In the Protestant scholastic tradition that Kuyper came to appreciate so deeply, theologians would distinguish between various sorts of covenants—familial, ecclesial, national—as a way of talking about the kinds of goods that ought to characterize human relationships. For instance, the relationship between a parent and a child ought to foster certain virtues—prudence and mercy in the parent, filial piety and self-sufficiency in the child. Likewise, relations between political rulers and their subjects ought to promote the welfare of the community and the moral formation of its citizens. The recognition of shared goods is primary, and the formal boundaries of the various “spheres” could shift based upon the specific character of the community. What mattered fundamentally was the cultivation of virtuous individuals and the flourishing of the tradition itself.
This emphasis goes a long way to explain what Bratt highlights as Kuyper’s intense concern for Christian education and moral formation. The way to keep a tradition alive is to protect its most foundational communities, like the family, church, and civil society. It is here, ideally, that individuals are taught to recognize (and love) justice and piety, and are then equipped to resist the sway of totalizing ideas and arbitrary power. Bratt puts this nicely: individuals formed in these contexts are able to serve as a “counterpoise to the engrossing state.” Interestingly, the hallmark of Kuyperian moral formation does not appear to be free-standing principles, as we might have expected, so much as the impetus to recognize all that is true and good and worth preserving in the community that God has given us.
In the end, Bratt’s concluding admonition falls close to the mark. The better angels of the Kuyperian tradition do appear well-suited as a corrective to the provincial and anti-intellectual tendencies of North American evangelicalism. At the same time, Kuyper’s own example instructs us that traditions need more than abstract principles and orderly schemas to remain vital. Without rightly ordered loves and relationships, communities and their spheres of life can wither away or, worse, become institutions of injustice and oppression. If Bratt’s wonderful account teaches us one lesson, it is that intellectual communities like neo-Calvinism need to remember that formal ideals are no more than dry bones if they lack the Spirit. Even more than principles, these communities require individuals—like Kuyper at his best—who love justice and search for grace in even the most surprising places.