Sneak Peek Week: Abraham Kuyper (Foreword by Mark A. Noll)

Abraham Kuyper
Abraham Kuyper

It’s Sneak Peek Week on EerdWord, when we’re sharing excerpts from four of this month’s most exciting new releases.

Today’s excerpt is Mark Noll’s foreword to James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, the latest volume in the Library of Religious Biography series.

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The interwoven questions that this splendid biography answers are, “Who was Abraham Kuyper, and why should we care?” Answering the first question is not easy, since Kuyper’s career was as filled with noteworthy achievement as that of any single individual in modern Western history. From his birth in 1837 in the Dutch seaport of Maassluis to his death in The Hague in 1920, Kuyper’s life encompassed an extraordinary range of enterprises. As only a partial list, he was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, the driving force behind a major schism in that church, a professor of theology, the longtime editor of a daily newspaper, the founder of the Netherlands’ first mass-based political party, an effective advocate for public funding of religious schools, the founder of a university, a much celebrated traveler in Britain and America, a member of the Dutch Parliament (and later Senate), from 1901 to 1905 the prime minister of the Netherlands, and throughout his adult life an absolutely indefatigable author on topics political, theological, cultural, and devotional. Somehow he also managed to fit time for several long collapses from nervous exhaustion that seemed only to bring him back with larger ambitions for longer agendas.

If Kuyper’s ideas had been entirely humdrum, his list of achievements alone would make him worthy of sustained attention. But since his ideas were well articulated beliefs that propelled his manyactivities, trying to answer “who was Kuyper?” requires full attention to his thought. He was first a convinced Protestant who held the image of Reformation guided by the word of God as the highest ideal. Almost as intensely he believed that the French Revolution had unleashed the most destructive forms of rationalism, individualism, and atheism imaginable. He inherited the instincts of European Christendom (and the assumption that all aspects of life needed to be held organically together), but was also committed to heartfelt personal piety (and so could write movingly about the work of the Holy Spirit). He believed that the creation in its fullest extent was a gift of God beyond imagining and that Christ’s redemption extended to the uttermost reaches of that creation. He matched his confidence in the New Testament’s message of redemption in Christ with an equally firm belief that the Old Testament showed God’s intimate concern for family life, agriculture, politics, economic structure, warfare, international relations, and more. He was deeply committed to “sphere sovereignty,” the belief that God had organized the creation into discrete theaters of activity (family, business, art, education, church, state) with each one given specific purposes by the Creator and each possessing its own integrity. He held a positive conception of government, not as an all-purpose solution to every problem, but as the God-given “sphere” ordained to adjudicate disputes among other spheres, to defend the weak against the strong, and to maintain the state’s natural duties for developing infrastructure and promoting the general welfare. At the highest level, he held both that God had gifted all humanity with the ability to contribute meaningfully to the common good (“common grace”) and that regeneration in Christ created a community, a mind, a predisposition, and a sensitivity utterly opposed to everything of the world (“the antithesis”).

The vigor of Kuyper’s convictions, along with his strenuous efforts at putting them into practice for religious, educational, and political purposes in the Netherlands — and with the significant numbers around the world who have found his ideas inspiring — makes him a figure of world historical significance. It also means that a biography like this one must be done with care, so that readers come to understand Kuyper in his own life context as well as the influence his ideas have had. The range of that influence is noteworthy — as a contributor to European Christian Democracy, a beacon for Dutch immigrants in many parts of the world, a figure used to justify South African apartheid, a guide for many leaders of evangelical higher education in America, a special inspiration for modern Christian philosophers, and a stimulus with his concept of “worldview” to active culture warriors in our own day.

James Bratt’s great success in meeting that challenge comes from a subtle blend of well-researched facts and carefully considered judgments. Both are important. Given the range of Kuyper’s activities, the life was extraordinarily complicated, but the clarity of the narrative that follows never flags. Given the lofty range of Kuyper’s thought as well as the rare mix of his personal qualities (humble Christian, arrogant steamroller, sensitive theologian, populist stem-winder, wily politician, principled statesman), the demands on an interpreter are extreme, but Bratt’s judgments are throughout as convincing as they are empathetic.

There is, in addition, that other question: “Why should we care?” The chance to reflect on the life opened in this book offers much to ponder for those with eyes to see. More than any Protestant of the modern era, Kuyper succeeded at bringing together theology (especially creation and redemption) and life in the world (especially through the practice of sphere sovereignty). But how convincing, a Protestant must inquire, was Kuyper’s scriptural basis for his notion of sphere sovereignty? Along with only a few other statesmen of the modern era (perhaps Konrad Adenauer and the almost-Christian Vaclav Havel), Kuyper carried out a political strategy that kept faith with both transcendent spiritual realities and the gritty realities of practical power. But does Kuyper’s approach to Christian politics require a nation as small as the Netherlands was in his day (a population just over five million) or as relatively monocultural as the Dutch were back then? Kuyper’s vision of thoroughly Christian reflection bravely fathoming Christ’s claim on “every square inch” of human life has been one of the key background factors behind the best of modern Christian higher education. But what should observers make of Kuyper’s own great project, the Free University of Amsterdam, which secularized quite rapidly a half-century after his passing? And not least, to whom in the contemporary maelstrom of American politics does Kuyper belong? To the Right with his strong advocacy of traditional values and his ardent defense of family rights? Or to the Left with his relatively large role for government and his suspicions of the rich and powerful?

Attentive readers of this landmark biography will come away learning a great deal about a noteworthy individual. They should also be in much better position to reflect on vital questions of Christianity and education, church and state, Christian universalism and Christian particularism, and many more that remain of first-order importance still today, nearly a century after Kuyper passed away.

Click to order James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.