Friday, August 04, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.2

Neo-Calvinist Theologians: Kuyper and Mouw

Abraham Kuyper

We have already traced some of the broad themes of Kuyper’s theology, but let’s look more specifically at how he addressed the intersection of politics and religion; we can then draw out some hypotheses as to how he might have regarded our question of the use of the Bible in American politics.

Three years before becoming Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 1901, Kuyper delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton University. His topic was Calvinism and his aim to portray Calvinism as a ‘life system’ that can adequately account for modern issues in art, politics, religion, and academia. In his lecture on ‘Calvinism and Politics,’ Kuyper sets forth his understanding of the sovereignty of God as the only true basis for a government that makes just use of the sword, provides for the social needs of its people, and protects its citizens’ individual liberties.

Because Kuyper saw the Christian God as the foundation of politics, he imagined a government that was entirely Christian. But, as we discussed in the last post, since politics and the church are two separate spheres, individual politicians should not look to their churches for advice on how to govern, but should trust to their personal understandings of their faith.

Overall, Kuyper advocated a politics that adhered strictly to Christianity and the Bible, even if he left politicians to themselves to figure out what those meant. An example from his own life as a political figure can be seen in an editorial he published on labor issues. As he pushes a pro-organized labor agenda, he continually disparages his opponents as going against God’s decrees. To illustrate just what God’s decrees might be, he quotes Psalm 35:10—‘Oh Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them!’ The Bible, then, is an acceptable part of political discourse, as long as its use is controlled by (Christian) politicians, not churches.

Richard Mouw

Mouw is the President of Fuller Seminary and a professor of philosophy who draws heavily from Kuyper. He elucidates similar positions to Kuyper’s own about the use of religious language in politics, saying that Christian politicians should avoid seeking out their pastor’s advice on political issues. But, working with categories from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Mouw pushes for a distinction between the use of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ language. Mouw thinks the ‘thick’ language of the Christian worldview—the complexities of theological and biblical discourse—should best be left in churches and seminaries, while thin language is used to communicate Christian beliefs to the state in terms the state can understand. In all, Mouw is seeking a basis for common participation in society, something he feels that ‘thick’ language gets in the way of. This position by no means prohibits the use of the Bible in politics, but it does lean away from it.

Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931)

Abraham Kuyper, ‘Manual Labor,’ in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Luis E. Lugo, ed., Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

Richard J. Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.1

For the next couple weeks we’ll look at theological and philosophical positions on the use of the Bible in American politics. We’ll start with theology, looking at three common positions in political theology, as well as various theologians affiliated with those positions.

The first theological position to be examined is what is often called ‘neo-Calvinism’ and sometimes ‘Kupyerianism.’ As the latter name indicates, the position is rooted in the life and work of Dutch politician, journalist, educator, and clergyman Abraham Kuyper. Through his various occupations (most of which were held simultaneously), Kuyper attempted to revitalize the ‘Reformed’ theology of John Calvin for his time, particularly stressing Calvin’s doctrine of ‘common grace.’

Common grace—which, incidentally, is not an emphasis in Calvin’s own work—is the belief that God is actively involved in the world to restrain evil and promote some amount of order and flourishing. Neo-Calvinists often quote Matthew 5:45b in support of this doctrine: ‘for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’

Common grace becomes the basis for a political theology when it is combined with a certain understanding of the opening chapter of Genesis. There neo-Calvinists find the ‘cultural mandate,’ God’s command that humans develop societal structures: ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (1:28). Because human culture is part of God’s created order, then culture is meant to follow God’s designs, and, since God through common grace continues to be active in the world, Christians can participate in culture—including politics—with the purpose of achieving that design.

At this point we might conjecture that neo-Calvinists would encourage the use of the Bible in American politics, since such use might facilitate the ordering of American politics to God’s created design. Nevertheless, one other doctrine enters the neo-Calvinist picture to complicate things. That doctrine, called ‘sphere sovereignty,’ asserts the fundamental integrity of the various aspects of culture. Family, church, government, business, etc. are each separate ‘spheres’ that must be allowed to develop independently without too much interference from the others (government is somewhat of an exception since it works above and between the spheres).

Christians, therefore, are left with a somewhat paradoxical role in politics: they are to engage politics with the hope of ordering it according to God’s design, but they are not to confuse the spheres of church and government. Though, as we will see in the next post, various neo-Calvinists resolve that paradox in different ways, it at least provides us with a rough base from which to build a neo-Calvinist response to the issue of the Bible and politics.

Although the Bible, insofar as God’s intended design for politics can be found in it, is indispensable in shaping Christian political engagement, Christians must be careful to ensure that their political language and actions are sufficiently ‘political’ and not overly ‘religious.’ Thus the neo-Calvinist view assigns the Bible a place in politics, but cautions that its use may violate the separation of church and government spheres. This nuanced position will become more clear in the following post on specific neo-Calvinist theologians.