Calvinism and Art

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

“Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality.”

— Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism


Kuyper’s defense of Calvinism in relation to art is rather bold. I strongly disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is stimulating.

Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is something of a classic in Reformed literature. Delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October of 1898, they were published the following year jointly by Höveker & Wormser in Amsterdam, T&T Clark in Edinburgh, and Fleming H. Revell in New York. I will be following the pagination of that edition, freely available.

Kuyper's Calvinism

The fifth lecture is dedicated to art. As with each lecture, Kuyper is committed to showing how Calvinism is superior to all other belief systems, whether that of Rome on the one hand or Liberalism, both Protestant and secular, on the other hand. As Kuyper sees it, Rome’s sacerdotalism replaces God with the Church, and Liberalism’s pantheism replaces God with nature and man’s spirit. Calvinism is, you guessed it, the only consistent system that allows God to be God. The lectures are highly rhetorical.

Calvinism did not develop an art style of its own, and that is a good thing according to Kuyper. Instead, Calvinism liberated art to follow its own principles. That is the gist of Kuyper’s argument. I am not convinced that he succeeds, but it is a fairly sophisticated argument. I will do my best to present it, along with a generous amount of quotations.

Calvinism’s “Maturity”

His argument follows a historical analysis of civilization’s progress. In the lower stage of man’s development, art and religion were inextricably woven together. “Scarcely a single art-style can be mentioned which did not arise from the center of divine worship and which did not seek the realization of its ideals in the sumptuous structure for that worship” (195). This a noble thing, according to Kuyper. Nonetheless, “If, however, it can be shown that this alliance of religion and art represents a lower stage of religious, and in general of human development, then it is plain, that in this very want of a special architectural style, Calvinism finds an even higher recommendation” (195). That is what Kuyper aims to prove for the rest of the lecture.

What is most remarkable is that Kuyper locates the greatest artistic achievements, specifically architectural, in this “lower stage.” This includes the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica, Cologne Cathedral, et al. I have to admit that it takes some guts to relegate these to a “lower stage”! All of these edifices represent a time when art was beholden to religion. For Kuyper, that is the primitive alliance from which Calvinism set us free. He weaves his discussion of artistic liberation with political liberation:

First then the aesthetic development of divine worship carried to those ideal heights of which the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Saint Sophia and Saint Peter are the stone-embroidered witnesses, is only possible at that lower stage, in which the same form of religion is imposed upon a whole nation, both by prince and priest. In that case every difference of spiritual expression fuses into one mode of symbolical worship, and this union of the masses, under the leadership of the magistrate and the clergy, furnishes the possibility of defraying the immense expense of such colossal structures, and of ornamenting and decorating them. In the case, however, of a progressive development of the nations, when individual character-traits split the unity of the masses, Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. (196)

More than Lutheranism, as Kuyper continues, it is Calvinism that fully freed us from this “sacerdotal and political guardianship.” It is striking to me how much weight Kuyper places upon this matter of “guardianship,” whether civil or ecclesiastic. It is integral to his conception of Calvinism’s greatest value — freedom — including in the realm of art. Perhaps Kuyper’s disciples will disagree with me that “freedom” is Calvinism’s greatest value, but it is on nearly every page of this volume! It is at the heart of his rhetorical strategy.

For Kuyper, we have moved from a primitive to a mature stage in human development. It is in the primitive stage that symbolic forms are necessary, not at the mature stage. As he summarizes his account of our emancipation:

As a result of this, [Calvinism] abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor. (196-197)

The symbolic is superfluous for the mature believer. It is not necessary. This is even demonstrated in the Bible, where the symbolic worship in Israel is but “the ministry of shadows,” and, moreover, part of a “state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people.” It is a religion “under sacerdotal leadership” (197). So, Israel represents a lower stage, as with the Church of Rome, insofar as both maintain a certain symbolic primitiveness and guardianship. Christ does away with all of this, bringing forth a free and mature people. His priesthood is spiritual and eternal. “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (197).

