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Why I’m Sick of “Every Square Inch”

By October 12, 2013 9 Comments

Thanks to Jason Lief for covering for me yesterday. I spent the better part of a week earlier this semester in Amsterdam and it seems I’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since. I was over there partly to talk about my new biography of Abraham Kuyper—not that I’m exactly conducting a book tour, but interviews and talks keep popping up. With them, as sure as sunrise, comes a reference to “every square inch.” It’s the interviewer or an audience member who brings it up, not me. Me? I’d like to see the phrase retired for five to ten years, if not forever.

Let’s set the background. In his famous speech opening the Free University in 1880, Kuyper said, “There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” This has become Kuyper’s most famous statement, at least in North America. So popular that most people don’t get the quotation right, sometimes not even close. But the sentiment’s attractive, and the line’s becoming something of a mantra among culturally engaged evangelicals. I worry lest it join other phrases on what I call the evango-babble list. Like haveyouacceptedtheLordJesusChristasyourownpersonalsavior. Like juswanna: Lordwe/IjuswannathankyouhereLordforyour/my/ourfillintheblankitude. Everysquareinch—Kuyper doesn’t deserve that fate.

My friend and one-time professor Richard Mouw said at our Amsterdam event that the square inch statement might need to be retired for over-use in Dutch-American precincts, but that out in regular America it’s still exciting, a breath of life. Ok, I get that. Over against any kind of body-soul, nature-grace, fulltimeChristianservicevs.secularwork dualism, Kuyper’s words insist that God can—must—be served anywhere and everywhere. No better jobs or worse jobs before the Lord by how “spiritual” they are. No writing off whole sectors of culture or society as inherently worldly, or privileging others as inherently good. No more traditional pietist (Victorian?) hierarchies. I get it, and endorse it.

Here’s my beef. In announcing that any work can be God’s work, we run the risk of saying that any work is God’s work. That whatever we want to do, we may do and put a God stamp on it. Wherever, however, with whomever, with all the standard rewards in that field. You don’t need Kuyper to crown the main chance with piety; all sorts of Christians in every tradition have been at it for centuries. Plus the inference is a whole lot short of what Kuyper said, and what the Gospel teaches. So if we’re going to intone “every square inch,” let’s have some riders attached.

First, let it be recalled that Kuyper called these God’s square inches, not ours. Thus, no career ambitions quickly baptized with Jesus talk. Rather, another occasion for obedience and cross-bearing and counting the cost and such like practices that Jesus used to describe the life of faithfulness. Ok, joy and fulfillment too, but alongside of—in tandem with—the others. In fact, I’d personally insist that Rider #2 be the marching orders that the Master gave to the disciples as they were empowered and sent out into the world (Matthew 10). You will be as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

Let the full Kuyperian mantra then read: welcome to God’s square inch, sneaky bird. As you check out the circling hawks, you jolly well better have some critical theory at hand, grounded in the Gospel if you please. But you have to use it for, you have to walk all the while in, the ways of peace. This would be a fair facsimile of what Kuyper’s thought and career came to. Granted, he had some issues with “the ways of peace” but you get my drift. No riders, no “square inch.” “Every square inch” with riders? Let the hard thinking begin.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Nick Kroeze says:

    Thank you for this reflection, James, and the call to look deeper into the implications of Kuyper's intent. Your call to faithfulness in "God's square inches" requires serious reflection and response on our part. You also thus remind me of another quote attributed to Kuyper (I don't know in what context it was said) that supports your counting-the-cost admonition: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”
    With kind regards, –Nick

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Hear, hear, enough with the Square Inch thing already, especially because dear Kuyper was wrong, the Lord Jesus never said it and never would.
    Oh dear, oh dear, that battle quotation from Kuyper in the comment above is just exactly the fearful thing. Peace never never never ever becomes sin.

