A Few Thoughts on Abraham Kuyper: A Book Review of Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

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Introduction:

“I will thus paint Kuyper warts and all – both the real ones and the ones that might seem like blemishes only to us. As a real Calvinist he would understand such a portrait, even though he might not like it.”1 James D. Bratt writes an honest and perceptive biography of the life of a very important theologian and politician in Reformed history: Abraham Kuyper. It is entitled Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. The purpose of this book as a biography is to help the reader understand exactly who this man was. The strength of this biography may not necessarily be how concise it is, but Bratt uses the timeline of Kuyper’s life as a window into his teachings, and his many roles as politician, pastor, journalist, as well as the many other hats he donned during his lifetime.

Summary/Structure:

James Bratt uses the person of Kuyper as a lens into three aspects which dominate the life and teachings of Kuyper: the contemporary nature of his efforts, his creativity, and the comprehensiveness of his work. This was a project which had massive contemporary implications: for all the intellectual pursuits. As Kuyper drew his logical lines from principle to application, he was remarkably creative and instinctive. But Kuyper large scope of work which was quite comprehensive. All things must come under the sovereignty of God: from science to art to politics and of course the church. As he himself stated with passion and vigour: “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!’”!2 This statement has become so popular because it is essentially the thesis statement of Kuyper’s life work.

In the first section of the book, ‘Foundations (1837-1877)’, the James Bratt outlines some of the preliminary stages of Kuyper’s life. He was born into a pastor’s family, and into a divided political and church world. By 1863, Kuyper had a doctorate. During his education he struggled with theological discontent and was steeped in German philosophy and literature, but in 1863 he experienced his first conversion. Following this were his first years as a young pastor, his conversion to Calvinism, and then his budding career as a politician. This was also a time where he made contact with the Holiness Movement in England, fell in love with it, and then was disillusioned by it when his hero fell into sin. This disillusionment lead him deeper into Calvinism.

The period of ‘constructions’ (1877-1897) was a time of great movement. He organized a political party, founded a university, lead a split from the Dutch Reformed Church called ‘the Doleantie’ (the Weepers) and united with a branch of the church that split in 1834, became a great theologian, wrote on many cultural issues, and became known for his views on Christian democracy. He spoke of the strength of Calvinism, and pushed this into many different areas of life. His massive abilities lead to many changes and reforms.

As his life neared its end in the third section of this book ‘shadows’, we see more of Kuyper’s very obvious weaknesses. In 1898, Kuyper went on a speaking tour in America. The next year his wife died, and he wrote extensively on death. In 1901, he became Prime Minister and hit the peak of his power. During this time, he called on the people of God to extend the claims of Jesus Christ into every area of society. As he sought re-election after his loss of the PM seat in 1906, it became clear that there were many dilemmas for the Christian democracy that he was seeking: including in-fighting, and other issues. Finally, after a life of contending for the Lordship of Christ in the Netherlands, he died in 1920.

Christian Democracy?

I find the “paradox” of Abraham Kuyper as a Christian Calvinist and a modern Democrat quite fascinating. I say “paradox” because it left me wondering about how one can be both democratic and as staunchly Calvinist as Kuyper was at the same time, especially in a nation that is becoming increasingly secular. It could seem like a contradiction. Bratt writes about this in his chapter entitled “the Dilemmas of Christian Democracy”. Obviously one of the dilemmas was the decay of his powers as he was growing older,3 but I am more interested in the external challenges to his ideologies. As we wrestle with how to bring the Word of God to bear on our own governments, we have much to learn from some of the difficulties that faced Kuyper’s system.

Bratt underlines some of the external challenges facing Kuyper. He introduces Kuyper in the context of a world growing more secular: secularism, “Kuyper argued – violated the authenticity of the Christian faith or the equity of the modern public order, or both.”4 In chapter 17, he shows Kuyper standing alone against those external challenges with socialists to the left of him, his own Christian Democrats, and then simply the sway of modern mass movements (the perennial difficulty of democracy).5 He was working in a governmental system based on the sway of the masses, and that was swiftly pushing away from Calvinism.

Calvinism had always been Kuyper’s rallying cry in the middle of opposition from secularists and leftists throughout the country. His speech for opening the Free University was such a speech which focused on Calvinism as the core and also the foolishness (in the I Cor. 1 sense of the word) of the nation.6 This core was his rallying cry for his split from the Dutch Reformed Church, and the formation of the Doleantie. This Calvinistic core was his rallying cry for the Free University, his political party, and his view of art, science, etc.

But within the bounds of Sphere Sovereignty, he realized that Calvinists would have to make some unions to be elected. In the big picture, they were a minority. But they could still use a democratic system in their favour. One such union was between the Calvinists and the Roman Catholics to be united in the political realm. They needed the Roman Catholic vote to even have a chance at being elected.7 This is of particular interest to us in the 21st century, because in our time as well, Protestants have had to make alliances with their religious “opponents,” the Roman Catholics. The pro-life movement is an example of this. In early 1900s Netherlands, this union was necessary to contend against encroaching secularism.

