Steve Bishop writes about his recently-published paper on Kuyper.
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch statesman, a theologian, a church reformer, a journalist and more. The recent project to translate his work into English has provided a stimulus for renewed interest in and work on Kuyper’s thought. Kuyper is also one of the giants on whose shoulders the work of Thinking Faith Network stands.
Kuyper was a polymath but he was not a scientist, at least as we understand the term today. He did, however, write about science. This is not surprising as science is an important part of culture and when Kuyper wrote, science was beginning to appear as an all-embracing worldview, particularly in the form of evolutionism. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) had not long been published and Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) among others were applying Darwin’s ideas to society, a project that became known as Social Darwinism. I explored Kuyper’s approach to the natural sciences in a paper I recently had published:
In what follows I attempt to summarise that paper.
Kuyper did not hold to the view that science was simply objective, unified and cumulative. Kuyper was neither captivated nor enchanted by Enlightenment science. He saw the sciences as a God-given cultural activity which is to be done in dependence on God. They are not an autonomous activity, they are not a body of knowledge independent of God.
In brief, Kuyper’s approach could be summarised in the following bullet points:
- The sciences begin when observation has finished.
- The sciences are by design a unique creature of God.
- They flourish within society; they grow and develop
- They are part of creation, so even if there were no fall, we would still have the sciences.
- The fall, however, has affected the sciences.
- Sciences should be independent of both church and state; the sciences must be allowed to flourish unhampered by both.
- The sciences involve thinking God’s thoughts after him.
- There is an antithesis at work in the sciences as there are two kinds of people: normalists and abnormalists (those who think the world isn’t as it should be) – what makes the difference is a “spiritual rebirth” or palingenesis. This results in two kinds of science.
- Common grace is important for the sciences: without it the post-fall decline of science would be absolute.
Science for Kuyper is a creature of God. Its roots are in creation not in the fall, although the fall did impact both the sciences and scientific work. The effects of the fall on the sciences, in part, were mitigated by common grace.
Kuyper was well aware of the limits of the sciences. They are unable, for example, to prove or disprove the existence of God; as he wrote: “Every effort to prove the existence of God by so-called evidences must fail and has failed”.
There are many strengths in Kuyper’s position. He provides a basis for Christian involvement in the sciences. He ably shows how Calvinism enabled the flourishing of the sciences and that it was not inimical to it. He, thus, shows that the sciences and scientific work could be a Christian ministry. He took seriously the sovereignty of God over the sciences and the effect of sin on the creation, he affirmed the creator/ creation distinction, and he saw the need for a distinctively Christian approach to the sciences not least because our starting points affect our view of things.
He identified the role of faith in the sciences – unfortunately, this is not fully developed – and identifies the supposed conflict between science and faith as being fallacious since every branch of science presupposes faith. Kuyper saw the error of the conflict view of science and religion – he realised and advocated the view that both science and religion rested on faith and were derived from worldviews.
For Kuyper, knowledge was more than rational thought. The revelation of God and his creation is also important – this in part justifies the two kinds of people and two kinds of science he advocated. The Christian faith does make a difference.
Common grace provided a biblical framework in which to appreciate and appropriate the developments of science made by non-Christians. It also provided a basis for Christian involvement in the sciences. The antithesis, however, revealed that Christians and non- Christians have different starting points and thus the need for a distinctly Christian approach to the sciences.
Unfortunately, despite many of the strengths of Kuyper’s approach, he was unable to escape the scholasticism that was dominant in theological circles of his time. This is evident in his notion of “thinking God’s thoughts” and his view of higher (e.g., theology, psychology) and lower (e.g., mathematics and physics) sciences. Nevertheless, he does provide a solid foundation for a distinctively Christian approach to the natural sciences. Kuyper’s approach is characterised by sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace. The ambiguities in how these doctrines converge in the natural sciences leave us with plenty of work to do.
Steve Bishop is a trustee of Thinking Faith Network and maintains the All of Life Redeemed web pages. His PhD looked at the (lack of) reception of Reformational ideas by English Calvinists. He is married to a vicar, has three children, blogs at stevebishop.blogspot.com and tweets @stevebishopuk.