On Education: A Review

On Education by Abraham Kuyper, edited by Wendy Naylor, Harry Van Dyke, Jordan J. Ballor, and Melvin Flikkema. Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology.

Lexham Press, 2019, $44.99, 496 pp.

Well-known for the doctrine of “sphere sovereignty, ” Abraham Kuyper once famously declared: “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and 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!”[1] Kuyper is also notable for delivering the 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton’s Theological Seminary in which he offered a profound and lasting treatment of Calvinism which remains relevant to us who are living in the postmodern era. But it is his significant work of educational reform in the Netherlands spanning nearly fifty years (1869-1917) that features in On Education.

On Education is a substantive anthology of Kuyper’s thoughts on Christian education, published as part of a twelve volume series of Kuyper’s works, produced by the Abraham Kuyper Translation Society, the Acton Institute, and Kuyper College. And it is precisely because of Kuyper’s “unique gifts, experiences, and writings” on Christianity and education that On Education is more than just a helpful resource; it is a uniquely prescient guide for everyone concerned with the education crisis plaguing twenty-first century North America (vii).

The volume is divided into four parts, tracing Kuyper’s involvement with the Netherlands’ seventy-year political battle over parents’ rights to choose schools representative of their religious convictions. Part One introduces the beginnings of the struggle: in 1868, the Society for the Common Good issued a manifesto stating what it perceived was a need to protect its gains of having achieved “the religious neutrality of the public school;” Kuyper responded that his party was not attempting to take back the Society’s perceived gains but, instead, to “make it possible for more children to receive the religious education desired by their parents” (9). This section further treats Kuyper’s grave concern about Dutch public schools “teaching the immortality of the soul,” something he contends is not “safe in the hands of the state school teachers” (22).

Part Two consists of four chapters dedicated to Kuyper’s antirevolutionary vision of sphere sovereignty which, when properly applied, would protect Christian schools from the revolutionary spirit of “false mingling,” whereby the state “sought to mix together precisely what God had separated” (53). Kuyper argued that it is only by properly distinguishing between the boundaries and bonds ordained by God that Christians can keep their schools from falling prey to the state and resist those secularists who would use the public trough to take away their freedom to preach Christ.

Part Three consists of six chapters of parliamentary addresses, journalistic articles, public speeches, and theological writings that address Kuyper’s pluralistic program for national education. At the time, the Netherlands was a nation that consisted in near equal measure of Rationalists, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics. In short, it was Kuyper’s position that, “The state may not use its supremacy to favor one part of the nation over another. All spiritual compulsion by the state is an affront to the honor of the spiritual life and, as an offense to civil liberty, is hateful and abominable” (xi).

Finally, Part Four consists of five chapters that treat Kuyper’s appeal to the public conscience, his concern for the injustice done to the poor of the nation, the political struggle, and ultimate victory—albeit a compromised victory. Kuyper sought a political policy of “principled structural pluralism”(xlii). And his Antirevolutionary Party “worked diligently to establish the right of all parents to provide their children with a quality education in accordance with their deepest convictions and values” (xii). Directed by his motto, “Free schools the norm, state schools a supplement,” (361) and by the foundational Christian principles of “freedom of conscience, equal treatment of religion under the law, and the place of schools within civil society” (365), Kuyper fought for a national system of free schools for the entirety of his public life. He firmly believed that free schools were the best way to serve all parents, not just Christian parents because “it was best for all children to experience a unity of world view and values between school and home” (361).

In 1917, his Antirevolutionary Party won a great victory. “As a culmination of these efforts, the Dutch constitution was amended to guarantee this right, and in 1920, the year Kuyper died, a new education bill was passed which put that amendment into practice” (xii). Although Kuyper made three substantial, albeit pragmatic, compromises to his ideal, he believed they were ultimately successful since compromise is always necessary when working in an imperfect political system. Nevertheless, while their own struggle culminated in a victory for free schools, Kuyper also recognized that the “struggle of the spirits” behind the struggle of the schools was far from over. In his speech marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Christian Teachers Association, Kuyper exhorted the teachers saying:

Brother and sisters, our struggle for the principle of Christian education has come to an end, and God grant that it never return. But that does not mean that the struggle of the spirits is over. On the contrary, the contest between the two forces that contend for the soul of the nation has only intensified. The waves of unbelief are pounding our shores with increasing force and threaten to flood the entire nation. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, nor against specific people. We face a struggle, rather, that arises from the spiritual world and penetrates life in the very heart of the nation…What spirit will control the heart of our nation: the Spirit poured out on Pentecost, or the spirit from the abyss? (359).