Enter Hegel (Not Surprisingly)

Kuyper then appeals to Hegel and Von Hartmann. As non-Calvinists and philosophers, they are not partisans. Kuyper writes:

Hegel says that art, which, at a lower stage of development, imparts to a still sensual religion its highest expression, finally helps it by these very means to cast off the fetters of sensuality; for though it must be granted that at a lower level it is only the aesthetical worship that liberates the spirit, nevertheless, he concludes, “beautiful art is not its highest emancipation”, for that is only found in the realm of the invisible and spiritual. And Von Hartmann even more emphatically declares that: Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form. At that period, all the arts, he says, engage in the service of the cult, not merely music, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the dance, mimicry and the drama. The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion. (198)

So you can see how Hegel and Von Hartmann are representing Kuyper’s perspective, assuming that Kuyper is presenting them accurately. Beautiful art is “not the highest emancipation.” This union of art and religion represents a lower stage where “Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form.” Kuyper quotes Von Hartmann as saying, “Religion, when fully matured, will rather entirely abstain from the stimulant by which aesthetic pseudo-emotion intoxicated it, in order to concentrate itself wholly and exclusively upon the quickening of these emotions which are purely religious” (198). Wow! We have the opposition of “aesthetic pseudo-emotion” and the “purely religious.” The frozen chosen must not get too excited and emotional!

Kuyper continues with his theme that our maturity requires a separation of religion and art. He is always clear: “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (199). Once again, Kuyper reiterates that this is a more advanced stage, akin to Aaron versus Christ and “Romanism” versus Calvinism. Once again, Kuyper must be quoted in full:

Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. (199)

Kuyper is very fond of describing Calvinism as “vigorous” and other manly attributes. Therefore, he laments that “the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs,” by which he means the Calvinist martyrs and the liberation of Holland from Spain. That was the golden age for which Kuyper longs. It was a time when Calvinism made men to be men! “The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy” (200). Thus, it is not surprising that he would appeal to Hegel. They have far more in common than Kuyper would probably like to admit. Both occupied similar terrain in defending a progressivist and emancipation-oriented history of man, conveniently locating their own ideas at the pinnacle of this progress.

Kuyper sees Calvinism as a supremely sober and manly religion. By contrast, Roman Catholics are weak-minded and their spirituality is effeminate, as evidenced by their dependence upon aesthetic symbols.

You can read the rest of the lecture on your own time. Kuyper further explains what he means by the liberation of art, which does not mean that he is advocating for a purely secular art. Rather, his understanding of “common grace” means that even non-religious or non-cultic art is still properly understood in its orientation toward God.

I am not convinced that Kuyper’s “common grace” is helpful, at least not in this lecture. The damage is already done. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, other than the most ardent Neo-Calvinist, who finds Kuyper’s presentation to be compelling. This is probably the most ingenious way to defend Calvinism vis-à-vis art, but it is almost comical. If Chartres and Hagia Sophia are examples of a primitive and lower stage in man’s development, then I will take the “lower stage.” Of course, Kuyper mentions Dutch painters of the 17th century (see p. 223). Rembrandt is great, but if that is the “liberation” that Calvinism offers and little else — forgive my incredulity. This is a stimulating lecture, but I am far from convinced.


Image: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk




  1. So is Kuyper a kind of aesthetic Hegelian – an idealist, for whom the less material, the more real? It would be interesting to see how Kuyper treats poetry, since Hegel saw that as the highest form of art, for lack of a better term.

    • “…for whom the less material, the more real?”

      That’s the way Kuyper seem to present it, but he is clever enough not to explicitly oppose the material and the spiritual. Nonetheless, if you are mature and manly enough, you do not need the material — i.e., symbolic and aesthetic representations of the divine.

      That’s an interesting point about Hegel. Kuyper does, in the second half of the lecture, seem to favor poetry and the written word in general. It’s a brief part of his analysis, and I would need to re-read it to say more.

      • That’s an interesting line to take regarding ‘maturity’. Does he remove any and all symbolism from, say, the Old Testament, or does he hold that the Israelites were simply immature – and if that is the case, does Calvinism represent a kind of progressive revelation, or progressive maturing of man? I’m unfamiliar with Kuyper so these are just musings – correct me if I’m off base here. But one doesn’t have to be a James Jordan to note that there is a good deal of symbolism in the OT and NT texts, some of it quite explicit – think of the tabernacle construction or Ezekiels prophecies, or the bronze serpent in the desert etc etc.