  • Nick Kroeze says:

    Yeah, I suppose Kuyper must have been reading Ezekiel 13.10 to have dared call peace a sin, and probably got animated by Matthew 10.34 in thinking there may be times when peace is not the answer. I do think, however, that Daniel is right in that we ought to be Psalm 34.14-sort-of-people: "seek peace and pursue it." I do think, though, that Kuyper was referring to his own wanting to live at peace in the world that he was willing to surrender at the cost of standing up for biblical truth. If Kuyper indeed meant that a personal unwillingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel and opting to "let it go" to remain at peace with the world would be sinful, there may be something more there for us to take into consideration. In any case, let us be grace-bearers and Psalm 34.14 people. I agree with Dan on that.

  • Luke Morgan says:

    I understand the concern about this being misused, but personally, I find the greater danger to be not using this quote to it's fullest potential. This quote is really a big piece of what motivates me to work each day. It may sound cliché, but these words literally changed how I live my life. I believe that I am called to do my best work to the glory of God, and that my very best, is but a weak shadow of the work that is worthy of my maker. Ideas are the most powerful gifts one can give to another. The idea that I am made in the image of God is a powerful idea. The idea that I am moved to create, to be a steward, to excel in my vocation, because I am made in the image of God is invigorating! The idea that God is sovereign over each vocation, and each sphere of sovereignty in the world, yes even down to the square inch, gives me a little shiver each time I think of it. The idea of joining with my maker through filling my vocation with integrity, through striving, that I worship God through my labors helps me to push a little harder when I would give up. It helps me to not surrender when it seems like all is lost. For I labor with Christ, and all is his. So while I understand that some phrases lose their meaning through repetition, I argue that we should not just repeat this line, but engrave it on our hearts. Rather than become calloused to it because others misunderstand it, let’s invite others to join us in treasuring this valuable gift, this beautiful idea.

  • Sue Strother says:

    Isn’t Christ Himself the limiting factor? Do we really need yours? It’s His Truth, His Justice, His Glory. Teach Who Christ is Kuyper’s quote invites that. Demands that. The quote speaks of God-given knowledge that is often forgotten in the fear and confusion of life.

  • Philip Appleby says:

    When Nirvana’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became popular and drew more and more fans to the band, lead singer Kurt Cobain grew to hate the song and would refuse to play it. Very immature. This article reminds me of that kind of silly attitude. I myself also hate “Evango-babble”, but articles with that subtle stench of intellectual snobbishness such as this one help in no way. This sounds like one of those instances when someone complains when their favourite -fill in the blank- is no longer niche and cool. Either love the truth or don’t, and if the truth contained in Kuyper’s quote spreads all over and is sometimes bastardized, so be it. It’s still true and still glorious…even without the riders.

  • Ryan says:

    In our current date and time (I was looking up this quote for reference and came upon your article) I think 1. I am thankful I get to think and frame my life under God’s lead – that is a privilege. My buddy who is now a professor of theology in Florida and lead our college mission trip in Asia had this as a favorite quote. Anyhow, now having more real life experience (I live in an area of America that is like four percent churched as a 35 yr old single male it feels like a desert. Also, having grown up in hyper-evangelical circles I have seen some danger of this like ok spiritual work is spritual work – but my philosophy now is a bit more nuanced and dare I say healthy? And so that seems to be the same mark we’re going for. As a young gun I think my view of God and my spiritual life got compartmentalized into what one author calls, “the vessel trap” where I can get stuck on a certain form of Christian living and be all about that whilst missing the treasure. Anyhow I am so thankful and again I need encouragement, prompting and fellowship as I’m navigating my life (trying to become a physican assistant and serve the Lord with my life here) and so we look at Christ’s life and hold it up uniquely and say let us do better and greater and more but also Jesus does not say “despise the world and live in poverty” instead he says – “follow me” and so I am along side my neighbor and so by God’s grace I work to see the greatest good. Anyhow thanks for the discourse! lets spur each otra!

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