Kuyper was well aware that the battle over education is a spiritual battle for the soul of a nation. But as he concluded his public service and entered the twilight of life, it seems he was also forced to come to terms with the “skyrocketing costs of education,” and “a reality which he had only just begun to understand, that of the state as being of benefit to society, not merely by curtailing sin, but also by providing a necessary ‘backbone’ to the social spheres, especially in an era of huge undertakings and expensive tasks” (396). One clear and relevant example of the way modern thinking tended to see the state as providing the necessary backbone for the benefit of an expanding, progressive society is the railroad subsidies in the 19th century United States. Without the backing of the U. S. government, investors were unwilling to put their money behind such a risky and expensive project as the transcontinental railroad, notwithstanding its acknowledged benefit to the public good. As detailed in the National Archives, “In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, which designated the 32nd parallel as the initial transcontinental route, and provided government bonds to fund the project and large grants of lands for rights-of-way.”[2] In other words, the modern age which encompassed Kuyper’s work for education reform in the Netherlands underwent a significant shift in thought, globally, about the role of government.[3] Government, as it had primarily functioned prior to the modern period, was no longer merely responsible for curtailing sin and keeping the peace of the kingdom; in the progressive and expansive modern world, it now represented an agent for securing and underwriting the public good.

Given the significant shift in thought about government’s role and the enormity of social needs and circumstances created by the modern progressive state, Kuyper seems to have reluctantly come to terms with the fact that his ideal would likely never be realized. As editor Wendy Naylor notes, Kuyper was forced to make three pragmatic compromises during his lifetime of working for educational reform. In the Afterward, Naylor concisely lays out the nature of the compromises:

Given the powerful opposition to the ARP (Anti-Revolutionary Party) educational program in Parliament, progress, he knew, would be slow, and in the interim free schools needed to be kept alive. If there had been a more democratic system of suffrage, independent of any property qualification, Parliament would have represented the people far more accurately and a system of subvention would have met with success far earlier. But the Netherlands was only slowly emerging from a class-based society with its census democracy, and the ARP had to be patient and accept steps of progress which, when considered out of context, could appear inconsistent. From the beginning, Kuyper proposed short-term measures, stop-gap solutions which would enable free schools to survive until such time as either the suffrage laws were changed or they were able to appeal to their opponents’ sense of justice and fair play, or both. Thus, from 1869 until 1889, Kuyper proposed a system of Restitution; from 1869 until 1910, he argued for Partial Subsidy; and from 1911 until 1920, he put his weight behind a program of Full Subsidy for all schools.[4]

Notwithstanding his unfortunate but necessary compromises, and notwithstanding the fact that the nineteenth and early-twentieth century Dutch educational and political system is obviously much different than that of the twenty-first century U.S. educational and political system, Kuyper’s application of Christian principles to education in his situation continues to offer valuable principles for modern educators who are facing our own unique situation. For in both situations, we strive from the belief that 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!”

Scott Postma is a Ph.D. candidate, a practitioner of the ancient art of Tsundoku, and serves as president of Kepler Education.

  1. Stated in a public address delivered at the inauguration of the Free University on October 20, 1880. “Sphere Sovereignty,” Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Translated by George Kamps, 28 pgs.

  2. National Archives and Records Administration. (2022, May 10). Pacific Railway Act (1862). National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/pacific-railway-act

  3. The kind of autonomous democratic thought stemming from the Enlightenment brought about a global spirit of revolution that defined the modern age—from the storming of the Bastille in France (1789) to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and fall of the Soviet Union (1989-1991). The revolutionary spirit co-existed in part with the spirit of the Reformation (roughly 1517-1650), which also advocated for individual liberty but a liberty that was rooted in another source—the gospel of Jesus Christ and the resultant theology of sphere sovereignty. Thus, Kuyper formed and led the Anti-revolutionary Party (ARP) in the Netherlands which advocated for the reformational kind of freedom for all which he argued should be protected and supported by the modern state. The state, however, which itself claimed to advocate for the same kind of democratic freedom, only actually supported that freedom which was characterized as secular.

  4. Wendy Naylor, “Afterword: Faith, Finances, and Freedom,” in On Education, ed. Wendy Naylor et al., Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press; Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2019), 373–374.


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