      • He recognizes its necessity in the OT. He thinks it is important but only in a provisional sense. Perhaps he is thinking of the way Paul describes the law as our “guardian” or “disciplinarian” (Gal 3:24) until Christ. Therefore, he thinks it is a lower stage, and Christians should not return to the symbolic and aesthetic forms. Catholicism was a return to this Judaism; Protestantism recovered our freedom from such childishness. That is how Kuyper sees it.

      • Well, what about the book of Revelation? That’s the final book in the Bible and it’s exploding with vivid multilayered symbolism and imagery. (Incidentally, Rev 4-5 might be my favorite chapters in the Bible)

      • Exactly, Joel. I was thinking of Revelation as well. It is often noted that Calvin never wrote a commentary on Revelation, and I wonder if that has some connection with the Reformed tradition’s hesitance toward the symbolic and preference for clear conceptual categories.

  2. Wow, he really does sound Hegelian. It’s here where “presuppositionalism” can be quite blinding. Kuyper’s not Hegelian, he’s working from a “Calvinist world-view” and coming to the “right” conclusions. It’s not that he too is a product of his intellectual milieu! Delusional, much?

    I laughed at the von Hartmann description against emotion. I’m more and more convinced that a Dutch Reformed, Neo-Calvinist TR Vanilla Heaven would be a kind of living Hell for me. Especially because I don’t like Holbein(s) or Rembrandt.

    And it’s Kuyper’s theology, like it or not, that heavily influenced the Apartheid regime in South Africa. It’s funny that Kuyper’s view of a glorious Netherlands was the mercenary/pirate country that built a trade empire upon exploitation. At least the Spanish and Portuguese felt some bizarre need to feel like they converted people and brought them to the truth. The Dutch had no compunction about slavery and dehumanization.

    Of course, it’s negative and thus it is an aberration. I suppose that’s the beauty of world-view thinking, a kind of “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” mentality. I am still an Evangelical, but I hope that word ceases to be associated with this sort of absurd partisan mindset.

    I really love Eastern iconography, but I guess that’s because I’m an unmanly primitive.


    • Also I know neo-Calvinism, Dutch Reformed, and TR are different streams in a particular tradition. I am intentionally lumping them together in their over-cerebral emphasis. However, with the dominance of Van Till at New-Old Princeton, they’re all converging into “Calvinism”, which many Reformed peoples are cut out of.

    • “It’s not that he too is a product of his intellectual milieu! Delusional, much?”

      Ha, ha! Yes. I would be far more generous toward Calvinist worldview-ism if it would simply admit as much. After all, as a fan of Balthasar, I am inclined toward a heavy dose of worldview-ism myself.

      If you don’t like Rembrandt, then the Dutch Reformed vision of heaven is surely a hell for you!

      That’s an interesting and important point about apartheid in South Africa. Kuyper’s nationalism is pervasive throughout the lectures and at the heart of his rhetoric. I highly recommend an article that I recently read: Arie Molendijk’s “The Rhetorics of Abraham Kuyper” in Zeitschrift für neuere Theologiegeschichte. I’ll send it to your email. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy reading it.

  3. Very interesting. A couple of thoughts:

    1) Van Gogh is a pretty obvious counterexample. On the one hand, not explicitly “religious” like a cathedral, and certainly not a product of some center of power. Individual, you might say. On the other hand, symbolically rich, sensual and deeply spiritual at once. And Dutch Reformed. I’ll leave it to others to decide his manliness. Kuyper can’t account for this at all.

    2)Not to make every comparison to my own Lutheranism, but I think at least it points to how arbitrary Kuyper’s assertions are. I was almost sympathetic to his line about leaving behind the symbolical–not that Luther rejects symbols, but he does demand something more. Analogy isn’t enough. But in order to get to what is truly spiritual, Luther goes more concrete and material, not less. The spiritual is promised and bestowed in the sensual.

    • It’s interesting that I do not hear about Van Gogh from Reformed apologists. I have observed many discussions about Reformed aesthetics, and it is always — always — the Dutch painters of the 17th century that are favorite examples. But my favorite of these is Johannes Vermeer, a Roman Catholic! I do think that Van Gogh would be a good example. Perhaps it is the fear of impressionism (or post-impressionism) that prevents Van Gogh from being representative of Reformed-influenced art (culturally at least). In other words, Van Gogh was not “realist” enough for our scholastic Reformed apologists.

