Abraham Kuyper was a Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, and theologian. Kuyper studied at Leiden University and received a doctorate in 1862. He founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party and held the office of Prime Minister from 1901 to 1905. A staunch Calvinist and a proponent of conservatism, Kuyper seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church and founded the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. He published many books during his lifetime and died in the Netherlands in 1920.
James D. Bratt is a professor of history at Calvin College. He earned his B.A. from Calvin and his Ph.D. from Yale University. He is also the author of Dutch Calvinism in Modern America.
The economic principle of comparative advantage offers an intuitive level of truth. It argues that individuals/institutions/states ought to produce items that best suit their talents. Comparative advantage is intuitive because it allows the entity to govern the action(s) at which it performs best. This very principle surrounds Abraham Kuyper’s notion of “sphere sovereignty,” the bedrock doctrine behind Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader which is a compilation of Kuyper’s influential writings.
Abraham Kuyper’s writing offers much to consider. As a man involved in the church, media, government, and academics, Kuyper dabbles in many spheres. Yet, one underlying principle in all of his work is the notion of sphere sovereignty, the belief that God, the sovereign being over all of life, grants authority to specific spheres to govern each sector to the best of its ability.
A staunch Calvinist, Kuyper conservatively follows in the footsteps of previous Reformed Dutch theologians. As such, Kuyper’s worldview flows from his understanding of God as an absolute sovereign being. Kuyper writes,
“Only God is Sovereign; He regards all creatures, born in royal palace or beggar’s hut, as nothing in comparison with Himself. One creature cannot have authority over another except as God gives it” (307).
Since Kuyper places absolute authority in the hands of God, he views the exertion of authority from one group of people onto another as an affront to the sovereignty of God. For example, when government legislates what the church can and cannot do, Kuyper believes that government has overstepped its sovereign boundaries. While not explicitly stated in a concise rubric, the notion of sphere sovereignty permeates all of Kuyper’s writing.
To understand sphere sovereignty more specifically, Government holds authority over the political realm; church convenes over spiritual matters; universities over matters of education; and businesses/unions on matters of work. Kuyper confirms this idea when he notes,
“State and society are not identical. The government is not the only sovereign in the country. Sovereignty exists in distinct spheres, and in each of these smaller circles this sovereignty is bound to primordial arrangements or ordinances that have been created not by the government but by the Creator of heaven and earth” (241).
Given this position, Kuyper believes that society functions best when each sphere governs itself. Any crossover between spheres in society falls into inefficiency at best and grave injustice at worst.
Real-Life Examples of Sphere Sovereignty
First, Kuyper found the physical and spiritual growth of the United States to be a direct result of the separation of church and state. He argues:
“No longer was there a church in the state nor a state bound to the church. The church of Christ was the point of departure. She was to make sure that the principles of justice and truth held sway in the hearts of the citizens, but the citizens in their everyday life found free organization in the state to be indispensable. Once the ideal of freedom had established itself in the bosom of the church, it inevitably sought civil rights in the domain of the state” (296).
Instead of the church-dominated legislation previously found in Europe, the church in the United States influenced the hearts of the population toward justice and, thus, influenced the legislation of government through the hearts of the citizens, not by the power of the priesthood.
Second, Kuyper found the example of Athenian democracy an excellent illustration of sphere sovereignty. Kuyper writes:
“A better way would have been to follow Solon’s approach in Athens instead of trying to imitate ancient Rome. Solon gave free rein to private initiative. He did not allow the government to get involved in business but merely stipulated that manual laborers constitute their own class of citizens, that nobody be allowed to have two trades at the same time, that foreigners from the outside be allowed to offer competition only if the local craftsmen agreed. Furthermore he gave industry the right to be sovereign in its own sphere and to make its own rules, the only restriction being that it was not to decide anything contrary to the law of the land” (244).
Again, Kuyper proposes that the sector most attuned to the operation ought to legislate its sphere. As Solon’s approach in Athens illustrates, those people that best know their trade will optimally legislate their sphere.
The Decision of One Sphere Influences Other Spheres
On the surface, the logic behind sphere sovereignty is compelling as comparative advantage illustrated earlier. It makes little sense for a career politician to decide the laws that are in the best interest of the church, business, or any other sphere. A carpenter will know the optimal way to fashion lumber; a priest will know the best way to shepherd the flock. But I am not ultimately convinced that sphere sovereignty offers the best solution for the way we organize society.
The decisions of one sphere will always influence other spheres. When business, for example, decides to pursue profit as its highest goal, it will make decisions that could negatively affect other stakeholders. Other spheres, then, have the right to condemn such actions.
At its core, I believe the danger of sphere sovereignty lies in the blinding nature of each sphere. The very reason that sphere sovereignty is compelling is the same reason why it is dangerous. Specific spheres best know their field; they also know little about how their decisions alter other fields.
Thus, I believe it is important for checks and balances between spheres. If one sphere negatively affects another, the other sphere ought to have the ability to authoritatively respond.
For Kuyper, sphere sovereignty begins with an absolutely sovereign God. For one sector to dictate the rules of another sector in society, then, is to reject God’s authority over all spheres. Each sphere, Kuyper argues, ought to sufficiently govern itself.
Despite the pull of comparative advantage that points toward agreement with Kuyper’s view on sphere sovereignty, I argue that sphere sovereignty presents danger for external stakeholders. Too often, people focused on one sphere will make decisions that are in the best interest of that specific sector but negatively harm other stakeholders.
Abraham Kuyper is an influential character in politics and theology. His theories carry much weight in modern thought and it is valuable to understand his positions. For this reason, I recommend Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader to anyone interested in theology, business, and politics.
Posted by: Donovan Richards