Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, by James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). Pp. xxviii + 455. $30 (paper). [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]
In his own biography of Abraham Kuyper, which served the purpose of introducing Kuyper to “the general reader” (Abraham Kuyper, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), Frank Vanden Berg acknowledged the fact and expressed the confidence that “the definitive biography of Dr. Abraham Kuyper must still appear, as it undoubtedly will eventually” (301).
With the publication of James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper, the definitive biography of that great, indeed astonishing, man has appeared.
Bratt is well qualified for the demanding task. He is a highly regarded professor of history at Calvin College. Kuyper is the very atmosphere of Calvin College (that is, the Kuyper of common grace and culture; the Kuyper of particular, sovereign grace is persona non grata on that campus, and has been since the ouster from the Christian Reformed Church of Herman Hoeksema in 1924). Bratt has written or edited other books on Kuyper, Kuyper’s writings, and Kuyper’s influence in Calvinistic circles.
Life and Work of a Gifted, Many-Sided Man
All of this research and scholarly and literary ability, Bratt has put to use in this superb biography of one of the truly great and utterly fascinating figures in the Reformed tradition, if not in the whole of western civilization.
The book is a thorough account of the life and deeds of a gifted, many-sided man. Upon getting his doctorate at Leiden University, Kuyper began his career as a pastor in the state church of the Netherlands. Within a few years, he became editor of a daily newspaper. In 1874, Kuyper resigned the ministry for full-time political activity. He founded and headed for many years an increasingly numerous and powerful political party, the Antirevolutionary Party, named as expressing rejection of the French Revolution of the 1790s. In 1880, Kuyper founded a full-fledged university, the Free University in Amsterdam. He himself was a professor in the university until 1901, when Herman Bavinck replaced him, Kuyper having become prime minister of the Netherlands.
Throughout the first half of the 1880s, Kuyper led a movement of reform within the state Reformed church. This movement culminated in a schism in 1886. Kuyper called his movement of reform, culminating in separation from the state church and in the formation of a new Reformed denomination, the “Doleantie.” The word described Kuyper and his cohorts as “grieving” over the apostasy of the state church, as over their inevitable separation from that apostate church.
In 1892, under Kuyper’s direction, his newly formed denomination united with the existing Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the churches formed by the reformation of 1834 (the “Afscheiding,” or Secession) to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN, which are the initial letters of the name of the denomination in Dutch).
All the while that Kuyper was active in church reformation, he was also busy in Dutch politics. Elected to the States General in 1874, when he resigned the gospel ministry, Kuyper became prime minister of the Netherlands in 1901. Under the queen, this was the most powerful political office in the Netherlands. The victory of Kuyper and his party was possible because of Kuyper’s alliance with the party of Roman Catholics. To Kuyper’s chagrin, and near breakdown, he served only one term as political ruler of the Netherlands. The election of 1905 swept him and his party from power.
Throughout his career, Kuyper published. In addition to editing a daily newspaper, De Standaard (English: The Standard), which included regular writing for the paper, and writing weekly meditations for another paper, De Heraut (English: The Herald), Kuyper wrote books. Indeed, this amazingly gifted and disciplined man single-handedly produced a library of books—devotional, doctrinal, expository (of Scripture), historical, political, social, philosophical. Much of the library is soundly Reformed theology and biblical exposition. It repays the Reformed minister his labor to learn the Dutch language simply that he is able to read Kuyper’s theological writings.
On his vacations, for relaxation Kuyper climbed nearly all of the highest mountains in Europe.
This daunting man, his volcanic energy, and all his manifold activities, Bratt has captured in a “full-scale, well-rounded account of his entire life” (xiv). A particular virtue of the biography is that the author, convinced that “good biography is contextual,” provides “as much context as I feasibly can” (xxi). Bratt sets Kuyper in his time, not only in the Netherlands, but also in Europe, indeed in the entire world, including South Africa when the Boer War was raging; examines Kuyper and his thinking in light of his tradition; and relates Kuyper’s actions to his theological and political thinking.
Good, but not Nice
Regarding Kuyper’s person, Bratt paints the portrait of Kuyper (as Cromwell once advised an artist, about himself—Cromwell) “warts and all” (xxiii). Although Bratt clearly is favorably impressed by Kuyper and equally clearly approves the Kuyper of culture and politics, that is, the Kuyper of common grace (the Kuyper of particular grace, not so much), the biography is not a hagiography.