      I was almost sympathetic to his line about leaving behind the symbolical–not that Luther rejects symbols, but he does demand something more. Analogy isn’t enough. But in order to get to what is truly spiritual, Luther goes more concrete and material, not less. The spiritual is promised and bestowed in the sensual.

      That is perfectly stated.

      • I suppose it could be a few things about Van Gogh–the suicide, perhaps, though that is now historically questionable. More likely, yes, just the modernism itself.

        A friend reported to me a recent exchange at a gathering of Luther scholars, in which one fellow (a defender of propositional, direct realism as essential to Christianity) attacked modern art as “unable to proclaim,” and so suffering in comparison to its predecessors because it lacks the necessary propositional content.

        This strikes me as wrongheaded, as I learned it quite the opposite way–modernity learns to address the viewer in a more direct way. But surely he was right on “realism.”

      • Indeed, much of modernity doesn’t care about it, except in its own way as psychological projection — which can, however, be valuable for realism. It has to be handled carefully.

        I agree that it is wrongheaded to dismiss modernist art for lack of “propositional content.” I am inclined toward classical and “realist” art, and I can mock much of modernist art with the rest of my fellow classicists. But there is a stale classicism which is mere representation and rather sterile. Also, there is a decadent modernism which is obsessed with chaos and deconstruction. Both are representative of the worst of each. Neither are genuinely life-giving.

      • I’m alright with a degree of chaos. Not necessarily what I want dominating my life, but art that speaks to such experience, however unpleasant, isn’t worthless. We should be careful not to confuse what is genuinely pagan with nihilism.

      • Right, I even found Camus’ novels to be important and helpful when I read them in college. They were disturbing in a way, but that’s what I needed — and evangelicals especially could use a dose of Camus to make their art less sanitized and one-dimensional.

  4. The thing about “realism” is that the label hardly guarantees any relation whatsoever with reality — with truth and grace. Nor, of course, does the label “Christian”. Conversely, modernist art (and literature) — and postmodernist art (and literature) for that matter — someone is going to tell me that, ipso facto, they can bear no relation to truth and grace because they are non-proclamatory and non-propositional? Talk about an aesthetic bed of Procrustes, the reduction of art to propaganda, the triumph of parochialism and banality. And “common grace” notwithstanding, what a graceless creation such crusaders inhabit, and what a parsimonious faith they convey.

    • Quite so, though I’d suggest that proclamation without proposition is entirely possible. The proof is in the offense–if I look at a painting and am offended by it, it most certainly addresses me. Now, precisely what is being proclaimed is a separate question. But the crusaders you speak of are in a bit of a bind–such art can’t be both literally meaningless and morally bad, can it?

    • Talk about an aesthetic bed of Procrustes, the reduction of art to propaganda, the triumph of parochialism and banality.

      The film God’s Not Dead immediately came to my mind!

      • The sequel has exceeded the previous levels of paranoia and absurdity. Maybe it’s not propaganda at all, but a kind of post-modern dissection of the Evangelical mind. What if its a trilogy with an ending like Gone Girl!?

      • I’m curious to see the sequel. It’s a fascinating glimpse into popular evangelicalism. I have rarely been so animated — laughing, angry, both at the same time — as when I saw the first one. I haven’t seen Gone Girl.

  5. I meant to say …

    Kevin, I’m delighted to hear that you’re a big fan of Vermeer (who, btw, was baptised in the Reformed Church and converted to Catholicism on the insistence of his fiancée — though apparently the rack was not needed). I fell in love with Jan while taking Art History 101-102 (taught by the brilliant, inspiring, and très drôle Sam Green) as a senior at Wesleyan (’69-’70). Whenever I was in NYC, I would always try to visit the small, intimate, and brilliant Frick Collection to gaze at its 3 Vermeers, and sometimes the Met, with its 4 or 5. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, also with 4 or 5, was a favourite art-haunt of mine when I was gallivanting around Europe, and (if I remember correctly) the Louvre has a couple. Alas, the National Gallery in London has only one. I do hope you’ve stood dumbstruck before some of the master’s pieces yourself. Of course, Vermeer wouldn’t have been half the painter he was if it weren’t for his teacher — and student of Rembrandt — er, Carel Fabritius. 😉 (My son’s name is Karl, after some Swiss guy.)

