By Devin Maddox
My pastor and brother in law gave me a book last year, Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism. I didn't start reading it until this year because I am a slow reader and had others in line before it, but I am glad to finally get the opportunity to ingest the wisdom and eloquence of Kuyper. Every page is flowing with information and thought provoking statements.
In the first of his lectures on Calvinism, which were delivered at Princeton University in 1898, Kuyper dealt with the subject of Calvinism as a “life-system.” Today, we might be inclined to refer to it as a worldview. In either way of thinking, we would be considering the greater implications of Calvinism beyond soteriology. Kuyper designated different categories of Calvinistic thought and how groups are associated by these categories, which include the confessional, denominational, and political.
The purpose of this post is to focus on implications learned from Kuyper's lecture on Calvinism a Life-system, in which he dealt with the fundamental relations of man in various life systems. He specified three main conditions of a life system that can be used as a philosophical standard of judgment concerning all major systems that are in the world. First, there is the relational condition of man to God. Second, is the relation of man to man. Third, is the relation of man to the world.
In distinct opposition to other life systems that are mentioned, such as, Paganism, Islamism, Romanism, and Modernism, Kuyper shows that, “Calvinism has derived from its fundamental relation to God a peculiar interpretation of man's relation to man, and it is this only true relation which since the sixteenth century has ennobled social life.”1
Considering Paganism, it is the worship of the creature or creation instead of the Creator. In other words, it could be said that paganism puts deity into that which was created; not in the sense that Christians believe in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but in the sense of a mystical view of the earth, animal life, and the heavens above. The result is that men decide all the parameters of worship and sacrifice.
The next system is Islamism, which can be boiled down to a religion of sensuality. Kuyper basically asserted that Islamism produces slavery of women and unbelievers, while dreaming of a sensual paradise.2
Then there is Romanism with in its hierarchy from God, to the angels, to the church and finally to the lowest of men. Kuyper understood this grand hierarchy to produce, “an entirely aristocratic interpretation of life.”3
Lastly, Kuyper dealt with Modernism:
“...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...and whatever goes beyond and above it is looked upon as an insult to the common consciousness.”4
Merriam-Webster defines Modernism as, “a tendency in theology to accommodate traditional religious teaching to contemporary thought and especially to devalue supernatural elements.” Webster further expands modernism in connection to “modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice; especially: a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression.”5
I think a lot of the modernist movement was fueled by man's self-reliance and prideful ambition that accompanied the industrial revolution and higher science of Western nations. People began to see the power of achievement in ways that were new and liberating. This caused people to look away from God and toward modern science for all the answers to life and the universe. But things don't change overnight and I can't help but wonder if there were any Princeton students that thought Kuyper was stretching a bit with his conclusions? Making women men and men women? 1898? Then again there was Darwin, whose theories brought us the muck to man idea even though he still distinguished the genders of the animals he observed.
I'm not sure when the term Modernism was first coined? I am used to seeing the term Postmodern (a more recent reaction to Modernism) in publications later than 1898. But the real shocker here is the confident assessment of the results of Modernism. To my knowledge, there were no Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s in the public eye in 1898, yet Kuyper understood the ultimate end of the life system he refers to as Modernism.
I assume that Modernism is understood from Kuyper's standpoint to be a theological compromise that we might associate with liberalism today. Liberalism is probably a more broad term, but some things are hard to disassociate from one another. Many political liberals are products of theological liberalism. I think many have rightly concluded that the problem with modern liberalism in America—as a whole—was due to the failure of the church from the late 1800's through the 1900's. And it was either a failure to stick to biblical doctrine without compromise, or, a failure of a dead religion that inherited doctrinal documents but practiced shallow application.
Today, we have the millennial generation to reach with the Gospel as they take in a million ideas and decide for themselves what the best course is. I recently questioned a man in his twenties about how he and his other millennial friends come to absolute conclusions about morality, ethics, culture, and other issues in society. He replied that it comes down to experience and what he feels is right. That's the nonstandard standard that we have now—the feelings and the experience of a twenty something year old. Couple that together with the endless propaganda, commentary, and *diarrhea of the mouth that is found on the web, and it will be a wonder if we have a functioning civilization in the next decade. (*The term “diarrhea of the mouth” is a modern slang meaning “an uncontrolled release of verbal excrement.”)
To prove my point, check out this recent example of an interviewer trying to “reason” with a transgender proponent:
This is just a glimpse of the daily occurrences and fronts we must deal with in our minds, our prayers, and among our family and neighbors. Issues, confrontations, and frustrations tend to wear on us and break us down to the point of bringing us to isolation, which is a way of giving up. This is appealing because it has been said, “You can't fix stupid,” and, reasoning with people who are so blind they cannot understand gender distinctions is like arguing with a wall. However, we must realize that we are called to be committed in this world where the church, home, and civil society exist.
