FiSch blog

Tom McLeish on biblical wisdom for academics

In his second talk at the annual FiSch Leader’s Conference, Tom McLeish picked up where he had left off at the end of his first talk. He took us back to the Scriptures and the biblical idea of wisdom, showing how wisdom engages with the created world, and how wisdom should lead us to joined-up thinking.

Biblical wisdom (Hebrew: hokma) is both reflective and practical: it is about understanding God by seeing the world and acting righteously in it. The Greek and Latin words used to translate the Hebrew word hokma show something of the richness of meaning of this word. In Greek, two words are used: sophia, or contemplative wisdom, and phronesis, or practical wisdom. Likewise, in Latin, these two domains of wisdom are expressed in sapientia and scientia. Obviously the English word ‘science’ derives from the latter.

Many of the Scriptures that talk about wisdom use images related to seeing, as well as providing practical application. Wisdom concerns our relationship to the observable world. It is essentially integrative: we need all kinds of knowledge to faithfully exercise dominion over creation, and such a diversity of knowledge only exists in community. We need each other to become wise.

So let’s look at a few Bible passages that focus on wisdom.

Proverbs 8 describes the birth of wisdom and how wisdom delighted and rejoiced in the creation of all things. Wisdom created order out of chaos and established the boundaries that make life possible. The book of Proverbs emphasizes that God is present (although often hidden) in the secular, by using parallel sayings that refer to God and a secular saying that embodies the same ideas but does not contain a reference to God. Compare e.g. Proverbs 17:3 and 27:21. God is there for those who serve and see him, even when he is hidden to those who do not.

In Psalm 139 we see wisdom growing up. Notice the number of times this Psalm uses concepts of seeing, saying and doing. This Psalm also mentions the Spirit, showing the close connection between wisdom and the Spirit of God, which hovered over the waters at creation. Verses 9-12 engage with the ancient Near Eastern idea that connected wisdom with the sun and the sun god. God’s sight goes all around the earth. All secular wisdom has a sacred core – we must put it in the crucible and smelt out the dross to help all creation to glorify God. Our praise of God’s wisdom originates in our knowledge (vs. 6, 14). Human wisdom is related to, but a pale reflection of, God’s wisdom (vs. 17).

But the clearest link between wisdom and the natural world is made in an unlikely place: in the book of Job. Natural imagery is common throughout the book of Job. And Job’s charge against God is that God is just as out of control of the moral world as he is out of control of the natural world. This is why God’s answer to Job in chapters 38-41 is all about the natural world.

In the middle of the book of Job one finds a beautiful song about wisdom, in chapter 28. The chapter describes the search for wisdom. The chapter starts by describing how only humans can, through research, see the earth ‘inside out’ and harness its riches. Verse 11b can be taken as a motto for Christian scholarship: ‘the thing that is hidden [man] brings out to light’. Verses 12-22 show how wisdom is displayed in creation, but at the same time is also hidden. Only God understands the way to wisdom (vs. 23-28). Note how this involves our different senses and a contemplative (dare I say theoretical) understanding of the deeper structure of the world. Wisdom is not a thing that can be found in a certain place; it is seeing the world through God’s eyes, seeing creation in the light of God rather than seeing God in creation. It is sharing God’s perspective.

This understanding of integrative wisdom leads to unity in our knowledge. Tom formulated three principles for joined-up thinking based on the biblical concept of wisdom:

Creativity with constraint. A completely ordered world is a frozen world, and a frozen world is a dead world. But the greatest artworks are characterized by creativity constrained by form, e.g. in a sonata or a sonnet. Science reimagines the world constrained by what the universe is actually like.

All wisdom and knowledge are connected.

There is no divide between sacred and secular. The New Testament has a dynamic of unity, of being reconciled, not just in the church but in the entire world.

Lots of food for thought! It would be great to hear your reaction, and how this interacts with your own understanding of your research in the light of God’s wisdom.

Tom McLeish on Science, Wisdom and Interdisciplinarity

For the next few weeks the FiSch blog posts will contain summaries of the talks given at the annual FiSch postgraduate leaders’ conference. The first talk was one of two given by Tom McLeish titled “Science, Wisdom and Interdisciplinarity”.

The general aim of Tom’s talk was to offer a distinctly Christian understanding of science and research that naturally leads to a theoretical foundation, a home, for interdisciplinary research (not, however, to the detriment of single-disciplinary research). He approached this aim by outlining what science is, what a Christian understanding of science is and how this (in contrast to postmodernism) offers a theoretical foundation for interdisciplinary research.

