Wisdom and Wonder by Abraham Kuyper

Wisdom and Wonder by Abraham Kuyper March 29, 2012

I am grateful to Patheos for giving me the opportunity to participate in the Patheos Book Club discussion of the translation of Abraham Kuyper’s book, released under the English title Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art.

The book offers a fascinating insight into the question of how Christian faith relates to major human endeavors that take place at least in part independently of the church, focusing on science and art, but with the wider question of the relationship of Christians to society in view.

Kuyper is a fascinating figure. He lived from 1837-1920, and at the beginning of the 20th century served as prime minister of the Netherlands. And so he needs to be understood against the backdrop of his times. The publication of Darwin’s theory took place in his lifetime. What we call “modern art” was essentially a product of his time. France was experiencing revolution during his lifetime. The question of how Christian faith related to science, to art, to society in general was a particularly pressing one in this period. And however different the current context may be, some of the same issues have remained serious concerns for at least substantial numbers of Christians, while the underlying question of the relationship between personal faith and faith community on the one hand, and wider culture and participation in general human activity on the other, never goes away.

A key theme running throughout the book, and indeed throughout Kuyper’s theology more broadly, is “common grace,” the idea that divine grace is active not only within the church but in the world, so that the impact of sin does not altogether prevent human beings from engaging in meaningful and profitable undertakings.

The first part of the book is dedicated to science. The translators emphasize in their preface that the term translated in this way is the Dutch word wetenschap, which (like the German Wissenschaft) has the root meaning “knowledge” as does the Latin root from which the English word “science” derives. In its more technical sense, it means not only science in the sense of the natural or hard sciences, but all pursuit of knowledge and understanding by rigorous academic means.

Kupyer takes an approach to the Bible that may seem far too naive in its assumption about the factuality of certain narratives – in particular those about the Garden of Eden. But I suspect that even progressive Christian readers will be struck by the creativity with which Kuyper discusses and explores the text within his relatively conservative Calvinistic theological framework. For instance, Kuyper suggests that if there had been no Fall into sin, then there would have been neither church nor state – but there would have been science (p.35). The quest to understand the created order rationally reflects the fact that divine reason is said in Scripture to be fundamental to creation. Kuyper emphasizes that science is not to be limited to empirical observation, which is the lowest common denominator and starting point for science, but not its end (p.65). On such observable phenomena the greatest consensus can be reached, but that is only because it involved only the most superficial level of investigation. The human quest to understand seeks to look behind the observable to discern the mechanisms, the reasons why. This quest to understand is viewed by Kuyper as an appropriate response to the divine creative activity.

Moving into the New Testament, Kuyper helpfully addresses the anti-intellectual stance that some Christians adopt, appealing to Scripture’s emphasis on the wisdom of this world being foolishness in God’s sight, and other such language in the Bible (pp.49-50). 1 Timothy 6:20, Kuyper emphasizes, warns not against knowledge but against  “what is falsely called knowledge,” suggesting that there is true knowledge. There can be true and false knowledge of both spiritual things and the natural world, and “The distinction between true science and false science lies not in the arena where people perform their investigations, but in the manner with which they investigate, and in the principle from which people begin to investigate” (p.52). Sin, Kuyper says, has darkened human understanding, leading to a distorted view of things that can lead to false conclusions.

As an example – and one that is of particular interest to me – let us see what Kuyper says about evolution. Keep in mind that Kuyper was writing at a time when the theory of evolution as put forward by Darwin was relatively new, and much of the data that now confirms and supports it (including not only paleontological finds but the entire field of genetics) was not yet available. Even so, Kuyper lists Darwin alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Kant as people who were not professing Christians and yet even so were “geniuses of the highest caliber” (p.54). Yet he also expresses later the view that “The mighty rise of Darwinism is itself in no small part to be explained in terms of imreflective people imagining that here at least was sufficient answer” to the question of origins (p.71). Later still, Kuyper refers to the theory of evolution, suggesting that human beings are made in the image of animals rather than God, uniting Christians across denominational lines (p.86). And in the end, the author refers to secular science’s theory of evolution, which suggests that all life arose by automatic processes “without any higher ordination” and leads naturally to atheism (p.99). And so Kuyper calls for Christians neither to ignore science and retreat to a purely Scriptural or subjective outlook, but to offer a distinctively Christian science based on Christian principles.

