Rich Mouw, Abraham Kuyper, and Culture

Rich Mouw, Abraham Kuyper, and Culture September 3, 2012

How does the Christian live in, relate to and transform culture? This question, one that draws in the need for expertise in about fifty disciplines, shapes the lucid and informed and very brief study by Rich Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction. Kuyper’s approach to the Christian and culture is a classic Calvinist formulation, but it has far more nuance than most. It seems most evangelicals and mainliners are generally in favor of the approach of Kuyper, though I doubt many operate with his sphere sovereignty. What survives then is a kind of unreflective activism. Kuyper can help.

What do you think of Kuyper’s famous “Mine!” approach?

Many Christians are instinctive Constantinians, even in our pluralistic world. They want the church to control everything, and are more than active in doing what they can to make that happen. Other Christians, often associated with Anabaptists (though that is a stereotype since there is a variety of anabaptist views), believe in forming a Christian culture in the Christian ecclesia/church and through the ecclesia they witness to the realities of the kingdom. For them participation in culture will have less importance, if any at all. So some withdraw completely while others participate some, though the oddity today is that an increasing number of anabaptists are sliding into a political activism that shows little contrast with Constantinians. As I said above, I suspect most Christians are a watered-down version of the Calvinist approach to the Christian and culture.

Mouw’s thesis is to show what Kuyper thought, and Kuyper — a multi-tasker if ever one was (he was pastor, theologian, journalist, university founder, political leader, president, etc) — pushed for what is called “sphere sovereignty.” Here’s a diagram found on the internet:

A secular model of this would replace “God” with “State,” while in a pure secular model both “God” and “Church” would be erased. The radical anabaptist model would move God to the left over “Church” and draw a big fat line up and down between “Church” and “Family.”

Kuyper’s thesis is that each sphere is to sustain its own sovereignty and methods and principles etc so that “State” does State things and leaves “School” and “Family” and “Church” alone. In American history Roger Williams was one who propounded this view with regard to Church and State.

The Christian’s impact in all of this is to be established in circles of influence inside each circle so that the Christian’s engagement in culture is within each sphere, not by raising “State” to under “God” and then through the “State” to reshape each sovereignty. So, the influence is a transformation from within the sovereignty of each sphere and not by the use of coercion or power or authority from another sphere. I wonder if James Davison Hunter’s “faithful witness” approach is a version of Kuyper.

This stuff is not simple since humans don’t simply dwell in a sphere: we inter-dwell in spheres and so we exercise our influence in various ways in differing spheres.

The big theme in Mouw’s well-written book is that over each of these spheres Christ declares “Mine!” This leads to the Christian mission of influence, but it always carries with it the danger of Constantine. That approach is not just how the Catholics shaped European culture from the 4th Century on but can be seen in the German Lutheran Church, Calvin’s Geneva, England’s Anglican Church, and the Puritans in the USA in their own communities. So “Mine!” is the problem. How to live out the “Mine!” in a pluralist culture?

Mouw knows Kuyper’s word isn’t the last word for the Calvinist theory of sphere sovereignty so he explores a few topics on which Kuyper did not speak, including race and evangelicalism and expanding the role of church and family and Islam.

This Kuyperian tradition has a tendency to understand Kingdom as a manifestation of common grace and to get Kingdom too far from church, and to see Kingdom wherever there is something good in this world — and I push back against this because of how kingdom is used by Jesus (I don’t think Jesus would ever say Herod’s good roads were kingdom stuff or what Caesar was doing in Rome with providing dole to be kingdom stuff). I also get a bit concerned with spherical sovereignties that are not integrated with one another enough or that are not connected enough to church … but all this is saying that I’m anabaptistic and Kuyper, well, he wasn’t.

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  • A comment from a fellow countryman of Kuyper:

    You ask, or quote: “How to live out the “Mine!” in a pluralist culture?” So how does the Anabaptist answer look like? Or does the question already sound different to begin with, if you start with Anabaptist premises?

    It is interesting to see that Daniel was “seeking the peace” of Babel on the one hand, yet on the other hand explained Nebukadnessars dream to mean a radical different kingdom would appear and destroy his. So what was Daniel doing? What was the relationship between his job and the kingdom of God? And I hope you understand the relevance of this question for people on the workplace, in the government, etc.

    Note: in the Netherlands the influence of christians is waning, yet “building the kingdom” language is increasing among them. Why?

  • phil_style

    A question I have about Kuypers model is this: Is it supposed to be descriptive, or prescriptive?

    If it’s descriptive, it’s just a model of sovereignty – identifying an existing hierarchical relationship between God, and the created order.

    If it’s prescriptive, (i.e. it guides the christian), then I think it’s inadequate. There is a gap in the model formulation where the individual person should be. Invariably, inserting the person in the gap between “God” and the other boxes gives the impression that somehow the christian exists “above the fray” – placing themselves in a hierarchical position above all those other entities (which contain people!).

    What is Jesus’ formulation of our relationship to society?
    Sitting at the bottom of the table. Washing their feet….

  • scotmcknight

    phil, The Christian, so it seems to me, in the Kuyperian model is in one or more or all of the spheres. Part of each.


    I don’t quite know what an Anabaptist, say Yoder (though he’s not the only model), would say to Kuyper. I’m not so sure he’d be so exclamatory on “Mine!” and would perhaps look at the church and say “These are mine.”

  • Deets

    Scot, I’m not sure I understand you “big fat line” between church and family in the radical anabaptist model. Are you saying they disconnect the two spheres or that family falls under the church?

