A question I’ve been asking in these posts about denomination life is not only what happened at Synod 2022 and what is happening in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) at present but what a renewal of denominational life might look like, and not just for the CRC but for any denomination and theological tradition. In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre says a living tradition is “constituted by a continuous argument.” “Traditions,” he says, “when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (222). What he means by this is that living traditions are a long and continuous conversation about what is true and good for that tradition. Denominations should be like that, seeking always to better understand who they are and what they believe.
In that spirit, I propose in this post to address a core concept in Reformed theology—actually, in any Christian theology—the relationship of Christ and culture, a relationship that is at the heart of the controversy surrounding Synod 2022 and its decisions about human sexuality. In doing so, I’ll look at two theologians, one familiar to most who read this blog, Abraham Kuyper, and the other perhaps not, Willie James Jennings. I’ll begin in this post with the older and more familiar of the two, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and come to Jennings in a subsequent post.
Abraham Kuyper and the “Square Inch”
The occasion was the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam, October 20, 1880. It was not an auspicious beginning. Abraham Kuyper, the principal speaker for the day and one of the founders of the university, noted as much: “And so our small school comes on the scene, blushing with embarrassment at the name university, poor in money, most frugally endowed with scholarly might, more lacking than receiving human favor” (quoted from James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013, loc 2531). They had at the time only five professors, three in theology and one each in law and letters; eight students; and little in the way of a library. Kuyper was not daunted. In his inaugural address, he presented a grand vision for Christian scholarship.
It was in this speech that he uttered his now famous words: “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!’” This much-loved statement, often quoted and as often misquoted, is usually taken out of the context of Kuyper’s speech. I’ll address that below in an effort to understand what Kuyper was doing in this address. He has interesting things to say. But my principal concern is with the posture Kuyper takes in this quotation and, for that matter, in the speech overall, a posture still frequently taken by Reformed Christians, a posture in evidence in Synod 2022, a posture characterized by a presumption that he in his theology speaks for Christ.
But first, Kuyper’s speech. The announced topic of the speech is “sphere sovereignty.” I write this on the day of the death of Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. For us, monarchy, even where it has a constitutional function, as it does in Britain and in the British Commonwealth, is mostly a remnant of an earlier age, but in the time of Kuyper it remained a powerful force. In the monarchy of the past, sovereignty was vested in a single person. Or—this was the revolutionary alternative in Kuyper’s time—in the state itself. This idea of sovereignty is unitary. The king or the absolute state are sovereign in every area and over all things.
What’s interesting is that Kuyper adopts the idea of sovereignty as unitary and over everything, but he assigns it not to a monarch or to the state but to Jesus Christ. In the first section of his speech, he presents Christ as king in the manner of older European kings. He says of Christ, “Nothing less than Messiah, Anointed, therefore Sovereign of all kings, and ‘possessing all power in heaven and earth’, was the pronouncement of his calm and clear god-man consciousness.”
It’s important to note that this is not the Jesus we meet in the gospels. In the gospels, Jesus is a king of quite another sort. In order to get Jesus to claim his European idea of kingship, Kuyper is forced to take statements about Christ, like Philippians 2:10, and make them statements of Jesus, ripping them out of their original context. This is the Christ of power, not the Christ of the cross. But let that go for the moment. It’s what Kuyper does next that is key to the entire speech.
The sovereignty of Christ, Kuyper says, is passed to humanity not as a single power but in multiple ways—in various spheres. Each sphere has its own sovereignty, its own inner structure. He names as spheres such things as nature, personal life, the family household, science, social life, church, and more. Each has its own structure, its own sovereign. Kuyper is cagey about who or what these sovereigns might be, but by way of illustration, he names a few. For the sphere of thought, logic is sovereign. For the domain of faith, each person is sovereign. For conscience, the rule of God is sovereign.
It’s worth pausing in this regard on what he says about science for its application to contemporary life. He says of science that “Truth is sovereign.” He understands science principally in terms of observation and understanding: observing what we see of the world around us, of the world within us, and of the spiritual world, and understanding what we see. That this is a nineteenth century idea of science is not the point. The point that Kuyper drives home is that the church—another sphere of authority operating by very different principles—should not interfere in any way in science. To do so would be for one sphere to attempt to control another independent sphere of human life. He admires Spinoza for resisting the church and, because he bent to church authority, he dislikes Erasmus. This goes in the face of the principle claimed by the recent report on human sexuality adopted by Synod 2022 which claims that if push comes to shove the Bible—meaning by this the church’s interpretation of the Bible—trumps science. This by Kuyperian standards represents an egregious claim by the sphere of the church over the sphere of science.
But, again, let this go. We have not yet fully grasped the idea of the spheres. What Kuyper has in mind is a powerful and still attractive idea: that each area of human life must be allowed to develop and flourish in its own way. The family is not the same as the school. Human life is complex. The spheres in which we participate interlock and rub up against each other. He, at one point in the speech, calls them “cogwheels,” gears, that turn together. The job of the overarching sphere—the sphere of government—is to keep them turning smoothly, not allowing one sphere to interfere with the flourishing of another but also not intruding itself on the functioning of the spheres.
