from kiss to kuyper

An MHP interview with Vincent Bacote
How to order society is a constant question. Hammurabi wanted eyes plucked and people killed off for their offenses. Egypt looked to the dead as a way to control the living. Persia offered unscripted grace. Ashoka repented of his crimes against humanity and gifted India with literacy and peace. Greece experimented and Rome bastardized its most fruitful find - local democracy and free religion. With Nero, Domitian, and Constantine there are costs. Europe proves such grievances as it invades the East in search for a faith it lost years earlier.

Sailing off for greed and gold, the Americas were discovered and a new society ordered. Yes, that is after obliterating the existing one. And the world rested in peace. In peace? Unfortunately, the question looks for its answer today in every local dive, noble home, and neighborhood church. And, it's with church that the question begins to beg. Is society bad? Should the church be inside or out, inclusive or particular, participatory for its own ends or out of uncontrolled love?

Author Vincent Bacote hooks his response and charge to Christian pilgrims on Kiss and Kuyper. The first represents a wide scope and the second provides a long look at common grace. As a fan of bands like Kiss, Iron Maiden, and the Police in college, Vincent appreciated their voices while not adhering wholeheartedly to their lifestyle. One Bible study leader expressed his disheartened feeling about Vincent's music. He continued his divided tastes for the sordid tales of scripture and the exaggerated personalities of rock music, and in seminary discovering Abraham Kuyper and his premise of common grace validated this mix of sacred and secular.

A few years ago Vincent Bacote, who is a professor at Wheaton College, released The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper.

MHP: Why a book on Kuyper today?

Vincent Bacote: It goes back to my early conflict about being a culture affirming Christian. It began with bands like KISS and Iron Maiden. It began with an intuition that I could affirm their music and still not like some of their actions or even desire to be like them.

Today, hip hop music is similar to heavy metal in that it is a cultural force that is sometimes in conflict with the contemporary Christianity that young people encounter in youth groups or Bible studies - like the one I attended in college that didn't appreciate that I listened to the hard stuff.

For Kuyper, culture is not primarily an evangelistic bridge but something, in terms of music, for example, I could listen to and find good things - positive things – whether it be Christian or not. It's because of a doctrine called common grace. So often the Christian church places an emphasis on saving people which is an interior focus on the soul, making the world a better place one life at a time, in other words. It's the strains of evangelicalism prevalent in the revivalists of the early 20th Century and among those who promoted an eschatology that had a pessimistic view of history and saw the world as a ship going down. In this brand of Christianity there is more talk about Paul's writings then the Gospels because Paul has a focus on saving people and because he thinks the end is near.

MHP: You start with a rundown of interpretation of divine and physical
interchange. It's not until nearly a third of the way into the book that we touch down on Kuyper with his "take it to the streets" approach to theology. Why the set up?

VB: In the set up of the book I am weaving a thread of public theology on center stage – and highlighting a neglected emphasis on how the spirit has worked in creation, and then I focus on Kuyper as one who brings these emphases together. I'm also acknowledging that I'm not the only one that has highlighted either public theology or the spirit’s work in creation.

MHP: Would you explain further this: The proper relationship between the church and the state is one of "mutually mediated contact only through the persons who stand in relation to both"? Also, does this Kuyper principle hold universally or only in a more democratic frame? If it is not universal, how strong an argument is it?

VB: It means that a public space needs to be carved out, not in terms of direct relation to politics (in other words it's not Constantinian), but, for the church, it's an indirect influence. The idea is that Christians may directly influence politics but their local church does not dictate policy to Christians involved in the public square. I think this approach is relative to context and the structure of society a person might live within. Kuyper would affirm a more democratic sense because it does invite indirect influence and because he is among those who were cautiously optimistic of social/institutional change and who lived in a pre-World War I world. He hoped that liberty would continue to spread beyond Europe and America.

MHP: In this world today where the spheres of state, society, and church have drifted from defined institutions to (1) an elusive terrorist movement; (2) the break between public square and home; (3) the inward focus of individualized religion, what does sovereignty really mean today? Does Kuyper's theory hold up?

VB: Globalization does make sphere sovereignty more difficult. The influences and variety of places that form a global awareness is more problematic because understanding what the interaction should be between these spheres is much more complex. The theory certainly needs refinement to address our current era. As to whether Kuyper's theory holds up, it is debated whether it held up in the Netherlands at all.

In the Netherlands, some who study the time just after Kuyper debate about the polarization of spheres, where the government allowed space for institutions based upon confessional identity (e.g. there were Protestant Christian schools, hospitals, etc., and you had the same institutions for Catholics and for those of no religious affiliation).

Was this a direct effect of Kuyper's theory? There is more work to prove that correlation. Kuyper's primary point says that God is both sovereign and a derivative of this sovereignty is in the structures of society. An important confessional aspect of the theology of sphere sovereignty says at its root that Christians serve as an antithesis in society because they should be distinctively Christian in public matters.

MHP: In relation specifically to the church today, is the failing related to illiteracy or greed, ignorance or arrogance?

VB: Probably all of these. Most Christians don't see common grace - the restraining grace of God - as enabling their participation in public life and areas to work collaboratively with non-Christians within their context.

Christians are responsible for the world in terms of transformation without pursuing triumphalism.

The only way for this to happen is to participate within and not be outside culture. The failures to work within the arena of common grace are evident everywhere – from the tremendous evil of Nazi Germany to the development of ever greater weapons today to even the polarization of categories like sacred and secular.

Christians are responsible for the world, to be the antithesis, to work for mass change, not simply for the sake of evangelization, but for the flourishing of the world.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.