In our first two pieces examining Abraham Kuyper’s views on vaccines (see here and here), developed in the wake of a smallpox outbreak and subsequent mandatory vaccination program, we considered his thoughts on disagreement over vaccines and on the role of government in their administration. Finally, we will now consider his thoughts on how vaccines themselves should be regarded and received.
5. Vaccinations Are Common Grace Gifts of God to the World
One of the themes of Common Grace is that God providentially governs the world through the use of means. He does not always directly supernaturally intervene in human affairs. He instead directly governs, guides, and orders creation through regular processes. These processes work in His time and according to His plan as it unfolds in history. What can be hard for us to understand is that these processes also work through us—we are a part of the means by which God moves history forward:
“The cinchona tree has existed since creation, and since creation quinine taken from its bark has had the same power to heal fever that it does now. God knew this, for he created this tree, and with his own hand he placed in it this power against fever. And yet for centuries God has visited fever upon human civilization and allowed human beings to suffer bitterly under those fevers, without revealing to them where the medicine was hidden. God has not willed to tell humans, but he has willed that humans should discover it for themselves.”
In other words, we are active agents in God’s common grace governance of the world. Which raises the question of how, as active agents, we are to judge whether the use of a proposed means of resisting disease is to be embraced or rejected. Is the means the newest version of penicillin? Or is it another bottle of snake oil? How do we know whether the smallpox vaccination in Kuyper’s day—or the COVID-19 vaccinations in our day—is a common grace blessing, or a further result of the curse?
Kuyper gives us three guidelines to shape our judgment in this area.
First, according to Kuyper, we are not to judge a vaccine based on ethical difficulties with the method of research and discovery. Even death during the research process does not automatically negate the final value of the research:”If this sort of response is thought to be harsh, so be it, but we must acknowledge that this is precisely how things are.” Not that we embrace death as a positive good or intentionally pursue such methods! We are simply not to use this as a means of undermining the value of the final result.
Second, Kuyper says we should not condemn a vaccine just because its results are not perfectly effective, or because its use causes occasional additional problems—even if those problems include a rare death: “…agriculture, factories, shipping, and commerce still claim the sacrifice of many human lives.” And yet we do not refuse to eat the food or use the products that come from such places. In fact we praise God for the common grace blessings that such activities produce.
Finally, the metric—the only metric—by which we can judge a vaccine, for Kuyper, is efficacy: does the vaccine work?
“In the end everything comes down to the question of whether inoculation, or whatever other means, shows empirically that it reduces susceptibility to cowpox and also does not bring other serious damage to the body. This must be tested, researched, and determined experimentally. If the result of this research is unfavorable, it automatically falls by the wayside. But if the results of the research are favorable, then not only does nothing stand in the way of its application from the standpoint of faith, but it would be foolhardy—even immoral—not to apply a means that God has shown us for the protection of the life of our child. We are not advocating coercion on the part of the government. That would always be impermissible; the government has nothing to say about my body and the body of my child. Therefore we will always protest in the name of our civil liberties against any sort of government coercion.
But for our present purposes we are not looking at the matter from this perspective. Rather, we wish to lay it before the conscience of parents. We ask what the sixth commandment imposes on them as a duty for protecting the life of their child. And we would very much like to spare parents who still hesitate from the bitter regret that, sadly, we have seen in so many instances when they finally decide at their child’s grave that they will let their remaining children be inoculated.”
If vaccination works and we reject it, then, as far as Kuyper is concerned, we are rejecting one of God’s good common grace gifts to the world. If vaccination does not work though, then we should set it aside.
Kuyper lived in a moment when vaccination was changing from a procedure that carried significant risk of sickness and death to a fairly straightforward and safe injection. And yet even in a time when vaccines were still widely viewed with suspicion due to their historic dangers, Kuyper managed to develop a clear rubric for thinking about vaccines in a way that admitted what was true about them, maintained the proper boundaries of the institutions and individuals involved, and genuinely worked to promote the public health in a godly and charitable way. A century later we are even better placed to think carefully about how this rubric applies in our time. For example, when thinking about whether vaccines work we are able to use the success of vaccines against smallpox, polio, measles, and numerous other diseases as part of our answer to Kuyper’s practical question. But we must remember that we are to be answering this question in the light of the other components of Kuyper’s analysis: with tenderness towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, with properly shaped piety, with concern both for legitimate boundaries and for the legitimate activity of government, and with a practical sense of the common grace order by which God rules the world.
Readers may disagree with Kuyper’s conclusions, or perhaps even some of his principles. But we should be aware that, as unprecedented as this pandemic and its aftermath have seemed, Reformed orthodox Christians have faced these issues before. We would do well to closely examine what they said and why they said it as the seemingly endless conflict over COVID-19 wears on.
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.
- Common Grace Volume 2, 72.3. ↑
- “Building houses is a duty, yet how many human lives did it cost before we understood the art of properly constructing scaffolding for a building?” And yet, Kuyper implies, we don’t demand that people live outside. CG2, 72.4. ↑
- CG2, 72.4. ↑
- CG2, 72.4. ↑
- CG2, 71. 5. See also 72.4. ↑
- There are numerous sources documenting this history. For a focused look, see Rabid: A Cultural History of the world’s most Diabolical Virus, Bill Wasik. (New York: Penguin, 2013). www.historyofvaccines.org has a comprehensive overview of the changes in vaccination methods and technology, as well as of key historical moments and figures. ↑
- These are just some of the diseases that have been eradicated in the United States through public vaccination programs. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/forgot-14-diseases.html ↑