Classical and Christian: Abraham Kuyper on the Nature of Genuine Study

The classical renewal has been prompted—at least in part—by evident student skill and knowledge deficits, virtue-less environments for learning, disordered curricula, and postmodern pedagogies.  However, a true classical education aims to do more than simply plug the holes of a failing public education. If the purpose of genuine study is to know, analyze, and articulate what is True, Good, and Beautiful, the truest form of such education is a classical Christian one.

In his 1889 address[1] to students and teachers at the Free University of Amsterdam, Dutch scholar, theologian, and statesman Abraham Kuyper reflects on the purpose of teaching and learning: “[God] created us as logical beings in order that we should trace his Logos, investigate it, publish it, and personally wonder at it, and fill others with wonder.”  This call of the Christian scholar reflects the dearest priorities of classical learning: to know what is true, to study in pursuit of understanding, to cultivate wonder, and to articulate that wondrous message to others.  For Kuyper, the very trajectory of true education begins with faith:

God is gracious and compassionate, and by means of his revelation and the founding of his church he had from the beginning ignited a glow that faith imbibed and that enriched an Abraham and a Moses far beyond what any nineteenth century learning is capable of—rich in their heart, rich in their soul, rich in those more tender sensations that bear the mark of the eternal.  And scholars, far from being able to do without that faith, must begin by being rich in that faith if they are ever to feel their heart stir with the holy impulse that drives them to engage in true scholarship.

In essence, Kuyper viewed scholarship as a sacred calling; in his words to teachers and students, he sought to cultivate a “holy awareness” of this task.  This humble occupation, for Kuyper, means to “place yourself with all your academic hopes and dreams before the face of God in such a way that praying for your studies flows naturally from it and is not attached to it as an afterthought.”  Explicitly Christian scholarship means “to serve and not to be served”—and this is not a posture merely meant for students.  Professors, too, “are not…commanders but…fellow soldiers…. They are men whom you don’t avoid, but seek out.  You are not blind to their faults and failings, and you gently poke fun at them in order to improve them.  But in the end you know that they share one holy calling with you.”

Christian scholarship requires patient, committed study that is driven by love: “He who has a love of scholarship is like the worker bee that leaves the hive early in the morning, forages for flowers, and comes back in time with honey as its prize.”  Despite any immediate reward, this true student is after something more than knowledge and success; his aim is “the knowledge of the holy” (Proverbs 9:10).  Accordingly, every fact he learns must be tested and tried through the sieve of discernment if wisdom is to be gained:

The true student builds a proper house and takes care that his studies are done properly; the beams have to be real beams, the iron bolts of real iron and not of tin, and the cornerstone a real stone that can bear the necessary weight.  This causes him to develop a sense of what is truth…. After all, the man of science does not play loose and fast with the facts, but it is granted him to track down the gold of God’s thoughts, the gems of divine wisdom, a labor that requires real discernment.

Kuyper’s thoughts on Christian scholarship are not devoid of practical application; he argues that true study requires orderly work, attention to form, and a consideration of the body—tenets echoed in classical teaching and learning.  For Kuyper, disordered study was the very antithesis of Christian scholarship.  Students “are to build, and building demands a structured course of action.” He exhorts scholars: “Don’t just work, but think about how you work.  Why this and not that?  Why this first and that later?  Don’t just work through the books on your shelf, but proceed as demanded by your ability to absorb, in keeping with the organic interconnectedness of knowledge.” Education should be sequentially appropriate, methodical, purposeful, and promote the connections between disciplines that true knowledge requires. 

With all of his emphasis on the inner man and the pursuit of high ideas, it may come as a surprise that Kuyper did not neglect the way ideas were communicated. Scholarship finds its proper end in apt communication, enunciation, and form. In fact, he argues:

Outward form is…crucial.  You cannot dispense with it; your success, your future, your influence depend on it.  Proper form will determine whether you will waste your time and energy in the world of science or make a lasting contribution to it—that is, whether you will answer to your God-given calling or forsake that calling.  Of course I know that form can be hollow, artificial, false.  God preserve you from it.  But may God also preserve you from that levity that thinks: “The form will take care of itself.”

Kuyper’s articulation of the purposeful connection between knowledge and rhetoric doesn’t just support classical pedagogy; it identifies how an explicitly Christian view of teaching and learning offers a true foundation for this approach.  As the Christian scholar is called to humility, discernment, and careful study, so he is called to communicate truth with power and winsomeness to a needy world. 

Kuyper rightly reminds us that all of this learning takes place in a mind that is housed in a physical body.  He cautions the Christian scholar: “If you want to be devoted to things of the spirit, then make sure you don’t begin to look like a spirit.  If you are called to reflect on how things are interrelated, can you overlook the relations between yourself and your body?”  His implied answer, of course, is that the mind-body connection cannot be ignored: “A sana mens dwells only in a sana corpore.”[2]

For classical educators, there is much gold to be mined in Kuyper’s thoughts on education.  His writing offers wise counsel, yes, but it also offers an invitation to the passion and zeal that Kuyper himself brought to the scholarly task.  Perhaps even more than his knowledge, classical educators and administrators might benefit from his contagious inspiration as we continue the task of Christian scholarship:

Let there be a tremor of noble intentions in your hearts!  Open your eyes wide and muster all your strength to really study hard this time.  We your professors, we too have our hearts beating more rapidly now that we see you back.  A lot is expected again of you and of us.  Much will be demanded again from all of us this year.  Very well; let us resume our task with…courage and Christian sense.  And in case difficulties await us, let us begin not with presumption but in humility.  For our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth and therefore also made the world of thought and for that thought the world of study.

[1] All quotations in this article come from Abraham Kuyper, “The Secret of Genuine Study (1889),” in On Education, ed. Wendy Naylor and Harry Van Dyke, in Abraham Kuyper: Collected Works on Public Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham/Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2019), 98-114.

[2] “A healthy mind dwells only in a healthy body.”


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