  • scotmcknight


    Take God and move God over the Church circle. Now draw a line from the right end of the God circle down beyond the Church’s sphere. Make that line double. Now you’ve got a more radical anabaptist view. God rules in the church and the rest of culture is up for grabs and under the dominion of darkness.

  • Scot, that again begs the question what Daniel was doing – and all the people in the current workplace are doing. Were and are they working under the dominion of darkness – for the benefit of evil? And what about Cyrus – or what about Mandele and Gandhi?

  • scotmcknight

    Pieter, I’m describing Kuyper here, not Anabaptist thought. Care to comment on Kuyper?

  • Where would you or a radical anabaptist place the hospital or school run by Christians?

  • scotmcknight

    Pieter, where would Kuyper place it, that’s the question.

  • From a sociological standpoint, I think Kuyper adds some important insights to life in the modern world. The only two significant institutions of the ancient world were family (tribe/clan) and polis. Modern society is more compartmentalized, partly an evolution to keep power decentralized. One economic historian I read suggests our great challenge has been to create societies centralized enough to enforce basic rules and restrain aggression without being so centralized that the power at the center tyrannizes society. I agree. We have moved from family and polis, to a constellation of institutions like family, business, education, military, volunteer organizations, and state, with none dominating … at least that is the idea. The the structure and authority that shapes one institution isn’t necessarily meant to shape the others.

    In that sense, I think the church … as an institution … needs to be one of the institutions alongside, not above, the others. But the church as the gathered people of God sent in mission into the world should be seeking the shalom of the various institutions, both by being an example and working to persuade others to a more shalom-filled way of being within institutions. The church should be a community apart from the world but also a community where participation in the various institutions of society is routinely wrestled with. I don’t think the church can be a self-contained alternative model to what the other institutions of society do.

    “and I push back against this because of how kingdom is used by Jesus (I don’t think Jesus would ever say Herod’s good roads were kingdom stuff or what Caesar was doing in Rome with providing dole to be kingdom stuff).”

    We’ve had this conversation before, and I continue to wrestle with it. Kingdom includes King, domain, subjects, and an order to live by. Jesus is King. All the earth is Christ’s domain. All humanity are his subjects but some subjects are in rebellion. Can God only (or has God chosen to limit Godself to) effect change directly through the church, God’s visible witness (the loyal subjects)? Or, as Christopher Wright and others might suggest, is the church the visible expression of a much deeper, expansive, and hidden move of God to shape God’s domain, rebellious subjects notwithstanding? I continue to lean more toward the latter.

  • Thanks Scot. Not being Anabaptist (except by half my DNA), I favour Kuyper’s approach.

    Re: comments 8 and 9, I think that the school situation is a very good example of the difference between Kuyper’s approach and that of many evangelicals. The administration of Christian schools is a case in point. Many evangelical churches have schools that are church schools. By contrast, though one very often finds Christian schools in Reformed churches, they are not church schools, they are parental schools.

    I think that Kuyper’s approach keeps the church doing what is its distinctive mission, and not dabbling in things that are the mission God gives to families, the State etc., which can actually distract the church from its mission.

    As you said to a commenter, Christians can be deeply involved in the other spheres (the state, public schools, etc.), by virtue of their membership there. But they act as Christian citizens (for instance), not as representatives of their church. This makes a large difference. It helps the church to keep being the church, equipping its members to live Christianly in every area of life. I think that Calvinists have contributed helpfully, as a result, in terms of cultural analysis. Much emphasis is put on a Christian’s “vocation,” in the world, which includes their jobs, where so much of their time is spent. Christians are people who acknowledge that God is their king and they live accordingly in every sphere in which they participate.

    It was moving to a Mennonite community that made me aware of just how non-Mennonite I am, in this area. As a Baptist, I was well convinced of the separation of church and state, but I discovered that for Anabaptists that meant something more like the separation of Christians (rather than the church) from the state. Think of the Schleitheim Confession, which forbad church members from being magistrates in the State. Many Mennonites in this strongly Mennonite area do vote in government elections, but some consider it wrong, and the whole atmosphere of discipleship formation does not encourage people to take a place in government office. I know of at least one Mennonite from this area who left his church when he became a member of Parliament, because his activity was so ill appreciated.

    Bravo for Kuyper, I say. God is king everywhere, but his kingship is not everywhere mediated through the church, over which Christ is head in a distinctive way.

  • sam

    I can agree with Kuyper that God needs to influence all spheres. But I do not think the model of spheres desrcibes our world of faith. I think the Anabpatist model maybe closest to what I think is Biblical.
    Instead of thinking of spehres of influence, we should think of God over all things. He has called us to be his witnesses/representatives in this world or all spheres. God has his own way or influencing and conquering this world. Jesus represented this method of influence or conquest.

  • Great post Scot! I love the phrase “unreflective activism”. This was exactly the impetus for writing my dissertation on developing an Evangelical theology of urban transformation. Everybody loves the terms “transformation” and “social justice”, but there has been very little reflection given towards our outcomes. Kuyper’s theory was developed for a nation that considered itself to be Christian. What does the church strive to accomplish in cities and nations where Christians are a minority. “The whole earth is the Lord’s”, but in a minority situation the church lives out its transformational character with a different posture. In a pluralistic society, the answers will be necessarily complex. Hunter’s “faithful witness” might sound simple to some, but intentional theological reflection can benefit our engagement with the world.