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Science as God’s Work: Abraham Kuyper’s Perspective on Science: A Review Article

Douglas A. Felch

Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, by Abraham Kuyper. Translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman. Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 2011, 191 pages, $14.99, paper.

Introduction: Framing the Issue

The Supposed Conflict between Christianity and Science

John William Draper, in his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), asserted that the history of science “is a narrative of the conflict between two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on the one side, and the compression arising from traditional faith, particularly Catholicism, on the other.”[1] Andrew Dickson White, in his The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), reinforced this view. White argued that religious intervention in science has always been detrimental to both science and religion, although he thought Protestantism and Catholicism both shared equal blame.[2]

Science historians David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers contest these claims, arguing instead that “recent scholarship has shown the warfare metaphor to be neither useful nor tenable in describing the relationship between science and religion.”[3] James Moore concurs. He believes that the warfare metaphor has not only outlived its usefulness but “has made historians ‘prisoners of war’ by preventing a more objective and subtle reassessment of the relationship between science and faith.”[4] Despite these correctives, the warfare metaphor persists and many Christians and non-Christian alike view science as being on a collision course with historic Christianity.

In the context of this debate, Abraham Kuyper offers an alternative perspective that is as simple as it is profound: You can’t drive a wedge between science and God because science is not simply a human enterprise. It is, first and foremost, a work of God, rooted in the divine decree, and manifested in the providential unfolding of history. Kuyper defends this thesis in a series of magazine articles on common grace, recently translated and published under the title Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (hence WAW). This review will focus on his discussion of science.

Abraham Kuyper’s Life and Work (1837–1920)

Recent Interest in Kuyper’s Thought

Renewed interest in thought of Abraham Kuyper has produced a number of books, translations, and articles on his life and work.[5] WAW is the first fruit of a larger-scale Kuyper Translation Project beginning with the publication of his writings on common grace.

The name Abraham Kuyper is well-known within the Reformed and Presbyterian community for his Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898 (subsequently published as Lectures on Calvinism).[6] His is a household name within the Dutch Reformed community, and his intellectual legacy has been disseminated to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church through the writings of Dr. Cornelius Van Til (who freely admitted his debt to Kuyper), and by those who have sought to continue the work of Kuyper and Van Til in the area of Christian worldview, apologetics, and epistemology.

Abraham Kuyper, the Man

Some have described Kuyper as a nineteenth-century “reincarnation” of John Calvin. That’s an exaggeration, but there is no question that he was a genius and a man of many talents. Kuyper was a theologian, a university professor, a preacher and pastor, and a man of deep personal piety. He was also a prolific writer, and his literary output was staggering. He produced approximately 2,200 devotions and over 20,000 newspaper articles. A published annotated bibliography contains 692 pages of listings.[7]

He was also a Christian activist. He established Christian newspapers, developed Christian labor unions to address the plight of the worker, and was involved extensively in politics. That involvement eventually led to his becoming the Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–5).

Finally, he was also a man of great personal intensity. He experienced three nervous collapses or breakdowns in the course of his life, and could at times be extremely authoritarian and unkind towards his adversaries. This reminds us both that genius can be a hard stewardship and that we bear the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels.

Four Primary Elements of Kuyper’s Thought

To facilitate the discussion of Kuyper’s treatment of science in WAW, it is helpful to survey the four core concepts of his thought for the benefit those who may be unfamiliar with them.

1. The Lordship of Christ over All of Creation. Kuyper summoned Christians to acknowledge the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life, culture, and society. This is captured in his oft-cited declaration, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”[8] Jesus is not only the savior of souls (although he certainly is that), but also the king over the earth and all that it contains. This emphasis on the sovereign Lordship of Christ over all creation and Kuyper’s attempt to develop its implications for all of life is the engine that drives much of his work.

2. Principial Psychology. Everything that a person believes or does emanates from root principles or fundamental commitments that comprise the way he or she looks at the world. This means everyone has a worldview. It also implies that no one’s understanding or perspective on the world is value-free or religiously neutral. There are no uninterpreted facts. Every object of study involves a perspective. This is why Kuyper is often considered the founding father of Christian worldview.

