Orthodoxy and Neo-Calvinist Social Thought

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18

Christ Triumphing over Sin and Death by Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Who said it? “The man of faith acts, not as one endowed with free will, but as a beast that is led by the will of God.” Martin Luther? John Calvin? No, the answer is St. Peter of Damascus, from the Philokalia. He goes on to pray, “Do what Thou wilt to Thy creature; for I believe that, being good, Thou bestowest blessings on me, even if I do not recognize that they are for my benefit.” Total acceptance of all one endures in this life as the will of God is a recurring theme in Orthodox spirituality.

I bring this up not to draw a false equivalency—St. Peter was neither a Lutheran nor a Calvinist; that would be anachronistic at best. And his statement should not be taken as a denial of free will. Rather, I know some readers, due to their personal experiences, may balk at the idea that we Orthodox may have anything to learn from Calvinists of any kind. That objection often focuses on a certain, distinctly American Calvinist understanding of the sovereignty of God over all things. 

True, all Calvinists share this emphasis, but not all of them have denied the reality of free will or reduced it to psychological determinism or “compatibilism.” Indeed, in my limited expertise, that vein of Calvinism seems to originate with the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards, who though influential in the United States is rarely cited by Calvinists abroad.

Neo-Calvinism originates abroad, specifically in the Netherlands, with the Dutch theologian, statesman, educator, and editorialist Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Nevertheless, over the past few decades this tradition’s expansive social vision has found new life in America and Europe, even outside of Reformed churches. Thus, any Orthodox contribution to modern Christian social thought requires some familiarity with Neo-Calvinist social thought as well.

In 1891, the same year as Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, Kuyper gave a speech on “The Social Question and the Christian Religion” at the first Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam. Like Leo, Kuyper was both sympathetic to socialists’ critiques of the social order and their concern for the working classes while also critical of socialist principles and solutions. Indeed, his political party, the first modern political party in the Netherlands, was named the Anti-Revolutionary Party for their opposition to the liberal principles of the French Revolution and its rallying cry, Ni Dieu, ni maître! (“No God, no master!”).

“Socialism is in the air,” said Kuyper. “The social wind, which can at any moment turn into a storm, is swelling the sails of the ship of state. And it may safely be said that the social question has become the question, the burning life-question at the close of this century.” He agreed with the socialist defense of “the rights of community and the organic nature of society” as well as their opposition to the laissez faire capitalism of the French Revolution. 

But Kuyper went on to reject the largely atheistic and materialistic bases of socialism in his day, claiming that “people who do not believe in God to whose eternal ordinances we are to submit, and who do not attach much importance in the life of nations to historical development that never permits its intrinsic law of life to be violated with impunity—such people look upon the entire structure of contemporary society as nothing but a product of human convention.” Indeed, Kuyper thus saw socialism as a mere logical extension of the French Revolution. In opposition to both, Kuyper believed that God, sovereign over all history, has a plan even for our social life, gradually revealed and developed over time such that historical social institutions should not be too rashly dismissed or dismantled.

Nevertheless, Kuyper was no European conservative either—he didn’t advocate a return to medieval or early modern theocratic monarchy but instead forged a unique path forward in the pluralistic, constitutional monarchy of his time. Calvinist Christians, he believed, needed their own “architectonic critique” of society to counter the socialists’. Instead of a godless world governed by a materialist and deterministic social-historical dialectic, Kuyper insisted on a world where, as he put it in his speech at the opening of the Free University of Amsterdam (which he founded), “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!’”

Expanding on the thought of John Calvin and other Reformed Protestants, Kuyper developed a doctrine known as “common grace”—a shorthand for all the ways, beyond his providential care for creation, God preserves humanity from the full effects of sin and death this side of Paradise. This grace, to Kuyper, is distinct from “particular grace,” that grace specific to the eternal salvation of souls. Hence, while the latter is unique to Christians, the former can be found in every human community and society. This enabled Kuyper to support a pluralistic order and acknowledge the insights of even secular science while still maintaining his distinctive Calvinist Christian convictions.

