Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kuyper's fountainhead of Calvinism

In 1898 Dutch pastor/theologian/politician Abraham Kuyper crossed the Atlantic to deliver a series of lectures at Princeton University. Kuyper's "Lectures on Calvinism" created a stir that continues to be felt today. Google "Kuyperian" and you'll get pages and pages of passionate debate pro and con on Kuyper's legacy. Having read a good deal of this debate I thought it was time to read Kuyper for myself.

The breadth of Kuyper's vision is stunning. In the first lecture Kuyper argued that Calvinism in it's most robust definition provides a "unity of life-system" that informs politics, art and science. For Kuyper the legacy of John Calvin wasn't merely theological, but one that comprehended every sphere of life, and that resulted in major advances in the religious, political and economic life of the nations in which it had its greatest influence (i.e. Netherlands, Britain and America). Surveying the scene at the end of the 19th century Kuyper believed that without its strong Calvinist underpinning Protestantism had become vague and impotent in confronting anti-Christian ideas, rooted in the Enlightenment, that were sweeping across Europe. Kuyper proposed the possibility of a newly revived Calvinism making common cause with Roman Catholicism (that other great Christian "unity of life system") in resisting what he variously calls modernism and modern pantheism -- basically just fancy words for unbelief. It's an interesting thesis to say the least.

But what for Kuyper was the fundamental idea, the fuel if you will, for his wide-angle Calvinism? And where and how did it originate? Here's the key paragraph from lecture one.

There are times in history when the pulse of religious life beats faintly; but there are times when its beat is pounding, and the latter was the case in the sixteenth century among the nations of western Europe. The question of faith at that time dominated every activity in public life. New history starts out from this faith, even as the history of our times starts from the unbelief of the French Revolution. What law this pulse-like movement of religious life obeys, we cannot tell, but it is evident that there is such a law, and that in times of high religious tension the inworking of the Holy Spirit upon the heart is irresistible; and this mighty inworking of God was the experience of our Calvinists, Puritans and Pilgrim fathers. It was not in all individuals to the same degree, for this never happens in any great movement; but they who formed the center of life in those times, who were the promoters of that mighty change, they experienced this higher power to the fullest: and they were the men and women of every class of society and nationality who by God himself were admitted into communion with the majesty of his eternal Being. Thanks to this work of God in the heart, the persuasion that the whole of a man's life is to be lived as in the divine Presence has become the fundamental thought of Calvinism. By this decisive idea, or rather by this mighty fact, it has allowed itself to be controlled in every department of its entire domain. It is from this mother-thought that the all-embracing life system of Calvinism sprang.

Quote from Lectures on Calvinism, p. 16 of this handsome edition

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