3. Sphere Sovereignty. A sphere is a societal institution, an area of life, or a dimension of existence in our society. Examples include family, church, education, government, science, and art, just to name a few. These spheres are structures embedded in the fabric of the creation according to God’s purposes and governed by different rules of his making. This makes them independent from each other and “sovereign” in their own sphere. It also means that the rules governing one sphere ought not be confused with another (e.g., you should not run a family like a business, or the church like the government), and one sphere should not dominate another.

4. The Principle of Antithesis. Kuyper refers to the opposition in this world between God’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom since the Fall as the “Antithesis.” This conflict is not between the church and the other spheres (which might result in a sacred/secular distinction). It pertains to the battleground that emerges within each sphere as Christian and non-Christian worldviews offer rival perspectives on art, science, education, business, etc. Indeed, it becomes our responsibility to develop a Christian worldview perspective in the various spheres of life.

Kuyper’s View of Science

1. In His Other Writings

Kuyper left no systematic treatise on science. Much of his thinking must be gleaned from a number of his writings.[9] Kuyper’s views on evolution are mentioned in the Ratzsch article, and spelled out in his rectoral address, “Evolution.” In that address, while Kuyper appears open on the question as to whether God might have used some divinely guided process to bring about life in all of its variety and complexity, he completely and unrelentingly excoriates naturalistic evolution.[10]

It is important to note that “science” for Kuyper has a broader referent than simply the natural sciences, and would include other forms of scientia or knowledge that have been a part of human discovery. Nevertheless, what he says about “science” and most of the examples he chooses, are directly applicable to what we would normally think of as natural science.

2. In His Discussion in Wisdom and Wonder

In a nutshell, Kuyper argues (a) that science is a realm of human endeavor independent of church or state; (b) that it is a God-authored enterprise entrusted to human beings as his image-bearers; (c) that it unfolds in history through the work of a community of scientists, according to God’s eternal and providential purpose; (d) that it generates true and useful knowledge through common grace despite the effects of sin on the endeavor; (e) that it is a spiritual activity governed by thinking and not reducible to materialistic empiricism; (f) that it is subject to worldview considerations that differentiate Christian and non-Christian science, and (g) that the need to develop a Christian perspective on science suggests the importance of establishing Christian educational institutions in which Christian science can flourish unhampered.

Kuyper’s Treatment of Science in the First Five Chapters of Wisdom and Wonder

Chapter 1: Wisdom

The Independent and Divine Nature of Science

Consistent with his concept of “sphere sovereignty,” Kuyper insists on the independent character of science: that it must stand on its own as a discipline and “may not be encumbered with any external chains” (WAW 33). This level of autonomy is not an accident of history or development, but science “possesses this independence by divine design” and would abandon its divine calling if it surrendered this independence to either church or state (34–35).

Further, says Kuyper, science has its roots in the creation (35). Even if there had been no sin, there would have been science although its development would obviously have been different (35). It is as much a part of the creation order as are marriage, family, or the Sabbath. But because it is of the creation it has a calling separate from either church or state (35).

Science and Image-bearing

Science depends on the ability of human beings, who bear his image, to think God’s thought after him (36). God is the primal thinker who through the divine decree has imbued all created things with a wisdom that reflects his own independent thought (36–38). There is nothing in the universe that fails to express or to incarnate the revelation of God’s thought (39):

The whole creation is nothing but the visible curtain behind which radiates the exalted working of this divine thinking. Even as the child at play observes your pocket watch, and supposes it to be no more than a golden case and a dial with moving hands, so too the unreflective person observes in nature and in the entire creation nothing other than the external appearance of things.

By contrast, you know better. You know that behind the watch’s dial, the hidden work of springs and gears occurs, and that the movement of the hands across the dial is caused by that hidden working.

So, too, everyone instructed by the Word of God knows, in terms of God’s creation, that behind that nature, behind that creation, a hidden, secret working of God’s power and wisdom is occurring, and that only thereby do things operate as they do. They know as well that this working is not an unconscious operation of a languidly propelled power, but the working of a power that is being led by thinking. (39–40)

This thought of God, which brings about the development of all things, is directed toward a purpose and a goal according to fixed rules. As a result, all of creation has proceeded from the thought, consciousness, and Word of God, as established by his divine decree (40).

