A centennial anniversary
“What Kuyper Can Teach Us 100 Years Later” is the title of a November 6, 2020 ChristianityToday.com article by Jordan J. Ballor, a member of the Acton Institute. The article reminds us that Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper died 100 years ago on November 8, 1920. Kuyper is well known to the readers of the Standard Bearer, and it is no surprise to us that the 100th anniversary of his death would receive attention from a popular Christian institution such as Christianity Today. The article mentions another fairly prominent Christian institution, Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI, that annually honors the memory of Kuyper by awarding an individual with the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life, which comes with a $10,000 award.
On November 16, 2020 a ceremony was held to present the award to New York Times columnist David Brooks. The selection of Brooks for this award in 2020 indeed tells us much about what we can learn from Abraham Kuyper, especially about the evil fruit of the theory of common grace, which has sadly but perhaps deservedly, proved to be the most prominent legacy of his life and work.
The silenced Kuyper
Abraham Kuyper was, as the award’s name indicates, a Reformed theologian, but this is hardly mentioned and is downplayed by those who want to commemorate him today. Ballor lists the common ways Kuyper is described: “theologian, pastor, professor, journalist, politician.” But Ballor prefers to identify Kuyper as “an institution-building—or what we [stuffy intellectuals?] often today call a ‘social entrepreneur’—par excellence.” Calvin University President, Michael Le Roy, also notes a list of things that Kuyper was known for: “scholar, politician…religious leader…journalist.” In their estimation, Kuyper’s work as a Reformed theologian or religious leader is merely one of many other important things he did in his life, and it certainly was not the most important. So no mention is made of Kuyper’s commitment to teach and defend the truths of Scripture as they are formulated in our Reformed confessions. No mention is made of Kuyper’s teaching that God’s grace is sovereign (unconditional and unfailing in its saving power) and particular (for the elect only). Certainly no mention is made of Kuyper’s emphasis on the doctrine of the antithesis, the spiritual difference—yea, the spiritual warfare—between faith and unbelief.
Admittedly, Kuyper is to blame for the fact that the work he did as a Reformed theologian—work that he himself saw as very important—is overlooked today. In the Protestant Reformed Churches we have always noted the great contradiction between Abraham Kuyper as a theologian of Reformed, biblical truth and as the theologian of common grace (a general and supposedly non-saving grace of God for all men). We have always noted and explained that common grace is not a biblical doctrine consistent with the Reformed faith. Rather, it is a man-made theory, that may not have originated with Abraham Kuyper but was most fully developed by him. Beginning with Herman Hoeksema, Henry Danhof, and George Ophoff, the PRC has been warning that Reformed theology and common grace cannot live together in peace. Because there is a conflict between Reformed truth and common grace, one must gain the ascendency and the other must be silenced. And if common grace is not rejected, the inevitable outcome is that common grace will triumph and silence Reformed truth.
100 years after his death, the Abraham Kuyper of sovereign, particular grace and the antithesis is silent as far as many who celebrate the Kuyper of common grace are concerned. For if Calvin University’s Kuyper Prize were awarded for contributions to Reformed theology, David Brooks could not be its recipient.
An unbelieving recipient
The criteria for awarding the Kuyper Prize is explained by Calvin University’s press release. It explains “The Kuyper Prize…is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political, and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society.” The selection of Brooks for the prize is explained by President Le Roy: “We see in David Brooks’ work as a journalist and a political commentator that he has worked tirelessly to promote civil discourse in polarizing political landscapes, something that characterized Kuyper’s public life as well.” David Brooks was selected for this prize, not to commemorate the Kuyper of Reformed theology but the Kuyper of common grace (public life).
It hardly needs to be proved that David Brooks’s selection had nothing to do with Reformed theology. David Brooks is not a Reformed Christian, indeed he is not a Christian at all. His religious views are described in a very strange article on ChristianityToday.com entitled “How David Brooks Meandered Toward God.” Brooks is described as having made “a slow but certain movement to some measure of Christian identity and faith.” But “he has hardly abandoned his Jewish heritage. If anything, his Christian pilgrimage has only intensified his identification with Judaism.”