It seems that James Bratt focuses heavily on Kuyper’s failure in this area of seeking a Christian democracy. I would argue that Bratt is right to see Kuyper’s failure in contending against encroaching secularism in the Netherlands. But he is weak in upholding Kuyper as a pillar for principle and truth within a secular world. You may or may not agree with what he was doing in certain details, but I don’t believe his overall project was a complete failure. His teaching had a major impact in America through his stone lectures, and has inspired many North American Christians to be a voice for principle and truth in both the United States and Canada. And those voices continue to ring loud and clear in the halls of power through organizations such as the Association for Reformed Political Action, and from more Reformed pulpits and organizations in the States. He also enlightened us to the fact that Roman Catholics make political allies in a world that is agnostic and often even antagonistic to the truth, especially when it comes to social issues such as the pro-life movement.

Many of the details of what Kuyper wanted to bring to bear on politics failed. But Kuyper was more of a ‘big ideas’ guy. He was more of a philosopher than a scientist. He gave the principles, and Reformed people have had to make the applications. Some of these applications have left the bounds of orthodoxy (such as some in the Christian Reformed Church), while others have taken his principles and applied them in a helpful and upbuilding manner for society (such as the Association for Reformed Political Action in Canada).

The seeming “paradox,” the seeming contradiction, between Calvinism and democracy can be aligned in the sense that Calvinism provides a system of truth in a world that is often ruled by mass opinion. It is a logical and coherent system, which when studied in depth, coheres within itself and corresponds with reality. And so, while Calvinism might not always be in “places of power”, as long as it stays grounded & rooted in the Word of God (to put it in Kuyper’s words), it can always provide a lively and viable alternative for the vapid secularism that so often wafts through the halls of power in our day. Hence, Kuyper may have eventually lost the Netherlands, but he left solid Biblical principles for modern Calvinists to develop and shape and form their political theory under the Lordship of King Jesus in avowedly secular and agnostic states.

Academic Value:

James Bratt has contributed much to the study of Abraham Kuyper in the English language. Rather than commenting on just one of Kuyper’s many ideas pulled out of the context of Kuyper’s times – sphere sovereignty, Christian democracy, his writings on baptism – Bratt looks at his teachings through the lens of the zeitgeist of Kuyper’s world and through the lens of Kuyper’s strengths and weaknesses as a person. He has done a large amount research to narrate the intricacy of movements happening in church and politics, so that we can accurately understand Kuyper’s teachings in their historical context.

Other books focus on details of Kuyper’s thought. Luis E. Lugo edits a book entitled “Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the 21st century” which is a grouping of scholarly articles bringing Kuyper’s principles to bear on the 21st century. James Bratt also has a book entitled “Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader” where he has a variety of chapters where he introduces a speech or a sermon or a writing of Kuyper. James E. Goldrick has a much shorter biography on Kuyper entitled “Abraham Kuyper: God’s Renaissance Man,” which is heavily oriented towards Kuyper’s ideas. There have been a number of other works on Kuyper including translations of his works into the English language.

In his biography of Abraham Kuyper, James Bratt has achieved his goal of giving us a window into the life and world of Abraham Kuyper, and also into his theology. This book may be especially helpful for those in highschool or at a post-secondary level who are interested in historical studies. It could also be helpful for the student of political theory in general, and even more so for the Christian student of political theory who has an interest in how Calvinist/Biblical principles can be brought to bear on a “secularizing” society. As a seminarian, I have learned a lot about Church history and the teachings of Kuyper through this biography. I find his works quite important in theological/church discussions as well as political discussions. It is not necessarily a light read, but if you want to put up your feet and do some reading in the evening with a coffee or a beer, you will learn a lot from this book.

Conclusion:

James D. Bratt also leaves us with the weight of Kuyper’s views for the 21st century world. He quotes the South African theologian Allan Boesak who called on Kuyper in his fight against apartheid in South Africa.8 Bratt specifically focuses on the impact of Kuyper’s teaching on South Korea and Africa. But we can also see its impact in North America. As Bratt concludes his book: “There is much we can all learn from a person who asked the right questions and gave enduring methods for seeking, and finding, their answers.”9 I must agree that Abraham Kuyper gave modern Christians the tools to discern truth and contend for it in an increasingly secular and agnostic age.

1 James D Bratt, Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013)., xxiii.

2Ibid., xx.

3Ibid., 345.

4Ibid., xv.

5Ibid., 345.

6Ibid., 130.

7Ibid., 348.

8Bratt, 382.

9Ibid.

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

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