Kuyper on Calvinism and the Arts: A Theological Reflection
Jason Goroncy, February 2006
Unless otherwise stated, references are to A Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1931).
Why didn’t reading Kuyper on the arts inspire me to go and write a song?
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the founder of neo-Calvinism (or Kuyperianism), worked as a pastor, theologian, newspaper editor (for two newspapers), and politician in the Netherlands, organising the Netherlands’ first political party. In his spare time, he also started the Free University of Amsterdam, and served as Prime Minister.
In his chapter on Calvinism and Art, Kuyper makes plain his three-pronged agenda: (i) Why Calvinism was not allowed to develop an art-style of its own; (ii) What flows from its principle for the nature of art; and (iii) What it has actually done for its advancement. The chapter follows this structure.
Many who were both inside and outside Calvinism saw it as merely a doctrinal and ecclesiological position, but Kuyper was resolute that Calvinism be understood as a comprehensive worldview, and argued that ‘Calvinism made its appearance, not merely to create a different Church-form, but an entirely different form for human life, to furnish human society with a different method of existence, and to populate the world of the human heart with different ideals and conceptions’ (p. 17).
Under the umbrella of an emphasis on divine sovereignty, Kuyper’s Calvinistic vision called people to thoughtful, active, artistic, engagement with – and in – the world precisely because the world, and all that is in it, is God’s. According to Kuyper, there is no such thing as truly secular, or religiously independent, art. This is to say more than simply that no one works in a vacuum. It is to state that all art is ultimately derived from Religion – Christian or otherwise – although this may come via political ideology, the latter illustrated in Roman and Byzantinian architecture (pp. 149-51). How could it be otherwise if God is indeed ‘the deepest root’ (p. 151) of all human life? With the secular-sacred divide abolished, human creatures are those ‘who, priestlike, must consecrate to God the whole of creation, and all life thriving in it’ (p. 52). This gives all of life a purpose that Christian dualism cannot deliver. All of life is entirely meaningful to God and must be lived for His glory. It was in this, Kuyper argued, that Calvinism freed art, and artists, from the shackles (and pockets) of the Church and gave art back to the world.
Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, ‘by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammelled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator’ (p. 30), empowers God’s people – indeed all people – for engagement in the world. Because of this common grace, Kuyper concludes that ‘the life of the world is to be honoured in its independence, and that we must, in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life’ (p. 31). In Kuyper’s vision, monastic withdrawal from the world is not an option. More importantly for our purposes here, Kuyper affirmed Calvin’s insistence that human artistry is a gift given by, and pleasing to, God, whether or not the artist is a confessing Christian (p. 160-61).
But here there is an important inconsistency in Kuyper’s thought. When it came to science, education and, arguably, politics, Kuyper called for a distinctively Christian expression on the basis of the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian worldviews. However, on art, Kuyper leaned much more heavily in the direction of emphasising common grace: ‘Aesthetic genius, if I may so call it, had been implanted by God Himself in the Greek, and only by hailing again, amid loud rejoicings, the fundamental laws of art, which Greek genius had discovered, could art justify her claim to an independent existence’ (p. 159; cf. p. 162). Why did he not allow his emphasis on common grace enough command in the spheres of science and education? According to Kuyper, the Greeks had discovered God’s fundamental law for art, and as such provided the foundation upon which all art should be built. This conclusion is not only inconsistent with his view of science and education, but guts the arts of their true foundation in the incarnate life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Kuyper never makes it clear why science needed to be built on a Christian foundation, but art did not. One gets the impression that, for Kuyper, Athens is good enough for art, but for more serious (in his view) human endeavours, one must go to Geneva. Is it because he fears that art makes a more dangerous master than a willing servant and is much harder to harness after it has been freed by reformation faith? Or is it because at the end of the day, i.e. despite his comments regarding the necessity of art to permeate the whole of human life (p. 163), he considers art an ‘optional extra’, a luxury, of human being. (On this see PT Forsyth, Religion in Recent Art, 145-6; cf. pp. 2-4)
But why is Athens good enough for art? Surely religion has done more for art than art has done for it. Did art make or break Athens? If Kuyper is right in affirming this for other human pursuits, why not for art?
On a related note, Kuyper states that the reason that Calvinism did not develop its own architectural style was because it was committed to a ‘higher principle’ (pp. 145-6) and because it had ‘reached a so much higher stage of religious development’ (p. 152), though one is left to wonder exactly what this ‘higher principle’ and ‘higher stage’ might be. Again, Kuyper notes that ‘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’ (p. 149). Again, what is this ‘vigorous spirituality’ that Calvinism sets one free for, and why are the arts (materiality?) seemingly excluded? Furthermore, why is art, which Kuyper refers to as ‘one of the richest gifts of God’ (p. 143) to humanity, identified with immaturity? Is Kuyper too shackled to Hegel at this point?
Kuyper scraped the bottom of the barrel to find support in Calvin’s references to art. In the Institutes, the only references to art/ists are largely negative, discussed in the context of idolatry in 1.11.12, and the Creator/creature distinction in 1.5.5. There is a brief mention of artistic expression as evidence of the imago dei, particularly when accompanied by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in 2.2.14-16 (cf. Tracts 1:352). Calvin’s commentaries are little fuller with references, as is betrayed by Kuyper himself in the need to resort to the example of Jubal and Tubal-cain in Genesis 4:21-22. This is not to say that Calvin’s theology does not offer a rich canvas on which the artist can begin. On the contrary, despite his seemingly personal indifference to art (as opposed to Luther), the landscape and depth of Calvin’s theological vision, not least his doctrine of a ‘big’ God, and of creation, makes human artistry both inevitable and glorious.
