Neo-Calvinist Theologians: Kuyper and Mouw
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.
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).