What that might mean in practice – and what Kuyper envisaged with respect to evolution – is not so easy to determine. While he seems to have offered earlier comments about “evolution” with a broad brush that was negative, in this work, it is the attempt to use evolution as a means of ejecting God that Kuyper most clearly has in view. And so while some readers might see in his language the sort of stance found among young-earth creationists who envisage their dubious activities as a distinctively Christian science, closer to the spirit of Kuyper’s argument are theistic evolutionists, who take fully seriously the scientific data and at the same time the Bible’s emphasis that the reason why behind the world’s phenomena and workings is ultimately God.

There is something of an irony in the fact that Kuyper’s view of “the dark-skinned tribes of Central Africa” as superstitious and lagging behind Muslims (who in turn lag behind Christians) with respect to their “religious and moral character” reflects an evolutionary view of religion popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century which has since been called into question (p.107). Time and again, Kuyper’s writing illustrates the adeptness with which one can find ways to embrace a commitment to the Bible without having therefore to let go of science, art, or much else that is valuable in human culture. But his writings, like all writings from the past, also illustrate the limitations on any human being who commits their views to writing. With hindsight, our shortcomings become increasingly apparent. This is not to belittle the value of Kuyper, but to warn that turning to his theological work as though it could be uncritically adopted as a solution to today’s problems is misguided. The value of Kuyper’s writing is not that it gives an authoritative and definitive answer to issues, but that it illustrates how one can navigate them sensitively, and how even those seeking to do that will inevitably mistake their own cultural perspective and biases for eternal truth.

We see this in Kuyper’s treatment of art in the second part of the book even more clearly than in his treatment of science/knowledge. Kuyper shares the sentiment of many in Europe in his time that the achievement of ancient Greece represented the pinnacle of human artistic development. Kuyper expressed concern about developments in a range of artistic domains – such as the use of nudes in painting, and of foul language on the stage. Kuyper emphasized that music is not neutral, and can have a positive or negative impact. While his contrast between the positive impact of the Dutch national anthem and negative impact of the French national anthem might be assumed to be an attempt at humor, I found myself troubled by Kuyper’s pointing to Bach and Meyerbeer, and wondering whether the sense of cultural superiority Kuyper has at this point might not have been influenced, even if indirectly, by the antisemitism of Wagner and others who criticized Meyerbeer and many other Jewish composers in Germany.

For some, it is a challenge to bring Christianity and society together. For others, the challenge is to keep them apart. It is to Kuyper’s credit that he sought to bring the two into creative tension that neither abolished the differences nor simply combined the two. However much I might view things differently than he did from my own standpoint in history, I appreciate his desire to find middle ground, at a time when it seems to have often been particularly difficult to do so.

To some progressive Christians like myself, Kuyper might seem to be approaching Scripture with expectations that are too high, in light of the extensive study of the Bible which began before Kuyper but has continued and advanced ever since. Yet in his context, it must be remembered, Kuyper was not simply a voice for conservativism, but seeking to mediate between the realms of faith on the one hand and science, art, and society on the other, a mediation that more conservative and more liberal critics alike often felt impossible. And so anyone who considers it worthwhile, if not indeed necessary, to cling to both a historic religious tradition and the learning and art produced outside that tradition, Kuyper provides an fascinating historical example of the attempt to do just that. And his voice may perhaps address all too directly a continued anti-intellectual and anti-artistic viewpoint that continues to hold sway in certain conservative circles. For those who seek to insulate their faith from anything “secular” or “worldly,” Kuyper offers the challenge of a perspective that genuinely regards as ultimately incommensurate the worldviews of Christianity and other perspectives, and yet which is so committed to the idea of God as Creator and provident sustainer that he cannot but acknowledge that God’s reason and beauty continue to shine through and be visible even beyond the domain of the church. It is this that Kuyper calls “common grace.”

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the Patheos Book Club discussion of this book. I encourage readers to visit the Patheos hub for the discussion of this book, and to join in the conversation.

For those interested in receiving a free copy of Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, I provide details in a separate post about how to participate in a promotion that Patheos is generously making available to readers of this blog. Click through for more details!

Browse Our Archives