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Kuyper, the State, and the American Revolution

Many evangelicals interested in law and public policy appreciate Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper’s thought.  Kuyper developed a rich theology of “common grace,” by which he believed God continually sustains the fallen creation.  The idea of common grace allows for some combination of Calvinist-Puritan ideas about human depravity and a more positive appropriation of human culture. 

Kuyper also promoted the idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which suggests that political sovereignty inheres in intermediate structures  such as the family, schools, the press, business, the arts, and the like, rather than primarily in the individual or the State.  A central component of Kuyper’s political thought was the idea that the State exists only because of sin.  Although the State is necessary to preserve fallen humanity, Kuyper forcefully argued that the State’s power and authority must be held carefully in check, particularly in relation to other spheres of society that possess their own inherent authority, such as the family.

What do you think – does the State (government) exist only because of sin?  Should we be inherently suspicious of government?


Kuyper’s political theology supported a strong concept of
liberty.  In his famous “Lectures
on Calvinism
,” delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898, for example, Kuyper
said:

“All true conception of the nature
of the State and of the assumption of authority by the magistrate, and on the
other hand all true conception of the right and duty of the people to defend
liberty, depends on what Calvinism has here placed in the foreground, as the primordial
truth – that God has instituted the
magistrates, by reason of sin
.” 
(Emphasis in Original)

Because the State is a provisional institution necessitated
by sin, Kuyper argued, we must remember two things:

“First – that we have gratefully to
receive, from the hand of God, the institution of the State with its
magistrates, as a means of preservation, now indeed indispensable.  And on the other hand that, by virtue
of our natural impulse, we must ever watch against the danger which lurks, for
our personal liberty, in the power of the State.”

This thinking led Kuyper to extol democratic revolutions
against what he viewed as excessive State power.  In particular, he believed the American Revolution was a
prime example of Calvinistic politics in action.  He noted that the Declaration of Independence referred to
rights derived from “the law of nature and of nature’s God” and thought the
U.S. Constitution reflected a “sovereignty derived from God,” which resulted in
properly limited government (See
Lectures on Calvinism, “Calvinism and Politics”).  Kuyper’s thought here obviously permeates conservative
American Christian thinking about law and politics today. 

Did Kuyper properly
understand the streams of thought underlying the American Revolution and
America’s founding documents?  Is
Kuyper’s legacy for Christian public theology positive, negative, or something
in between?  

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