Through interactions with Christians, Brooks has moved from atheism to theism. But belief in a god is not Christianity. Nor is Christianity something someone can have a small measure of in combination with another false religion such as Judaism. Christianity is the religion in which regenerated believers confess to believe in the triune God and His Son Jesus Christ with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. In the great creeds of the Reformation Reformed Christians identify the God and Savior in whom they place their faith. Brooks does not identify with the Reformed creeds or with Reformed believers. He distances himself from them and criticizes them. “Indeed, he sometimes faults evangelicals [the article identifies evangelicals as Protestant Christians] for nursing a disproportionate victim mentality and for living with an unfortunate hostility toward secular society.”
A significant recipient
Let’s consider the reasons why Calvin University would select a non-Reformed, non-Christian man to receive the Kuyper Prize. The explanation partly has to do with a twisting of what it means to be Reformed.
Ballor speaks of the “comprehensive corruption introduced by the fall into sin.” It almost sounds as if he is referring to the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, but he is not. He does not believe that fallen human beings are dead in sin so that they totally corrupt every “sphere” of life. He believes in common grace. He believes that grace, “whether preserving (common) or saving (special), reaches all of life.” Ballor does not say it explicitly, but the teaching of common grace is that by this common grace God preserves something good in man and in the culture and institutions of the world. Because of common grace, it is legitimate and even the calling of Christians to work to redeem/reform all of society and its institutions. So the Reformed doctrine of the antithesis, of believers living in the world but being spiritually separate from the world, is replaced with the calling to cooperate with the people of the world to make this world a better place, to Christianize the institutions of society. One can easily detect in the language of Ballor and Le Roy a desire to sound Reformed as they speak about sin and grace and the gospel. But their language cannot hide the fact that they are promoting nothing more than the unbiblical idea that Christians are to try to have an “impact” on the world, to “redeem” culture, to seek social justice, to make this present world a better place.
Hence, the Kuyper Prize is not about Reformed theology at all; it is all about ‘public life.’ It is about being a mover and shaker in the world. It is about promoting some kind of religious reform (even if it is not Christian) for the common good of man. It is about making an “impact” in the world. It is about being politically, economically, or socially significant.
David Brooks fits the bill. The Calvin press release highlights an impressive resume for Mr. Brooks: “In addition to Brooks’ work with the NY Times, he is also a commentator on ‘PBS NewsHour,’ NPR’s ‘All Things Considered,’ and NBC’s ‘Meet the Press.’” And he more recently published The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. According to Calvin Seminary’s President, Jul Medenblik, Brooks “models a very Kuyperian way of thinking about humanity, culture, and civil institutions,” even though Brooks is not a Christian. The important thing is that Brooks “provides valuable guidance in challenging the way we view ourselves as image bearers and the development of our character within our society.” Brooks promotes man’s engagement in society.
One hundred years after his death, the Kuyper of common grace is commemorated by Calvin University doing what it has always done, selecting a relatively famous person for its award. The Calvin press release highlights the impressive fame and status of its former recipients. “Brooks joins an esteemed group of past winners of the award, which includes a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Templeton Prize-winning philosopher, a prime minister, and a pair of U.S. ambassadors, to name a few.” For the world these Kuyper Prize recipients are significant and important. And there is little doubt Calvin University enjoys the attention it receives when it presents its award to these “movers and shakers.”
One wonders whether Abraham Kuyper, if he knew about it, would really be honored that an award bearing his name was given to all these recipients. We will never know, of course. But the awarding of the Kuyper Prize to David Brooks and others like him clearly demonstrates that the philosophy of common grace leads to compromise with the world and to a distraction from the church’s calling to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ and a life of true godliness that is antithetically opposed to the world.
Truly honoring Kuyper
Although Kuyper is responsible for leaving behind the legacy of common grace, we should reject the weaknesses and errors of Kuyper and magnify his strengths, with a spirit of grace that should be characteristic of Reformed believers who know they have received salvation by free grace. This how we honor others of our Reformed fathers. The writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin contain what is sometimes called “dross.” There is also much gold. It would dishonor these men to ignore the gold and magnify the dross. We honor them by mining and magnifying the gold in their writings. This is how we ought to honor Abraham Kuyper. His theory of common grace ought to be rejected and then ignored and never allowed to compromise the church. And where we find the Abraham Kuyper who faithfully taught the Reformed truth that is according to Scripture, let us continue to learn and grow from him.