Bratt’s judgment of Kuyper as a person is that Kuyper was “a great man but not a nice one” (xxii). The main criticism by Kuyper’s contemporaries, echoed by Bratt, was that Kuyper sought power and in the seeking of power treated rivals roughly. A long-time friend and ally, Alexander F. de Savornin Lohman, who fell out with Kuyper politically, and suffered for it, charged against Kuyper that “your rhetoric and maneuvers show you to be a true disciple of Robespierre” (232). Bratt observes that “there could be no greater insult in the Groenian heritage [the reference is to Groen van Prinsterer, whose torch Kuyper was carrying both in church and state]” than this lumping of Kuyper with the ruthless French revolutionary (232). Kuyper purged Lohman from his professorship at the Free University, completely regardless of former close personal friendship and common membership in the church. With almost amusing aplomb, Kuyper then “formally inquired of Lohman whether he held any grievance against [Kuyper] that might preclude their taking the Lord’s Supper” (236).
While noting opposite virtues in Kuyper, Bratt agrees with the judgment by Kuyper’s contemporaries: “ambitious, who sought power”; “drove them [collaborators and disciples] away when they stepped up as equals” (xxii).
I frankly confess that the Kuyper of political maneuvers and power and of the forming of worldly culture is little more attractive to me than any other politician or philosopher.
Reformed Theologian and Churchman
But the Kuyper of Reformed theology, church reformation, and biblical exposition is not only attractive, but also an important part of my (Reformed) tradition.
The profound theoretician of the presumptuous, impossible “Christianizing” of worldly culture pales in comparison with the writer of the meditation in the Heraut on the occasion of the death of Kuyper’s godly, beloved wife at the young age of fifty-seven.
There you stood with a broken heart by the deathbed. There lay your deceased, lifeless, inanimate, for all the world as if she had been swallowed up by death. Swallowed up—a hard word. Devoured, as if by a beast of prey. All at once, gone: the look of the eye, the sweet words…everything, clean gone…. [Yet] God’s Word, without in any way discounting the harshness of that reality, turns it around for you [believers in Jesus Christ]. Totally…[For the faithful, the moment of death means that] what is mortal is swallowed up by life (282).
With the significant exception of his novel theory of common grace, Kuyper powerfully confessed, explained, and defended Reformed orthodoxy on behalf of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and to the ends of the earth. His book on particular grace, rare and controversial in his day, as also in ours, is a clear and compelling blast of the trumpet concerning salvation by sovereign grace to the glory of God.
It is a sad commentary on contemporary Reformed theologians, as well as a warning concerning the inevitable, evil consequences of Kuyper’s invention of a common grace of God, that most Reformed theologians show themselves ignorant, or ignoring, of Kuyper’s work on particular grace, whereas they fall over themselves, and each other, to recommend, praise, use, and develop his works on common grace.
Despite his fatal compromising of the truth by his theory of common grace, Kuyper made the antithesis a reality in the thinking and life of Reformed Christians in a time of unholy ecumenicity and illicit friendships both in church and in society. Bratt does justice to Kuyper’s emphasis on the antithesis. Kuyper virtually introduced the concept into the thinking and practice of the Dutch Reformed churches and believers of his day.
Kuyper led a movement of church reformation that split the state church in 1886, his “Doleantie.” Noteworthy about this reformation was Kuyper’s stress on right church government and church order. Basic to his doctrine of the church was the autonomy of the local congregation. Kuyper vigorously opposed the hierarchical power of classes and synods. He became vitriolic in his condemnation of the “administrative apparatus of synodical and classical boards” (152).
Details of the unfolding of the split in the state church are fascinating. On the morning of January 6, 1886, Kuyper himself and several, carefully selected, close allies broke into a strategic church building in Amsterdam. The carpenter in the group sawed through a panel in the locked council room door to gain access to that center of church power and storehouse of vital records, which was why Kuyper had included a carpenter (and his saw!) in the group. Thereafter, at Kuyper’s direction, club-carrying students of the Free University guarded the premises against the armies of the state church.
Of this work of church reformation, Bratt writes that “his [Kuyper’s] church reform proved to be the greatest disappointment of his life” (150). Only a relatively few churches and members of the churches joined the Doleantie and the new Reformed denomination formed by that reform of the state church.
Critique of Common Grace
The Protestant Reformed reader of the biography will be, and every Reformed reader ought to be, especially interested in Bratt’s treatment of Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace.
Bratt recognizes the prominent place of common grace in Kuyper’s political and cultural thinking and actions. Although he is by no means a critic of Kuyperian common grace (and this is understatement), James Bratt is a rare Christian Reformed appraiser of the theory. The typical Christian Reformed presentation of Kuyperian common grace is that that sacred cow was birthed on Mt. Sinai, if not on Mt. Zion, by the Holy Spirit generating the doctrine from the inspired mind of Abraham Kuyper, out of the purest theological and religious motives, having its ancestry in the Reformed tradition in an unbroken line of holy, formidable, theological bulls going back to Calvin himself.