1. Science as natural philosophy.

First, Tom noted that science, contra contemporary culture, is first and foremost “natural philosophy”. Science is a love for wisdom (philo-sophia) about the natural world.  Once one accepts this premise one can begin to find a foundation for a Christian theology of science, since, while Scripture is devoid of the term “science” it is full of the term “wisdom” and, in particular, “wisdom” as applied to understanding (or relating to) the natural world. We, then, must do some digging around to find out what science is doing by looking for references to “wisdom” and the human relation to the natural world. One particularly fruitful place to start, Tom suggested, was the book of Job.

2. There’s a “gap” that’s the result of the Fall

Many thinkers see a gap between our understanding (our love of wisdom) and the world that we are trying to understand. Tom used the thought of Robert Grosseteste (1157-1254) to highlight this gap.  According to Grosseteste, Adam originally had deep knowledge, wisdom and understanding but at the Fall these fell away and all of the higher senses were dulled. A glimmer was left behind, however. Put simply, our senses were left. Grosseteste suggested, then, that our job as Christians is, in part, to use our senses (what we have left) in obedience to God and build back up our “seeing” or understanding of the world. Christian academics are in a prime position, it seems, to do this.

Tom went on to note, however, that an understanding of this gap is not merely a theological concept but is ubiquitous in many areas of scholarship. Tom highlighted that Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, for example, both recognise the gap in their writings. What’s different, however, between the postmodern perspective of writers like these and Grosseteste’s perspective is the methods employed to reconcile our mind to the world. Tom noted four aspects of postmodern worldviews that, by attempting some reconciliation between mind and world, lead to the dissolution of contract and meaning.

2.1 The postmodern “immersion of the self”

First, from Hegel and Derrida we get the concept of the “immersion of the self”. Put simply, this is the idea that the subject (the self) gets immersed into the object (the world). As noted above one, might think that this stands in contradistinction to the Christian worldview that holds a distinction (on some level not discussed) between self and world that, perhaps, facilitates a Christian understanding of scientific research.

2.2 The hermeneutic of suspicion

Second, according to postmodernism one criticizes meanings of text to the point that there is a “seal” between reader and text. This means there is no way in which meaning can be transmitted from a writer through the text to the reader. Rather, we have suspicion that there is any meaning in the text that isn’t brought to it by the reader.

2.3 The openness of meaning

Third, since there’s no meaning in the text, there’s no meaning in the world. If meaning is always something that I bring to the text, then there is a broken relationship between subject and world with regards to meaning. Meaning, as such, is open.

2.4 Challenge of the sublime

Fourth, Tom notes another aspect to postmodernism that contrasts with a more Christian understanding of mind and world. This is the “challenge of the sublime”. I leave it up to the reader to examine this fourth aspect for him/herself.

3. A theoretical foundation for interdisciplinary research

This postmodern perspective meant that the humanities and the sciences are implicit in this fourfold dissolution of contract and meaning. That is, there is a dissolution of the ideas that study of the world can can yield objective results (contract) and that there is, as such, meaning to be found (at least outside of the subject).  These are then manifested in both the humanities and the sciences.  In the case of the humanities there is a dissolution of the object. There’s no object because the subject interprets the object/text how s/he wishes. In the case of the sciences, there is dissolution of the subject. For example, in contemporary scientific circles, the mind, free will and other things often associated with the subject are commonly reduced out of existence.

Tom then went on to notice that when you dissolve from both sides, as contemporary humanities and sciences have done, you break the contract with the world, and, as such, you fragment disciplines. Put simply, since there is no metanarrative about how subject and object relate, disciplines become ever more insular in their search for meaning. They don’t search for a unifying theme – such as is afforded by a Christian worldview.

Kingdom connections

XKCD cartoon

Last week I had the privilege of several coffee breaks with Christian friends doing PhDs in different areas.  Each time I came away excited by a fresh glimpse of how big God’s world is.  One friend is doing a PhD on a certain grammatical obstacle for Kurdish speakers learning English, and also preaches at a local Arabic-speaking fellowship.  Another is looking at how to embed an ethic of caring for the earth into church teaching in east Africa.  Another is trying to find the best way of freeze-drying blackcurrant juice without losing anthocyanins – and praises God for the nuances of physical chemistry.  Totally different topics – but let me tell you: the delight of engaging with someone else’s research, just for half an hour, is like nothing else!

You probably have friends researching all kinds of wonderful topics.  When did you last experience this joy? Go on – try it this week! You may even help your friend solve a problem at the same time. Or at least you can do better than the cartoon at the top of the page, from XKCD.

Now, among our Christian friends, some may have a clear idea of why the Lord Jesus would be interested in their work, and some won’t.  If it’s connected to mission, healthcare or social justice, it may seem much easier.  But our Scriptures leave no doubt that Jesus Christ is into everything.  In him all things were created… through him and for him (Colossians 1); God shares with Job His delight in all kinds of creatures that serve no human purpose; and in Revelation 5 we see every creature in heaven and on earth praising and worshipping the Lamb.

Sometimes we might spot a link to the Kingdom of God in someone’s research, which they, being in the thick of it, haven’t thought of.  Sometimes the effort of explaining our work to a Christian friend or meeting helps us see it in the new light of the Kingdom.  And this is surely an even more exhilarating breakthrough than just engaging with the quirks of someone’s work.

Is this hard work?  To help someone find genuine Christian insight into their research topic will, I think, generally take a lot of patience, plus faith-filled imagination and lateral thinking.  But help is at hand…

Coming up in less than two weeks, this year’s FiSch leaders’ conference brings Profs. Tom McLeish and Andrew Basden to help a group of us think about Christian perspectives that cross disciplinary boundaries.  I mention this now for two reasons:

  1. It’s not too late to book, if you are interested in Christian postgrads’ groups and can make it to Leeds on 13-14 Feb;
  2. Following the conference, this blog will feature some brief reports of some of the talks and discussions we’ll be having.  Check out last year’s while you’re waiting!

Meanwhile, if you have ideas about finding Christian perspectives on arcane PhD subjects, do leave a comment here – or check out the other ways to connect with us, like the Facebook page

Engaging with secular thought: ace!

A very good friend of Faith-in-Scholarship is Andrew Basden, Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems at the University of Salford. (Indeed, Andrew will be speaking, along with Professor Tom McLeish, at next month’s Faith-in-Scholarship Christian Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference: places still available!) A few months ago he came to Liverpool to speak to the Postgraduate Christian Forum on the topic of Engaging with secular thought. What follows is my personal re-presentation of that talk (mainly based on an earlier version from Andrew Basden’s website).

I wonder how you have tended to respond to secular scholarship in your discipline? There can be a tendency for Christians to do one of two things. They tend either to respond with antagonism, for example, with Marxism or postmodernism, or with acquiescence, adopting the world’s ideas uncritically.

A better approach is to see secular thought as impaired insight. “Insight”, because we all find ourselves living in the same world, and we cannot fail to bump up against it in the course of our research. There will always be some truth in every piece of scholarship. But “impaired”, because our ultimate commitments about reality touch on every area of life and scholarship. If our view of the whole of reality is impaired in some way, then however great our insights are, there will always be distortions and blind spots in our thinking.

Seeing things in this way means it is always worth engaging with secular thought. There is always something we can learn, and there are always contributions we can make as Christians.

But how can we achieve this?

Andrew Basden provides us with three steps, easily remembered as ACE: affirm, critique, enrich.

Affirm. When I try to see things from this author’s perspective, what is there that I can affirm? What insights are there? What new ideas are being presented? What valid criticisms are being made of alternative ideas?

Critique. This involves digging deeper, to find the presuppositions and assumptions that underlie a piece of scholarship. What is being assumed to be meaningful, or meaningless? Is there any reductionism going on: taking something to be absolute, and writing other things off as ultimately insignificant? This requires humility and patience; it may take many years before you can discern what is wrong with your discipline.

Enrich. What fresh insights can a Christian bring to resolve the problems with an area of scholarship? Often this might be a response to reductionism. A Christian can comfortably recognise the diverse and multifaceted nature of the world we inhabit. While secular thinking often narrows things down, to explain complex phenomena in terms of one or two simple ideas, Christian thinking ought to resist that trend. Andrew Basden finds the work of Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd helpful in this regard, particular his aspects: an attempt to describe the various facets of reality as we experience it. I described those in a previous post, and there is a lot more about these aspects on Andrew Basden’s website.

I hope this approach will prove helpful for you. Our calling in academia, and in the world more generally, is not to fight against it, or to assimilate into it, but to engage with it, seeking its renewal, praying that God’s kingdom will come, and that his will will be done, on earth as in heaven.


