Friday, July 19, 2013

Kuyper and His "Not a Square Inch" brand of Divine Sovereignty Reconsidered

         Growing up Christian Reformed, my favourite go-to scholar was the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper. He famously (at least amongst his followers) wrote, "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 was a lot for a young Calvinist to like here. Kuyper’s words were an apt summary of what Reformed people most believed in, namely the sovereignty of God. But more than that, Kuyper’s words were inspiring because they gave us young Calvinists something to do with our lives, a program. Our mission was to boldly claim each and every sphere of human activity as one that needed to be brought into alignment with—even submission to—the sovereign rule of God. We were shock troops for raising his flag over those square inches. So we set up Christian organizations to proclaim, in each sphere of human activity, what God’s rule would look like. Kuyperian Calvinists in Canada set up Christian labor unions, Christian schools, Christian hospitals, and Christian political parties—all in the image of what their parents and grandparents had done for Conservative Christianity in the Netherlands, and what the socialists and communists and liberals and monarchists had done for their respective gods and heroes in the Netherlands.

         But now I’m not so sure. I have two related reasons to doubt this program.

         First, the identification of human institutions with God’s rule inevitably invites making God’s sovereignty the perfect cover for acting coercively. After all, if God is on our side, how can we be wrong? Of course, acting in this way is inevitably shortsighted, or unloving, or even evil. In justifying their actions by appealing to God’s rule, people and institutions inevitably bring God’s name into disrepute.

          History is full of examples. Over and over, the identification of the church and or the Christian establishment with the ruling monarchies of Europe put the church, and thus in the eyes of the people, God on the side of the rich, the powerful, and the unjust. I think it was Felicite de Lamennais who said that the alliance of church and monarchy before the French revolution meant the loss of three generations of Christians to the faith. But there are endless other examples. Consider the barbarity of the crusades. The one instance of a country besides the Netherlands where rulers actually put Kuyper’s ideas to use was apartheid South Africa. Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty and his disciple Dooyeweerd’s concept of cultural differentiation were both used to support the idea of apartheid. Back in the Netherlands, Kuyper’s Antirevolutionary Party would go on to defend the cruel Dutch colonial presence because the rape and pillage of Indonesia’s resources was good for the Dutch economy.

         The bottom line is this. When those in power believe they are doing God’s sovereign will, beware if you’re not on their side. The practical good that has come from politicians trying to implement God’s sovereignty in the world has not been impressive.

          But there is another, related, problem with Kuyper’s quote. I’ve come to see that the degree to which we make God in the image of some imperial, kingly ruler who may or may not send out lightning bolts of support in response to our supplications, we involve ourselves in all sorts of difficulties. Not the least of these is the problem of explaining why bad things happen to all sorts of people and creatures all the time. If God is sovereign you have to wonder why he saddled his “good” and beautiful Edenic garden with rulers who would bring it to ruin. Or why tsunamis and earthquakes have killed hundreds of thousands of people in our lifetimes through no fault of their own. The sovereign God of metaphysical theism is one who is inevitably weighed down and made unbelievable by the problems of theodicy that are a direct result from thinking of God as sovereign.

          You see, modelling God on some earthly sovereign means that you have to think of God as responsible for what goes on in the realm. Not solely responsible maybe, but ultimately responsible. That is how it is with rulers. If a prime minister or president doesn't use his or her power to fix systemic problems, to improve the lot of a nation’s citizens, the people will eventually dump that leader. So what has God improved for most people in the world lately? Would you re-elect him? Would a Saudi? Or a North Korean?

         Of course, you will object to this sort of point of view. God is inscrutable. His ways are higher than our ways. To speak of the sovereignty of God is to use a metaphor. So beware of taking it too literally. Besides—leaving out tsunamis and earthquakes—we are mostly responsible for our own messes.

         Maybe. But in our contemporary context, “sovereignty,” is a singularly unhelpful metaphor, more associated with the Saudi regime and other dictatorships than with public service or justice. For the writers of the New Testament, speaking of God as a sovereign was meant to subvert the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire. To speak of God using the language of sovereignty was a way of underlining how God was a stranger to the violent power of Rome—not a positive description of God qua God. When we use the language of sovereignty, we immediately put God in a place where, as a divine power, he (or she) needs to be held accountable for why so much goes wrong, for so long, in the realm.

         So are there are other metaphors used in scripture to describe God? Of course. In his Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Richard Kearney reminds us—as many other scholars have—of the kenotic view of Jesus not as primarily sovereign, but as one who achieves his mission by letting go of divinity, becoming a human, a slave, and dying on a cross. “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” This is not sovereignty, but turning the other cheek, giving even more than the coat off of your back, and loving the enemy. It is a God who eschews all claims to Roman-like sovereignty. Kearney recalls Bonhoeffer’s observation that “it is as he grieves in Gethsemane that Jesus asks us to ‘watch with him for one hour’: the very opposite of what the religious man expects from God (namely, a supernatural answer to all our problems).”

         Richard Kearney also explores the metaphor of God as “stranger.” Thus Jesus reveals God to us when we find him in the powerless—in the poor, the thirsty, and the prisoner—all strangers to most of us, most of the time. But there he is, not on a throne, but in the pit.