    Oh, and Adam, as for van Gogh’s “manliness”, Gauguin, of course — or at least the Anthony Quinn version — thought he was a right pussy. 😉

    • If we’re comparing to Anthony Quinn, who stands up?

      But maybe that’s the answer. Quinn is the one and only Truly Reformed.

    • Ah, that’s good to know where to find Vermeer in NYC. I have actually never been to NYC, though I have been to the Art Institute in Chicago with its nice impressionism collection. Yes, the Louvre has some Vermeer, including the famous “Lacemaker,” and I was excited to see it last summer when I was there. But, alas, the Dutch section was closed for cleaning all week! Apparently, the Louvre closes one section at a time for such things. I was not happy, but my sadness was turned to joy because the Flanders section nearby was open — and I loved it! The Peter Paul Rubens gallery was like stepping into a movie theater. The paintings came to life unlike anything I have ever seen. So I am now a Rubens fan. I plan to purchase The Catholic Rubens by Willibald Sauerländer:

      I have not looked at Carel Fabritius, your kin in surname, but I will do so.

  6. If I were to write a defense of low-church Protestantism vis a vis art (something I’m not particularly interested in doing), American music seems like the obvious place to go. Blues, jazz, R&B, rock, rap, country – nearly every genre of popular music from the last century has roots going back to southern church music. Especially black Protestant churches, but white ones made important contributions in some cases too. And the chief innovators tended to be Baptist or Methodist or the occasional low-reformed, not Episcopalians or Lutherans.

    Actually, I have to wonder why more people don’t go here in defending Protestant contributions to art.

    • I agree. As you know, I touched upon this in my “Evangelical Aesthetic” post a little while back, and it is something I want to return to again — not least because, as you also know, of my undying love for country music. I actually taught an adult Sunday school class last year where I looked at the aesthetic contributions for each tradition, which I divided as RC, EO, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Baptist/Low-Church/Free-Evangelical. So, naturally we looked at Bach for Lutheran, choral music for Anglican, and so on. And for the last group — which is tricky and includes, as you note, other “low” types of Methodists and Reformed –we looked at Southern evangelical contributions to contemporary music, namely blues, rock, and country. My guess is that people do not go here in defense of Protestant contributions to art because it is folk art and not “high” art.

      • Jazz is basically art music since at least the 60s.

        On a related note, I saw Emmylou Harris last night!

      • I went through a jazz phase in high school, but for whatever reason I never got really into it for long — and I certainly do not have the incredible knowledge that jazz aficionados have. Glad you got to see Emmylou. I know how much you love her. I’d like to see her someday. At 69, I wonder how much longer she will be touring. Though George Jones and Merle Haggard toured all the way to the end, 81 and 79 respectively. And Willie is still going strong!

      • I’m not a jazz expert or anywhere close, but I enjoy it and own some recordings.

        She mentioned her age at the show and it didn’t sound like she was thinking of retiring soon. But of course things can change quickly when you get older.

        There was a Merle Haggard/Jason Isbell concert near me in May that I had been considering but, well, you know.

      • What’s interesting is how “high” art and “low” art blend in some of the metal scene. Ronnie James DIo (of Black Sabbath and Dio fame) had operatic training. There’s actually a number of metal singers who had stints in opera. The guys in Dream Theater (prog metal) were all classically trained. It’s interesting how they mix and match and people would rather play in a garage than in an academy.

      • I’ve heard some of that from my (rather few) metal friends, who are quite proud of the technical brilliance in their genre. I wish them well, while I go listen to George Jones. 🙂

  7. Well over twenty years ago my wife (who is second generation Dutch) and our (then) two little boys took a trip to Holland and Belgium to visit her relatives. We stayed in Haarlem and of course visited the cathedral in town square. Later we were able to visit Ghent in Belgium and visit the cathedral there. The visual impact and difference was quite striking and made an impact that I still remember quite well.

    We don’t want to overdo aesthetics, but it can be a good part of our life and our worship experience. Clear thinking and rationality is an important dimension, but aesthetics is another good dimension of life as well.

    • I’m curious about the striking difference. Is it because the cathedral in Haarlem was/is stripped and whitewashed, whereas the cathedral in Ghent is still Catholic and relatively ornate?