Not all creatures possess the capacity to rethink the thought of God, not even angels, but only humans (40). As image-bearers of God, they possess the ability of discerning the wisdom embedded in the creation. This ability is not an add-on, but belongs to the foundation of human nature itself (41). Kuyper summarizes:

In this way, then, we obtain three truths that fit together: First, the full and rich clarity of God’s thoughts existed in God from eternity. Second, in the creation God has revealed, embedded, and embodied a rich fullness of his thoughts. And Third, God created in human beings, as his imagebearers, the capacity to understand, to grasp, to reflect and to arrange within a totality these thoughts expressed in the creation. The essence of human science rests on these three realities. (41–42)

Science as a Communal Activity

However, this work is not assigned to every human being. The breadth of this task is far too great for that and the capacity of individual persons much too limited. It is realized only in the combination of the talents bestowed upon specific persons in the course of history (42).

Science in this exalted sense originates only through the cooperation of many people, advances only gradually in the generations that come on the scene, and thus only gradually acquires the stability and that rich content which guarantee it an independent existence, and begins to appear only in this more general form as an influence in life. At the same time from this it follows directly that Science can acquire significance only with the passing of centuries, and will be able to develop in its richest fullness only at the end of time. (44)

Science as a Temple of Knowledge Created by God

Kuyper uses the metaphor of temple building to describe how the scientific enterprise, guided by God, results in the beautiful construction of an edifice of knowledge:

Science is not the personally acquired possession of each person, but gradually increased in significance and stability only as the fruit of the work of many people among many nations, in the course of centuries....Working separately from one another, without any mutual agreement and without the least bit of direction from other people, with every body milling about, everyone going their own way, each person constructs science as he thinks right. Through that endless confusion ... a temple emerges.... At this point it will not do to suggest that this most beautiful result emerged by accident, without plan, all by itself. Rather we must confess that God himself developed his own divine plan for this construction.... (45–46)

Seen this way, however, science is then also an invention of God, which he called into being, causing it to travel its paths of development in the manner he himself had ordained for it. What does this mean except to say and to confess with gratitude that God himself called Science into being as his creature, and accordingly that Science occupies its own independent place in our human life. (46)

Chapter 2: Knowledge

In this chapter Kuyper examines how we can embrace with confidence the knowledge produced by this divinely authored task discharged by his image-bearing agents. This might seem counter-intuitive given both that Scripture often condemns human knowledge and, reciprocally, the way many scientists criticize Scripture and Christian belief (49–50). But while Scripture condemns knowledge that is falsely called such, it distinguishes between true and false knowledge and inspires love and respect for the former (50). False knowledge arises because of sin, which lures and tempts people to place science outside of a relationship with God, thereby stealing science from God, and ultimately turning science against him (51). Nonetheless, no one can deny that in the disciplines of astronomy, botany, zoology, physics, etc., a rich science is blossoming. Although being conducted almost exclusively by people who are strangers to the fear of the Lord, this science has nevertheless produced a treasury of knowledge that, by common grace, we as Christians ought to admire and gratefully use (52–53):

Consequently, we are confronting the fact that outside the Christian orbit a science has blossomed that, seen from one angle, supplied us with genuine and true knowledge and yet, seen from another angle, has led to a philosophy of life and a worldview that run directly contrary to the truth of God’s Word. Or, to state it differently, we are really confronting a science that has arisen from the world, a science that lies very definitely under the dominion of sin and that nevertheless, on the other hand, may boast of results from which sin’s darkening is virtually absent. We can explain this only by saying that although sin does indeed spread its corruption, nevertheless common grace has intervened in order to temper and restrain this operation of sin. (53)

It is clear that Adam originally possessed the ability to think and understand the world as a coherent whole (e.g., naming the animals) (57). It is this coherence that Kuyper believes that empirical science has lost and needs to recover (59).

