You Should Know Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism
By Jesse Sumpter
In Kuyper’s lectures, you get two important theologians at the same time: John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper. Both of these men have shaped history and theology in important ways. This series of lectures illustrates how Calvin’s work impacts a variety of topics: politics, science, art, and religion. These lectures are also an excellent introduction to Kuyper’s work. Here you will find many of his key ideas: God’s sovereignty in the world, God-ordained spheres of authority, and God’s election of his people. Kuyper knew his own time well, and he had a great eye for what was to come. Learning from Kuyper offers us a chance to get a better picture of our world and how we can work to bring the gospel to coming generations.
Abraham Kuyper was born on October 29, 1837, in the Netherlands. He grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church, and his father was a minister in that denomination. Abraham was homeschooled. He went on to study philosophy, theology, and literature at the university level, graduating summa cum laude.
He was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, but he saw corruption there and led a reforming movement. This movement encouraged a clearer separation of church and state.
Kuyper was elected to parliament in 1874 and began a successful career in politics. He served as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. Throughout his work, Kuyper encouraged the antithesis between Christianity and other worldly philosophies, especially modernism and liberal theology.
In 1898, Kuyper was invited by B.B. Warfield to give a series of lectures, sponsored by the L.P. Stone Foundation, at Princeton Theological Seminary. This was his series Lectures on Calvinism.
Three Key ideas from Kuyper
This series of lectures is a great place to start with Kuyper’s work. In these lectures you will learn three key ideas from Kuyper: the lordship of Jesus, Calvinism as a life system, and spheres of authority.
The first key idea is the lordship of Jesus. One cannot understand Kuyper without this key piece. The most famous quote from Kuyper is this: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam). Jesus is King right now, and he is ruling over everything. There is nothing that escapes his judging eye and his jurisdiction. This is the key principle that drove Kuyper to do so much in the realms of theology, philosophy, and politics.
The second key idea from Kuyper is understanding Calvinism as a life system. Kuyper saw John Calvin’s work as teaching and applying what the Bible taught about the gospel. The gospel impacts everything. It impacts our relationship with God, our relationship with man, and our relationship with the world. In the first area, the Bible teaches that there is no mediator between each man and God except for the God-Man, Jesus. Kuyper says, “At every moment of our existence, our entire spiritual life rests in God Himself” (Lectures on Calvinism, 21). Based on this, Kuyper then drives to the second point, that we “have no claim whatsoever to lord over one another, and that we stand as equals before God, and consequently equal as man to man” (27). From this flows the third principle, how we relate to the world. Kuyper sets before us “the recognition that in the whole world the curse is restrained by grace, that the life of the world is to be honored in its independence, and that we must, in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life” (31).
The third key idea from Kuyper springs from these previous ones: spheres of authority. In looking at these spheres, we see that Kuyper was not an egalitarian. He understood that God has established authorities in the world and that God has ordained them to maintain good order. Kuyper taught that there are three key governments: family, church, and state. These three operate on the foundation of self-government, which requires that each man must submit directly to Jesus’ lordship. The family is set apart to rule over the needs surrounding reproduction, food, clothing, shelter, and education. The church is set apart to rule over the spiritual needs of teaching and preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments. The state is set apart to defend its people and punish evil. These are established so that each sphere does its own work but also provides accountability to the other two. The state needs to focus on its tasks and not overreach into the others (e.g., administering the sacraments or spanking the children). Nor can the family play the church or vice versa. Each sphere has its own authority and role to fulfill in the world.
Calvinism is Truly Ecumenical
In focusing on Calvinism, it can seem that Kuyper is being partisan or fragmentary. But actually Kuyper shows that Calvinism is really international and ecumenical in a way that many other theological traditions are not. Kuyper explains that Calvinism has never been tied to a particular country or region. Other traditions have been: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, etc. Calvinism started in Geneva and grew to England, Scotland, Netherlands, America, and beyond.
The key reason that Calvinism has had this international impact is that it has kept God at the center of all worship. God will not allow anyone or anything to get in the way of right worship of him. Kuyper condemns errors in other denominations, particularly Roman Catholicism (what he calls Romanism) which try to put something between God and his people: building structures, confessionals, priests, etc. When Christians are called by God, he calls them directly to himself.
This teaching excludes the idea of an institutional church dispensing grace out to the weary traveler on his way to salvation. There is no partial salvation for believers. Salvation is a one-time event where God declares the sinner righteous for the sake of Jesus. This declaration places the person directly before God. God does not need extra help from an institution to save us. Salvation is a full and pure work of God.
This teaching frees Christianity from being tied to a specific Calvinistic institution. Rather Calvinism is a teaching that spreads throughout the world because it is not contained by institutional ties or boundaries. It is helpful to note that Kuyper (as well as Calvin) is not against institutions (as mentioned earlier, Kuyper recognized the three primary institutions of family, church, and state). What Kuyper sees here is Calvinism’s strength to transcend state boundaries and move freely into various lands and peoples. This happens because Calvinism emphasizes the work of the gospel starting at that level of the human heart. From there, it works its way out into all of society.
Calvinism reaches also beyond state boundaries because of how it defines the church. Kuyper says, “For Calvin, the Church is found in the confessing individuals themselves,—not in each individual separately, but in all of them taken together, and united, not as they themselves see fit, but according to the ordinances of Christ” (62). The church is found in the people who make up the body of Christ, not an institution or hierarchy.
