The Tragedy of Dutch Compassion
Religion & Liberty Online

The Tragedy of Dutch Compassion

Albert Hahn: Dr. Kuyper's care for the little people (1905)
In yesterday’s post I highlighted a pair of articles that cover the transition over the last 120 years or so in the Netherlands from an emphasis on private charitable giving to reliance upon the welfare state. In some ways this story mirrors a similar transformation in American society as described by Marvin Olasky in his landmark book, The Tragedy of American Compassion.

Olasky’s work does double-duty, however, not only chronicling this transition but cogently arguing the superiority of voluntary aid and charity, which can effectively address both spiritual as well as material aspects of poverty.

In the special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” we also find a wonderful resource on this topic in the form of Abraham Kuyper’s reflection from 1895 on the relationship of Christ and the gospel to material concerns, “Christ and the Needy.”

In this essay Kuyper emphasized that the spiritual and the material cannot be played off against one another: “Social reformers of every stripe who appeal to Jesus and yet aim at nothing but relieving worldly burdens wholly misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and are quite wrong to invoke his name; and as long as they do not turn personally to the Savior of the world, they will never be able to bridge the deep, broad chasm that separates them from the Redeemer of the world.”

This double emphasis on both spiritual and material poverty distinguished for Kuyper the approach of the Calvinists from that of the Socialists:

For us too, as Calvinists, there will always be a gulf separating us from the Socialists (as they are called today). We both commiserate with the suffering of the oppressed, we both endeavor to improve this situation, and in doing so we both oppose Mammon. Nevertheless, what separates us inexorably is that they will never lift a finger to save people from eternal perdition, whereas we Calvinists, as confessors of Christ, do not for a moment wage even the struggle against social injustice otherwise than in connection with the kingdom of heaven.

These kinds of convictions would later raise the ire of dedicated socialists (like Albert Hahn), and in the context of his political career Kuyper would have occasion both to pacify and to enrage various social reformers.

Kuyper is an intriguing figure for a number of reasons, not least of which is his unwavering commitment to the ideal of Christian love directed to the whole person, body and soul. This commitment would allow many of different ideological persuasions to find him to be an inspiration. Socialists like Syb Talma could find in Kuyper’s concern for material needs, as Gerard van Krieken puts it, “the Dutch translation of Maurice’s ideas!” But for those primarily, if not solely, concerned with, as Kuyper put it, “half the gospel,” Kuyper’s vision could not be ultimately satisfying.

Thus, urged Kuyper, “Against the Revolution, the Gospel! To be sure; but woe unto you if you take just half the gospel of our Savior and admonish submission, while concealing the divine mercy of the Christ of God for the socially oppressed and for those who must bear a cross.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.