The last two weeks I’ve been reading James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat—which I highly recommend (review coming this weekend). One of Kuyper’s well known contributions to Reformed Theology was his exploration of common grace and culture. Bratt makes an observation that struck me for how relevant it is to what happened in American during the twentieth-century. Bratts says,
“With the wounds of the church struggle still raw, [Kuyper] admitted that it was tempting to give up on the nation, ‘our fatherland here below,’ and he indulged his audience with the myth of a seventeenth-century golden age when pure Reformed religion ‘defined the direction of [our] public life.’ Yet he reminded them that God remained the Sovereign Lord over all history, including the present place and time. If it was manifestly so that ‘secularization is the stamp’ of the age, then the Lord must have also provided the means for believers to sound the claims of faith in that context” (195-96).
Just a brief comment which will break up our lengthy quotation. I found this idealizing of the seventeenth-century ironic because many Reformed Christians now look back to Kuyper’s life as a golden age for Reformed religion. This should encourage us in as far as we recognize that there is no such thing as a golden age. There is always sin and struggle. There is always cultural opposition to the growth of the Church. Back to Bratt’s reporting.
“To discern those means Kuyper directed is audience’s attention to the secularists’ road to power: their command of government, public opinion, the arts and science. The faithful were called to work in those same venues, Kuyper reasoned, even — no, especially — from their place on the margin. . . . The Calvinist remnant was called to be prophets instead, nurtured in their own networks but stepping forth boldly into the public life to call ‘prince and people back to the Law and Testimony.’ This was Kuyper’s church-organic living as ‘a colony of the heavenly fatherland.’ If that remained always the object of their highest allegiance, believers were still to plant here below deep roots for a long engagement in public life” (196).
The success Kuyper found in his time came from recognizing the secularists point of attack and their strategy and stepping into the fast ball with confidence that God is sovereign even when the Christian faith is marginalized.
In the United States at the start of the twentieth-century, the American church responded to pressures from within the church (liberalism) and pressure outside of the church by stepping out of the batter’s box. We responded to Modernity with Fundamentalism (the cultural variety, not the Nicene variety). We stepped out of the culture reacting in fear. A lot of churches saw social justice as something liberals do to replace the gospel instead of seeing the long history of social justice fueled by the finished work of Jesus Christ and God’s action in redeeming the marginalized. And many churches looked suspiciously at the arts and science which only played into the strategy of those who wished to marginalize the Christian faith.
Kuyper’s identification of the secularists’ strategy as “command of government, public opinion, the arts and science” seems pertinent today. I don’t see the current game plan in America by those opposing the Christian faith as different. Therefore, to win the culture wars (a term I’m not fond of, but I use it because that’s the popular parlance in American evangelicalism) we must step into the public life winsomely and with a robust view of our work as love for God and neighbor. We must work at creating good and beautiful art. We must value and contribute to the sciences.
In addition, we should worry less about the corruption outside of the church and our families, and more on actively, winsomely, and affectionately discipling those within our immediate spheres of influence. In one sense, the culture war will be won as we faithfully obey the cultural mandate (Gen. 1-3) to have dominion, work, and multiply and as we obey the gospel mandate (Matt. 28:18-20) to disciple all nations starting in our homes.
As we step into the public life with this grand vision for loving God, neighbor, and the earth, we are also spreading this grand vision in our homes and churches. This beautiful vision for God’s mission in the world organically grows. But we shouldn’t be distracted. Surely we can address the important questions of our day, but I would encourage Christians to do this in the context of discipling your families and those in your church first.
The cultural and gospel mandate are a firmly planted tree (Ps. 1) which has weathered many cultural storms and will weather many more. They weathered the storm of the secularists of Kuyper’s age and the Modernists thereafter and they will weather the storm of our current cultural onslaught. Our mission never changes. We are to have dominion and work in our public life; and multiply God-centered families (it wouldn’t hurt if we enjoyed the mechanics of multipling either); and disciple all nations starting in our homes and moving out.
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the assistant editor at CBMW Men’s Channel. He regularly writes for a variety of publications. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting.