Spheres of Witness: A Constructive Kuyperian Account in Dialogue with Barth’s Notion of Vocation

In the proposed paper, I offer a constructive account of Abraham Kuyper’s Sphere Sovereignty model using the vocational category of witness. Specifically, I contend that the category of sovereignty itself is dialectically underdetermined in Kuyper’s model and that the very existence of the church in society calls forth the Christian vocation of witness as the matter to sphere sovereignty’s form. In my view, this underdetermination results from inattention to the fact of ecclesial priority in the economy of the church-culture relation. Yet, this does not therefore necessitate a subsidiarity model. Rather, I suggest that “witness” provides the needed theological material.

George Harinck notes that, in Kuyper’s thought, “sovereignty is the vocation of different spheres to follow Christ.” My contention is that the substance of this vocation is that of “witness,” following Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation. In volume four of his dogmatics, Barth extensively argues for the “event” of the Christian vocation as that instance in which one is set in relationship to Christ, which takes the form of “service to His prophecy,” and “therefore in the service of God and his fellow-men” (CD 4, 3.2). Barth calls this vocation “witness,” which is not essentially creative, but derivative from “the true Witness of our reconciliation accomplished in Him” (CD 4, 3.1). Yet, for Barth, the Christian is always situated in the dialectic of “worldliness and unworldliness,” which accounts of sphere sovereignty can tend to miss, particularly in relation to ecclesial fallibility vis-à-vis other cultural spheres—apartheid being a prime example.

In the South African context, Mookgo Solomon Kgatle offers that a political theology of sovereignty spearheaded by the witness of prophetic churches can serve a “meaningful transition from an individualistic sovereignty to a societal sovereignty”—and this by respecting the sovereignty God gives to the state (Politics and Prophecy). The goal, then, is not firstly transformational, but testimonial. Founded on this principle, I argue, will sovereignty serve transformational ends.