Lessons from Abraham Kuyper

Last week Bruce Ashford, Southeastern Provost and Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, discussed the many lessons he has learned from Abraham Kuyper about Christianity and the public square. The blogpost was featured at Canon and Culture. Here’s an excerpt:

In Kuyper’s theological vision, grace renews and restores nature. In this vision, God covenanted creation (“nature”) into existence and ordered it by means of his word. His covenant word still holds for all of our creational life. In fact, we can speak of God’s word as his thesis for the world, and of sin as the antithesis to it. This sort of language requires some unpacking.


At creation, God instructed his imagers to be fruitful and multiply (a social command), till the soil (a cultural command), and have dominion (a regal command). His imagers would glorify him by multiplying worshipers, bringing out the hidden potentials of creation, and lovingly managing his world. However, Adam and Eve were seduced by the word that the serpent spoke against God’s word. Since the first couple’s sin, all of humanity has been under the sway of this antithesis.

Read the full post here.


A Missiology for the Academy (2): Five Reasons the Universities Matter

1. The Universal Nature of Christ’s Lordship

Jesus Christ is Lord over the academy, just as he is Lord over everything else, and this Lordship is best understood in relation to three great truths. First, God created us as the type of beings who teach and learn. He endowed us with the spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical capacities necessary for education. Repeatedly Scripture emphasizes teaching and learning (e.g., Deut. 6:4-6; Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:11-12).

Second, academic activity is marked by a great antithesis. After the fall, humans have lived in the midst of a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. These invisible realities, represented by certain principalities and powers, are manifested in visible, tangible cultural realities such as relativism in ethics, Darwinism in biology, or Marxism in economics. This great struggle between light and darkness cuts across the entire creation and every human culture. Christians should resist this comprehensive assault on our shared cultural life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but also from the lectern.

Third, academic activity takes place within ordered realms which have their own creational design. Human cultures can be divided into a variety of realms—such as art, science, business, politics, and education—which have their own creational design and God-given integrity. These realms correspond to the various disciplines within the university. Because we live in a fallen world comprised of sinners, these academic disciplines (and their corresponding cultural counterparts) will be to some extent corrupted and directed toward wrong ends. In each academic discipline, we should ask three questions: What is God’s creational design for this realm? In what ways has this realm been corrupted and misdirected toward wrong ends? How can I bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward God’s creational design in Christ? To the extent we engage our academic disciplines with those questions in mind, we glorify God and provide our neighbors a preview of God’s future rule over a renewed and restored creation.

In other words, academic activity should take place under the absolute Lordship of Christ. Christ is the creator and King over all things, and one day will restore all things. He is not merely the Lord over my quiet times; he is Lord over my work, my leisure, and my civil life. He is not merely sovereign over local church gatherings; he is the Lord over artistic, scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and scholarly endeavors. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. Missional Christians not only proclaim the gospel with words, they promote it in their academic and cultural lives.

2. The Powerful Influence of the University

In the United States and in many other countries, the university serves as the environment in which many or most of the country’s leaders are shaped. These future scientists, filmmakers, Supreme Court justices, journalists, and billionaire entrepreneurs often receive their most formative “worldview moments” as they are students on a college campus. In many countries, including our own, these 18-year-olds are taught by faculty members who seek consciously, carefully, and consistently to undermine everything that Christians hold true and dear.

3. The Readily Receptive Mind-Set of University Students

The third point overlaps with the second. Universities are full of students in their late teens and early twenties who are waiting to be instructed and inspired. Very likely, the path they choose in college is the path they’ll remain upon for the rest of their lives. Osama bin Laden embraced jihadism largely because he found himself mesmerized by Professor Abdullah Azzam when bin Laden was a young student at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. Friedrich Nietzsche forsook Christ during studies at the University of Bonn. Hundreds of thousands of students continue to reject Christianity, or never encounter the Christian faith, precisely because the professors who capture their imaginations and who shape their worldviews are unbelievers.

4. The Breadth of Christ’s Atonement

Evangelicals sometimes embrace a sort of reverse snobbery directed towards the cultural elite, especially against professors and students in Ivy League schools and top-tier major state institutions. Because we’re not included in their “club,” we say in effect “to hell with ‘em.” But Christ died on behalf of the cultural elite, just as he died for the middle and lower classes. In fact, when we take an anti-elitist mentality—and Baptists often have adopted this mentality—we’re being quintessentially American, but not quintessentially Christian.

5. The Danger of Split-Level Christianity

At the university, young impressionable students study under opinionated and brilliant professors. These professors shape their students’ worldviews in ways the students don’t even notice. Even if these students are believers, or if they later become believers, they may unconsciously hold a non-Christian worldview while at the same time professing Christ as Savior. When talking about “spiritual” matters, they will sound like Christians, but when talking about anything “cultural” they’ll likely sound like their professors. This sort of split-level Christianity is exactly what we must avoid. If Christ is Lord, then he is Lord over everything; he is not just Lord over our prayer time and church attendance, but also our university studies and future vocations.online mobi

Briefly Noted: On Rowan Williams, Christianity, and the Public Square

Things have gone badly enough lately for Archbishop Rowan Williams that he might want to wear his mitre sideways (as a rally cap). Or so say the commentators, who blame Williams for the Church of England’s failure recently to approve female bishops.  During times like this, when the church’s stance on an issue conflicts with the broader society, television commentators and political pundits bloviate endlessly about how Christians should not bring their religious beliefs into public discussion.

Such bloviations are precisely the target of Rowan Williams’ recent book—Faith in the Public Square—which Roger Trigg reviews in a recent edition of The Times Literary Supplement (Nov 30, 2012). Williams’ book is an intriguing collection of lectures given to various audiences, some of which were religious, some of which were not. The thread tying those lectures together is the issue of religious faith and public discourse.

In the Western world, one set of voices say that religion is an entirely private endeavor. It should be kept in the closet and not brought out when company is present. “One solution to all this,” writes Trigg, “is that religion be seen as a private pursuit, and the result of individual choice. It should not attempt to engage in public, reasoned debate, let alone suggest it has any reason on its side.”

Williams, however, is not among those voices. Although Williams does envision a secular society, he envisions one in which religious adherents come to the public square with the full wealth of their religious conviction. “Williams,” writes Trigg, “distinguishes between what he terms a ‘procedural’ secularism, of which he seems to approve, and a ‘programmatic’ secularism of which he does not. Procedural secularism, he says, as a characteristic of the public domain, means that there is no legal privilege for any specific religious position, but does not imply that such positions are simply private convictions. He fervently argues for the right of ‘larger commitments and visions’ to contribute to the public debate and provide much-needed moral energy.” Williams’ ‘procedural secularism’ allows for a sort of interactive pluralism in which various communities of discourse (religious or non-religious) interact between themselves, and between them and the government. His secularism works precisely because it does not illegitimize religious voices in political debate.

By way of response, I’ll note that Williams’ book speaks to two discussions which are very significant for Christians living in the 21st century USA: (1) religious language and argumentation in the public square, and (2) the failure of a majority “Christian” nation to build a society that reflects their vision for the common good.

In relation to the first discussion, we should note three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is John Rawls’ naked public square. Rawls argues that we should decide political matters from behind a “veil of ignorance.” He argues against “thick” theories of the good, which would utilize religious, moral, and philosophical arguments in the public square. Rawls wants people to set aside their most deeply ingressed beliefs when arguing for the public good.

Rawls’ model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs; (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism. Indeed, no voice—especially not that of the atheist—is stripped naked of religious belief. All people, including atheists, have deeply held presuppositions or faith commitments and therefore all people, including atheists, are worshipers; (3) this model tends to muffle or stifle appeals to any authority other than the state; in so doing, it robs religious believers of the very religious convictions that allow them to hold the state in check when the state becomes tyrannical; and (4) this models “shuts up” the various religions and in so doing allows all of them—both good and bad—to lurk beneath the surface unchallenged by public discussion and debate.

A second model is provided by Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that “naked squares” are not possible. We are always and necessarily making arguments that are “thick” in nature. We come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing. We cannot sever our public selves from our private selves. For this reason, we should come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing, and work for the common good by working for public consensus. Christians have motivation to do so because we believe that Christianity, by its very nature, fosters the common good.

A third model is provided by Lesslie Newbigin, who is more similar to Neuhaus than to Rawls. Newbigin agrees with Neuhaus that naked squares are not possible, but unlike Neuhaus does not think that we should seek public consensus. He argues that we should endorse public pluralism. Newbigin’s context was different from Neuhaus’, in that he was primarily interested in situations in which Christianity is a minority belief, and in which the Christian’s role in society is clearly and obviously one of a “missionary.”

With Neuhaus and Newbigin, we agree that the naked square option is an illusion and a failure. Instead, of coming to the public square “naked,” we may come fully clothed. In relation to Neuhaus’ and Newbigin’s disagreement concerning pluralism and consensus, I say that we should work for political consensus when possible, but recognize that we increasingly live in a post-Christian context where consensus will not be possible on many issues (in spite of the fact of a law written on the heart). Further, we should practice wisdom in deciding when to draw primarily upon general revelation to provide a compelling case on some matter of public significance (“thin” discourse), and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture and doctrine (“thick” discourse).

One more note: when God’s people buy into a “naked public square” model, in which they lay aside their distinctive beliefs during public discussion, they sometimes never pick back up those very beliefs. Political liberalism of the “naked square” sort often leads to theological liberalism  of the “naked sanctuary” sort. A Christian who goes to the public square naked tends to go the sanctuary naked also. When this happens, God’s church becomes little more than a useful weathervane, slavishly following in swan step the dominant social and cultural trends of the time, loyally echoing what society is saying rather than critiquing it.

Instead of forsaking her prophetic calling, therefore, God’s people need to come to the public square “fully clothed,” drawing upon the full wealth of conviction in order to contribute to the common good.