Portrait of Abraham Kuyper by Jan Veth (1900), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Kuyper further developed his own alternative historical dialectic: “sphere sovereignty.” For Kuyper, our social and even intellectual lives consist of spheres or circles, each with their own principle, domain, and boundaries. Kuyper did not content himself with speaking in broad terms of family, church, state, and market. All of these are spheres of life to Kuyper, but there are many more: art, science, ethics, cities, nations, peoples, industry, philanthropy, labor, hunting, and invention are each at one point listed by Kuyper as spheres. Each has an independent authority from other spheres over its own domain, but all must be subordinate to God, who alone has absolute authority. 

This becomes dialectical in Kuyper’s concern for history. Whence a sphere came tells us something about its present structure and direction, to use the Neo-Calvinist Albert Wolters’ terminology. Over time, as more spheres of life differentiate themselves from one another, existing in themselves with their own God-given authority, they must resist the temptation to exist for themselves rather than for God—an expression of sin in the social order that Kuyper termed “the antithesis.” Thus, for Kuyper something like “art for art’s sake” is fundamentally mistaken not because all art should be ecclesial art, and thus within the sphere of the Church, but rather because art should, through common grace, glorify God in all of life. Sphere sovereignty is an open and theistic dialectic as opposed to the Marxists’ deterministic and atheistic one.

The state, to Kuyper, has both the exalted status of the “sphere of spheres” as well as a distinctly “mechanical” nature, lacking the organic nature of other spheres of life. The state exists to check the power of sin, but apart from sin there would be no need for human government. Its duty is to mediate conflicts between spheres—such as business and labor—and to step in on a provisional basis if a sphere fails in its calling. Thus, where philanthropy, for example, proves insufficient to ameliorate human hardship, the state has a duty to provide what is lacking. Nevertheless, he warned Christians that “the holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ [see 2 Cor 4:11] should become much more developed among us Christians. All poverty relief by the state … leaves a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

Much more could be said about Kuyper and other Neo-Calvinists, but this summary is good enough to ask the question, “What might we Orthodox have to contribute?” 

First of all, as I opened this essay, belief in the absolute sovereignty of God is not the sole property of Calvinists. Furthermore, far from fatalism, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty has the virtue of adaptability—“there are in life as many spheres as there are constellations in the sky,” he claimed. His social vision transcends his own time, context, and theological tradition, and it is uniquely suited to principled engagement with our pluralistic societies today. Could it be adapted to Orthodox principles? What would those principles be?

Second, to explore just one criticism, I’m unsure whether the distinction between “common” and “particular” grace makes sense from an Orthodox point of view. The difference may only be semantic, but isn’t all grace at least potentially salvific, even sacramental? No one would dispute that Orthodoxy is more sacramental than Calvinism, and I would submit that the outlook of Fr. Schmemann, for example, may provide a better reference point for us, going beyond our role as God’s stewards to more vividly serving as God’s priests in all of life. Perhaps that’s even something concerning which Calvinists and other Protestants, who famously affirm a “priesthood of all believers,” could learn from us.


  1. Dear Dylan, Thanks for this article. If I could elaborate a bit further. The North American Protestant denomination which follows Kuyper and his descendants is primarily the CRCNA. For a small denomination, they have achieved a lot in terms of social work as well as produced several world-class philosophers (ie: Alvin Plantinga, James K.A. Smith, etc.). Because my in-laws are heavily involved in the CRCNA I am always on the lookout for any sort of dialogue between the CRCNA and the Orthodox. I have not seen much even though I know we have several “high-profile” Orthodox personalities that have came out of that movement.

    I would also specifically name Dr. Jim Payton who taught for many years at Redeemer University College and has published 3 books that capture the Orthodox ethos – 1 was published by AFR and he was a guest speaker some years ago on an AFR call-in show. He also ran an “intro to Orthodoxy” course which ended up producing at least 1 Orthodox priest that I know of.

    And finally, I heard a recent interview with James K.A. Smith where he cited Alexander Schmemman as his inspiration for his book “You Are What You Love”

    All this is to encourage you (or anyone else) to continue the conversation — I would love to hear more interaction between the Kuyperian philosophy/tradition and Orthodoxy!

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