respect to both social structures and world views. According to Kuyper, God is sovereign over the entire creation, but there is also a derivative sovereignty distributed across social spheres such as the family, schools, and the State. This pluralism of spheres allows for a diversity of world views, manifested concretely in a diversity of public institutions like the Free University.
In 1886 Kuyper led the Doleantie, a schism from the NHK prompted by concerns about the national Church’s theological liberalism, and in 1892 Kuyper’s group merged with the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Kuyper served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, though his tenure was unremarkable. His continuing influence is a function both of the example of his own committed engagement with contemporary culture and of his ideas, which encourage a committed and public Christianity.
In 1898 Kuyper gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, which presented his distinctive interpretation of Reformed theology. This perspective, later labelled ‘neo-Calvinism’ (initially a pejorative designation that eventually became an accepted label), saw Christianity as a world system which yielded a comprehensive view of life and reality. In addition to articulating his idea of sphere sovereignty, the lectures also highlighted two of Kuyper’s distinctive theological emphases: common grace and the antithesis. Kuyper stressed the importance of common grace (i.e., that which God bestows on all humankind) as the divine restraint in creation that allows positive contributions to history from all human beings and thus justifies Christian engagement with the public realm. By contrast, Kuyper coined the idea of the antithesis, which distinguished Christians (beneficiaries of both special and common grace) from non-Christians (beneficiaries of common grace only) to emphasize the distinctiveness of Christian belief. Kuyper never resolved the tension between these two emphases, and his legacy includes those who emphasize one or the other as more central to Christian participation in the world.
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