No square inch... Abraham the Great

When I moved from the Netherlands to the UK, I discovered that many British Christians knew the names of two Dutch Christians from the past: Corrie ten Boom [1] and Abraham Kuyper. However, though many had read some of Corrie ten Boom’s books, they did not know much about Abraham Kuyper other than that he said ‘there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’’[2] So who was he, and how did he come to this statement?

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), in the Netherlands also known as ‘Abraham the Great’, must have been a man with an enormous amount of energy. Here are just a few things he did in his life… He studied literature, philosophy and theology at my alma mater, Leiden University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy. In 1863 he became a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1872 he founded a newspaper. In 1874, he was elected a member of parliament, but he had to step down only a year later because of health issues. In 1879 he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party and was its leader for the rest of his life. In 1880 he founded the Free University of Amsterdam where he became a Professor of Theology, Professor of literature and rector magnificus. The ‘square inch’ quote comes from the lecture he gave at the inauguration of the Free University. In 1886, he was one of the leaders of a split from the Dutch Reformed Church because he thought the church had become too liberal. Kuyper returned to parliament in 1894 and was an important influence in debates around universal suffrage, speaking up for the ‘little people’, the common people. In 1898 he was invited to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. From 1901 to 1905 he served as prime minister of the Netherlands. In the midst of all this, he was a prolific writer, mainly on theological and political topics. He remained politically active until his death, serving as a member of parliament, then as senator.

Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism led him to see God at work in all aspects of everyday life. Christians should serve God in all they do, and that includes things like family life, education, business and so on. He saw a divide between politics based on the Christian faith and the sovereignty of God and politics based on other worldviews, such as the sovereignty of the individual or the sovereignty of the state. He called this the antithesis. This also led him to affirm the diversity of organisations, such as schools, businesses, newspapers, hospitals. This is called ‘sphere sovereignty’: each of these organisations has its own authority and responsibility in its own sphere of activity. The distinction between these ‘spheres’ originates in the creation order and its historical development. God created things ‘after their own kind’ and this does not just hold for living organisms, but also for human organisations.

In a nutshell, these are Kuyper’s most important and influential ideas. In a future post, we will consider how they relate to scholarship and academic institutions – after all, Kuyper, besides being a pastor, journalist and politician, he was a scholar and employee of his own university!

[1] Note that this is not pronounced as some kind of explosion, but as ‘Bome’

[2] Inaugural lecture, Free University, Amsterdam, 1880.

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