Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

A Historian's Comment on the Use of Abraham Kuyper's Idea of Sphere Sovereignty

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

A Historian's Comment on the Use of Abraham Kuyper's Idea of Sphere Sovereignty

Article excerpt

As a theoretical thinker, Kuyper did not surpass his contemporaries. A Free University professor stated at the burial of Abraham Kuyper in November 1920, that it was understandable that Kuyper, unlike his Dutch co-theologian Herman Bavinck, never was elected a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. He said: "For the official academic world Kuyper has been more an object of study than a subject.... He was never taken seriously as an academic." (1) How doubtful this rather critical judgment may seem to us, it does not stand alone. In the 1930s the Dutch Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd made it clear that, though Abraham Kuyper was crowned with the most extraordinary gifts, he certainly had some blind spots. And the Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder was right, too, when he observed in 1947 that Abraham Kuyper, the theologian, often had had to make place for Kuyper the tactical general. (2) In the Netherlands of the 1930s and 1940s, Abraham Kuyper's theories were certainly not generally cherished as everlasting hallmarks of Christian thought.

It was not Kuyper's ideas, but his deeds that lived on, and were effective in Dutch society for nearly a century. Kuyper's famous lecture on sphere sovereignty, which he gave at the opening of the Free University in 1880, would have been just a footnote of history if the Free University had failed to survive in the first difficult years after 1880. Of course, his ideas would still be of some academic interest, as it is still interesting to study John Henry Cardinal Newman's book The Idea of a University. But Newman's ideas were just thoughts, and the Roman Catholic university he founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1854, turned out to be a failure. The reason that Kuyper today is still of more interest than other Christian social thinkers is that he not only had some interesting thoughts but that he made them work, as well. He was not just a social thinker, but, more than any other Dutchman, he changed Dutch society. We accept it as a mere fact that he organized a political party that came into power and delivered in this century six Reformed prime ministers in the Netherlands; we take it for granted that he founded a university that could compete with the State universities. Many of us tend to overlook these astonishing facts in order to embrace his ideas. We are like lovers who contemplate love but neglect the kisses of our beloved ones.

This is the reason that I, as a historian, would like to respond to Professor van der Vyver's paper on two key points. In doing this, I draw your attention to the roots of the so-called theory of sphere sovereignty, to save Abraham Kuyper from becoming a mythical figure and to place him and his slogans in the historical context that made him the miracle man of modern Dutch history.

First, why did Kuyper present and defend the idea of sphere sovereignty at the opening of the Free University in 1880? Not to defend the right to found a university, free from the State, would have been senseless, because this right was already provided for in Dutch law. Did he present this idea then, to convince the Reformed people in the Netherlands to choose for a free school? There was no need for that, either, because many of this group had already chosen for schools that were not State governed but that were governed by parents.

Why, then, did Kuyper speak on sphere sovereignty at the opening of the Free University? To find the answer to this question, we must realize that Kuyper had been an outstanding student at the University of Leiden, that he certainly would have deserved a professorate, but that academia closed its doors for this zealous adherent of the Reformed faith. We must realize that he had been a member of Parliament in the 1870s but had not been accepted in the political culture of his days; we must not forget that he had a newspaper of his own and was a brilliant polemicist, but was rejected as such. It was his religiously motivated ideas that were judged as behind the times, but it was, at the same time, his passion that was judged uncivilized, his criticism that was rejected as insane, his disrespect of authority that was considered a crime. …

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