Chapter 3: Wonder

Since sin has affected our ability to perceive the systematic unity of things, this has led secular science post-fall to attempt to make science simply a matter of objective empirical observation. Kuyper believes this to be a mistake. Science is more than what can be objectively weighed and measured. By removing subjectivity from science you reduce the higher work of the mind (thinking) that comes from making sense of our observations in an integrative way:

We will sense how deeply this penetrates the essence of science when we consider that science without reflection is unimaginable, yet thinking itself is a spiritual activity. The very instrument that serves as a trowel in the construction of the edifice of science belongs not to the external but to the invisible, and the law governing this thinking can never be discovered through hearing, seeing, measuring, or weighing, but manifests itself in the human spirit. The contradiction arises immediately that our thinking cannot help but enquire about the origin, the coherence, and the destiny of things, whereas observation neither can or does teach us anything about these. (68–69)

Chapter 4: Sin

The attempt to remove the subjective element from science elevates the material over against the spiritual (which includes thinking). In response, Kuyper asserts the need for the autonomy of the spiritual to be preserved over against the material. In support of this he makes two points:

First, by preserving the religious worldview perspective people obtain a larger unity, harmony, and coherence of life that is not obtained by simply observing data. Failure to do so not only draws people away from God, but also results in the destruction of the personal self as nothing more than matter in motion:

Neglecting already at one’s starting point to maintain the independence of the spirit over against matter will eventually lead one, by the time the destination is reached, from worshiping man ultimately to idolizing the material. Applying the scientific method to the higher sciences makes it impossible to maintain the independence of the spirit. Any science choosing this route will wander further and further away from God, and will finally deny him entirely. In this connection the scientific researcher who takes his starting point in the world around him, and stakes his honor on grasping for neutral objectivity, is doomed by his very method to seeing the independent existence of his own ego finally perish. This is why we are insisting so vigorously that the subjective starting point once again be honored in science. (77)

Second, we need to consider the scriptural emphasis on common grace if we are to pursue scientific academic study that provides genuine knowledge and insight about the way things really are beyond the knowledge that leads to salvation:

It is of highest importance, however, that we place clearly in the foreground the fact that this strengthening [of the light of common grace] came from special revelation. Had it been the case that special revelation restricted itself to only what, strictly speaking, concerns the salvation of the sinner, and ignored the rest, we would lack the requisite data for building a temple of science that rested on a Christian foundation (83).

Chapter 5: Education

In this final chapter Kuyper provides his apologetic and vision for Christian higher education. The worldview forces that draw a contrast between Christianity and secular science are only going to intensify, and the desire on the part of secular science to remove Christianity entirely from the realm of science will only increase. This, argues, Kuyper, is the engine that ought to drive Christians to develop Christian institutions of higher learning:

Confessing Christianity cannot suffice with its faith-confession, but like every human being, the Christian also needs a certain understanding of the world in which he dwells. If for this he receives no guidance from a Christian science, then he can and will have no choice but to adopt the results of unbelieving science. In so doing he lives with a world-and-life-view that does not fit his faith, but one that irreconcilably contradicts his confession at numerous points.... That destroys the unity of his thinking, and also weakens his power. The inevitable result is that gradually his faith begins to yield to his scientific view, and without noticing it, he slips into the unbelieving mode of viewing the world. (93–4)

Kuyper’s description of the rise of secular science seems, in retrospect, almost prophetic. But for Kuyper, while on the one hand, this development is to be lamented, on the other hand, the pressure it exerts has the potential desirable effect of forcing thinkers to do what they ought to be doing anyway—developing a Christian perspective on learning and higher education:

With escalating determination, unbelieving science substitutes a completely atheistic worldview for ours, and makes our continued lodging in her tents increasingly impossible. This, after all, is how it will increasingly press Christians to take a stand within their own territory. And what Christianity would never have done on its own impulse it will finally accomplish under the pressure of an increasingly bold unbelief that denies all that is sacred. All of this means that Christians will begin to perceive the inexorable need to begin pursuing science independently on the basis of their own principles, leading them to strive for a university life that honors the mystery of all wisdom and all science in Christ. (103–4)

Assessment

What should we make of this? On the one hand, it must be admitted that Kuyper is painting with a broad brush which makes it difficult to know how precisely to translate his vision into particular implications and applications of what might constitute a Christian view of science or “Christian science” which he is advocating. On the other hand, Kuyper’s discussion of science in WAW reminds us of two items of immense and immediate value for current discussions of the tension between Christianity and secular science.

