Mark Noll, the very image of a careful historian, says that the career of Abraham Kuyper "was as filled with noteworthy achievements as that of any single individual in modern Western history." Either Noll has turned careless, or Kuyper—the turn-of-the-20th-century Dutch theologian, churchman, journalist, and statesman—requires our attention.
Fortunately, James D. Bratt, professor of history at Calvin College, has been trailing Kuyper for years. Now at trail's end, he has delivered a biography of great significance, particularly for people of faith who are searching for ways to speak decisively in a world that denies faith even as it is embroiled in it.
As the first full English biography of Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans) reflects the achievements of a generation of influential scholars—including historians Noll and George Marsden and philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga among, literally, dozens. As such, it bears witness to the force and vitality of Kuyper's revisioning of the Calvinist tradition, often called simply "neo-Calvinism" (without which an institution like Calvin College would not exist). Indeed, the historian James Turner calls neo-Calvinism the "decisive influence" on what he terms the "evangelical intellectual revival" of the past three decades.
So what did Kuyper do? More important, what did he believe? For both questions, Bratt is an invaluable guide, with a sprightly, erudite style and a sharp grasp on Kuyper's sprawling career and writings. To be clear, this is anything but a heroic gloss; Bratt's Kuyper is prescient, canny, profound, and flawed. But above all, he is significant, and Bratt shows us this significance by centering our attention on Kuyper's public voice.
A Narrow Pathway
Born in 1837 to a pastor in the national Dutch Reformed Church, Kuyper earned his doctorate in theology by age 26. After a short time in the pastorate, he made his way from theological liberalism to "orthodox Calvinism as a firm rock in a stormy world." Kuyper's alert, searching engagement with this world made possible his renewal of Calvinism in the Netherlands and beyond. Bratt writes that by the mid-19th century, "Reformed scholastic language was so outworn and orthodoxy so marginalized that neither its original terms nor its current posture fit the demands of the times." In response, Kuyper took up the task of redefining the terms and altering the posture in a way that would force his nation to contend with Calvinism as not a relic but "a world religion, indeed a world-formative one," capable of spawning a vision of life and grounding a culture.
It was bound to be a narrow pathway, between a private faith guarded for the sake of purity and a public faith diluted for the sake of relevance. Kuyper's theological and intellectual depth, though, enabled him to mark out this way, all the while summoning thoughtful believers to his side. Bratt calls him a "rare combination of first-rate intellectual and first-rate organizer." And everything in his volume supports this claim. Moving from the pastorate to the Dutch parliament by age 35, Kuyper also became the editor of a daily newspaper, De Standaard. From this post, he rallied and educated a movement that would have a transformative impact in the 1870s. Besides ushering in a new denomination, that movement would launch the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which endured for several decades thereafter. (About 30 years ago, it merged with two other parties that were important to Kuyper's governing coalition.) By 1901, as leader of the ARP, Kuyper would become prime minister, an office he held for four tumultuous years.
His political vision was worked out over decades, and aimed to impede the centralizing tendencies that capitalism appeared to require. The vision rested upon the notion of "sphere sovereignty": The belief that God created the distinct realms of life—church, education, family, state—to function independently, each ruled by the "ordinances" God had set in place. "It was identifying, celebrating, guarding, and translating those ordinances into action," Bratt notes, "that defined his ultimate purpose in politics." Under Kuyper, the ARP sought to convince the nation of these ordinances and align its policy and law according to them. It was a narrow pathway indeed, yet for a time, the ARP was able to follow it with success, thanks in part to an alliance with Roman Catholics seeking to "restore a Christian Netherlands."
Yet even as he was proceeding in this Christianizing direction, Kuyper also deeply believed in the need for "principled pluralism": for a public square where diverging parties were "operating from their own convictions while respecting those of others." Kuyper hoped that dynamic, corporate Christian witness would foster the conditions in which Western nations might redeem the promise of modernity—improved material conditions, enlarged democracy—all around the world.
Grace That Endures
Kuyper was a progressive—and a disappointed one. Bratt notes Kuyper's affinity with his American Presbyterian contemporaries, William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. Both men also "wished not to overthrow the prevailing order but to humanize it." In fact, when Kuyper came to the United States in 1898, he found himself both attracted and repelled. He found hopeful the open religiosity of American politics and politicians. But he disdained the unabashed materialism there. "Your capitalistic classes have too much power," he told reporters. Decentralizing power and dispersing authority was his hope for a truly human life.
Kuyper was stateside to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary—later published as Lectures on Calvinism. He sounded what Bratt calls a "revolutionary proposal": that, in Kuyper's words, "all knowledge proceeds from faith of whatever kind," and that "the person who does not believe does not exist." It took some time to find its American audience, but Kuyper's thinking on "worldview" would lay the foundation for the intellectual renaissance among evangelicals.
By the turn of the century, Kuyper had spent decades distilling and developing these insights into a form that was impelling movement of all kinds—cultural, intellectual, political, social. From his teaching at the Free University (which he helped found in 1880 and where he taught until 1901) to his reporting and scholarly writing, he elaborated what Bratt calls his "enduring dream," the hope of a Calvinism refitted for action on the world's stage. Orthodox yet contemporary, it would transcend "mere dogmatic theology" to forge a "'life system' whose 'root principle' branched out into every domain of human life and learning." Kuyper's vision centered on grace: the special grace of salvation for the elect, and the common grace God elects to give to all. This is the grace that makes possible a full, culture-invading, culture-making witness.
Kuyper himself often fell short of this standard. Bratt describes him as "a great man but not a nice one," plagued by compulsive overworking and a need for control—a man's man in a world beyond any man's control, however valiant, determined, or smart.
But the grace Kuyper proclaimed was grand enough to overcome such excesses and limitations. Kuyper imagined a world fallen yet still infused with the grandeur of a God willing to redeem it, thoroughly and completely. We are still in that world. Thankfully, the grace to which Kuyper so powerfully bore witness is too.
Eric Miller is the author most recently of Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hopes, Spiritual Longing (Cascade Books). He teaches history and the humanities at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
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