In this article on sphere sovereignty, the author looks at the limited authority of government, the sovereignty of God and society, Abraham Kuyper on sphere sovereignty, the government and economics, and free enterprise.

Source: Clarion, 1987. 5 pages.

Sphere Sovereignty

On October 29, it will be 150 years ago that Rev. Jan Frederik Kuyper and Henriette Kuyper-Huber received their first son, Abraham. Few people have had as profound an influence on the Reformed tradition as he did. Kuyper has shaped the thoughts and actions of generations of Reformed people. One important concept which still has an impact is that of sphere sovereignty. In a fairly recent interview, for instance, the interim leader of the Christian Heritage Party, Ed Van Woudenberg, expressed his support for the idea of sphere sovereignty.1 Also, one may want to use the concept of sphere sovereignty to defend participation in a political party that is not denominationally restricted: church and state are separate spheres, it might be argued. It is clear, then, that sphere sovereignty is not a dead concept.

I will first try to examine what Kuyper himself meant with sphere sovereignty when he introduced it at the opening of the Free University in 1880. After gaining some insights into the contents of this principle it will be easier to discuss some of the criticisms levelled against it. In particular, I hope to discuss the issue whether sphere sovereignty isolates God's moral law from the rest of life by distinguishing religion as a separate sphere. Also, I want to write something about the question whether sphere sovereignty calls for free enterprise.

Kuyper's theory of sphere sovereignty was primarily directed against the danger of the state as a great monster grabbing power and influence wherever it could. Kuyper saw such a Leviathan, which would take away all freedom from the individual, as the great danger of his time. In 1872, the liberal Professor Opzoomer held a speech entitled Grenzen der staatsmacht (Limits of the Power of the State). In it, he described how the state had received sovereignty from individual people by means of a social contract. This occasion marked the beginning of Kuyper's theory of sphere sovereignty.2 That the fear of unlimited state power was at the centre of his theory is clear from his speech of 1880: “'sphere sovereignty' defending itself against the 'sovereignty of the state': behold, the short course of the world's history.”3 He also began his discussion on sphere sovereignty in Anti-revolutionaire staatkunde (Anti-Revolutionary Politics) with the remark:

Therefore, we must constantly not only protest against the alleged omnipotence of the State in all sincerity and strength, but also resist it. That alleged omnipotence of the State is the most unbearable tyranny one can think of.4

To understand Kuyper's theory of sphere sovereignty as an instrument against the state as “an octopus, which stifles the whole of life,”5 it is good to realize that for Kuyper sovereignty implied absolute power. He defined sovereignty as “the authority which possesses the right, has the duty and exercises the power to break and avenge every opposition against its will.”6 Elsewhere, he argued that to possess absolute sovereignty over an object it is necessary:

  1. that I completely possess this object,

  2. that I have made it myself according to my liking,

  3. that the calling to life of the materials out of which it has been made, depends on my authority [vrijmacht], and

  4. that it is up to one to determine the laws which rule its operation and will regulate its relation to other objects.7

It is clear from these requirements that sovereignty can only reside in God. Never should the state demand this sovereignty: it would mean a deification of the state.

This sovereignty, which resides in God, had, according to Kuyper, been delegated to Jesus Christ.8 He received the sovereignty not as second person of the Trinity but as the anointed Messiah, the office-bearer Jesus Christ. Kuyper expressed this sovereignty with the well-known words,

There is not a square inch in the whole area of our human life which the Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not call, 'Mine!'9

Sovereignty had, in Kuyper's view, also been delegated to the various spheres of life. Thus, he could speak of the “sovereignty of the Church,” the “sovereignty of the individual person,” and the “sovereignty of the family.” Every sphere had received sovereignty from God. One may grant critics that the term “sovereignty” is rather unfortunate when it refers to the various spheres of life. For by Kuyper's own definition, only God has true sovereignty. Still, this inconsistency should not be overemphasized. Kuyper feared the government's interference in the church and in education. Therefore, the connotation of the term “sovereignty” served him well in marking the one sphere from the other.