      • I’m a little late responding, if anyone even sees my reply. The Haarlem cathedral I remember as bare and dark. Ghent was magnificent, beautiful sculptures, gorgeous paintings, color!. At least as I recall from two decades ago. I guess I’ve always wondered what they stripped out from the Haarlem cathedral, what it used to look like before the Reformation. Of course it all costs money. But nowadays there are certainly ways to bring in some beauty without spending lots of money, if you have a little creativity.

      • Thanks, Mike, that’s what I figured. I’ve only seen pictures, and the Haarlem cathedral was once popular with Dutch painters. It’s nice but obviously stripped in accord with the Reformed Church. I agree that some colors, statuary, etc. can greatly enhance the heaven-like experience, but I have also seen too many overly ornate churches, which are just cluttered and gaudy. So, there needs to be a balance, as I’m sure you’d agree.

  8. This helps to explain, outside exceptions like Spurgeon, the developing dryness of Calvinist reformed theology post-Calvin. So, in sum, according to Kuyper only clinical Christianity and it’s continuing iconoclastic revolt against the mystical and what it deems as mystical, is true Christianity?

    • That seems a little too harsh on Kuyper. You have to take his account of Christianity as religion in the context of his greater Christendom project. His notion of sphere sovereignty is to maintain divided boundaries. Worship may be rationalistic and barren, but art is to find its place elsewhere, elevating the intellect (hence praise for Dutch realism). The church is its own sector, and the art studio another, both in the kingdom of God.

      I don’t like Kuyper, and much of Calvinist aesthetic reflection, but it’s more complicated. Maybe only among certain Anabaptists and Anabaptist-esque Puritans was art expunged entirely for an iconoclastic drive.

      At least Calvinists and zealous reformers took serious the temptation of “high places”. I’m still not sure what to do with that, but Israel’s fall into idolatry and the “sin of Jeroboam” ought to caution some embrace of aesthetics. Of course, I prefer some of John Damascene’s arguments on this front. But it’s still certainly worth wrestling with.

    • Cal’s description of Kuyper’s project is well stated.

      Rod, I agree that there is something problematic in the Reformed tradition — something “dry” and “clinical” which Kuyper lauds as “pure religion.” Against Kuyper, I do not consider the symbolic and mystical to be inferior. But neither do I consider it to be superior, which is quite popular among liberal Protestants since the 1960’s and not a few liberal Catholics, both frequently opposing “doctrine” with the supposedly superior experience of mystical and contemplative life. So, here we have another dichotomy! Apparently I love thinking about dichotomies — in this case, doctrine and aesthetics. We need both.

      Doctrine is distorted without aesthetics; aesthetics is distorted without doctrine. To give one possible example of the former: Bultmann has a really hard time believing in any “realm” or reality beyond this one. I would be curious to know his thoughts on aesthetics and liturgy. Tillich, interestingly, spent a lot of time thinking about symbols and art, albeit mostly as a diagnosis of historical patterns and modernity’s peculiar traits.

      • Isn’t that dichotomy, though, (even with Kuypers “common grace”) as useful as it might be as a lens, realm, or even rubric, the reason, if not cause of the non-Catholic false understanding of a secular vs. sacred dichotomy (As understood by the mainstream)? Re: Bultmann, I suggest he’d probably entertain aesthetics, but consider its only value is in its [most likely hidden] message/truth. All that would rest on whether or not all art could be categorised as mythos semiotics, if not, he’d probably right it off as smoke and mirrors. The illusory product of a primal sense experience, no different to shamanism and idol worship. Tillich, might view it as entertainment. Therefore it can have communal, moral and spiritual value, but has obvious limits in its ability to connect us with the Ground of being. I doubt that Bultmann would see aesthetics and liturgy as something we can worship God through. It’s more probable that, like what seems to drive Kuyper, there’d be an element of distrust/suspicion of abandoning reason because of a disastrous focus on enthusiasm (which is something responsible Pentecostals continue to struggle against). If Kuyper is understood in this light, I’m sympathetic to his position. But, I’m also concerned about the implications & consequences of its relationship to the secular vs. sacred dichotomy in art, music, politics

      • It’s worth examining why the “sacred/secular” divide occurred anyway, formalized in the Reformation. I think Charles Taylor is pretty interesting in this regard, speaking as a somewhat sympathetic liberal Catholic.

