Book Review: Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom and Wonder

Kuyper, Abraham. Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Sciences and Art. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian’s Library Press, 2011. 191 p. $14.99, pb.

I usually do not review this sort of book, but Chris Robertson at the Acton Institute sent me a copy to read. Abraham Kuyper is a well known figure in Calvinist history and his Lectures on Calvinism are foundation for Christian thinkers as they approach what we call “worldview” issues today. Wisdom and Wonder is a similar book in that it approaches science and art from a decidedly Christian perspective. These sections were originally part of his book on Common Grace but were inadvertently omitted from the first edition of the book. They were eventually printed in the 1905 edition, but Wisdom and Wonder is a new translation with introduction and commentary from the Common Grace Project. There are a number of notes explaining allusions in the text rather obscure events or ideas which help the reader follow Kuyper’s argument.

This book is a historical artifact, written at a time when Christianity was still friendly with science and art. In conservative Christianity today, there is a strong aversion to the study of science or the pursuit of a career in art. From what I hear from some Christian people, scientists are all atheists who are trying to disprove God with their test tubes and artists are all pushing a Gay agenda (or just plain weird). Or, from what I hear from my atheist friends, all Christians reject any science that proves the earth is more that 5,000 years old or that does not agree that Noah saved the dinosaurs from a worldwide flood. “Christian Art” is Thomas Kincaid and those cheesy pictures of Jesus helping the fireman. Clearly these are characterizations, but they are not that far from the sort of straw-man debates popular in the media today.

Yet this distrust of science and fear of artists is not the historic Christian view. Not all that many years ago, Science was the study of God’s creation and the church sponsored most of the art created in the western world for a thousand years. What Kuyper does in these short essays is describe the way a Christian ought to think about Science and Art. For Kuyper, science is a gift of God, part of common grace, a “remnant of paradise” which is tainted by sin. Our understanding is corrupted by the fall, and as a result the Christian person is in the best position to do science. He blames the rise of Darwinism partly on “unreflective people imagining: that they had found answers to the questions of origins (p. 71). But before Ken Ham gets too excited by this, Kuyper fully supports the scientific method, neutral objectivity and pursuit of truth. If it is proven that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs, then that is a fact of science which must be accepted.

For Kuyper, art is a reflection of the beauty and truth of God. After the Reformation, art began to be a reflection of God’s grace to the world (p. 120). Where there is beauty, there is God. Kuyper refers to “our Dutch school” as an example of secular art which is intrinsically beautiful, or reflects the beauty of creation, and is therefore “common grace.” Obviously Kuyper lived before the avant-garde art movements of the twentieth century, it would be interesting to hear his response to Picasso’s Guernica, or a gallery filled with Robert Maplethorpe photography. Both are art, but do they reflect the beauty of God’s world? Good art is, as Kuyper says good art is a pointer to the God of beauty and grace. “The few diamonds and precious stones that we discover on earth are merely the scattered signposts of a new Jerusalem constructed simply with precious stones” (p. 144).

What makes a book on science written at the turn of the twentieth century worth reading? Kuyper writes after Darwin, but before the Monkey Trials and the conservative withdrawal from public discussion of science. What is more, he writes as a public figure, someone who is serving a country (The Netherlands) as well as his faith. This makes his perspective rare, if not unique. His view of common grace is desperately needed in contemporary discussions of science and religion, although neither fundamentalist Christians nor fundamentalist Atheists will likely read this book.

The Christian’s Library is to be applauded for this new translation and reprint of an important book, although I suspect that the people who need to read it will not want to be challenged by a voice from more than a century ago.