Bratt is an honest historian. Kuyper emphasized and developed his theory of common grace precisely at that time in his life and career when he was engaged in obtaining political power. He very much needed a doctrine of common grace to ground his political alliance with the Roman Catholics and with other non-Reformed, even non-Christian, cohorts. “Faith-based politics requires some common ground with people of fundamentally different convictions” (197, 198).
So far from being a prominent doctrine in Calvin and in the Reformed tradition, Kuyperian common grace was “a dramatic new line in Reformed theology.” Although Kuyper claimed to find the “seed” of common grace “in some words of Calvin,” the “‘manifestation’ [of a doctrine of common grace] he [Kuyper] elaborated much further than any predecessor had ever tried. It was the linchpin to his theology of culture, and the subject to which he turned his attention after long struggles over the church” (192, 193).
According to Bratt, the doctrine of common grace was one of “two key theological innovations” on the part of Kuyper (194; the emphasis is mine—DJE).
Rightly, Bratt exposes Kuyper’s optimistic prophecy of “greater glories to come in the twentieth century” by virtue of the wonder-working power of common grace in nations and societies. “Bitterly ironic as those predictions seem today,” writes Bratt (199). The horrors of WW I and WW II, of Nazi Germany, and of the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Mao did not betoken an advance in the Christianizing of the world by any grace of God. Nor, for that matter, did the Netherlands become more Christian, or even more moral, in the past century. Let the devotee of common grace take a leisurely stroll through Amsterdam, the center of Kuyper’s culture-forming project.
On the contrary, as one staring himself blind at the developments in nations and societies through the spectacles of a common grace of God never sees, the twentieth century and now the beginning of the twenty-first century, with its cold-blooded murder of millions of unborn, partially born, and newly born and with its precipitous descent into the deepest depths of the degradation of sodomy and lesbianism, show the judgment of God upon the nations and societies—a judgment of righteous wrath, the very opposite of Kuyper’s common grace.
Kuyper’s “reading of history owed more to Hegel than to Scripture” (200).
Another application of common grace, by Kuyper himself and by his culture-Calvinist, common grace disciples, concerns brilliant pagan and antichristian thinkers. Kuyper viewed them as beneficiaries of common grace and their theories as the product of God’s common grace. Bratt quotes Kuyper:
The names of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have constantly been honored by Christian thinkers…. [It is an] undeniable fact that…Kant and Darwin shone [as] stars of the first magnitude, geniuses of the highest degree, who uttered the most profound thoughts even though they were not confessing Christians (201, 202).
Inevitably, the effect of this estimation of heathen thinkers was the acceptance of their unbelieving theories into Reformed thought and theology, to the undermining and corrupting of biblical, Reformed truth.
At a time when one Reformed church and one Reformed school after another, enthusiasts for common grace, all, are abandoning the biblical doctrine of creation for Darwinian evolutionary theory, it is especially Kuyper’s positive estimation of Darwin and many of Darwin’s basic doctrines that begs for attention. Under the influence of his own theory of common grace, Kuyper
did not insist on literalistic readings of the relevant biblical passages, nor quail at the prospect of a very old earth and resort to fantasies [sic] about Flood geology. More controversially, then and now, he did not balk at the transmutation of species or at the “spontaneous unfolding of the species in organic life from the cytode or nuclear cell.”
Bratt continues: “Kuyper accorded Darwinian science considerable merit in its own right” (284, 285).
Bratt is obviously delighted with Kuyper’s high regard for Darwin and with Kuyper’s concessions to evolutionary theory.
But those in Reformed churches at the beginning of the twenty-first century who are having the Scripture-denying and gospel-destroying implications of these concessions to Darwin shoved in their faces and who are, therefore, troubled by the acceptance and teaching of basic elements of evolutionary theory in their circles, especially in their nominally Christian schools, must locate the origins of the heresies in Abraham Kuyper and the theory of a common grace of God.
Kuyper and the PRC
Nevertheless, this is not to deny the significant debt of the Protestant Reformed Churches to Abraham Kuyper—the Abraham Kuyper of the particular, sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ; of the antithesis; and of soundly Reformed theology and church order.
We may not write Kuyper off, because of our rejection of his theory of common grace, root and branch.
The biography of Kuyper, therefore, claims our interest.
About this, and more raised by Bratt’s excellent biography, I will have more to say in an expanded version of this review in a forthcoming issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal.