In two words, “sphere sovereignty.” That Craig Bartholomew, in Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, has a full chapter on Kuyperian sphere sovereignty shows (to me at least) his attunement to the issues still alive today but also to the issues Kuyper himself was facing.
First, the context for Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty:
The overwhelming background of Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty is the reconstruction of nations and societies that developed out of the Enlightenment. [revolutionary starting all over again] … Their challenge was to develop an alternative, modern, Christian philosophy of society, and this culminated in the doctrine of sphere sovereignty (132).
It starts with Calvin: “1. the sovereignty of God; 2. God s authority over human and state life; 3. the relative freedom of each sphere of life under God; 4. the divine origin of the state to preserve humankind in the face of sin; 5. the mutual obligation of rulers and subjects in constituting civil society; 6. the antirevolutionary spirit of obedience on behalf of the citizens; 7. the necessity of positive civil law; and 8. the possibility of just government flowing from the common grace of God” (133). [SMcK: I’d like to see these, esp. 3, documented in Calvin himself. I don’t doubt this being accurate; I’d like to see it in Calvin myself.]
Bartholomew then discusses Johannes Althusius, Friedrich Julius Stahl (denies state absolutism) and then Groen van Prinsterer (with an echo or two of Francke in Germany’s Lutheran pietism). Again at issue is the authority of man and reason in the revolutionary spirit of the age; the counter was the authority of Scripture, gospel and church. This sets the stage for Kuyper and Dutch Calvinism, a kind of worldview still very attractive to many in the USA.
On Prinsterer, this summary from Bartholomew, with important themes for comprehending Kuyper himself:
As a good Calvinist, for Groen van Prinsterer God is sovereign, and all authority comes from him and should be subject to him. He remained a monarchist and advocated against separating church and state. He did not emphasize distinct spheres over against the state. He defended some autonomy in the lower spheres but viewed society as a hierarchy around the central organ of the state. In his battle for education reform, he stressed the rights of parents and sought to decentralize control of schools, arguing for the control of provinces and local communities as opposed to central government; he did not, however, recognize the nonpolitical character of family life and education (137).
The crucial section in this chp is the Kuyperian tradition itself. It begins with God’s sovereignty, and God alone. Does God delegate authority to one sphere or to many? Here is Kuyper:
Call the parts of this one great machine “cogwheels,” spring-driven on their own axles, or “spheres,” each animated with its own spirit. The name or image is unimportant, so long as we recognize that there are in life as many spheres as there are constellations in the sky and that the circumference of each has been drawn on a fixed radius from the center of a unique principle, namely the apostolic injunction hekastos en toi idioi tagmati [“each in its own order’ 1 Cor 15:23]. Just as we speak of a “moral world,” a “scientific world,” a “business world,” the “world of art,” so we can more properly speak of a “sphere” of morality, of the family, of social life, each with its own domain. And because each comprises its own domain, each has its own Sovereign within its bounds (138, quoting from Kuyper’s famous address).
In other words, Babel-like, God disperses authority/sovereignty into spheres, each with its own. This is a clear case of anti-absolutism in state, and that concern about the state shapes Kuyper’s theory. The state protects the sacredness of each sphere.
There is no earthly power above the state, and thus the vitality of the life spheres is crucial if the state is to be constrained to play its role without undue interference in the spheres. Kuyper is clear that God instituted the state to mediate his justice on earth. But it cannot and should not interfere in the tasks of the other spheres. However, when one sphere violates the boundaries of another, it is the states duty to intervene and protect the boundaries of the different spheres (139). [SMcK: I don’t know political history enough, but this sounds a bit like Erastianism.]
Without faith the whole thing collapses into the authority of humans and reason and state. Creation, then, is contingent or it all becomes idolatrous. All human authority then is delegated by God, not determined by man (Montesquieu and Paine, hear that). Each sphere then gains its meaning in its proper relation to God.
The spheres are interrelated and interact with one another. If they do not there develops dualism and thus each can be misdirected. Thus, Kuyper fought for a Christian version of each sphere (144-145, as I read him). But withdrawal, Bartholomew argues, is for reengagement.
Sphere sovereignty is insightful in its recognition of the importance of government as a gift from God to restrain evil and establish public justice. Inherently, the Kuyperian tradition is thus positive toward government and has much vested in encouraging Christians to respect the state and to be model citizens. But it unequivocally rejects any absolutization of the state, since this would be to bow the knee to Caesar. The state has a unique but limited role. It is the sphere of spheres in the sense that it is there to ensure the freedom of the different spheres and to ensure that they do not unfairly encroach on each other (147).
Sphere sovereignty is particularly helpful in delineating a sphere that all Christians have a vested interest in, namely the institutional church. It is vital to distinguish between the gathered church for worship (the institutional church) and the life of the people of God as a whole. The institutional church is qualified philosophically as a structure by faith and is all about worship in the narrow sense of the word, about the Word, faith, prayer, sacraments. The institutional church is there as our mother in the faith to continually nurture our trust in and dependence on the living God, who has come to us in Jesus Christ. A church can engage in many activities, but worship and the formation of disciples through Word and sacrament must always be central to its life (148). [SMcK: what I care about here is not discussed; the minimization of church as one sphere alongside others, and this description seems to make it only a group at worship.]
The Kuyperian tradition is controversial in South Africa because of its use to support apartheid. Kuyper himself is partially responsible for this. … His critique of British arrogance and imperialism is valid, but disastrously, in his defense of the Boers, he affirms as a virtue their refusal to socialize with “inferior” black Africans: [he quotes Kuyper here:] The Boers are not sentimental but men of practical genius. They understood that the Hottentots and the Bantus were an inferior race, and that to put them on a footing of equality with the whites, in their families, in society, and in politics, would be simple folly.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was especially among the liberal tradition in South Africa, much of which was Christian, that voices could be heard calling for justice for all in South Africa.78 Alan Paton (1903-1988) was one such voice.
… but there is no direct line between sphere sovereignty and apartheid. … Hie view of the state as being there to provide public justice for all citizens runs entirely counter to the sort of oppression of the majority experienced under apartheid. It is a tragedy and a scar on Kuyper s thought that he was so inconsistent when it came to black Africans.