Kuyper was without dispute a prolific author. Two things are crystal clear when you start to dip into Kuyper’s writings on any number of topics: (1) Kuyper loved and immersed himself in Scripture and (2) he had a deep conviction that Scripture is able to — indeed must — speak to the public issues of the day. I want to explore Kuyper’s use of Scripture for public theology; that is, how does Scripture speak into the challenges and issues of contemporary culture. To this end, I will describe Kuyper’s use of Scripture in a series of newspaper articles that he wrote in 1895, translated and published under the title “Christ and the Needy.”
These articles arose because of a backlash that Kuyper received against some comments he made in an election campaign about the social divide between the rich and the poor. It seems wealthy and prominent Christians took offence at Kuyper’s comments which provided the occasion for Kuyper to defend in a conciliatory way his understanding of the implications of Jesus’ instruction in the social realm. Kuyper wanted to answer the quite specific question: What does Jesus have to teach us about our social responsibility to the poor? In this very public forum and in response to political detractors, Kuyper offers a biblical defense for the care of the most vulnerable in society. We can, I think, learn at least 6 (brief) lessons from Kuyper’s use of the Bible in response to this very contemporary problem.
First, Kuyper was careful to frame Jesus’ teachings about the rich and poor within Jesus’ own social and cultural context. Kuyper could easily have drawn a random collection of prooftexts from the Gospel accounts to support his point. However, he did not short-circuit the exegetical process and so he briefly outlined the Roman cultural context. This provides a firm footing to compare and contrast the social setting of Jesus with the one which Kuyper was addressing.
Second, Kuyper carefully situated Jesus’ teachings within the larger biblical theological framework. Kuyper was clearly steeped in the teachings of Scripture, and before even attempting to expound Jesus’ teaching on the rich and poor, he delved deeply into the teachings of the Old Testament. He drew particularly on the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy), but also on the Psalms, Proverbs, Job and the Prophets. Kuyper establishes that the ministry of mercy which is typified in the second great commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”) is at the heart of Israel’s purpose for existence (Israel’s mission) in the Old Testament. In the current crisis of biblical illiteracy in the church today, a recovery of biblical theology of the kind that Kuyper effortlessly engaged in is absolutely essential.
Third, Kuyper’s close reading and thorough analysis of the Gospel accounts provided the basis of his understanding of Jesus’ social teaching. Having outlined the cultural and biblical context of Jesus’ teaching, Kuyper turned his attention to the Gospel accounts themselves. He not only expounded what Jesus teaches about the poor but makes keen observations and conclusions from the subtle clues in the text. Thus, Kuyper’s understanding of Jesus’ teachings on the rich and poor focused not only on what Jesus taught explicitly but also on things like Jesus’ humble birth, his upbringing and family relations, who he gathered around himself and interacted with, his priorities, and so on. Such close attention to the details of the Gospel texts through the particular lens of rich/poor yields insights that are difficult to dispute. We can certainly learn from Kuyper’s close attention to the details of the text.
Fourth, Kuyper was aware of the critical issues surrounding the academic interpretation of the Bible, but these are not his focus and they do not deter him from drawing on the Bible as the Word of God for public theology. At various points in the articles, he showed an awareness of surrounding issues, particularly related to the synoptic problem (i.e., the problems that arise when comparing and contrasting the Gospel accounts). Where necessary, he engaged these in a fairly nuanced way (or at least as nuanced as he could be in a newspaper article), but he did not allow these matters to sidetrack his attempt to understand Jesus’ teaching on social matters.
Fifth, Kuyper aimed to allow Scripture to speak into the cultural situation of his day rather than trying to justify a particular system from Scripture. For example, he carefully described how the currents of the Gospel undercut the extremes of free market capitalism on the one hand and those of communism on the other. Kuyper did not try to prop up a particular social agenda but rather listened to Scripture to see how it might address current issues.
Finally, all of this demonstrates just how serious Kuyper was about the application of Scripture. His exegetical and careful analysis of Scripture yielded relevant application. Whether the application had to do with idolatrous structures and systems in society or whether it informed specific practices (like almsgiving, lending principles, or the practice of tithing), Kuyper was insistent that the Word speaks relevantly today.
I hope this brief description of Kuyper’s use of the Bible for public theology has not merely been interesting but also, dare I say, inspiring. Too often we have domesticated Scripture and as a consequence have muted the powerful and comprehensive address of God in Scripture. Kuyper offers us a model and tools for listening attentively to Scripture so that it speaks to the challenges of contemporary culture, a model that is worth retrieving, deepening and renewing for today.
David Beldman is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer University. This article first appeared in the Kirby Laing Centre’s Big Picture Magazine.