         Well, there is much more to say and wonder about. What use is such a God? What makes a non-sovereign God a God at all? How far can we trust scripture and its ancient writers to really reveal God? Were they not as tied up in knots about describing God as we are? I don’t know.

         One thing, however, seems clear. Perhaps instead of quoting Kuyper, we might say, today, "There is not a square inch in the whole world for which Jesus does not ask us to turn the other cheek.” Not sovereignty, but humble service.


  1. I too have a Christian Reformed immigrant background. I have read your book and blogs and can relate (perhaps not on the same academic level)with the journey that you experience and describe. I found this blog to be particularly powerful in putting into words the need for those in the Calvinist (CRC) environment (and other similar environments)to venture outside of the comfortable theological silos. We, my wife and I, are also part of the United Church. And while it has issues and difficulties, it is the place where we are able to freely explore, study and grow in our spiritual life. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Thanks for this Nick. Exploring new territory--especially spiritual territory--can be very disorienting, a bit scary, but also rewarding. Best wishes on your journey! js

  3. When I read Genesis and Exodus especially, I constantly ask myself what kind of theology was being developed there? It definitely is NOT of a "sovereign" divinity. I mean, Adam and Eve lasted who knows maybe a couple of days or at most years in the garden of Eden before blowing it! And this serpent, it's one of God's creations! And then their first-born commits fratricide; and it's against the one who WAS pleasing to God! What kind of a God is that? And it goes on and on, like God constantly changing his mind in Exodus about what to do with those stiff-necked people. And even how to communicate with them! Ex. 19-20, especially 20:18-19 Hilarious! Reminds me of the Wizard of Oz but without Toto pulling the curtain away! Poor Moses, running up and down the mountain trying to placate God and the people at the same time!

    1. Right. So at the very least, we need other paradigms for thinking about God and God's role in these stories.

  4. History teaches us bitter lessons when it comes to the marriage between politics and religion. As a Calvinist, and continue to be fascinated by the theological works of Calvin, I know a lesson or two of the perceived if not intrinsic arrogance of Christians in claiming divine sovereignty in all 'spheres' of life - politics, science, etc. But as a student of sociology I found Kuyper's and Dooyewerd's philosophy/theology worthy of rereading. The sphere sovereignty thing is helpful in differentiating the roles and functions of each branch or sphere in society, i.e. the sensitive issue of separation between church and state, the role of the judiciary to define law and justice, etc.

    1. Agreed! No school of thought (well, almost no school of thought) is without some merit, for sure. Sphere sovereignty, for example, is very helpful for understanding how various human institutions are both focussed and limited in their scope.

  5. Kuyper wanted to give a good reasin for why he could also be prime minister. His form of common grace is not the answer. Hoeksema speaks of the covenant of God in Christ. All things run in accordance to Gods providential control of the universe.

  6. While kenotic Christology has much merit, it is critical to its Biblical credentials to have a full kenotic Christology, one founded in Philippians 2. Jesus humbled himself as a slave, was obedient to the cross, showing us a new way to engage with sin and evil - by taking the weight of sin and evil on himself. THEREFORE, God has exalted him and given him the name at which every knee should bow - to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord - Sovereign!! to the glory of God. If we neglect the exaltation of Christ after his humiliation then we miss what God has done - not the cross but the resurrection is the victory!

    Those who claim that "God is on their side" and behave with arrogance and domination towards others, as you rightly deplore, surely comes from claiming that our attempts to live out God's calling are the ONLY way. We are all sinners, struggling to achieve what we can, and for some to forget that and set themselves up as judges on others, as if they had already achieved perfection, is a slander against the sovereignty of God and his kingdom. None of us will truly know how well we obeyed God until the entrance of his kingdom in its fullness when we give account of ourselves before his judgement seat.

  7. Thanks Chris. I'm not that keen on judgement seats and making their consideration a part of our motivation to do as we do . . . but agree with what you say about xian behaviour.

  8. I don't think fear of judgement should be our motivation as Christians - the judgement of Christ in the NT is more about validation and vindication of the righteous than condemnation of the wicked - but the latter is definitely there.

    It would be interesting to hear how you address (as in your article above) those whose actions are "shortsighted, or unloving, or even evil," and "bring God’s name into disrepute," and "the barbarity of the crusades/apartheid/the cruel Dutch colonial ...rape and pillage of Indonesia’s resources/Saudi regime and other dictatorships/violent power of Rome."

    Are there any consequences for acting in this way other than a poor reputation? Is there any compensation for the victims of terror and brutality, killed in war and social violence? Is judgement a non-event?

    God's sovereignty is important to proclaim in this context, even using Kuyper and Dooyeweerd to spell out the social implications in "sphere sovereignty" as it brings to light one very important point which resonates throughout the Scriptures: if God is sovereign then we are not, and those who arrogate sovereignty to themselves and act as gods, will find that they are held accountable at the judgement seat.

    The gospel is both good news to the faithful and bad news for the unfaithful.


What do you think?