What does a Dutch Prime Minister born nearly two centuries ago have to say about contemporary debates over the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Writing in the wake of a smallpox outbreak and subsequent government requirement that children be vaccinated, Kuyper discussed the issue in detail. Surprisingly, given that our current pandemic has been going on for eighteen months and disputes about vaccines since Christmas, few people have drawn attention to the fact that one of the greatest Christian minds and politicians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries addressed the same issues over a century ago. In a series of three short pieces, then, we will consider the key points made by Kuyper as he thought about a pandemic, the government response, and vaccination. This is not to suggest agreement with every conclusion Kuyper made, but to demonstrate at the very least that the issue of Christian responses to vaccines is not as unprecedented as many of us have believed over the past year.
We will consider Kuyper’s reflections on vaccines under three headings: handling disagreement, the role of the government, and the actual receiving of vaccination. We will draw five specific points from two of Kuyper’s works, but I strongly encourage you to read all of chapters 71 and 72 of Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World (Vol. 2) and 16.201-204 of Our Program.
Kuyper on Vaccines I: Handling Disagreement
1. Speak With Tenderness
First, and before getting to the specifics about vaccinations and pandemic policies, a Kuyperean caveat needs to be given: any discussion of a controversial issue needs to be framed by tenderness.
“Although we hope to never evade an unscriptural notion, no matter how piously it may be framed, love nevertheless requires us to approach error that is interwoven with piety in a somewhat tender manner that is sparing of others. At first the conscience does not testify against an error that is interwoven with piety. Rather, something stirs initially in the conscience against someone who shows this error for what it is.”
When we are engaging with others we need to remember that their errors may be bound up with genuine devotion. When we highlight that error the individual’s conscience rises to its defense. This is not even necessarily a mistaken response, since our conscience should defend our piety; the fact that error has been attached to true doctrine doesn’t negate the legitimate function of conscience. Tenderness ought to define our speech in these circumstances, and we ought to be careful to draw as clear a distinction as possible between the error being refuted and the genuine devotion to which it has become attached. In this instance, it may be the case that an individual’s devotion to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God has become entwined with their resistance to government action and to vaccination. We must carefully distinguish between the two lest we needlessly bruise the conscience of devout believers.
2. Avoid False Piety
It is, according to Kuyper, no mark of holiness to meekly let the plague tear through a population because it is the will of God. Much of the second half of the second volume of Common Grace is dedicated to arguing that we should in fact resist the effects of sin and the curse, concluding that “only the coward quietly bows his head before an enemy, whereas the hero of God engages in fighting everything inimical to God (in this case, death and suffering).”
However, it is also no mark of holiness to act with an apparent boldness as if there is no such thing as a contagious disease, or as if this disease were not particularly worrisome:
“…[M]any people have come to believe… that it testifies to a weak faith if, in times of an epidemic, a person hesitates to enter the sickroom where such contagious persons lie, and that a person displays the strongest faith when he pays no heed to the contagion and acts as if he is oblivious to it… This is then considered ‘godly,’ yet it is in fact very ungodly.”
True godliness in this case is taking proper precautionary measures to minimize the spread of disease. Kuyper cites the Biblical example of quarantining the sick, as exemplified by the measures taken in Calvin’s Geneva. Brashly acting as if there were no such thing as a communicable disease has an appearance of piety under the banner of courageous action, but in reality ignores the way God has ordained disease to work and spread in the world.
Alongside meek submission and faux boldness, Kuyper also repudiates an excessive fearfulness that results in a lack of godly care and affection for the sick:
“The contagious patient is not an animal, but a human being, and as a human being that patient has the right to physical and spiritual care. For each patient, therefore, caregivers must be sought to take care of him or her physically and bring spiritual comfort. And those who have been called to do this from God are under the sacred duty not to let themselves be deterred from discharging their duty through fear of danger.”
Being a parent, physician, or pastor does not exempt one from catching the disease, but neither does the risk of catching the disease exempt us from our responsibility to care well for the sick. Excessive caution in the name of wisdom has the appearance of piety but ultimately ignores the divine call for mercy and care for those in need.
A passive failure to resist the effects of the Fall, an excessive boldness, and crippling fear are all manifestations of a false piety that fails properly to account for the order God has established in the world. What we need is a godly response that both reflects the Gospel and accounts for the nature of God’s common grace government of the real world.
In the next piece on Kuyper’s thoughts on vaccines, we will consider his thoughts on the role of the government regarding vaccination programs.
Dr. Coyle Neal (PhD, The Catholic University of America), is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University. He is currently blogging through Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace on Patheos.
- Details about the epidemic in the Netherlands are difficult to find in English, but an overview is available here: https://historyofyesterday.com/vaccination-certificate-the-smallpox-note-19th-century-e2dab81cc49d ↑
- Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace Volume 2, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman and Ed M. van der Maas (Bellingham, WA: Acton Institute, 2019), 80.1. ↑
- CG2, 71.1. ↑
- CG2, 71.3. ↑
- Ibid. See Leviticus 13:4. ↑
- CG2, 71.3. ↑