Abraham the Great and Christian scholarship

A little while ago, I introduced you to Abraham Kuyper, also known as Abraham the Great. One of the things he was passionate about was Christian scholarship. This led him to founding and leading, as rector magnificus and as professor in theology and literature, a Christian university, the Free University in Amsterdam. Why did he think this was important, and what can we, as Christian scholars, take away from this?

‘No square inch’

Kuyper’s main motivation was that as Christians, we are to display the redemptive power of God’s restored image in His people. The first calling of humanity is to rule over creation and to take care of it (Gen. 1:26, 2:15). After Christ’s resurrection, he announced: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…’ (Mat. 28:18-19). Kuyper puts these two commissions together and calls us to proclaim Christ’s lordship over all of creation, including human life and culture. Furthermore, through Christ’s death, God was redeeming the entire cosmos (Col. 1:20). This holistic view of redemption means that we should be concerned not just with the redemption of human souls, but of the entire cosmos, and to work within God’s will to bring all of the world under his lordship. Christ’s kingdom extends over all of life. This naturally links to scholarship, which at its best delights in gaining a deeper knowledge of creation, whether natural or cultural, and to develop and use it for the flourishing of human and non-human life alike.

Unity in diversity in the uni-versity

Creation is many-sided and diverse. Yet there is unity in the fact that we were all lovingly created by our heavenly Father. This unity in diversity creates interdependence. Likewise, our academic disciplines each focus on different aspects of creation, yet they are united in their pursuit of truth. This creates space for the disciplines to flourish ‘after their own kind’, yet prevents us from idolizing any single discipline, elevating it above the other disciplines or reducing other disciplines to it. Only together can they provide a complete understanding and a profound tool for cultural development of their subject matter, whether that be physics or social science. The academic institution, the university, brings these disciplines together, and as scholars we should seek the interaction and dialogue with other disciplines that the university facilitates.

The unity of all creatures in their creatureliness also leads us to affirm another of Kuyper’s themes: common grace. By the grace of God, those who are not renewed still have the ability to grasp some of God’s truth displayed in creation, and God can graciously work through anyone to enable the flourishing of parts of creation, e.g. through a scientist finding a cure for a disease.

Finally, the diversity of creation is also expressed in the different gifts and callings that we may have. If we are gifted in academic work, then God may be calling us to specifically work as a scholar. But what we do in our scholarship should not be separated from our Christian faith and obedience to God. That would mean a fragmentation of the unity of our life in Christ. Christian scholarship is therefore, according to Kuyper, a disctinct possibility, indeed our calling as Christians who find themselves in academia.

I am indebted to the series of six blogs by Dan Jesse published on the Emerging Scholars Network blog in September 2014, the first of which can be found here. Together, these blogs form a review of Richard Mouw’s book ‘Abraham Kuyper: A short and personal introduction’ (Eerdmans, 2011) and give an introduction to Kuyper’s thought and its reception.

Why Faith-in-Scholarship? (3) FiSch Fellows

Recently we’ve been running a mini-series of posts on “Why faith-in-scholarship?” These attempt to provide reasons for and excite Christian academics to be engaging their disciplines from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Today we thought we’d share with you some aims of the FiSch Fellows, the team of us who write this blog wanting to see Christians pursuing their calling to live for Christ in the academy.

Faith-in-scholarship (FiSch) pursues three types of activity:

  • Nurture of Christian postgraduates’ groups in order to foster discussion that recognises Christ’s authority in all things, including academic work;
  • Facilitating the mentoring of Christian students by mature Christian thinkers.
  • Conferences and collaborations for learning, research and development in the paradigm of reformational philosophy.

The first of these is the primary aim of the FiSch Fellows, but they also get involved in the other two as relevant opportunities arise.  So what is this “reformational philosophy” framework mentioned in point 3?

Reformational philosophy builds on the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, who in 1880 famously said, “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!'”.  A rich philosophical framework unpacking this has since been developed by the Dutch philosophers Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven and their numerous students worldwide.  The framework is characterised by seeing the created order as intrinsically diverse, such that the academic disciplines complement each other, each proceeding by abstracting one or more aspects from that order. This stands in contrast to the reductionism that pervades much academic thinking, in which the disciplines are in competition with each other to provide a fundamental account of reality.

As such, the guiding beliefs of the FiSch project include:

  1. the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things, including theoretical thought;
  2. that reality is given its structure by the Word of God that also became flesh and is revealed through the Scriptures;
  3. that the many-sidedness of this rich reality calls for interdisciplinary collaboration,
  4. that God calls people to scholarly work in the history of His Kingdom;
  5. that human interpretation of reality is impaired by sin but still produces good fruit insofar as God graciously guides both believers and unbelievers;
  6. that faithful, Spirit-led communities of study can enhance Christian responses to God’s diverse callings.

