Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

Article by   December 2014
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James D. Bratt. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Library of Religious Biography. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. 455 pages. $24.99/₤19.99

Abraham Kuyper must be one of the most quoted figures in Evangelical churches, and it is usually the same quote: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" Exactly what that means, James Bratt's new biography can explain. What made Kuyper so remarkable were his equally prodigious talents at intellectual system-building, organizational founding, and grassroots mobilizing. These talents propelled him into numerous leading roles, father, pastor, university founder and professor, newspaper publisher, leader of a secession church, spiritual master, political party organizer and parliamentarian, and eventually Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Every square inch indeed!

One of the most difficult aspects of Kuyper's life and theology is to make sense of it all. He never stayed long in one place in his life, work, or thoughts, and there were overlapping and interconnected and sometimes contradictory events. Therefore, one of the most important features of Bratt's work is the periodization of Kuyper's life that Bratt offers. That begins with the background and intellectual formation that provided the foundations of Kuyper's life. Early on Kuyper set himself to reconciling Christianity and modernity, but there were several failed attempts. One of the most notable was his dabbling with Protestant liberalism. In a letter to his fiancé Jo Schaay (yes, Bratt's research extends even to Kuyper's love letters), Kuyper expressed doubts over the incarnation and the atonement. The liberal phase did not last long and at a still early age, Kuyper arrived at confessional Dortian Calvinism, with a stop at Schleiemacher-style mediating theology along the way. The second period was one of building, both his intellectual system and social institutions. This is the period of common grace and the Free University, worldview and Anti-revolutionary politics. Bratt titles the last period "Shadows". Kuyper's intellectual powers began to weaken as well as his personal influence. He did, however, perform the job of travelling dignitary with good effect. The chapter on Kuyper in America illustrates the challenge of categorizing Kuyper and perhaps helps explain his variegated legacy. He sympathized with the localism of the Democratic party (yes, there was a time) over the Republican penchant for industrial-capitalist bigness, but he also worried about the latent Revolutionary impulse in the party of Jefferson.

Bratt explains Kuyper's central problem as coming to terms with the problem of freedom and order in the modern world in a way that remains faithful to historic Calvinism. That meant a negotiation of doctrine and reform, the two sides of the Calvinist coin since it was minted. Since Max Weber we are afraid that the one may swallow up the other, but Kuyper, in pre-Weberian innocence, was not. He pursued both without reserve. Bratt emphasizes the social reformer a little more than the theologian but the two are never far apart. Kuyper's creativity lay in his use of modern institutions, like a private university, to support a confessional and largely premodern version of Protestantism. Or consider his education reforms which were predicated on socio-religious pluralism yet with the aim of preserving a Reformed school system. Ecclesiology, I have argued, was a sort of release valve for the pressure this created, and Bratt seems to agree. The church is the traditional locus that Bratt gives the most sustained attention. 

James Bratt has done an outstanding work, and if I may end with a reservation, it regards Kuyper's project not Bratt's. Upon finishing Bratt's book I felt confirmed in my suspicion that Kuyper did not deal adequately with sin and finitude. He was optimistic about the leavening, common grace effects of particular grace on Western culture. His account of the liberal social order was not pragmatic but theological--I recall at least once Bratt pointing out the tension of this position. In one especially tragic case, Kuyper approved of the pacification (read: killing) of rebels in the East Indies, a third of which were women and children, in preparation for colonial reforms. Yes, he occasionally warned of the spiritual malformation of the market and the impersonal bureaucratic state, but he was confident that his own proposals were not far from the kingdom of God. Though not the most radical one, he was a nineteenth-century progressive living on the other side of a catastrophic twentieth century. This is hardly an oversight for which Kuyper can be blamed, but it does indicate a challenge for contemporary Kuyperians. We must reckon with civilization and it's discontents, the irony of American history, the banality of evil and, I think, the evil of banality. Reform is a ticklish thing. In the words of the prayer of Thomas Fowler, God save us all from the innocent and the good.

John Halsey Wood Jr. lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is the author of Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper's Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (OUP, 2013)

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