Neo-Kuyperian Spheres

“These seven spheres of influence will help us shape societies for Christ.”
– Loren Cunningham, Winning God’s Way, (YWAM, 1988), p. 134

Did Loren Cunningham and Bill Bright just happen to have corresponding spiritual experiences where God told them a new way to make disciples of all nations, as described in the previous post? Did God really give them a vision of “categories of society” that were to be the church’s “seven spheres of influence”? Or, perhaps, were they exposed to the teachings of Abraham Kuyper? The latter is a more likely scenario since Kuyper is behind the modern concept of “spheres.” Bright may have been exposed to Kuyper’s teachings while a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which now houses the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology.

Kuyper’s “spheres” theology has been continually hybridized, homogenized and recontextualized over the years. Many of his teachings have formed the basis of the fundamental paradigm shift in how neoevangelicals view the church and the world. This blog characterizes the generic version of these teachings as Dominionism. Below is an example of Loren Cunningham’s writing on the topic, which is characteristic of how the evangelicals have incorporated these ideas into missiology. The Dominionist theme of these remarks would include a re-defined meaning of “disciple all nations” — i.e., actually changing governments, economic systems, and Society:

“Jesus has commanded us to go and disciple all nations. In the past we have gone into countries as missionaries, giving the gospel and teaching the people how to read and write. We didn’t get involved in teaching government, politics or economics. We let the Marxists do that. In country after country in the Third World, the Communists took young men educated in missionary schools and ‘discipled them on how to run a government.

“But God is saying to us, ‘I know more about running a government than anyone. I know more about farming or fishing than you do. I know more about your business, your teaching. I know how to best communicate and use the media. I want to teach you My principles, so that you can teach others to observe all I have commanded and have a great harvest of souls. I have a calling for you and I want you to succeed at it. I just need for you to obey Me.’

“As we disciple the nations by giving them godly economic systems, Bible-based forms of government, education anchored in God’s Word, families with Jesus at the head, entertainment that portrays God in His variety and excitement, media that is based on communicating the truth in love, and churches that serve as sending stations for missionaries into all areas of society, we will see the fulfillment of the Great Commission and multiplied millions coming into the Kingdom of God. Jesus promises that as we do this, ‘I am will you always, even to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).

“Jesus has promised to give the earth to the meek, to the barefoot, to those who have surrendered their rights to Him. He wants us to claim the nations of the earth as His inheritance. He promises us that we will gain it all if we give it all.” (Loren Cunningham, Winning God’s Way [YWAM, 1988], p. 132, emphasis added.)

The concept of “spheres” cannot be separated from Kuyper’s ideas about “common grace.” Wikipedia defines “sphere sovereignty” as:

“In Neo-Calvinism, sphere sovereignty means that each sphere of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority or competence, and stands equal to other spheres of life. Sphere sovereignty is an idea that God created new order and that everything is under the sphere of God’s control. This includes education, the Church, the State, agriculture, economic enterprises, the family, and the arts. It insists that creational boundaries, and historical differentiation, be affirmed and respected.”

It is worth looking at that link to Neo-Calvinism in the quotation above, which gives a good summary of the tenets of this modern movement. Take note of the fact that Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey‘s book How Now Shall We Live (Tyndale, 1999) is cited as a key resource in articulating this movement. This blog (3/10/06) wrote about Colson’s new “worldview” project with Rick Warren. In the description of Neo-Calvinism Richard Mouw is cited as a reference. Although most people think of this movement as emanating from Calvinism, where it has indeed taken root and flourished, it has been Fuller Theological Seminary, where Mouw has been president, where these doctrines have taken on a life of their own, and been taught to several generations of evangelical students. The effect of this has permeated throughout the evangelical world.

In 2003 there was debate between Richard Mouw and David Engelsma (also here and here), Professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament Studies at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches in Grandville, Michigan. Engelsma critically analyzed some of the issues in an excellent paper. According to Engelsma, much of the conflict centers on Kuyper’s concept of “common grace.” Below are a few highlights. Keep in mind while reading this, that it comes from a classic Reformed perspective:

“The worldview of common grace dreamed up by Abraham Kuyper a little more than one hundred years ago holds that, alongside His purpose of saving a church in Jesus Christ, God has another purpose with creation and history, namely, the development of a good, godly, and God-glorifying culture. God accomplishes this cultural purpose with creation and history by bestowing a certain grace upon unregenerate, unbelieving people. This common, cultural grace of God works wonders in the ungodly. It restrains sin in them so that they are no longer totally depraved, as otherwise they would be. It enables these godless, Christ-less men and women to perform deeds in everyday, earthly life that are truly good, and please God. It empowers the wicked to build a culture, an entire way of life of a society, or a nation, that glorifies God. . . .

“The worldview of common grace intoxicates those who inhale its vapors with the giddy prospect of an earthly triumph of the kingdom of God by the creation of a good, godly culture in history. Charles Colson thinks that the cooperation of evangelicals and Roman Catholics in building a culture informed by a biblical worldview can yet, by the power of common grace, win the culture wars and redeem the culture. In the face of the pessimism that concludes that evangelicals have lost the culture war, Colson is optimistic. . .

“Abraham Kuyper, sober amillennialist though he was in his dogmatics, became a delirious postmillennialist in his advocacy of the worldview of common grace. The cooperation of believers and unbelievers in building a good culture by common grace will result in the ‘Christianizing’ of nations, if not of the world. The task of the ‘church as organism‘ is nothing less than ‘the transformation of human society by bringing it into harmony with the insights provided by the Christian faith. … Kuyper aimed … to encourage … the Christianization of society…. The Christianization of society would involve bringing all aspects of human life into conformity with Christian principles.’[30] . . .

“Writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Presbyterian theologian William D. Dennison judges that ‘Dutch neo-Calvinism,’ whose father is Abraham Kuyper, whose project is to ‘transform and reclaim the post-enlightenment culture for the Lordship of Jesus Christ,’ and whose worldview is that of common grace, ‘has become more a child of the Enlightenment and modernity than a movement preserving historic orthodox Calvinism.’[44]

“. . .The Reformed worldview has a perspective on earthly life that pays attention to the ‘cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 11. ‘These all died in faith … and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country … that is, an heavenly‘ (Heb. 11:13-16). Active as we are, may be, and ought to be in earthly life, we may never forget that our life is a pilgrimage to the celestial city.

The common grace worldview destroys this truth about the Christian and his life. This worldview makes the ‘Christianizing’ of society, the building of a grand and good culture, and the improvement of the world as a form of the kingdom of God the main thing for the Christian. It tends to fix one’s heart on this life. It tends to make cultural achievements the goal of the Christian life.” [emphases added]

Kuyperianism has become widely disseminated across a broad spectrum of Christianity. And it doesn’t have to be tied to Neo-Calvinism openly to be effective like leaven. For example, some of this “intersects” with the Emergent/emerging movement’s fixation on transformation. In a key article, “A Neo-Kuyperian Assist to the Emergent Church,” authors Vincent Bacote and Daniel Pylman suggest:

“If the emergent church is to be truly culturally engaged as an expression of missional Christianity, how might this be articulated theologically? This is the place where neo-calvinism intersects with the concerns of the emergent church. The doctrine of common grace can provide the emergent church with a significant theological rationale for Christian participation in every area of society. . . .

“. . .Do emergent Christians need to become contemporary neocalvinists in order to adopt this doctrine? Though it certainly would not be a bad thing, our answer must be ‘no.’ While common grace emerges from a Reformed environment, the truth it expresses is found in the broad range of traditions which comprise the generative community of friends in the emergent church. In addition, the neo-Kuyperian project aims to extend the influence of Kuyper beyond the walls of the Reformed world.” [emphasis added]

The Truth:

There are two points to note in the extensive material presented above.

1) The effect of this “spheres” doctrine on two leaders of two of the most prominent evangelical mission groups has utterly changed the face of modern evangelical missions. It has changed the focus from spreading the Gospel, to changing the culture and society of nations by operating within and upon the “spheres.” No matter what the original intent of Kuyper might have been, this is the ultimate conclusion. The biblical Gospel of Salvation has been transformed into the “Gospel of the Kingdom.”

2) When C. Peter Wagner comes out of the closet openly now as a Dominionist (see previous two posts on this topic), and assigns the men in his apostolic empire to these “spheres,” it is time to sit up and take notice. The ultimate application of Kuyperian teachings can be nothing less than despotism in the name of Christ.

“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18)