We think that being guided by these beliefs as we engage in our study, researchteaching, etc, will help us pursue our calling as Christian academics.

Studying with a view to heaven

The following is my summary of a sermon preached by Tom Wright in the chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge some years ago. As an undergraduate, I was gripped and inspired by this vision for my calling as a student. The main text was Revelation 5 [1], and there were also illuminating references to Job 29 and Psalm 8, the other texts for that particular evensong. The image above is my diagram illustrating his sermon.

Humans have a unique place in the created order. Whereas the angels reside in heaven, in communion with the Lord Jesus, we stand upon the earth, able to experience it at first hand. The earthly creation praises God, each creature in its own way, just as the angels do in heaven. But the special calling of humans is to stand in the gap between earth and heaven to articulate the worship-songs of creation (which the angels cannot do, from their perspective in heaven). We do this by means of wisdom, God’s “executive agent” which is also accessible to humans as we seek to interpret the created order (e.g. in scholarship). We may weep that God’s plan for creation (the double-sided scroll in Rev 5, which only a human may untie) remains hidden, while creation suffers.  But Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb, has taken on all of man’s responsibility.  This led him first to the Cross, and now to be glorified in heaven (Rev 5:9-14).

One day God will reveal a new heavens and earth in which there will be no more crying or pain.  For now, our task is to stand amid the worship of creation and of the strange creatures of heaven (perhaps these too are angels?), with weeping in our hearts. And we will see the veil which God has put between heaven and earth becoming thinner, even transparent, as we recognise God’s purposes in the world and worship Him.  So we are the third note in a chord of praise, with the earthly creation and the heavenly creatures.  And our acts of communal worship in church [Wright referred to the College chapel at this point] can equip us for this task!

[1] Similar material may be found in Tom’s book Revelation for Everyone (SPCK, 2011).

God with us (in the lab)

It’s hard to predict how I will feel at the end of the Christmas break. Will I be refreshed and eager to get back to work? Or will the thought fill me with dread? Or both?

It can be especially difficult when your day-to-day work is somewhat mind numbing. Every PhD has these phases. (If yours doesn’t, I want to know your secret!) How can you go from pondering the birth of Jesus Christ one week, to spend the next week wrestling with your data, poring over arcane ancient texts, fighting with test tubes, dredging through reams of articles, or debugging your spaghetti-like code?

It all depends on how we approach Christmas. Some ways of reflecting on the nativity leave us wanting to escape our earthly lives. Jesus comes to this world to rescue us from it and to take us back with him to heaven. And the angels only add to the effect. In Cecil Frances Alexander’s words,

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars His children crowned,
All in white shall wait around.

The problem here is not the ‘waiting around’ (though modern versions of ‘Once in royal’ understandably alter this!), but the longing to flee this ‘poor lowly’ place to be with Jesus in an ethereal paradise. How can you want to return to your monotonous research after such a glorious vision?

But this is to completely miss the point of the Christmas message.

First, the angels. Their message was not, ‘It’s really nice up here; come and join us!’ On the contrary, they spoke of peace on earth. Edmund Sears expressed it well:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Second, that word ‘Immanuel’. This appears in Matthew’s account (1:22–23):

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).

It’s easy to miss the point of this. It’s not simply ‘God and us together’. Nor is it some aberration, contrary to God’s usual behaviour. No, this is God continuing his movement from heaven to earth, to rescue his creation, and to fill it with his glory.

‘God with us’ is a theme that returns in the last book of the Bible. Christopher Wright makes these connections in his book, The God I don’t understand: reflections on tough questions of faith:

[A]t the end of [Revelation, John’s] picture is not of our going ‘up’ to watch what God is doing, but God coming ‘down’ to live among us and make his presence intrinsic to all that we are doing. Not us with God in heaven, but God with us on earth. …

Immanuel means ‘God with us’ — and that’s how the Bible ends. God coming to be with us (repeated three times in Rev. 21:3), not us going off to be with God.

So as you return to your research next week (or whatever you are doing, and whenever your holiday ends), don’t dream of going ‘home’ to God in heaven. But rejoice that the Word has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, and that one day he will return to be with us eternally. Joy to the world indeed!

I will close with a familiar verse by Phillips Brooks:

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Book review: "Engaging God’s World"

One of the things we are aiming to do through Faith-in-Scholarship is to direct Christian postgraduates (and others) to helpful resources and initiatives. This week I wanted to draw your attention to a book that helped me understand the academic task from a Christian worldview. This book is Cornelius Plantinga’s “Engaging God’s World: A Christian vision of faith, learning and living”.

Engaging God’s World is essentially a Bible overview split into the three aspects of God’s plan for the world: creationfallredemption, before finishing by demonstrating how these three aspects affect our vocation.

What’s important about Plantinga’s book, and what sets it apart from other Bible overviews, is that it doesn’t just retell the story of the Bible but invites the reader to think about what effect the Christian worldview should have on his/her life.

To share one particularly apt conclusion, Plantinga writes, "Learning is a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with."

Plantinga reminds us that the academic life (and, indeed learning more broadly!) can be a calling: something that God wants us to do. Not only this but, Plantinga points out, investing time in understanding God’s world means that we will have more opportunities to show off God’s creation for what it is: God’s.

I found Plantinga’s invitation to academia so compelling I started an MA and now PhD – but it also came with a stark warning. Plantinga writes:

“Christian students on secular campuses may expect to stand against these ideas without caving in to them and without hardening into pious anti-intellectuals. If so, they expect a lot. And if they expect to develop a mature Christian philosophy of life without the help of their professors – in fact, with the hindrance of some of their professors – they expect even more.”

Plantinga, as such, encourages Christian students and scholars to be seeking to be actively engaged in some Christian organisation or institution that will help them develop a Christian philosophy able to correctly steer the young Christian academic toward developing a rigorous Christian worldview that will enable them to be better disciples for Christ. A central aim of Faith-in-Scholarship.

So I thoroughly recommend this book for those who are about to start out on the road of learning, whether undergraduate or taught graduate study or those of you who are engaged in high-level graduate or academic research, Plantinga’s book offers a must-read apologetic for knowing and developing a thorough Christian worldview for anyone in the academy.

No square inch... Abraham the Great

When I moved from the Netherlands to the UK, I discovered that many British Christians knew the names of two Dutch Christians from the past: Corrie ten Boom [1] and Abraham Kuyper. However, though many had read some of Corrie ten Boom’s books, they did not know much about Abraham Kuyper other than that he said ‘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!’’[2] So who was he, and how did he come to this statement?

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), in the Netherlands also known as ‘Abraham the Great’, must have been a man with an enormous amount of energy. Here are just a few things he did in his life… He studied literature, philosophy and theology at my alma mater, Leiden University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy. In 1863 he became a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1872 he founded a newspaper. In 1874, he was elected a member of parliament, but he had to step down only a year later because of health issues. In 1879 he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party and was its leader for the rest of his life. In 1880 he founded the Free University of Amsterdam where he became a Professor of Theology, Professor of literature and rector magnificus. The ‘square inch’ quote comes from the lecture he gave at the inauguration of the Free University. In 1886, he was one of the leaders of a split from the Dutch Reformed Church because he thought the church had become too liberal. Kuyper returned to parliament in 1894 and was an important influence in debates around universal suffrage, speaking up for the ‘little people’, the common people. In 1898 he was invited to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. From 1901 to 1905 he served as prime minister of the Netherlands. In the midst of all this, he was a prolific writer, mainly on theological and political topics. He remained politically active until his death, serving as a member of parliament, then as senator.

Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism led him to see God at work in all aspects of everyday life. Christians should serve God in all they do, and that includes things like family life, education, business and so on. He saw a divide between politics based on the Christian faith and the sovereignty of God and politics based on other worldviews, such as the sovereignty of the individual or the sovereignty of the state. He called this the antithesis. This also led him to affirm the diversity of organisations, such as schools, businesses, newspapers, hospitals. This is called ‘sphere sovereignty’: each of these organisations has its own authority and responsibility in its own sphere of activity. The distinction between these ‘spheres’ originates in the creation order and its historical development. God created things ‘after their own kind’ and this does not just hold for living organisms, but also for human organisations.

In a nutshell, these are Kuyper’s most important and influential ideas. In a future post, we will consider how they relate to scholarship and academic institutions – after all, Kuyper, besides being a pastor, journalist and politician, he was a scholar and employee of his own university!

[1] Note that this is not pronounced as some kind of explosion, but as ‘Bome’

[2] Inaugural lecture, Free University, Amsterdam, 1880.