The best way for Christians to change culture is to make culture. Andy Crouch


Kuyper on Art and Religion - Peter Heslam

A Theology of the Arts: Kuyper's Ideas on Art and Religion 1

by Peter S. Heslam
Published in C. van der Kooi and J. de Bruijn (ed.): Kuyper Reconsidered: Aspects of his Life and Work, VU Uitgeverij – Amsterdam, 1999, pp.13-29.
Kuyper's vision of the arts has been virtually neglected in scholarly study; but perhaps not without good reason.2 When he spoke about politics, science and religion he was dealing with areas in which he was heavily and professionally committed; when it came to the arts he spoke as an 'outsider.' Added to this is the fact that he occasionally made embarrassingly frank dismissals of certain forms of art, particularly in the field of the dramatic arts. From his correspondence with Jo Schaay during their five-year engage­ment, we learn not only that he could not dance (much to his annoyance, because Jo could) but that he tried to temper his fiancee's passion for reading novels by questioning whether it was a good use of her time - along with her attendance of concerts, the theatre and, of course, dances.3 On top of all this we have the testimony of one of his great-grandchildren that he was not a tuneful singer.4
Against this background, it is striking that Kuyper's influence in the field of the arts should have been so effective and enduring: his legacy in this sphere in Great Britain will be considered towards the end of this paper. 5 It is clear, however, that Kuyper took the arts seriously and appreciated their value. He lectured at the Free University in both aesthetics and the history of Dutch literature;6 he paid particular attention to the novel in a lengthy series of articles in De Heraut;7 he published a collection of prints made of original paintings of biblical scenes, and provided a commentary;8 he corresponded with Joseph Israels (1824-1911), a well-known artist of The Hague School;9 and he wrote extensively on the relationship between theology and the arts, tackling the subject on two key occasions: his inauguration as Rector Magnificus of the Free University in 1888, and in his presentation of the Stone Lectures at Princeton a decade later.10 Why, though, should Kuyper have paid much attention to this subject, especially in view of the fact that serious treatments of the arts that go beyond moral critique are rare within the history of Protestantism?11 This paper will offer five reasons, all of which are suggested by Kuyper's actual treatment of the subject but which take his socio-cultural and intellectual context as the primary point of reference.12
The popularization of the arts
Kuyper was ambivalent about the current burgeoning of interest in art amongst ordinary people. On the one hand he felt that it amounted to the 'almost fanatical worship of art,' and encouraged the proliferation of poor-quality productions; on the other, it provided a welcome respite from the current infatuation with wealth and the intellect. Increasing materialism and rationalism had brought atrophy to the human heart, and were threatening to 'reduce the life of the emotions to freezing-point.' An antidote was sought in the gratification of the artistic instinct, a demand which could increasingly be met because 'the finest artistic enjoyments are now brought for almost no price within the reach of an ever-widening class.’13
It is likely that the invention of the phonograph, or gramophone, by Thomas Edison in 1877, and the mass-production of gramophone records that followed in its wake, were foremost in Kuyper's mind when he wrote these words. Together they represented a major turning-point in the history of the performing arts, allowing large numbers of people to gain easy and relatively inexpensive access to the kind of music which had hitherto been patronized only by a small, wealthy minority.14 He was not alone in his mixed assessment of the consequences of such popularization: the great nineteenth-­century art critic John Ruskin wrote that 'there is no limit to the good which may be effected by rightly taking advantage of the powers we now possess of placing good and lovely art within the reach of the poorest classes,' but he went on to lament 'the great harm [that] has been done [ ... ] by forms of art definitely addressed to depraved tastes.'15
Ruskin and Kuyper's concern reflects a strand of thought that was prevalent in intellectual circles in the second half of the nineteenth century, in which commentary on art and artists tended to focus on what could be considered 'good taste' - true art being that which measured up to certain standards of taste. Since, however, there was disagreement on what these standards should be, no scientific study of art or artists could proceed very far, and many forms of art were not considered 'true art.’ In 1898, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) went so far as to exclude from art those symphonies and paintings which appealed to the more sensual and decadent tastes, including some of the most respected works of Wagner and Michelangelo.16 Within this environment, artistic taste rather than religious or moral principles became the principal criterion for judging the arts - hence Kuyper's claim that art was becoming a new form of religion. It was a claim shared by his younger contemporary Max Weber (1864- 1920), who wrote concerning the development of art in the nineteenth century, 'Art became a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values [ ... ] taking over the function of a this-worldly salvation.'17 In the words of a more recent commentator, it became 'the ultimate redemption'.18
Kuyper's perception of art as a new form of popular religion is crucial to under­standing why he gave so much attention in his works to the subject of the arts. As the leader of a social and religious movement that relied heavily on popular support, he was intensely aware of the emergence of new social and religious trends, and took every opportunity he could to demonstrate that Calvinism provided a viable alternative for ordinary people in contemporary society. In doing so, he was not oblivious to the obstacles, and a second reason why Kuyper turned his attention to the arts was to challenge what he saw as 'a deeply-rooted prejudice' that Calvinism was incapable of producing notable works of art or of contributing to art's development.19
Challenging a prejudice
In his rectorial address on 'Calvinism and Art,' he introduced his subject by referring to a report published in Germany three years earlier, in which the author expressed his surprise that at the Free University of Amsterdam he was able to attend a lecture on aesthetics.20 This, Kuyper pointed out, was a testimony to the fact that the idea that Calvinism and art were mutually incompatible was still alive and well, and it was in the hope of correcting this misunderstanding that he had chosen the subject of his address. The same incentive lay behind a number of his articles on art in De Standaard. One of the earliest of these was written in response to an article which had ridiculed Calvinism for its lack of artistic creativity, claiming that the great artists of the Dutch Golden Age were masters in spite of their Calvinism.21
Three points of particular pertinence can be drawn from Kuyper's treatment of the prejudice he identified. First, it appears from the concrete examples he gave that the hostility was real rather than imagined. Dismissals of Calvinism from contemporary theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) certainly tended to single out its attitude towards the enjoyment of the arts as a focus of attack.22 Second, Kuyper's discussion of the arts is frequently apologetic in tone, and alert to the fact that this was an area that had been virtually disregarded by Calvinist theologians. He thereby unwittingly gives the impression that what he would have wanted to call a prejudice regarding Calvinism's relationship to the arts was to some extent justified. Third, given his aim of presenting Calvinism as a worldview of all-embracing proportions, it is understandable that Kuyper should have been so concerned about an opinion which held that Calvinism had no place for the arts. If his claim for Calvinism was to have any credibility he needed to be able to demonstrate that it had sustained, and could still sustain, a positive impact in this sphere. His lecture on 'Calvinism and Art,' consequently, was the most crucial of all the six Stone Lectures he delivered at Princeton.
If, however, the prejudice against Calvinism's relationship to the arts was exactly that - a prejudice, having no basis in fact - then why had Calvinism failed to develop its own form of ecclesiastical art? Kuyper met the challenge of this question head on, declaring it was because Calvinism represented such an advanced form of religion. The argument with which he backed up this claim reveals another of his reasons for addressing the arts: to respond to the rise of symbolism.
The rise of symbolism
Both G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) had taught, Kuyper wrote, that it was only in its lower, sensual, stages that religion needed the support of art. The more religion progressed towards maturity, the more it liberated itself from the bonds of art, because art is unable to express the essence of religion.23 This theory - later reflected in the work of Karl Barth (1886-1968), who insisted that 'images and symbols have no place at all in a building designed for Protestant worship' - was fundamental to Kuyper's view of the arts.24 It also provided him with a starting­ point from which to assess the re-establishment of symbolist forms of worship in the church - a movement which reached its peak in England towards the end of the nineteenth century, and which had its origins in the Oxford Movement. 'In her Thirty­nine Articles,' Kuyper wrote, 'the Church of England is strictly Calvinistic, even though in her Hierarchy and Liturgy she has abandoned the straight paths, and has met with the serious results of this departure in Puseyism and Ritualism.’25
Ever since Edward Pusey (1800- 1882) had joined it in 1835, the Oxford Movement had come to be associated with his name. This was reflected in the nickname 'Puseyism,' which had been given to the movement by those outside it and is here employed by Kuyper.26 It was, however, John Henry Newman who laid down the theological groundwork of its vision who insisted that the outward and visible aspects of worship should not be disregarded in favor of the inward and spiritual:
There is no such thing as abstract religion. [ ... ] What will the devotion of the country people be, if we strip religion of its external symbols, and bid them seek out and gaze upon the Invisible? Scripture gives us the spirit, and the Church the body, to our worship; and we may as well expect that the spirits of man might be seen by us without the intervention of their bodies, as suppose that the Object of faith can be realised in a world of sense and excitement, without the instrumentali­ty of an outward form to arrest and fix attention, to stimulate the careless, and to encourage the desponding.27
Kuyper and his colleagues on the editorial board of De Heraut reacted to such reasoning - and its effects - with considerable alarm, and regular reports on the development of the symbolistic and ritualistic trend in the Church of England were contained within its columns.28 One of the lectures Kuyper gave in the United States after his visit to Princeton was largely given over to a criticism of this trend. It was a trend, he declared, which was becoming 'almost dominant in England, and now already in a considerable degree menaces our Calvinistic church-life.'29 Obituaries carried in De Heraut of some of the influential figures in this movement did, however, display a large degree of personal sympathy and respect for their causes,30 and Kuyper never lost his admiration for traditional Anglican liturgy, first instilled through his reading of The Heir of Redclyffe, whose author, Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901), was a member of the Oxford Movement and a friend of John Keble, another of its leaders.31
Kuyper's chief concern was that the reintroduction of symbolism would inevitably lead to doctrinal indifference because it was rooted in pantheistic thought.32 He illustrated such indifference by relating an encounter he had had with an Anglican clergyman who was a distinguished advocate of the symbolist movement. In conversation with him, Kuyper wrote, he had made 'no secret whatsoever to me of his absolute apostasy from the Christian faith.' Three days later, however, Kuyper had attended an Anglican service, only to witness the same clergyman 'mounting the pulpit, solemnly reading what in the Book of Kings is written about Elijah's miracles, and thereupon leading the collects of the Book of Common Prayer.' Kuyper recounted his sense of shock: 'I frankly confess that I felt unable to explain such a bold contrast of personal conviction and outward performance.' Later, the clergyman had explained to him that he was able to take part in Christian worship on the basis of its poetic qualities, rather than because it expressed any essential reality.33
Kuyper's idea that the symbolist movement was rooted in pantheism explains his preoccupation with a movement largely contained within the Anglican church. However, he considered the advances of pantheistic thought to constitute a threat to Western Christianity as a whole, and so it was only a matter of time before the pantheism already manifest in the Church of England would take firmer hold in the Calvinistic churches of The Netherlands and the United States: 'there exists an undeniable affinity: he declared, 'between the, as yet, feeble symbolic action in our own churches and the dark ritualistic cloud pending over Great Britain.'34 The establishment of a link between symbolism in liturgy and indifference in doctrine by assigning them a common source in pantheism suggests that it was the maintenance of doctrinal purity, rather than the fortunes of art, that was Kuyper's chief concern in his discussions of symbolism. It enabled him, in characteristic fashion, to reduce the entire issue to a clash of antithetical principles - Calvinism on the one hand against pantheism on the other.35
An alternative aesthetic
A fourth reason why Kuyper sought to address the arts was to provide an alternative in the field of aesthetics. He took the biblical notion of God's 'glory' (doxa), which for him included the idea of God's radiance, perfection, splendor and divinity (thelotes), as the basis on which to construct a theology of art and beauty.36 God's glory, he explained, was impressed upon all his creation, such that beauty was the shining through of God's glory in both spiritual and material things.37 As a result of the fall, the original beauty of creation was lost, but had been restored in and through Jesus Christ: 'Christ [ ... ] is the canon and ideal of all beauty.’38 The vocation of art, therefore, was not to imitate nature, as the realists taught, but to reveal' a higher reality than is offered to us by this sinful world.’39 Art, in other words, had the prophetic function of reminding human beings of the lost beauty of paradise and of anticipating the future glory of a new heaven and a new earth.40 For Kuyper this could only take place effectively, however, if art corresponded with 'the forms and relations' exhibited in nature.41 Thus he distanced himself not only from realism but also from idealism - the Kantian trend which understood art not as deriving its laws from nature but as standing above nature and prescribing its laws to it. Kuyper wanted his system of aesthetics to occupy a position of its own between these trends, but to be close enough to both to derive some insights from them. He claimed, in fact, that because God's glory was manifest in both spiritual and material phenomena, the antithesis between idealism and realism simply fell away. In seeking the essence of the beautiful only in the realm of the spirit or in the realm of matter, both schools sacrificed one realm of the beautiful for the other. If, however, God's glory was reflected in both material and spiritual phenomena, then true beauty could be manifest in both spheres: ‘A color, a tone, or a line can be beautiful in itself just as much as a character trait, a disposition, a thought or a deed.’42
While, therefore, rejecting idealism and realism as total explanations of the function of art, Kuyper integrated a synthesis of their insights into an alternative vision that he felt was true to Calvinism's commitment to scripture. 43 He was only able to do so because of the close link he perceived between aesthetics and theology, reflected in the fact that he, as a professor of theology, considered it part of his task to teach courses in aesthetics. In a circular he distributed to new students of theology, aesthetics appeared as an integral part of the curriculum; indeed, it stipulated a good 'aesthetic development' as a formal requirement for proceeding from preliminary to advanced theological studies. The reason given was that 'the life of art is more closely allied to the religious life than the life of the intellect.'44
The cultural impact of Calvinist doctrine
1. Common grace
Kuyper also paid so much attention to the arts, finally, in order to highlight the cultural impact of Calvinist theology. Two doctrines are of particular relevance here: those of common grace and election. Restricting the enjoyment and production of art to the regenerate, Kuyper explained, would make it a product of particular grace, whereas for Calvinists both history and experience taught that the highest artistic instincts were natural gifts which flourished by virtue of common grace. It was, in fact, pagan Greece that had given to art its fundamental laws, and it was the Calvinistic commitment to common grace that had caused art to rediscover them.45
Kuyper's argument here stands in stark contrast to his insistence elsewhere that the starting-point for science lay in the human consciousness, which was either regenerate or unregenerate; there is no mention of 'two kinds of art' to complement his idea of 'two kinds of science.' A number of factors help account for this discrepancy, including, first, that as someone intimately involved in the academic world of his day, Kuyper was more closely acquainted with trends within the scientific world that were antagonistic to Christian principles than with those within the arts. This is demonstrated in his Stone Lectures, where, in contrast to his lecture on science, his lecture on art makes no mention of any artistic school constituting a threat to orthodox belief. Clearly Kuyper was familiar with contemporary discussions of aesthetics, but this discipline did not concern the production of art as such, and, as we have seen, Kuyper tended to treat it as a branch of theology rather than as a discipline of its own.
A second factor was the greater strategic importance of providing an independent alternative in the areas of politics and science than in the area of the arts. Kuyper fought persistently for the establishment of independent political and scientific institutions, believing this to be the only way the orthodox Protestants in The Netherlands could be free to organize their own lives, and to make an impact on society at large. Both the Anti-Revolutionary Party and the Free University were conceived at the end of the 1870s with this end in view. In the area of the arts, however, Kuyper made no attempt to pursue similar projects, and his first serious treatment of the subject came as much as ten years later, in 1888. He clearly felt that politics and science were of more importance than the arts when it came to effecting social change.
Third, Kuyper's ideas on the duality of science were formulated in response to the threat imposed by positivism, with its confidence in the benefits of an objective, neutral science. In the area of the arts, however, although ideas hostile to Christianity, such as nihilism, had begun to find expression by the end of the nineteenth century, no one proposed that the arts could provide a radically new order and a means of solving all manner of problems in human society, as was thought to be the vocation of modern science.
Such reasons as these may help to explain the differences between Kuyper's thinking on the arts and on science, but they do little to help resolve what appears to be an inconsistency between the two approaches. If he intended to take a different line on art than on science, it is mystifying that he provided no explanation as to why this should be the case. In seeking to emphasize the impact of common grace, he failed to address the notion of an antithesis between the work of Christian and non-Christian artists.
The cultural impact of Calvinist doctrine
2. Election
It was with respect to painting that Kuyper was most forthcoming as to how specific aspects of Calvinistic belief influenced artistic productions. Given the international fame of the Dutch School it is not surprising that he should have selected the Golden Age of Dutch art during the seventeenth century to highlight the cultural significance of Calvinist theology.46 His argument was not that the greatness of the Dutch School was due to its members being staunch Calvinists, as not all of them were: it was rather that Calvinism formed the context within which they worked, influencing their perceptions of the world they sought to represent. In this way, the doctrine of election by grace had encouraged Dutch artists to portray the hidden importance of the seemingly small and insignificant:
If a common man, to whom the world pays no special attention, is valued and even chosen by God as one of his elect, this must lead the artist also to find a motive for his artistic studies in what is common and of every-day occurrence, to pay attention to the emotions and the issues of the human heart. Thus Rembrandt's chiaroscuro embodied the reality and significance of ordinary human life. 47
It is here, Calvin Seerveld has argued, that Kuyper came to his 'most decisive insight' in his ideas on art.48 Certainly it is a perspective that points to the fact that Kuyper was alive to the possibility of art not only illustrating theology, but contributing to it, which is a possibility only now being rediscovered by contemporary theologians.49 This suggestion is borne out by his treatment of other great artists such as Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven. Whereas he found Beethoven's fifth and ninth symphonies made unwelcome contributions to a pantheistic theology, the same composer's Busslied in Opus 48 was a glorious interpretation of atonement theology:
the entire gospel of the atonement - profound contrition followed suddenly by the purest holiest rejoicing -washes over you in waves of glorious sound ... resounding with a hallelujah of deliverance.50
Perhaps somewhat surprising then, there are indications that Kuyper regarded the arts as a way of approaching theology.51 His theology of the arts led him to catch glimpses into how theology could be done through the arts.
Kuyper's legacy in Britain
Kuyper's influence in Britain has worked largely through his Stone Lectures. They were published within a year of their delivery in both London and Edinburgh, and after their reissue in Britain in the early 1930s, they found their way into the hands of many university and college students.52 In the area of the arts in particular, however, it is Hans Rookmaaker (1922- 1977), professor of art history at the Free University from 1965 to 1977, who was largely responsible for establishing the Kuyperian tradition in Britain. During the 1960s and 1970s Rookmaaker made a number of trips across the North Sea to address large audiences of students and academics. This short, rather chubby, pipe-­smoking, whisky-swigging Dutchman, who looked to British students uncannily like the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, invariably held his audiences in the palm of his hand, and succeeded in inspiring a whole generation of Christian art students with the vision of thinking about the arts, and indeed practicing the arts, from a committed Christian perspective. 53 This may not sound a very remarkable vision to seasoned Kuyperians in The Netherlands and the United States, but it came as a bit of a shock to British evangelical sensibilities of the time, which were focused on 'winning souls for Christ' and were generally negative or at least suspicious towards the arts - except, of course, art that was directly illustrative of biblical truth, and useful in mission. 'Why should you spend your lives evangelizing?', Rookmaaker once railed to a student audience in Oxford. 'There are more important things to do in the world. I have done twenty-five years of thinking, relating biblical principles to art. You should be willing to do the same.'54 The deliberate provocation contained in such remarks were reinforced not only by Rookmaaker's transgression of the prevailing nicotine and alcohol taboos current within the Christian circles in which he moved, but through the liberties he took in illustrating his lectures with nude subjects. It was, however, provocation designed to encourage his listeners to think for themselves about what it meant to be a Christian artist. Once, during the time set aside for discussion after a lecture, he turned on one of his questioners: 'I am the Pope of Christian Art History. I have the answers to your questions right here in my pocket and I am not telling you. Think for yourself!' 55
The response from the evangelical constituency that Rookmaaker was looking for was not long in coming, aided by a new self-confidence it had recently begun to experience after its somewhat narrow-minded self-defensiveness of the post-war years. From 1968 onwards a succession of evangelical arts conferences was organized, attended by poets, dramatists, film-makers, designers and architects. Eventually these weekend events developed into larger-scale, long-term enterprises, the most significant being the Arts Centre Group, the Institute for Contemporary Christianity in London, Third Way magazine, and the Greenbelt Arts Festival. Since its foundation in 1974 the Greenbelt Festival has attracted thousands of participants each year and has been responsible for a number of art exhibitions and publications in the area of Christianity and the arts. It has served to challenge the stigma that evangelicals so often attached to the arts, and to facilitate a Christian appreciation of the arts in their own right.
In more recent years, and partly due to Rookmaaker's untimely death in 1977, Kuyperian influence in the area of the arts in Britain has been more diffuse, affecting groups and institutions in a partial and indirect way - such as in the case of the newly founded Leigh School of Art in Edinburgh and the Theology Through the Arts project in Cambridge. Younger evangelicals who espouse a holistic worldview are often unfami­liar with the names Rookmaaker and Kuyper, reflecting the extent to which the Kuy­perian vision has become such an accepted part of evangelical spirituality that its distinctiveness is no longer apparent. It remains to be seen whether this will change in any way as a result of the stream of publications from or about the Kuyperian tradition that have recently appeared or re-appeared from the British publisher Paternoster, including two seminal books on aesthetics by Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolters­torff.56
Kuyper's treatment of the arts is more about religion than about the arts per se. At every stage it is clear that religious and theological concerns, rather than strictly artistic ones, dominate the argument. It would, on the face of it, have offered little by way of practical guidelines to the interested artist - unlike his treatments of politics and science, which, though equally theological were aimed at stimulating specific kinds of political and scientific activity. The message is clear in Kuyper's works that Calvinism has a vocation in the realm of the arts, but it is unclear how this vocation should be fulfilled. Some guidelines can be extracted, and these will be noted below, but there is a general lack of clarity and consistency, particularly when his perspectives on art and on science are compared. The resulting ambiguity may well have contributed to the fact that, compared to the achievements of Kuyper's immediate followers in the area of science and politics, those in the production of and performance of the arts were unimpressive. By allowing what he perceived to be a prejudice against Calvinism to dominate his argument he forfeited the opportunity to present a vision for the renewal of the arts along Calvinist lines. The impression given is that once the prejudice had been removed, the struggle for the acknowledgement of Calvinism's contribution to the arts would be over. But correcting a misunderstanding is not the same as presenting a program for change.
It was, however, as a theologian, not as an artist or art critic, that Kuyper addressed the arts. His significance probably lies more in the fact that he addressed the subject, and did so in a positive and creative way, avoiding moral questions, than in what he had to say about it in detail especially in view of the tendency in Protestant circles to marginalize the arts. In fact, it is not his specific ideas on art that have been responsible for the flourishing of neo-Calvinistic discussions of art and aesthetics, but his idea of worldview and its role in shaping culture. Rookmaaker's Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, for example, interprets art as an expression of the worldview held by the artist.57 Seen in this light, the leading motifs of the neo-Calvinistic school in the sphere of the arts probably owe more to Kuyper's ideas on science than to those on art, however strange this may seem.
