Another look at Abraham Kuyper and the clash between Christianity and Modernism
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Last month marked the 125th anniversary of the landmark Stone lectures of 1898, when the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper traveled to the United States to give his “Lectures on Calvinism” at the invitation of the Princeton Theological Seminary Faculty. Kuyper’s self-appointed task was to provide an articulation of Calvinism as a distinct “world- and lifeview,” an idea previously championed by the Scottish theologian James Orr and adopted from the German philosophical tradition.
For Kuyper the idea of “worldview” (as it is commonly shortened) allowed him to distill the essential elements of different perspectives and judge them accordingly. The purpose was to identify the basic animating principles of different religious and philosophical traditions. Thus, argued Kuyper, Calvinism represented a distinct way of life in the world, and as the best form of Christianity could be helpfully compared with Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Islam as well as Paganism and Modernism. This latter worldview was Kuyper’s main opponent, even as he critically assessed other theological confessions and religions.
“Two life systems are wrestling with one another, in mortal combat,” contended Kuyper. “Modernism is bound to build a world of its own from the data of the natural man, and to construct man himself from the data of nature.” Christianity, by contrast, takes its point of departure in biblical revelation. “Outside of Scripture,” Kuyper observed, the regenerated Christian “discovered only vague shadows. But as he looked upward, through the prism of the Scriptures, he rediscovers his Father and his God.”
The Modernist worldview can take many forms, depending on the features that are more or less prominent in a particular context. Over time it would manifest as naturalism, scientism, progressivism, and secularism. The key feature, however, was its assumption of fallen man as the measure of all things and the opposition of humanity to God. The distinctive historical manifestation of this worldview was the French Revolution, which Kuyper evaluated in accord with a long line of antirevolutionary thought, including Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and his Dutch mentor, G. Groen van Prinsterer. “The French Revolution ignores God. It opposes God,” said Kuyper. “It refuses to recognize a deeper ground of political life than that which is found in nature, that is, in this instance, in man himself.” Far more than simply a political movement, though, revolutionary Modernism aims to pit all of created reality against the Creator himself.
While modernism may at first seem like a worldview that would celebrate diversity, Kuyper rightly sees it as ultimately resting on the assertion of mere power, where a unitary will triumphs over all of reality and imposes itself as the dominating force over everything. Thus, writes Kuyper, “Modernism, which denies and abolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity.” This uniformity is the monism of human will placed in diametric opposition to God, whose ordinances of creation provide the grounding for the authentic diversity of human development.
A century and a quarter after Kuyper gave these ground-breaking lectures, the contrast between Christianity and Modernism is more apparent than ever. With characteristic optimism at the turn of the 20th century, Kuyper had high hopes for the cause of Christian liberty in America and into the future. In his grand historical sweep, Kuyper traces the legacy of Calvinism through Europe to the New World: “The fundamental idea of Calvin has been transplanted from Holland and England to America, thus driving our higher development ever more Westward, until on the shores of the Pacific it now reverently awaits whatsoever God has ordained.”
But as we reflect on the struggle between Christianity and revolutionary Modernism over the course of the past century, we must admit that the record is rather more mixed than Kuyper’s encouraging convictions might suggest. Over the course of two World Wars and an extended Cold War, atheistic philosophies have militarized and coalesced with national and imperial political power, and existential political threats to liberty and dignity endure today. And even as the forces of liberty and right triumphed in these earlier conflicts, fallen humanity’s revolt against God realizes itself in new forms. If the French Revolution of 1789 was the political expression of revolutionary modernism, then the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s was its cultural and social expression.
Kuyper did the English-speaking world a tremendous service when he visited Princeton and delivered these six lectures on authentic Christianity as a comprehensive and compelling world- and life view. The challenge for his audience 125 years later is the same as it was for his hearers in 1898, and that is to remain faithful followers of Christ devoted to the work of his kingdom. Or, as Kuyper put it so powerfully: “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God, he is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.