All this is marvelously impressionistic and imprecise in the speech. If you push the images Kuyper uses too hard, the picture he is painting begins to dissolve. But without pressing the details, it provides us with a powerful way to think about human life. Let families be families, Kuyper is suggesting. Let schools be schools. Let science be science. Let church be church. Let each of these flourish in their own way. Let each answer to its own authority.
But it’s with that last idea that the whole Kuyperian picture often comes to grief. Kuyper himself appears to be of two minds. Sometimes he seems to regard each of these spheres as the working out of a single principle—a natural law of a kind. In that case, families can only be families if they follow the natural law of families. But what is the natural law of families? There’s the rub.
This, by the way, was the approach taken by the human sexuality report adopted by Synod 2022. They are sure that the natural law of families is that they should resemble modern Western families: mom, dad, and two kids, a boy and a girl. Well, not quite that restrictive, but not in their opinion two moms and their children. Or two dads. Or grandma, grandpa, and their grandchildren. As is always the case, the supposed “natural law of families” is whatever “we” think is “normal,” and what “we” think is “normal” is what “we” have experienced. This approach makes whoever is in power the sovereign over the family: it is what I say it is.
Over the long history of the development of Kuyper’s approach this idea of a “natural law” for each sphere appears over and over again, and it always leads to oppression. This is where to locate the “Reformed” theology of apartheid. But in Kuyper’s speech there is another suggestion for how to understand the authority of the spheres. Not a law but a person.
In the third and last section of the speech, he begins talking about the Reformed “life principle.” His idea of this principle appears to take “reformed” not as a noun, “Reformed,” that is, as a name for a theological tradition, but as a verb, “to reform.” Reformed people are by these lights engaged continuously in reforming our understanding of the faith. They fit McIntyre’s definition of a healthy tradition. To be Reformed is to take our formulations of the faith as provisional. It’s our best understanding for the moment, always subject to revision.
At points, Kuyper appears to try to understand the Reformed life principle as an idea, a certain approach to truth, but this is to grab the wrong end of the stick. Ideas are rigid. But at a crucial point in his argument, Kuyper makes another, better suggestion: not an idea but a person. He says of the Reformed principle that it is not just about ideas but about a life, a life “rooted . . . in a living person.”
Move this back into the discussion of the spheres. The question that arises with regard to the spheres is the question of sovereignty—of authority: how should a given sphere be governed? If we take this last suggestion of Kuyper seriously, the spheres are not governed by an idea, a rule, but by a person. Each sphere answers to the one who is Lord over all, to Christ.
Take families. However a family may be structured, and families have been structured in many ways over the years, the family answers for its life to Christ. Or science. Our science, however we understand it, answers to Christ. It’s not that there is a Christian idea of science but that all science, Christian or not, answers to Christ. And answering to Christ means answering to the one who was crucified, who is the embodiment of God’s love, who has come to say yes to the human race. Science is called to answer not only the question of what is true but the question of what is loving.
It’s at this point in his speech that Kuyper comes to that statement we began with: “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!’” There’s a little more to it than that. The sentence actually begins: “Oh, not a single bit of our world of thought can be hermetically sealed off from the rest; and there is not a square inch. . ..” What he is describing is the Reformed life principle: that in everything we answer to Christ, in every thought, every institution, every sphere of life.
I hope you can see that it’s a marvelous moment in the speech. We want to applaud. Perhaps that 1880 crowd gathered to dedicate the Free University did applaud. But if you step back just a bit from the setting, there is also something deeply unsettling about it. It’s that “Mine!” One cannot help but hear echoes of the Doctrine of Discovery, the “right” granted by several popes to Spain and Portugal to claim lands they had “discovered,” subject the inhabitants of those lands to slavery, and take from those lands anything they wished. Here, quoted from the first chapter in Willie James Jenning’s The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), is a sample of the language of these papal rulings:
The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes of the world and the characteristics of all the nations dwelling in them and seeking and desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls. This we believe will most certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord, if we bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith. . . not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations.
With these words, the Pope Nicholas V in 1455, on the edge of the era of exploration and conquest, is saying clearly that Christ cries out, “Mine!” and it’s the job of the European explorers and their monarchs and, indeed, the Pope himself to see that it’s done. And this notion that all the world should be claimed by the “Christian” nations for the sake of Christ was not confined to the Catholic nations Spain and Portugal. It was adopted by England and France and eventually became an article of law in our own country.
Was Kuyper so tone deaf that he could hear in his “Mine!” the echoes of the doctrine of discovery? Or did Kuyper assume that all this was right, that God had elected Europeans, including the Dutch, to claim the world for Christ? And not incidentally for themselves? Is there an imperialism in Kuyper’s theology, an imperialism that does not hesitate to impose its authority on others?
I’m not a Kuyper scholar, and I will leave it to those who have read more of Kuyper than I have to answer those questions, but I know enough of Reformed theology to see in it a tendency to a kind of arrogance, an arrogance that permits a synod, for example, to say to LBGTQ+ people that they know best. But that’s to go beyond Kuyper, and for that we need the insights of another theologian, one, incidentally, born in Grand Rapids and educated at Calvin College, familiar with Reformed theology, Willie James Jennings. To him and his story, I’ll turn in the next post.