But, as Schilder already wondered in 1947,10 what exactly are these spheres? Veenhof cogently argues that, in Kuyper's view, a sphere has three characteristics:

  • It has a separate organic life found in creation;

  • it has its own law which has to be obeyed;

  • it receives its sovereignty directly from God.11

It is not always clear, however, when these three aspects apply and one may speak of a separate sphere. There is a certain lack of consistency in Kuyper's many lists of spheres. He distinguished, for example, nature, personal life, domestic life, social life, aesthetic life, science, reason, conscience, church, state, faith, body and spirit, soil and climate, trade and industry, family, towns and cities, techniques and inventions, agriculture, hunting and fishing, plants and animals.12 Questions do arise. To mention but one example: is nature as such a separate sphere13 or are climate, plant, animal, human body, atmosphere and soil all separate spheres?14 Some criticism in this regard is justified. Dengerink has correctly pointed out that much of Kuyper's vagueness is the result of the lack of a systematic philosophy of reality.15 Yet, much of the criticism with regard to the various spheres is unreasonably harsh.

I gave a short exposition of Kuyper's concept of sphere sovereignty. A serious objection to this theory was brought forward by Schilder. Schilder had objections to the fact that each sphere had its own Sovereign. In the sphere of thought, logic was Sovereign. In the area of faith, the individual person was Sovereign. In this way, God is not always recognized as the absolute Sovereign, according to Schilder. At least He shares his sovereignty with creatures, such as logic and the individual person. These creatures are no longer subject to God's moral law. Said Schilder:

He who says, “Knowledge, truth, thinking, logic is sovereign in science,” will with alarm hear his student assert: in sexual life, sexuality is Sovereign; then come aboard with the seventh commandment. You're simply ridiculed and your reproach is too late.16

Meulink also objected that it can easily be forgotten that every man is subject to the expressed moral law of God in every sphere of life.17 Church and state are being separated. God's moral law is being limited to one particular sphere: the church. Thus, according to Wiskerke, the separate spheres are like “monads” without windows for the Light of the world.18

It is true that the relations between the various spheres did not always receive sufficient attention from Kuyper. The separation of religion, the church, or morality19 from the other spheres of life may cause a fragmentation of life. But such fragmentation can certainly not be found with Kuyper himself. He realized that religion had its justifiable place in all of life. The very basis of his sphere sovereignty illustrates this: Christ as sovereign King over all of life. In his speech “Maranatha” at the meeting of deputees of the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in Utrecht (1891), Kuyper attacked conservatives, liberals, radicals and socialists alike since “they refused to recognize Jesus' royal authority in politics; and to them religion and politics are separate.”20 Elsewhere he argued over against Roman Catholicism, where religion “is excluded from science and its authority from the domain of public life…,”21 that religion should play a role in all of life:

And because God has fully ordained such laws and ordinances for all of life, therefore the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service, in strict obedience. A religion confined to the closet, the cell or the church, therefore, Calvin abhors.22

Accordingly, Kuyper denied that faith and science were to be separated: “Not faith and science, therefore, but two scientific systems if you choose, two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith.”23

This line of thought contradicts the earlier noted view of faith as a separate sphere. It is, however, not this earlier-mentioned opinion which prevails. Therefore it is incorrect to suggest that Kuyper ignores the bearing of the preaching of the Word on daily life.24 In addition, Kuyper's emphasis on the meaning of religion for all spheres of life was part of his theory of the antithesis between belief and unbelief. In the above-quoted statement, this antithesis was already evident: science was split into two scientific systems, each based on its own religious assumptions. Christian science, according to Kuyper, is the opposite of worldly science:

Does that Rabbi of Nazareth declare that his science marries that of early wise men? Do his apostles tell you that studying in Jerusalem or in Athens will gradually and automatically lead you to his higher knowledge? No, rather the opposite: that Rabbi keeps telling you that his treasure of wisdom is hidden from wise and knowledgeable people and is revealed to little children.25

Another example which may illustrate that religion is not stashed away into a corner is found in his ideas on the relationship between church and state. True, Kuyper insisted that political and ecclesiastical unity should not coincide. He strongly condemned religious coercion. About the death of Servetus (1553), Kuyper remarked, “I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it.”26 Kuyper's strict separation of church and state is probably most clearly illustrated with his expressed disagreement with part of Art. 36 of the Belgic Confession. Nevertheless, his theory of sphere sovereignty did not lead to a neutral state. In fact, Kuyper has been compared to and feared as a second Cromwell. Kuyper's opposition to the Enlightened principles of the French Revolution consisted of an ardent hope that the Netherlands would return from modernism and again become a Christian nation:

For me, one goal controls my being,
One higher urge controls my soul,
And I would rather die and perish
Ere I would lose that holy goal.
'Tis to restore God's holy order,
In home and church, in school and state,
In spite of all the world's resistance,
To all our nation's benefit.27

Kuyper's ideal in this respect was the United States, which had days of prayer, Christian public education, and a Congress which opened with prayer.28 Kuyper thought that these aspects could be known from God's natural revelation on which the state had to base itself.29 Thus, the state had authority in its own sovereign sphere under Christ's rule.

Regardless of what one may think of Kuyper's distinction between two different kinds of science and of his rejection of a neutral state, these examples make clear that it is incorrect to regard his remarks about a separate religious sphere as his main line of thought. For Kuyper, Christ was King. Life was religion.

A last point I would like to discuss in connection with sphere sovereignty is whether it leads to free enterprise. It has been argued that since Kuyper's theory originated from fear of state influence in all areas of life, this meant a negative attitude toward government interference in the socio-economic sphere. It may be true that several of Kuyper's spiritual descendants did not recognize the importance of the role of the government in this area. It is even possible that such a view brought them “close to the tyranny of the economic sphere over other areas of life, which is, in fact, directly opposed to the idea of sphere sovereignty.”30 But one must do justice to Kuyper himself. It is not true that Kuyper mainly recognized the negative task of the government with regard to public justice.31 In as far as Kuyper's followers have used his theory for such a negative view on the state, they were not in the line of Kuyper's own thinking.

It is true that Kuyper expected the welfare of a nation not from state interference with economic life but from individual initiative.32 But this does not mean that Kuyper advocated economic liberalism. He argued that “the social question has become the question, the burning life-question, of the end of the nineteenth century.”33 According to Kuyper, the root of the problem lay in the individualism of the nineteenth century:

Moreover, the Christian religion has, as a fruit of divine pity, brought into the world the pity of a love springing from God – the French Revolution placed over against that the egoism of the passionate struggle for possession.34

Kuyper's concern for the social question was noted in 1872, when he wrote a series of articles on “The Social Question” in De Standaard.35 The articles were a sharp attack on nineteenth-century Liberalism. Again, Kuyper regarded this Liberal philosophy as the result of the French Revolution of 1789, which had replaced the close tie of members of the same estate with the isolation of the individual and the centralization of capital. It was, in his view, time for Christians to participate in the discussion on the workers' situation since,

the labour question is for the Christian the most important social question because it is concerned with the improvement of the situation of those who, according to God's Word, regard labour as the result of a divine ordinance and thus as the condition of life for all creatures, for him who wears a crown and purple as well as for him who is less well off, who is called upon to make a living in his honourable workman's clothes. Labour is the fruit of faith; it is the temporary punishment for sin; labour, just like sin, makes all of us brothers. The labour issue is the brother issue.36

Kuyper went on to argue for an improvement in the material condition of the workers, which “often puts the woeful condition of the slave population of ancient paganism in its shade…” To come to such an improvement, unions and strikes were justified, according to Kuyper. He further pleaded for shorter working days and against the labour of Women and children.

In fact, Kuyper went so far as to admit the truth of the Marxist accumulation theory: “Inevitably, capital absorbs more and more capital, until it meets a power of resistance which it cannot break.”37 Accordingly, Kuyper thought that improvement lay “along the socialist path,” although he meant with this not a program of social democracy, but a program following from his view of the community as an organic unity.38 In his advocation of government interference, Kuyper proposed a Labour Code in 1874 when the Conservative Heemskerk-Cabinet presented its budget. The idea was ridiculed by the Liberals.39 At one point during his speech, Kuyper grabbed his Bible and read:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. James 5:1-4

Kuyper did not regard this plea for government interference incompatible with his theory of sphere sovereignty. In fact, the government had to interfere, according to Kuyper, to come to a more precise definition of the boundaries of the sphere of the government.40 Government interference was necessary to protect the existence and sovereignty of the other spheres. Thus Kuyper argued that the state had a threefold duty:

  1. Whenever different spheres clash, to compel mutual regard for the boundary lines of each;

  2. To defend individuals and weak ones, in those spheres, against the abuse of power of the rest; and

  3. To coerce all together to bear personal and financial burdens for the maintenance of the natural unity of the State.41

It is clear, therefore, that the idea of “economic tyranny” over other spheres of life was certainly not inherent in Kuyper's theory of sphere sovereignty. May this be an example to us as we set our first steps into the political area.


  1. ^ Christian Renewal 5 (Mar. 23, 1987), 10ff.
  2. ^ J.R. Wiskerke, “'Souvereiniteit in eigen kring' bij dr. A. Kuyper.” 1962-1963; rpt. In: De strijd om de sleutel der kennis (Groningen: De Vuurbaak, 1978), 199ff.
  3. ^ A. Kuyper, Souvereiniteit in eigen kring 3rd ed. (Kampen: Kok, 1930), 13. Henceforth referred to as siek.
  4. ^ Vol. I (Kampen: Kok, 1916), 265. Henceforth referred to as AS.
  5. ^ Lectures on Calvinism 1931; rpt. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 96. Henceforth referred to as LOC.
  6. ^ siek 8.
  7. ^ Ons Program 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Kruyt, 1880), 27. Henceforth referred to as OP.
  8. ^ For discussions on this delegation see C. Veenhof, Souvereiniteit in eigen kring (Kampen: Kok, 1939), 20ff.; and J.D. Dengerink, Critischhistorisch onderzoek naar de sociologische ontwikkeling van het beginsel der “souvereiniteit in eigen kring” in de 19e en 20e eeuw. Diss. (Kampen: Kok, 1948), 98ff.
  9. ^ siek 32.
  10. ^ K. Schilder, “Wat zijn toch 'terreinen' en 'kringen?' De Reformatie 22 (Feb. 22, Mar. 1, Mar. 8, 1947), 154ff., 162, 170ff.
  11. ^ Veenhof 46-62.
  12. ^ siek 11; OP 31ff., 42, 56, 85; AS I 265ff., 668.
  13. ^ siek 11.
  14. ^ OP 31ff., 42.
  15. ^ Dengerink 113.
  16. ^ Schilder 171.
  17. ^ J. Meulink, “Souvereiniteit in eigen kring.” In Referatenbundel van het Amersfoorts Congres (Kampen, 1948) 18.
  18. ^ Wiskerke 195 in a reference to the philosophy of G.W. Von Leibniz (1646-1716). Kuyper himself emphatically stated that “in the walls of this church there are wide open windows, and through these spacious windows the light of the Eternal has to radiate over the whole world” (LOC 53).
  19. ^ These are interchangeable for Kuyper. In a section on “The religious Sphere,” for example, he speaks about the church. AS I 269ff.
  20. ^ Quoted from P.D. 't Hart, Abraham Kuyper (Haarlem: Gottmer, 1970), 9.
  21. ^ LOC 50.
  22. ^ LOC 53.
  23. ^ LOC 133.
  24. ^ As against Wiskerke 216.
  25. ^ siek 27. Cf. A. Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology. Princeton, 1889; rpt. Trans. J. Hendrik De Vries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 155-76.
  26. ^ LOC 100.
  27. ^ Kuyper quoted the Réveil poet Isaac da Costa in De Standaard at the 25th anniversary of his editorship (1897); quoted from L. Praamsma, Let Christ Be King; Reflections on the Life and Times of Abraham Kuyper (Jordan Station: Paideia Press, 1985), 172.
  28. ^ AS I 456.
  29. ^ OP 74ff.
  30. ^ Okke Jager, Schrale troost in magere jaren (Baarn, 1976), 53.
  31. ^ As against Meulink 19.
  32. ^ A. Kuyper, Christianity and the Class Struggle, Trans. Dirk Jellema (Grand Rapids: Piet Hein Publishers, 1950), 58. Henceforth referred to as CCS.
  33. ^ CCS 43.
  34. ^ CCS 33; cf. OP 359.
  35. ^ The discussion of these articles is based on P.A. Diepenhorst, Dr. A. Kuyper (Haarlem: De Erven F. Bohn, 1931), 147-64.
  36. ^ Quoted from Diepenhorst 149ff.
  37. ^ CCS 36, n.19; cf. OP 365.
  38. ^ CCS 41.
  39. ^ OP 370ff.
  40. ^ OP 366.
  41. ^ LOC 97.

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