Kuyper says, “But if the Church consists in the congregation of believers, if the churches are formed by the union of confessors, and are united only in the way of confederation, then the differences of climate and of nation, of historical past, and of disposition of mind come in to exercise a widely variegating influence, and multiformity in ecclesiastical matters must be the result” (63–64).
Kuyper then gives a robust defense for all the diverse ways that Christians have worshiped God over the years and centuries. Different congregations will worship with different music and different liturgies and different languages because the church is made up of different people and different people groups. To try to claim that all churches must have the same liturgy or the same music or the same language is wrong. Nor should we lament the diversity that God has built into his church. God has planted his people in different times and cultures and places, and their churches will look different because of that. This is not a problem. This is a glorious feature of the gospel spreading throughout the world.
Kuyper correctly says, “The Church of Christ is not national but ecumenical. Not one single state, but the whole world is its domain” (65). This means that every tribe, tongue, people, and land must worship God, and this worship will include every language and music and liturgy imaginable because each congregation will worship with the gifts and talents that it has in its culture.
Art in Calvinism
Another key discussion in Kuyper’s lectures is his discussion on how Calvinism has encouraged art. Kuyper quotes Calvin who says, “All the arts come from God and are to be respected as Divine inventions” (153). As a direct gift from God, art must be free to pursue its high calling before God. Art must be in service to God but that does not necessarily mean art should be controlled by the church.
Kuyper shows how art is not just for the church or for Christians but actually a good gift to all men. He says, “In all Liberal Arts, in the most as well as in the least important, the praise and glory of God are to be enhanced. The arts, says [Calvin], have been given us for our comfort, in this our depressed estate of life” (153).
Being a gift for all people does not lessen the high calling of art. Kuyper says, “In view of all this we may say that Calvin esteemed art, in all its ramifications, as a gift of God, or, more especially, as a gift of the Holy Ghost” (153). This gift of the Holy Ghost is a general grace to all men, but it is also a constant reminder that all artists must submit to God.
Kuyper then argues that art is designed to show us the good and the beautiful that this world has lost through the corruption of sin and death. He says, “But if you confess that the world once was beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beautiful of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster” (155). Art, when it reaches its full glory, points to the original form of the world and suggests the coming renewal of all creation at the hand of the supreme artist.
In this way, we see that art is not intended to be a means of subjective expression but must instead point to objective reality. God sets boundaries that art must obey. Kuyper says, “If God is and remains Sovereign, then art can work no enchantment except in keeping with the ordinances which God ordained for the beautiful, when He, as the Supreme Artist, called this world into existence” (155). The power of art is something that God created, and art has power only in so far as God has granted it that power. Kuyper adds, “And all this because the beautiful is not the production of our own fantasy, nor of our subjective perception, but has an objective existence, being itself the expression of a Divine perfection” (156).
Kuyper pushes this further saying that since all creation is for God, ultimately all art and all beauty are for God. He says, “Imagine that every human eye were closed and every human ear stopped up, even then the beautiful remains, and God sees it and hears it.” (156). Even the parts of this world that humans cannot see—distant galaxies, deep-sea creatures—all of these are wonderful works of art that God by himself enjoys.
Kuyper summarizes this point saying that every artist has to seek out his art and practice his skill. This does not mean that the artist should look into himself, but rather he must look to an objective standard outside himself in order to grow in his craft. And this reinforces the key idea that art is something that comes from outside the artist; art is something that is found in God himself (156).
There is much more that Kuyper explores in his lectures and I can only highlight some of the key sections. Here is more that you can look forward to in these lectures.
Kuyper shows how America had a Christian foundation, stressing the importance of Christianity in maintaining true political freedom.
Kuyper wonderfully sets up the antithesis between Natural Selection and God’s sovereign election. We are either blobs of matter randomly eliminating each other or we are ornate creations designed by a loving heavenly father. Those are the only options.
Kuyper also sets forth God’s work of common grace, which includes real gifts to everyone, even non-Christians. This shows how kind God really is, even to the unrighteous. He sends rain to all.
Kuyper also gives a robust explanation showing how Calvinism promotes science to do what is does best: explore God’s creation and develop the hidden treasures in the world. If the world is a masterpiece of our heavenly father, then we must explore it in order to know him better.
In all of these discussions, we see that Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism unpack how the secular worldview is a full-orbed attack. In order to push back rightly on this attack, Christians must have a full-orbed worldview that is ready to cover any and all topics from a biblical foundation. Calvinism, Kuyper argues, provides that robust answer.
JESSE M. SUMPTER is a writer and Classical educator. Some of his writing has appeared at Kuyperian Commentary, CrossPolitic, and The Imaginative Conservative. He holds a master’s in classical and Christian studies from New St. Andrews College as well as an MFA in poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Jesse and his wife, Kate, have a daughter and they live in Moscow, Idaho. Visit JesseSumpter.com to find out more.
 Kuyper, Abraham, Lectures on Calvinism, originally published in 1931, Cosimo, Inc, 2007. All citations come from this version of Lectures on Calvinism unless otherwise noted. Likewise, all italics are in the original. Page numbers in parentheses throughout will refer to this edition.