First, it forcefully asserts that the work of science is ultimately God’s work, rooted in the divine decree, grounded in the creation order, and providentially unveiled in the course of human history. This is a much needed and powerful antidote to the simplistic notions of conflict between science and the Christian faith often raised today. Although sin (and the apostate motives it brings) has complicated the development of science, we should not for a moment yield to the temptation of viewing science as the work of Satan and his minions. It is God who in the cultural mandate commands the human race to engage God’s world and develop its potentials. We must never forget this, and we ought to encourage our sons and daughters who are so gifted to engage in scientific vocations as Christian vocations. It is sin, not science, that is the problem.

Second, it reminds us of the significance of worldview assumptions in discussions related to science. Kuyper is keenly aware of the importance of presuppositions in the work of Christian science and secular science respectively. The former understands the world to be governed by an infinite-personal God who has endued the creation with wisdom, order, and latent potentials, and who has given to human beings the capacity of discerning that wisdom and developing those potentials. The secularist denies this, and asserts that there is no God, that nature is all there is. This naturalistic worldview, more often than not, reduces the world to nothing more than matter in motion—with devastating consequences. As Kuyper wisely points out, it leads not only to the loss of purpose, but the loss of the personhood, the loss of the self. But note well: This is not a science-faith conflict, it is a faith-faith conflict in which naturalism has pitted itself against theism. While science and faith are not at war, naturalism and theism, as rival worldview perspectives, most certainly are. Kuyper is keenly aware of this antithesis in the sphere of science.

Understanding the importance of presuppositions helps to distinguish things that differ. That is why, on the one hand, Kuyper can be open to the concept of evolution, and even say nice things about the genius of Darwin, while at the same time be implacably opposed to and devastatingly critical of the naturalistic evolution Darwin advocates.

The Kuyper Translation Society and the Acton Institute have done the Christian and Reformed world a great service by making available, in new and fresh translations, Kuyper’s works on common grace. If you are interested in learning more, this brief introductory work is a wonderful place to begin in anticipation of additional volumes to follow.

Endnotes

[1] John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874; repr., New York: D. Appleton, 1897), vi.

[2] Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: D. Appleton, 1896; repr., New York: Dover Publications, 1960), 1:130.

[3] David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science,” Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith 39 (September 1987): 141.

[4] James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinist Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 48.

[5] For example, James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013); Jan De Bruijn, Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography, trans. Dagmare Houniet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014); James E. McGoldrick, Abraham Kuyper: God’s Renaissance Man (Darlington, England and Carlisle PA: Evangelical Press, 2000); Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[6] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1931; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Delivered at Princeton University in 1898 under the auspices of the L. P. Stone Foundation.

[7] Tjitze Kuypers, Abraham Kuyper: An Annotated Bibliography, 1857–2010 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[8] James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

[9] His discussion of science in Principles of Sacred Theology is nicely summarized in a journal article by Del Ratzsch, “Abraham Kuyper’s Philosophy of Science.” Calvin Theological Journal 27, no. 2 (1992): 277–302. The 1898 Stone Lectures, published as Lectures on Calvinism, contain lectures on a variety of subjects, including science and art. These lectures are commented on by Peter Heslam in Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). A helpful commentary on some of the material translated in WAW is provided by Clifford Blake Andrews, “A Canopy of Grace: Common and Particular Grace in Abraham Kuyper’s Philosophy of Science.” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 24:1 (2003), 122–40.

[10] Abraham Kuyper, “Evolution” (Free University Rectoral Address delivered 1899), trans. and repr. Calvin Theological Journal 31, no. 1 (1996): 11–50.

Douglas A. Felch is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as professor of theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, January 2015.

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