        I think a more fruitful and interesting discussion is trying to figure out what we’re talking about when we say “sacred” or “secular”. Kuyper, and the Dutch Reformed more generally, defy simple categorization in this regard. They promote a kind of secular that is within a greater paradigm of the sacred, in contrast to the explicitly sacred.

        It’s interesting to watch, historically, how the Reformation attacked the sacred/secular divide of their day, which only led towards an eclipse of the sacred into the secular. This ends with hyper-liberal/agnostic Protestantism making culture into a new god.Theologically, one could say that Death-of-God is a valid, though extremely heterodox, continuation of the Reformation. Some Manualist Catholics would point to this as a reason to maintain the distinction between nature and super-nature.

        Kuyper does not divide sacred-secular, but places the “secular” within a much broader category of sacred. The church, and worship, is only a piece to a larger kingdom of God that includes culture-building. Hence, Kuyper’s project of defending Calvinism is intertwined with a defense of Dutch culture, whether imperialism, art, way-of-life etc. In some sense, Kuyper is trying to recover a more Medieval theology, in modern, 20th century philosophical context, for Reformed theology.

        Consider Jamie Smith is a Kuyperian of a 21st century, post-modern sort. He is continuing Kuyper’s work, divested of the rationalism inherent in the popular Hegelianism of the time.


      • I doubt that Bultmann would see aesthetics and liturgy as something we can worship God through.

        I think that’s right. Or, per Tillich, we can worship God through these symbols, so long as we recognize that as symbols they correspond to something within us and not something real. That is pretty much the definition of German idealism.

        It’s more probable that, like what seems to drive Kuyper, there’d be an element of distrust/suspicion of abandoning reason because of a disastrous focus on enthusiasm (which is something responsible Pentecostals continue to struggle against).

        That distrust is endemic throughout all of academic theology and not without reason, as I’m sure you agree. You only need to watch five minutes of so-called “Christian” television. However, I do think the distrust of enthusiasm is overblown. It’s far more complicated when you talk to African theologians, and your parenthetical comment about responsible Pentecostals is right. It’s a big and immensely important topic of conversation.

        Cal, you are right that Kuyper places the secular within the more broad category of sacred. This is why, as I indicated toward the end of the post, that Kuyper’s emancipation of art is not “secular” in the sense of autonomous, apart from God.

        I am still trying to figure out what I think about Kuyper and his followers. For a while, I was rather inclined toward two-kingdoms, especially as a way to protect the church from silliness (Six-Day Creationism) and idolatry (American civil religion) or, in the liberal milieu, the adoration of human rights and limitless personal identity. As a result, I never cared for Kuyper. But, I am much more skeptical of the two-kingdoms approach now. It’s too easy of an answer and too reactionary.

        So, I am more sympathetic now of what the late patristic and medieval church had to endure (and what God had to endure!). I am not likely to align myself with a neo-Christendom project, not least because Simone Weil’s critique of Force is forever lodged in my brain. But I am certainly less opposed than I once was and perhaps much more forgiving of the visible church’s manifest sins.

      • On a related note, I enjoy what I’ve read from James KA Smith, the hipster Kuyperian, on worship and liturgy. Basically, for those not aware the point of Desiring the Kingdom is that repeated actions, especially those that engage our whole body and our senses, form our minds just as much as cognitive teaching if not more so.

        But I do have to wonder if this is tension with Smith’s own tradition? The Reformed are historically suspicious of sensory things in worship, more so than Lutherans or Anglicans. And I’ve seen at least one Catholic traditionalist praise the book!

      • I’ve never read JKA Smith, but I’ve read many discussions of his work, so I feel like I’ve read him! I like what I’ve read, but I also think that there is some tension with his tradition, especially if you throw-in the evangelical label. The Reformed and evangelical like “disruptive grace” (to borrow from Hunsinger’s interpretation of Barth), where God is surprising and exciting, where grace is profoundly unexpected. Those are good things, of course, but it tends to create an atmosphere where virtues, habits, rites, liturgy, rosaries, etc., are looked upon with suspicion — as too human and too mundane. As I like to tell my Sunday school classes, the Eucharist can’t compete with a rock band and a handsome, charismatic preacher.

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