October 11, 2018

Hodge vs. Kuyper: Two Modern Reformed Traditions

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

The title of this post is a bit simplistic, or perhaps underdeveloped. On this site, sometimes I speak on matters I am quite comfortable with, that I consider myself decently knowledgable about (epistemology and economic theory, for instance), and there are other matters which I am still working through, but get certain senses about the conclusion I am reaching.

This short post is the latter— I have a lot to study in order to write authoritatively on the influence of Dutch Theological tradition (Kuyper, Bavinck) in America. However, I have read enough, and my intellectual sense is dependable enough, to draw a sharp and vital distinction between what I might call the Dutch versus the American Reformed traditions.

Consider recent themes on this site:

  • Tim Keller [There are theological, not just social, problems with Keller, in my opinion]
  • The current Reformed assault on Capitalism (as John Robbins labelled it years ago, before Keller had even entered the scene)
  • Van Tillian presuppositionalism [which is self-consciously neo-Kuyperian]
  • One Kingdom Theology [I hold a version of 2k theology– see my post here]
  • The pitting of the individual and his interest against “society”
  • Eschatology and “Transformational” Social engagement
  • The modern Reformed revolt against Justification by Faith Alone [See Brandon’s blog for more]

All these, and so much else, seems to have its roots in the Dutch Reformed tradition, which I have very strong suspicions against. I believe that the Dutch tradition should be juxtaposed to the American tradition of Gordon Clark, Gresham Machen, Charles Hodge, and Old Princeton.

I keep seeing references back to either Kuyper or his disciples. Kuyperianism, also known as Neo-Calvinism (this is not a pejorative label— I’m using the phrase as many refer to it), seems to be the source of so many of the ideas I have opposed over the years. When I look at the Systematic theology of folks like Clark, Robert Reymond, Charles Hodge, etc., I get a very different interpretations of major Reformed themes than when I read those heavily influenced by Kuyper and Bavinck.

Anyways, I say all this because I just read this Kuyper quote referenced by a Neo-calvinist:

“Inevitably capital absorbs more and more capital, until it meets a power of resistance which it cannot break. That resistance is, in the present context, the impossibility of the worker remaining alive. And, whatever one may say, LaSalle is perfectly correct in saying that this brazen law of iron necessity is the curse of our society. Yet this law is a spontaneous consequence of laissez faire, of absolutely free competition. Capital absorbs more capital in this way not because of any evil purpose, but simply because it does not meet with any other power of resistance short of the ‘to be or not to be’ of the worker, the instrument of capital-nourishment.”

This is really fascinating because, as I have previously discussed, actual and self-described Neo-Marxists like the very influence French Thomas Piketty argue the exact same thesis in their argument that “the rate of return on capital grows faster than the rate of economic growth, perpetuating inequality.”

And this inequality, of course, is a matter of injustice. In Kellerite social thought, so too is inequality a problem of injustice (whereas in my own interpretation of justice, equality is only related to justice in the sense that all individuals are to be held to the same ethical standard— all men are under the same (Natural) “Law” [Natural Law here holds the meaning of Moral Law, summarized in the 10 Commandments]. But given the meaning of equality held by those who emphasize it, I’ve started to refer to this concept as impartiality, so I don’t even have to use equality, given the difficulties.

Anyways, digressions galore.

The point is this: I think, rather than thinking of “The Reformed Tradition,” we should realize that there are a variety of interpretations and developments of the thought of the Reformers, all of which are on a spectrum in their relationship to original Calvinistic thought, and all of which are on a spectrum as well in their consistency with the Bible. There have been positive and negative developments from Calvin, of course, as well. For instance, I mention here how the American Princeton School of Reformed thought in Charles Hodge improved the older Reformed understanding of Church and State.

Going forward, I hope to elaborate and explicate the two frameworks which for now I am summarizing as Hodge vs. Kuyper. And I know he’s quite popular, but I’ve been less than impressed by what I have read of Kuyper. Many reference the Dutch theologians, but I haven’t found as much value in them as others.

But at any rate: it keeps coming back to Kuyper. That’s the sense I’m getting.

More to come.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • I think further study of Nymeyer is worthwhile (for his insights into Neo-Calvinism):

    Opposition to this social gospel movement occupied much of Nymeyer’s effort, particularly as his own denomination was succumbing to its teachings. Many within the mid-20th century CRC had adopted some of the more interventionist ideas of Abraham Kuyper (or Kuijper) (1837–1920), a Neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. Kuyper, founder of the socially conservative Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), opposed socialism but objected also to laissez-faire capitalism and favored some trade restrictions and government labor legislation.8 The ARP, while pluralist in principle, had close ties with the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, a sister church of Nymeyer’s CRC. At the time Nymeyer was writing in Progressive Calvinism, the ARP was transitioning toward the adoption of social justice goals, and favored a more extensive welfare state.9 Some faculty at American institutions in the same Dutch Reformed tradition were moving in the same direction, including Calvin College, Dordt College, and Hope College. No doubt this was influenced by the more general tendency toward progressivism within 20th century society. Many groups hoping to appeal to a younger generation will often find that adopting the ideological positions of youth holds a pragmatic appeal, and ecclesiastical groups are no exception.

    In the first volume of Progressive Calvinism, Nymeyer contended that Kuyperian interventionism was simply a milder form of the same pernicious coercion that characterized socialism:

    The method to accomplish that Middle-of-the-Road course was to be in-between. That inbetweenness consisted, in turn, in two phases—(1) keeping the appearance of capitalism and (2) introducing the basic principle if not the reality of socialism. The customary word for such a system is Interventionism—the government, having a pipe line of power from God justifying such intervention, leaves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness nominally in your name but regulates it, little or much as the government in its sovereign right decides, by having laws that interfere and bureaucrats who manage. Hitler was a full-fledged interventionist. The German term for full-fledged interventionism is Zwangswirtschaft (a coercive society). (A Dutchman would translate that as Dwang maatschappij.) Abraham Kuyper believed in just the right (?) degree of dwang maatschappij (coercive society). He was a moderate Hitlerite.

    In some denominational schools of Calvinist churches in America they teach an identical doctrine. Not capitalism; oh no; it is sinful or neutral. Not socialism; oh no; it is sinful or neutral. Instead, they teach interventionism—a God-given dwang maatschappij (coercive society) with the right to coercion—contrary to the Decalogue—piped right out of the bottom of the throne of God. But, naturally, only beneficent and welfare-producing coercion! (1955b, p. 344)