White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Neither Individualism Nor Statism

Published Monday, July 16, 2007 By W. Robert Godfrey

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1921) was one of the most remarkable Christian thinkers of the modern era. Though reared in the home of a Dutch Reformed minister, he did not experience a conversion to orthodox Calvinism until he was a minister himself. His work and thought then consciously flowed out of that orthodox commitment. Yet his thinking was much broader than theology and the church. Kuyper deliberately related Calvinism to the modern world, showing great creativity and sympathy for the distinctive character of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Most notably, Kuyper’s interests extended beyond the church to politics. He made the Anti-Revolutionary Party the Netherlands’ first genuinely mass political party. He served in parliament and also as prime minister. The initial focus of Calvinist politics was freedom for Christian parents to create Christian schools for their children. That great issue helped Kuyper think through fundamental matters of the relation of Christian faith to modern society. In addition to his political activity, he founded (and for many years edited) a daily newspaper. He also helped begin the Free University in Amsterdam as a Christian university free from state control.

By 1891 Kuyper gave more specific attention to the issues of workers and their needs in the modern world. He recognized the new problems facing workers in the nineteenth century and the growing attractions of socialism for many. He helped to organize a Christian Social Congress and spoke to its first meeting on November 9, 1891, on the subject, “The Social Question and the Christian Religion.” This remarkable address displays Kuyper’s vision for labor and the Christian calling to work. Tracing Kuyper’s reflections in this historic address can stimulate us to think more carefully about work and calling in our time.

Kuyper began by acknowledging that he and other Christians had been neglectful in facing the social question of his day: “So our own debut [on this social question] does not come too early, but too late, and we lag behind others when we could have preceded.” (1) He noted that the great Dutch Reformed poet Willem Bilderdijk as early as 1825 had seen the social problem developing and had written of the lower classes:

You sigh and languish in poverty and decay
While luxury defiantly feasts on the fruit of your own hands (2)

Kuyper described the present situation-labeling it utterly untenable (3) -in these terms: “And so in all of Europe a well-to-do bourgeoisie rules over an impoverished working class, which must steadily increase the wealth of the ruling class, and which is doomed, when it can be of no more use, to sink into the morass of the proletariat.” (4)

Kuyper acknowledged that there had been efforts to correct this situation. Liberalism tried: “But what did it offer them? Reading, writing and arithmetic! And what did it take away from them? Faith, the courage to live, moral dynamic. And what did it withhold from them? Trade schools and a share in capital.” (5) He noted too that “Socialism is in the air” (6) as a suggested solution to the social tensions. But while recognizing great varieties of socialism, Kuyper concluded that each form of socialism was too radical. The socialist “considers himself justified in overthrowing everything which stands, and does not shrink from the giant’s task of building anew on the vacant plot.” (7)

For Kuyper the secular approaches of the nineteenth century must be rejected and a genuinely Christian solution found. To find such a solution, the reality of the problem must be acknowledged. The first step was to recognize that at all times both rich and poor must turn to God:

Jesus flattered no one, neither rich nor poor, but put both in their place. Exactly on this account Jesus occupies so eminent a position. With our men of influence you generally find either scorn for the poor and flattery of the rich, or abuse for the rich and flattery for the poor. This is in conflict with the Christian religion. Both must be convicted of their sin. But this fact remains: that Scripture, when it corrects the poor, does so much more tenderly and gently; and in contrast, when it calls the rich to account, uses much harsher words. And yet our poor also are falling away from their faith, if they build their hopes on all kinds of help from the state, and not singly on their Father who is in Heaven. (8)

The universal need of rich and poor took a special form in the nineteenth century, however. Kuyper realized that the Industrial Revolution had complicated the plight of the poor: “I do not deny that the application of steam to machinery, the more rapid transportation between countries and the rapid increase in population contributed to the worsening of social relations.” (9) But he also insisted that the philosophy of the French Revolution was equally to blame. Its secularism, materialism, and individualism led it “first, to represent possession of money as the highest good, and second, in the struggle for money, to set every man against every other.” (10)

How should Christians respond to the universal problem of the poor and the particular problems they faced in the nineteenth century? First, they must reassert unequivocally the absolute sovereignty of God in this area of life.

Of primary significance is the problem of the majesty of our God, for, though we will come presently to concrete measures, we must first take up the general ideas which lend form and color to all our conception of life…. Therefore the first article of any social program which will bring salvation must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”… [whoever] says I believe in God thereby also acknowledges that there is an ordering of nature by God, and an ordinance of God over our conscience; a higher will, to which we as creatures have to submit ourselves. (11)

Christians, then, have not only a heavenly and spiritual calling, but also a calling to what later Calvinists called “the cultural mandate”: “human art acts on every area of nature; not to destroy the life of nature, much less, mechanically to juxtapose another structure, but rather to unlock the power which lies concealed in nature; or, again, to regulate the wild power which springs from it. God so wills it. While yet in paradise man received the order to ‘preserve and cultivate’ the material world.” (12) Jesus also taught this responsibility: “the ‘blessedness’ which He brought to humanity had a promise ‘not alone for the future but also for the present life.’ (I Timothy 4:8); though always so that man’s eternal welfare remained primary, so that soul and body might not be corrupted in hell.” (13)

Sin has greatly complicated this cultural task and set man against man. As sinners “men regarded humanity apart from its eternal destiny, did not honor it as created in the image of God, and did not reckon with the majesty of the Lord, who alone is able to hold in check, through His grace, a race sunk in sin.” (14) The solution Kuyper outlines must be found in overcoming individualism through a “God-willed community, a living, human organism.” (15) He saw the conflict between real community and radical individualism as the great divide in the social thought of his day: “…the Christian religion sought personal human dignity in the social relations of an organically associated society-the French Revolution destroyed the organic tissue, broke these social bonds, and finally, in its work of atomistic trifling, had nothing left but the monotonous self-seeking individual, asserting his own self-sufficiency.” (16)

Kuyper called the diaconate of the Christian church to show the reality of this Christian commitment to community most clearly. Jesus “through an organized ministry of charity, which in the name of the Lord, as being the single owner of all goods, demanded the community of goods to this extent, that in the circle of believers no man or woman was to be permitted to suffer want or to be without the necessary apparel.” (17) While calling for the state to act for the poor in assuring justice and an end to oppression, Kuyper recognized a special responsibility for the Church: “Never forget that state relief for the poor remains always a blot on the honor of your Savior. So, have sympathy for the suffering of the oppressed and suppressed. In nothing so strongly as in this holy suffering together can you be ‘followers of God as beloved children.’ In that holy dynamic of pity lurks the whole secret of that heavenly power which you as Christians can exercise.” (18)

For society generally, Christians must insist that all property is given to members of society so that they may be stewards for God. Such stewards will recognize that progress in social conditions can only come gradually in light of the distinctive history and character of a society. “…[o]ur calling as Christians, with the apostolic word on our lips, [is] to warn against all violation of authority, bravely oppose every deed of violence or lawlessness, and make resound loudly and clearly the demand that the thread of our historic growth be altered only through gradual change and in a lawful way.” (19)

Kuyper had a vision of the role that the state should play in helping workers:

[T]he government should help labor obtain justice, and also for labor there must be created the possibility of independently organizing and defending rights. And as regards the other type of state intervention, which consists of the distribution of money, not of justice, under whatever form and pretext, it is certain that such intervention is not excluded in Israel’s lawgiving, but it is there held to a minimum. Therefore I say that, unless you would enervate the position of the laboring class and destroy its natural dynamic, always limit the material assistance of the state to an absolute minimum. (20)

Kuyper, always a master rhetorician as well as fine thinker, summarized his concerns for labor in these terms:

The worker must be able to live as one created in the image of God. He must be able to fulfill his calling as man and as father. The worker has a soul to lose, and so he, as well as you, must be able to serve his God. Hence a Sabbath is given to him; especially to him, whose work tends to pull him down to a material level. And God created also this worker as a frail creature; that is, as one whose strength can be broken through sickness and accident, and decreases through age; and he must also, when he can no longer toil in the sweat of his brow, be able to eat the bread of the labor of his days of vigor. So speaks God in His Word; and your worker reads that too; he must and may read it; and when he reads it, does not God’s Word itself give him the right-true, not to grumble, much less to rebel, but at any rate-to complain and indict a social arrangement which makes him so painfully go without that which the ordinance of a divine mercy had destined for him? And although this suffering does not oppress most of us personally, must it not then oppress us for the sake of our brothers? Have we then ever the right to cease from offering, with God’s Word in hand, an annihilating critique of such an unhealthy society? Indeed, have you the right to take your ease as long as this society remains-even though there be state intervention-not again repatterned according to God’s Word? To mistreat the workmen as a “piece of machinery” is and remains a violation of his human dignity. Even worse, it is a sin going squarely against the sixth commandment, thou shalt not kill, and this includes killing the worker socially. (21)

He concluded his reflection by returning to his theme that this life can be understood only in relation to the Gospel and eternal life:

Legislation as such will not cure our sick society; the medicine must also reach the heart of rich and poor. Sin is so terrifically powerful that, mocking all your dikes and sluices, your legal regulation, it will ever flood anew the field of human life with the waters of its passion and its egotism…. If this present life is all, then I can understand that a man would desire to enjoy it before he dies, and would find the mystery of suffering wholly insoluble. And therefore, you who profess our Lord Jesus Christ, it is your duty to place in the foreground, with a gripping earnestness and a soul-penetrating emphasis, on every occasion, for rich and poor alike, the life eternal. Only he who reckons with an eternal life knows the real value of this earthly life. (22)

The remarkable address of Kuyper on the social question as he saw it in 1891 should give American Christians pause more than a century later. We face a society in which the conditions which concerned Kuyper in many ways have come to even sharper expression. Christians on the right in politics too often seem to feel that unbridled capitalism is inherently good and moral and that there is no role for government in restraining business. Christians on the left are often drawn to some form of a welfare state that drains the will to work. Kuyper calls us all to reflect more carefully and more deeply. We need to think how our confession of a sovereign God and of his purpose in creation and redemption should inform our understanding of the calling to serve Christ both in our own work and in a truly Christian concern for other workers.

  • W. Robert Godfrey


1 [ Back ] Cited from Abraham Kuyper, Christianity and the Class Struggle, translated by Dirk Jellema (Grand Rapids: Piet Hein Publishers, 1950), 14. All citations are to this article.
2 [ Back ] 14.
3 [ Back ] 40.
4 [ Back ] 36.
5 [ Back ] 36, note 20.
6 [ Back ] 43.
7 [ Back ] 44.
8 [ Back ] 29, note 13.
9 [ Back ] 34.
10 [ Back ] 35.
11 [ Back ] 51.
12 [ Back ] 19.
13 [ Back ] 26.
14 [ Back ] 22f.
15 [ Back ] 41.
16 [ Back ] 33f.
17 [ Back ] 30.
18 [ Back ] 63.
19 [ Back ] 53.
20 [ Back ] 58.
21 [ Back ] 56f.
22 [ Back ] 59.