"If Calvinism places our entire human life immediately before God, then it follows that all men or women, rich or poor, weak or strong, dull or talented, as creatures of God, and as lost sinners, have no claim whatsoever to lord over one another, and that we stand as equals before God, and consequently equal as man to man."6
Our entire life is indeed placed before God, who sees all and knows the thoughts and intents of our heart. Not only is this a reality taught in Scripture, but it is an axiom in the hearts of the faithful causing these faithful believers of Jesus Christ to live, work, and play as in the presence of God. We are not pressing toward the mark as we ought when we are not living in this reality. It is essential that the forefront of our Christian ambition consists in having our life placed before God as a reality of our consciences and the motivation of our heart (See Acts 17:28).
Just in case someone misunderstands the above quote as an individualistic plea against civil or ecclesiastical government, we must be aware of Kuyper's view of Modernism and its connection—at least in his mind—with the French Revolution.
“To have placed man on a footing of equality with man, so far as the purely human interests are concerned, is the immortal glory which incontestably belongs to Calvinism. The difference between it and the wild dream of equality of the French Revolution is that while in Paris it was one action in concert against God, here all, rich and poor, were on their knees before God, consumed with a common zeal for the glory of his name.”7
Commenting further on human development in civilization, Kuyper asserts, “...that Calvinism in turn is now denied this leading influence by Modernism, the daughter of the French Revolution.”8 In our day, I would say that liberalism/secularism is trying to deny Christians a role of influencing the culture and our future development. The good news is that we have access to great tools of media through the internet and there is a digital tide full of Gospel truth saturating the web. May God bless the faithful ministries who are utilizing these modern tools.
So, to focus back on the call to commitment, we need to follow the example of our forefathers who are referenced by Kuyper—falling on our knees before God, consumed with a common zeal for the glory of His name!
Due to the grace of God working to bring our forefathers to their knees in humble submission to Christ: the America government, markets, communities, and missions were successful. Once again we need this “common zeal” to be formed in us as a recognizable contrast to the “concert” of the “no God, no master”9 crowd.
We also need to realize this didn’t all begin in the 1960’s. If Kuyper is right, in that, to get rid of all distinctions and make everything universal “kills life,” then American Christians need to realize we are fighting a spiritual war that existed before Paul wrote about the armor of God in Ephesians chapter 6. Every generation must “stand against the wiles of the devil” and “wrestle against spiritual wickedness.”
If we fail to keep our commitment to the warfare, then we become victims of defeat. If the worst now is that the other side feels insulted, then rejoice that we are not burned at the stake and let them be insulted. A commitment to Calvinism should “ennoble” us by bringing us back to the fundamental relation we have to God. A relation of humble submission and obedience coupled with “common zeal” for the glory of God in all that we do no matter what our station. By “common,” we must realize this commitment cannot be realized apart from the body of Christ.
What term do we use for young men who have entered the military and the possibility of going to war with enemy threats? We speak of the “service,” or, more specifically, the Armed Services. It is a sacrifice and a service to be committed to a militant readiness that might lead to our personal loss on behalf of others. So, let's weave this idea with being soldiers of the cross serving in the Church.
If we want to effect change for the better and be good examples to our neighbors, we must learn to embrace the greater implications of Calvinism by understanding our service to God and to our fellow man. What we are unable to accomplish in the church, we will also fail to accomplish in the rest of society.
Kuyper touches on this concept, “Hence we cannot recognize any distinction among men, save such as has been imposed by God himself, in that he gave one authority over the other, or enriched one with more talents than the other, in order that the man of more talents should serve the man with less, and in him serve his God.”10
“I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” -Acts 20:35
I have finished the first lecture by Kuyper and I am grateful for the new thoughts he has provoked in my mind enabling me to better meditate on what is really important in life. As I read more of these lectures, I might find myself typing out more reactions and commentary—who knows? Maybe everything just hit me at once with the news, the people I know, and the book I was reading? Regardless, the concept of being committed to Calvinism has struck me for the better.
Here are some parting thoughts from Kuyper:
“...judge for yourselves whether it will do to banish any longer this God-given Calvinism to the archives of history, and whether it is so much of a dream to conceive that Calvinism has yet a blessing to bring and a bright hope to unveil for the future.”11
“Christians... are still expected to achieve heroic deeds, marching under the banner of the cross against the spirit of the times, Calvinism alone arms us with an inflexible principle, by the strength of that principle guaranteeing us a sure, though far from easy victory.”12
Devin Maddox is the associate pastor at Reformed Church of the Holy Trinity and the assistant director of Covenant Commission.
For further reading: The Advance of Secularism by Albert Mohler
1. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 17
5. “Modernism.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/modernism. Accessed 14 March 2017.
6. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 17-18
7. Ibid., 19
8. Ibid., 23
9. Ibid., 24
10. Ibid., 18
11. Ibid., 30
12. Ibid., 30