What Calvinism brought to the arts was:
(i) a positive doctrine of creation;
(ii) a grown up God big enough to handle the world He had made;
(iii) a ‘profound conception of religious liberty’ (p. 147);
(iv) the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (p. 168);
(v) the release of it being the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful (p. 165-8);
(vi) a sense of the importance of human vocation;
(vii) a God-honouring alternative to the Renaissance;
(viii) a God-honouring secularism;
(ix) an affirmation that human artistry is a gift given by, and pleasing to, God, regardless of any religious commitment;
(x) a broad vision of human society; and
(xi) the means through which artistic expression was freed from its ecclesiastically controlled chains (p. 167).
A final comment: Roy Attwood has helpfully reminded us that the Creator of the aesthetic sphere calls His image bearers to be busy doing faithful aesthetic acts: ‘While the world may be busy pursuing “art for art’s sake” or treating aesthetics like it rested on the bottom of the food chain, Christians should adorn their lives, their homes, their worship with humble acts of aesthetic faithfulness because they know the Creator and Lord of Aesthetics delights in them.’ In God’s first act of creation, God gave those who bear His image the capacity to also be creators, to offer back to Him – everlastingly – faithful, and new, aesthetic acts for His glory and for the delight of our fellow creatures. From the very beginning, the Lord of Aesthetics called His covenant children to be busy aesthetically. But it awaited the ultimate revelation of God’s creativity which concerned not the calling forth the creation in an act of creative love, but in calling it back as a new creation in grace, to give art its true meaning. In other words, Art matters not primarily because the creation has been created by God, (‘No Art is possible to a religion which begins with a text like “Cursed be the ground”.’ Forsyth, Art, 144) or even because it has been enfleshed by Him, but because it has been redeemed by Him in His most creative act. Only a world not merely enfleshed but crucified and re-created in a Holy Redeemer can offer to the arts any stable footing.
I wish that Kuyper saw and emphasised that this, too, is something that the reformation rediscovered.
Some discussion starters:
§ How accurately does Kuyper reflect Calvin/ism?
§ ‘What is the world that art takes for granted?’ (Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2005, 135) If, as Williams puts it, ‘art helps us to understand creation’ (Ibid., 161), what sort of creation does Kuyper present to us via his views on art? Is Kuyper’s world a world in which we are invited to look through or to enjoy and affirm the integrity of for its own sake?
§ ‘Would a world without art lose one of its ideal spheres?’ (p. 152)
§ How does one ‘use’ art prophetically to name the truths that (i) the creation is good, (ii) sin is a reality, (iii) sin does not have the last word, i.e. hope is certain?
§ Has Protestantism removed the arts from the cathedral only to place it in a gallery?
§ How does art ‘not merely … observe everything visible and audible, to apprehend it, and reproduce it artistically, but … discover in those natural forms the order of the beautiful, and … produce a beautiful world that transcends the beautiful of nature’ (p. 154; cf. p. 156-7, 163)? Is there genuine newness involved here, or merely the disclosing of what is hidden? Does art exist to name what is? To create something truly new, i.e. that wasn’t before? To surprise God? To hallow the ‘ordinary’? To spiritualise the material? How are artists able not only ‘to produce a beautiful world that transcends the beautiful of nature’ but also to perfect Nature (Forsyth)? Is this precisely not the very activity of the Sabbath day, thus linking it to both creation and redemption?
For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted – better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
(Robert Browning, Fra Lippo Lippi, 1855)
If, as Browning states it, the point of painting something is not to reproduce it exactly (which is impossible anyway), but rather to represent it in such a way that it enables others to see the reality of that which is represented for the first time, (‘Art is interpretation’, Forsyth) in what sense might it be fair to envisage human creative activity as ‘unreal’? Are reproductive prints art?
§ What are we to make of Kuyper’s comment concerning the prophetic necessity in art itself to refuse to accept the world as it appears, i.e., that ‘art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster’ (p. 155)? What does one think that Kuyper thinks that artists will do in the new creation?
§ Affirming that ‘the world after the fall is no lost planet’ (p. 162), Kuyper goes on to say that ‘the world now, as well as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation, here on earth, a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God’ (p. 162). In what sense can human artistry be said to contribute to creation’s completion, or continuation?
§ Does the particular doctrine of election, as expressed by Kuyper on pp. 166-7, still offer the same liberating power for artists?
§ Are we convinced of Kuyper’s argument (pp. 165f.) that had the Reformation not touched Europe so deeply, Rembrandt (if he painted at all) would have painted differently? Why? Why not?
§ Is Kuyper’s argument sufficiently ‘Christian’? What difference would a more intentionally (i) Trinitarian, (ii) Incarnational, and (iii) Soteriological theology, make to Kuyper’s argument and justification for the arts?
§ In light of the ugliness, and hidden beauty, of the Christian gospel, Jüngel writes: ‘Beauty and art are both welcome and dangerous competitors with the Christian kerygma, for in the beautiful appearance they anticipate that which faith has to declare, without any beautiful appearance and indeed in contrast to it: namely, the hour of truth’ (Theological Essays II, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, 81). How can this tension be overcome so that art can be considered not as an ‘optional extra’ of human being, or of the telling of good news, but as the constraining means of that being and telling?