That Kuyper was able to display a positive approach to the arts was largely due to his doctrine of common grace. The fact that he emphasized this doctrine at the expense of his notion of the antithesis is revealing of a central tension in his thought between isolation and distinctiveness, on the one hand, and engagement and accommodation on the other. It was a tension he never resolved, and, as we have seen, it led to certain weaknesses in the overall coherence of his thought. It is possible, however, to extrapolate from Kuyper's arguments the characteristics he would expect art to possess if it were to be true to Calvinism. They are listed here, along with the specific doctrines from which Kuyper derived them: free from political and ecclesiastical control (because of the doctrine of sphere-sovereignty); beautiful (because God had placed a stamp of his glory on all created things, a belief derived from the doctrine of God's sovereignty); in obedience to classical norms (because of common grace); attentive to the significance of the commonplace and the ordinary (because of the doctrine of election).
Although it apparently was not Kuyper's intention, his discussion of the relationship between theology and the arts could have provided the rudimentary criteria for a specifically Christian critique of art. It certainly provided the groundwork for a sophi­sticated, albeit partly Platonic, theology of beauty; and it is beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar has argued, that is the most neglected of God's attributes in modern theology, because of the separation of aesthetics and theology.58 But this is a neglect and a separation of which Kuyper is not guilty. On the contrary, because his overriding concern was to bring the Calvinistic worldview up to date, he was keen to show how Calvinist theology was entirely relevant to contemporary trends in the world of art. In order to do so, he tended to reduce them to their underlying principles: thus the democratization of art was a result of materialism, and symbolism in worship a product of pantheism. This illustrates the kind of culture critic Kuyper was. Although his knowledge of such trends was based on his familiarity with a broad range of primary sources, he rarely engaged in detailed analysis and criticism of them but used a considerable amount of intuition, and not a little polemical verve, to characterize them in their general lines and in their fundamental positions.
It is perhaps chiefly for this reason that Kuyper's ideas on art have been neglected in scholarly research. Hopefully, however, this paper has provided sufficient evidence that they are well worth revisiting, not least because they issue a powerful challenge to the Christian community to consider how its faith can give shape to contemporary art, and how the arts can contribute to its understanding of the faith. Kuyper's ideas on art and religion go way beyond the commonly expressed attitude that the arts are theologically interesting only when they have an explicitly ecclesial function or didactic purpose. He saw that the visual arts could give theology its eyes, and music its ears. This can provide a valuable source of inspiration in contemporary culture, which is neither primarily visual, nor verbal, but audiovisual. To do theology is to respond to God in language - and Kuyper's works are a reminder that that language needs to be verbal, audible and visual, embodying both a theology of the arts, and art as an expression of theology.
1. This paper is based on the contents of my book Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuypers Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1998).
2. The only serious treatment of the Kuyperian perspective on art is that by the British theologian Jeremy Begbie in his Voicing Creations Praise: Toward a Theology of the Arts (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991). See my review in Theology 44 (1991), 388-89.
3. George Puchinger, Abraham Kuyper: De jonge Kuyper (1837-1867) (Franeker: Wever, 1987), 65.
4. From a conversation I had with George Puchinger in 1987. Puchinger has written of Kuyper's lack of artistic gifts. See G. Puchinger, 'Opwaartsche wegen: een opwekkend geneesmiddel.' in Juffrouw Ida, 15 (1989), 50-54. Kuyper's extraordinary visionary, oratory and literary talents are, however, acknowledged elsewhere in Puchinger's writings. See, for instance, G. Puchinger and N. Scheps, Gesprek over de onbekende Kuyper (Kampen: Kok, 1971),8-26; G. Puchinger, Kuyper-herdenking 1987 (de religieuze Kuyper): vijf opstellen en lezingen van de herdenking van de honderdt'i)fligste geboortedag van Abraham Kuyper; 29 oktober 1987 (Kampen: Kok, 1987), 33.
5. Kuyper's influence in the field of art theory is reflected chiefly in the work of Hans Rookmaaker, Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolterstorff. See, for instance, Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (London: IVP' 1970); Calvin Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art (St. Catherines, Ontario: The Association for Reformed Scientific Studies, 1962), and Rainbows of the Fallen World: Artistic Life and Aesthetic Task (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980; Carlisle: Paternoster 1997); Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997). Rookmaaker's book so impressed Malcolm Mug­geridge that he made it his Observer book of the year in 1971. Jeremy Begbie writes about this book: 'No other work from the pen of a Dutch Neo-Calvinist has ever reached such wide readership as that remarkable study' (Begbie, Voicing Creations Praise, 127). Begbie leaves Wolterstorff's ideas out of his analysis, on the basis that Wolterstorff's philosophy of art 'strays far from the Kuyperian path' (83). This is a judgement Wolterstorff would not accept, and it leads to a regrettable omission. See Wolterstorff's review of Seerveld's Rainbows in Third Way 5 (1982), 22-23·
6. His lecture notes for these courses are kept in Het Kuyper Archief (The Kuyper Archive), held at the Documentatiecentrum voor het Nederlands Protestantisme (1800-heden) at the Free University, Amsterdam (portfolios LB; P2 and LG; P12). Further references to this archive will be abbreviated to KA, followed by the portfolio reference. A transcript of Kuyper's lectures in aesthetics was made by one of his students. From the notes and the transcript it is clear that the course included sections on the definition of art and beauty, on the history of art and aesthetics, and on the theory of music. Evidence of the extent to which Kuyper was well read in the history of music can be found in the published version of his rectorial address of 1893, De verflauwing der grenzen: rede bij de overdracht van het rectoraat aan de Vrije Universiteit, oktober 1892 (Amsterdam: Wormser, 1892),85-87 n. 105.
7. De Heraut, 1901: Feb. 10, Feb. 24, March 10, April 7, May 5, May 19, June 2. Kuyper had received a solid grounding in literary and linguistic studies as a student at the University of Leiden, where the great linguist Matthijs de Vries was one of his mentors. The young Kuyper was an ardent admirer of the language of Byron and of the Dutch novelist Multatuli. See Puchinger, Abraham Kuyper, 63.
8. A. Kuyper, Modern Masters as Interpreters of Holy Writ: A Series of Seventy-two Mezzogravures from the Work of Some of the Leading Modern Painters. With an introduction by The Right Reverend Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, DD, Lord Bishop of London. 2 vols. (London: Gresham Publis­hing Company, n.d.)
9. Letters from Joseph Israels to Kuyper can be found in KA: Brieven, nos. 6884, 7213, 7262, 7317.
10. A. Kuyper, Het calvinisme en de kunst: rede bij de overdracht van het rectoraat der Vrije Universiteit op 20 October 1888 (Amsterdam: Wormser, 1888); A. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered at Princeton University Under the Auspices of the L.P Stone Foundation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931; repro 1978, 1983, 1987 and 1998). Kuyper also dealt with this subject at length in the following publications under his name: Encyclopaedie der heilige godgeleerdheid, 3 vols. (Amster­dam: Wormser, 1894), III, 331-38, 341-43; De gemeene gratie in wetenschap en kunst (Amsterdam: Hoveker & Wormser, 1905); Pro Rege, of het Koningschap van Christus, 3 vols. (Kampen: Kok, 19II­12), III, 470-580. Het calvinisme en de kunst is the most important as far as the relationship between Calvinism and art is concerned, and for this reason it will receive more attention in this paper than the others.
11. Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, xv-xvi.
12. This contextual method of interpretation is not meant to imply that Kuyper's approach to the arts can be explained merely in terms of his particular circumstances, as if his beliefs and convictions were of no real importance. However, as present-day biblical scholars tend to agree, historical context is not everything, but it is certainly something.
13. Kuyper, Lectures, 142-43. In an article in De Standaard of August )1,190), Kuyper again expressed a qualified approval of the wide-scale renewal of interest in the arts, and contrasted it to the barrenness of rationalism. Now, however, he believed the latter to be on the wane: 'The period of dry intellectualism lies behind us. To be practical, before everything else, was then the watchword, and every guilder spent on decoration and ornamentation was considered wasted money.'
14. Kuyper is likely also to have been referring to the increased opportunities for international musical tours, brought about by improvements in rail and sea travel. It is interesting to note the way in which the November, 1898, edition of the British journal The Musical Times gave expression to some of the excitement and enthusiasm with which the invention of the gramophone was received: ‘As to the newest Edison phonograph, we can say from practical knowledge that it is a very wonderful instrument […] whose use will give much pleasure and not a little amusement.' Cited in Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, 9th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 421-422.
15. John Ruskin, Lectures on Art. Delivered before the University of Oxford in Hilary Term, I870, 6th ed. (London: George Allen, 1892), 13. Ruskin appears to have shared with Kuyper the belief that if art was dominated by the search for fame and fortune, public taste rather than artistic genius provided the chief impulse in the production of art. See his De gemeene gratie in wetenschap en kunst (Amsterdam: Hoveker en Wormser, 1905), 73: De Standaard, December 29, 1883.
16. See Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, trans. by Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).
17. Max Weber, The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, trans. and ed. by Don Martindale, Johannes Riedel and Gertrude Neuwirth (Carbondale, South Illinois University Press, 1958), 117.
18. Morse Peckham, 'Iconography and Iconology in the Arts in the Nineteenth and twentieth Centuries' in: Romanticism and Behaviour: Collected Essays, 2 Vols (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 90-108 (106).
19. Lectures, 144. See also Het calvinisme en de kunst, 5.
20. Kuyper, Het calvinisme en de kunst, 5. The publication to which Kuyper was referring was J. Gloel, Hollands Kirchliches Leben. Bericht über eine im Auftrag des Königlichen Domdekenetenstifts zu Berlin unternommene Studienreise nach Holland (Wittenberg: Herrose, 1885).
21. De Standaard, Aug. 27, 1873.
22. Ritschl wrote that 'Calvin [ ... ] combated everything that pertained to the gay and free joyousness of life and luxury.' See Albrecht Ritschl, Geschichte des Pietismus, 3 vols. (Bonn: Marcus, 1880-86), I. 76.
23. Kuyper, Lectures, 148, cf. 67. Kuyper was evidently referring to a passage from Hegel's Encyklopadie der Philosophischen Wissenschaften in Grundrisse (Berlin, 1845), which he reproduced in full in his Het calvinisme en de kunst, 80 (n. 91). The key sentence, for Kuyper, was the following: 'Aber die schone Kunst ist nur eine Befreiungsstufe, nicht die hochste Befreiung selbst: In the Stone Lectures he rendered this in somewhat contracted form as: 'beautiful art is not its [the human spirit's] highest emancipation' (Lectures, 148). Kuyper's appeal to Von Hartmann was to his Aesthetik, 2 vols., II, 458, 459.
24. Karl Barth, 'The Architectural Problem of Protestant places of Worship’: in Architecture in Worship: The Christian Place of worship, ed. by André Bieler (Edinburgh/London: Oliver & Boyd, 1965),93. The emphasis in the quotation is Barth's own. Kuyper's approach is expressed succinctly in the following sentence from the Stone Lectures: 'The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical' (Kuyper, Lectures, 147).
25. Kuyper, Lectures, 16.
26. R. W. Church, an adherent of the Oxford Movement and one of its early historians, recorded in 1897 that this derogatory term was used widely on the European continent: 'this nickname, partly from a greater smoothness of sound, partly from an odd suggestion of something funny in it, came more into use than others; and the terms Puseismus, Pusiisme, Puseista found their way into German lecture-halls and Paris salons and remote convents and police offices in Italy and Sicily; indeed in the shape of ‘pozeismè’ it might be lighted on in a Greek newspaper: R.W. Church, The Oxford Movement: Twelve Years, 1833-1845 (London: Macmillan, 1897), 183. In 1915 the historian S.L. Ollard wrote about the term 'Puseyite': 'I saw it myself in a Danish dictionary some five years ago (where it was strangely confused with 'Puss' and 'Pussy-cat'): S.L. Ollard, A Short History of the Oxford Movement. With an introduction by A.M. Allchin (Oxford: Mowbray, 1915), 48. G.W.E. Russell, one of Pusey's early biographers, retells Lady Frederick Cavendish's account of an audience she had with the Pope: 'It was in the year 1867 that we paid our respects to Pope Pius IX [ ... ] The Pope spoke to us in French, so the word he used for Puseyite was 'Poussiiste'. He could not pronounce the French 'u'. He said to me, 'M. Gladstone est Pousséiste, n 'est ce pas?' To which I replied, 'Oui, Saint Pere, et moi aussi' - at which he was much amused: G.W.E. Russell, Dr. Pusey (Oxford: Mowbray, 1907),38, n. 1. Kuyper's use of the term 'Puseyism' in his Stone Lectures was thus in keeping with a trend at the time and indicates his generally hostile attitude towards it. W.E. Gladstone's response to ritualism can be found in his The Church of England and Ritualism (London: Straham, 1875).
27. J.H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, 8 vols. (1873), II, 74-75; cf. IV, 176.
28. These reports appeared in De Heraut between Dec. 7, 1877, and Nov. 2, 1902. A report in De Standaard during Kuyper's visit to America commented that 'ritualism was being discussed in England more than ever before' (Nov. 6, 1898).
29. Kuyper, The Antithesis Between Symbolism and Revelation (Amsterdam and Pretoria: Hoveker & Wormser; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1899), 5. Kuyper set his entire address against the background of the ritualistic trend in England.
30. The following obituaries appeared in De Heraut: E.B. Pusey (Nov. 5, 1882); J.H. Newman (Sept. 21, 1890, Oct. 19, 1890); H.P. Liddon (Oct. 19, 1890)' The mixture of criticism and respect is exemplified in the following passage from Newman's obituary: 'Following his death both friend and foe have paid tribute to his honest character. But it is regrettable that a man of such rich gifts as Newman should have given himself to initiating a contra-reformation' (De Heraut, Sept. 21, 1890)' A similar tone was sounded by B.B. Warfield, Kuyper's host on his visit to Princeton in 1895. In his review of the third volume of H.P. Liddon's Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, 4 vols. (London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1894), Warfield wrote: 'Here we have a picture of a good man's unwearied and generally useful efforts to do good, mingled, of course, with the evils which grew out of the nature of his religious opinions: The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 7 (1896), 347-50 (349).
31. For the profound effect this novel had on Kuyper's spiritual development, see Hes!am, Creating a Christian Worldview, 31-32. Kuyper's appreciation of Anglican forms of worship is particularly apparent in his major liturgical work Onze Eeredienst (Kampen: Kok, I911), where he wrote that the Church of England was 'much more highly developed liturgically' than the Reformed churches of The Netherlands (492).
32. Kuyper's main objection to pantheism was that it tried to abolish the boundary between God and the world. Symbolism, similarly, sought to abolish the distinction between the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal realms. See Kuyper's The Antithesis, 15.
33. Kuyper, The Antithesis, 17-18.
34. Kuyper, The Antithesis, 9. Kuyper's perception of pantheism was in part indebted to Constance E. Plumptre, from whose book A General Sketch of the History of Pantheism, 2 vols (London: Samuel Deacon 1878, 1879), II, 263, Kuyper cites the following definition of pantheism: 'Science among us is at its height when it interprets all orders of phenomena as differently conditioned modes of one kind of uniformity' (Kuyper, De verflauwing, 18).
35. Kuyper wrote: 'The principle of Symbolism and that of Calvinism are precisely the opposite of one another. An abyss is gaping between them' (Kuyper, The Antithesis; 21).
36. Kuyper, Het calvinisme en de kunst, 10-12.
37. This thought is closely akin to Kuyper's idea that all created things contain and reflect God's thoughts, an idea he often used to stimulate the pursuit of science. Kuyper contrasted this position to that of the Hegelian school which regarded beauty as the shining through of intellectual ideas. See Kuyper, Antithesis, II.
38. Kuyper, Het calvinisme en de kunst, 12. Begbie sums up Kuyper's position thus: 'Beauty must therefore now be understood in the light of Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, and in whom creation is restored to its intended beauty.' Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, 97.
39. Kuyper, Lectures, 154. Kuyper reckoned those belonging to the realist or 'empiricist' school to include Helmholtz, Pfau and Semper, and those of the idealist school to include Schelling, Solger, Seising, Kostlin, Zimmerman and Von Hartmann. That Kuyper kept abreast with new developments in aesthetics is illustrated by the fact that Yon Hartmann's work Aesthetik, to which Kuyper refers in his rectorial address, was published in 1888, the same year as Kuyper's address. See Kuyper, Het calvinisme en de kunst, 71 (nn. 61, 62).
40. Herman Bavinck also stressed the prophetic function of art; art allowed creaturely beauty to lift beholders above the conflicts of life and point them towards the glory yet to be revealed. See H. Bavinck, 'Yan schoonheid en schoonheidsleer: in Verzamelde opste!len (Kampen: Kok, I92I), 262­80. Cf. Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, 99.
41. Kuyper, Lectures, 154.
42. Kuyper, Het calvinisme en de kunst, 17.
43. Kuyper, Het calvimsme en de kunst, 18, 73 (n. 68).
44. Kuyper, Methode van Studie, published in J.C. Rullmann, Kuyper-bibliographie, 3 vols. (Kampen: Kok, 1923-40), II, 263-65. Kuyper considered, nevertheless, that dealing with aesthetics in the theology curriculum was a temporary necessity, given that there had not yet developed any Christian aesthetics within the Faculty of Arts. See Encyclopaedie, III, 343.
45. Kuyper, Lectures, 160-61.
46. Kuyper's references to the Golden Age of Dutch art during his visit to the United States betray the kind of triumphalistic and nationalistic sentiments that were on the increase in Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century. For a discussion of these sentiments in the Dutch context see Nico Wilterdink, 'The Netherlands Between the Greater Powers: Expressions of Resistance to Perceived or Feared Foreign Cultural Domination: in Within the us Orbit: Small National Cultures vis-a-vis the United States, ed. by Rob Kroes (Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1991), 13-31. These sentiments are reflected in particular in those comments Kuyper made which highlighted the world-wide supremacy of the Dutch School; for instance, his comment that it had produced 'those wondrous art-productions which still immortalize its fame, and which have shown the way to all the nations for new conquests' (Kuyper, Lectures, 167). See also his Encyclopaedie: 'the same Calvinistic Holland that had censured church art saw the rise of a general human school of art which has not yet been surpassed' (III, 342). Expressions of nationalistic zeal permeated the elaborate celebrations in July, 1906, of the third centenary of Rembrandt's birth, which received extensive coverage and comment in De Standaard (see, for instance, De Standaard of July 17, 1906).
47. Kuyper, Lectures, 166. Kuyper also held that the doctrine of election undergirded Calvinism's championing of democracy, for which he found support in the work of George Bancroft and F.D. Maurice. He appealed to the work of Hippolyte Taine in making his point about Rembrandt's chiaroscuro. See Taine's Philosophie de l'art dans les Pays Bas, 2 vols. (Paris: Germer Bailliere, 1869), II, 164-5. John Ruskin was far from sharing this interpretation. He wrote that in as much as artists were searchers after truth, Rembrandt belongs to the lowest class of artists who only perceive and imitate evil: 'they delight in the beggary and brutality of the human race; their colour is for the most part subdued or lurid, and the greatest spaces of their pictures are occupied by darkness.' See John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 3 vols. (London: Routledge, 1907), II, 206­7. Despite such sharp criticism, Ruskin did acknowledge that Rembrandt's strength lay in his rendering of human character. See Selections from the Writings of John Ruskin (London: Blackfriars, [n.d.]), 167.
48. Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art, 50. Seerveld develops Kuyper's insight in an attempt to suggest criteria for a Christian critique of art.
49. See the sections by Graham Howes and by Jeremy Begbie on theology and the arts in The Modem Theologians, ed. by David F. Ford, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997),669-85 and 686-99: and Roland Chia, 'Theological Aesthetics or Aesthetical Theology?: Some Reflections on the Theology of Hans Drs von Balthasar: Scottish Journal of Theology 49 (1996), 75-95. Howes admits that John Ruskin frequently reminded his readers that the supreme value of art was that it disclosed spiritual and ethical insights that could not be reached in any other way, and he highlights the value of Paul Tillich's proposal of 'theology through the arts' (see Ford, The Modem Theologians, 670, 676).
50. Kuyper, Het modernisme, 41-42 and n. 49. See translation in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. by James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1998), 112-13 and n. 31. Kuyper's portrayal of Beethoven's fifth and ninth symphonies in terms of pantheism can be found in his De verflauwing, 85-87 (n. I05). For a translation of part of this footnote, see Bratt, 382 (n. 34). Kuyper goes so far as to label Beethoven 'the musical apostle of pantheism: whilst acknow­ledging that in his final years he 'returned towards a more positive Christianity.'
51. The portrayal of the dignity of human life outside the ecclesiastical sphere in the works of the Dutch School also suggested. for Kuyper, the doctrine of common grace and the Calvinistic love of liberty. Kuyper claimed support for this thesis in the work of Hippolyte Taine and Moriz Carriere, two art historians who were 'far from sympathizing with Calvinism' (Kuyper, Lectures, 166). See Taine, Philosophie de l’art, II, 148; M. Carriere, Die Kunst in Zusammenhang mit der Culturentwickeltmg, 5 vols. (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1873-80), IV, 308.
52. A. Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Stone Lectures (Edinburgh/London: T&T Clark/Simpkin, Marshall, Ham­ilton, 1899); A. Kuyper. Calvinism: Being the Six Stone Lectures Given at Princeton Theological Seminary USA. With an Introductory Chapter by Rev. Henry Beets (Lon don: Sovereign Grace Union, 1932).
53. My comments on Rookmaaker are based partly on conversations I have had with British artists who attended his lectures. and partly on Linette Martin's biography, Hans Rookmaaker: A Biography (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979).
54· Martin, Hans Rookmaaker, 150.
55. Martin, Hans Rookmaaker, 152.
56. Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World; Wolterstorff, Art in Action (see n. 5 above). See also Calvin Seerveld's Take Hold of God and Pull(Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999). Paternoster is also responsible for the publication of work by the renowned Dutch Christian artist Anneke Kaai and art critic Adrienne Chaplin. See Anneke Kaai's The Apocalypse (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992) and I Believe (Carlisle: Paternoster 1995); and Adrienne Chaplin and Hilary Brand, Art and the Soul: Signposts for Christian Artists (Carlisle: Paternoster 1999). For the work of a British art critic, published by Paternoster, that is indirectly inspired by the Kuyperian tradition, see David Thistlewaite, The Art of God and the Religions of Art (Carlisle: Paternoster 1998).
57. See n. 5 above. Rookmaaker's book is the most widely distributed Christian critique of modern art in Great Britain.
58. Von Balthasar's theology of beauty also falls into Platonic categories. He seeks to lay the blame for the neglect of the concept of beauty on the Protestant tradition from Luther to Kierkegaard. Beauty is like a Cinderella, Von Balthasar declares, compared to the attention that is paid to her two sisters, goodness and truth; that is, to ethics and doctrine. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Word and Revelation (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964), 162. See also Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 59. Roland Chia points out that Von Balthasar has based his critique mainly on the visual arts, at the expense of the aural, and therefore intangible, aesthetics of the Reformed tradition. Chia points out that both Calvinists and Anglicans could agree with Luther's words: 'After theology I give music the highest place and highest honour' (cited in Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics: A Theological Study of Making and Meaning (London: Macmillan Press, 1990), 121); Chia, 'Theological Aesthetics’: Scottish Journal of Theology 49 (1996), 77.
Published in C. van der Kooi and J. de Bruijn (ed.): Kuyper Reconsidered: Aspects of his Life and Work, VU Uitgeverij – Amsterdam, 1999, pp.13-29.