Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat
Reviewed by Jonathan Huggins, Chaplain, Berry College; Research Associate, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Stellenbosch University
Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, by James D. Bratt, is a sizable and serious work of biographical scholarship. It is part of the Library of Religious Biography series, edited by Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and Allen C. Guelzo, which focuses on significant persons in American and British history. Though Kuyper was Dutch and lived in the Netherlands, his influence has certainly contributed to Christian thought in America (and elsewhere).
As Noll states in the Foreword, the key questions addressed in this biography are, “Who was Abraham Kuyper, and why should we care?” (ix). Kuyper (1837-1920) was a man of immense presence, intellect, energy, and achievement. A list of his achievements can seem overwhelming and super-human. For instance:
He authored over twenty thousand newspaper articles, scores of pamphlets, and numerous multivolume treatises. He edited two newspapers… He co-founded a new university, where he also served as professor. He co-founded a new religious denomination. If all that were not enough, he led a major political party in the Netherlands for four decades – and served as the nations’ prime minister for four years. (xiii)
However, in this volume Bratt provides a very human portrait of this historic figure. As impressive as his list of accomplishments may be, it was his nervous breakdowns that most intrigued me. This aspect of his life makes him a real-life character rather than a sort of spiritual superman. In preparing to write (a process of research lasting many years), Bratt states that he received this advice from George Puchinger (a Kuyper expert): “First you’ll love the man, then you’ll detest him, finally you’ll understand him. Then you’re ready to write” (xxv). A reader might feel the same progression of thought and feeling, especially if one is being introduced to Kuyper for the first time through this volume. Bratt provides the reader with his assessment of Kuyper in the Introduction:
Abraham Kuyper was a great man but not a nice one. He was immensely talented, energetic, and driven to great exploits. He appeared always confident, partly to quiet his own insecurities. He was an ambitious person who sought power, and often felt uneasy over that quest. He could be congenial and polemical… He loved radical options and was typically more generous to opponents than to spiritual kin who differed with him on details. He loved having collaborators and disciples but drove them away when they stepped up as equals. In public he often showed a better understanding of God than of himself. He majored in ideas – Big Ideas above all – with some impatience over the intricacies of mid-range policy or scholarly discourse as it evolved in its own deliberate way. (xxii)
The Introduction alone provides plenty of insight and information to make one eager to learn more. Readers who are less familiar with Kuyper will be intrigued, fascinated, and drawn in for the longer story of his life. Bratt reveals some of the key aspects of Kuyper’s significance and character early on, to prepare readers for the story he is about to tell. For instance, he notes that one of Kuyper’s most important (and relevant) contributions was “the way he proposed for religious believers to bring the full weight of their convictions into public life while fully respecting the rights of others in a pluralistic society under a constitutional government” (xiii). And similarly, Bratt comments: “His distinctive contribution as a public theologian was to call Christians to attend to the structural, institutional, and philosophical dimensions of their witness, both for the health of the faith and the fulfillment of their public duty” (xxi). Bratt also introduces the reader to Kuyper as a man of “paradoxes.” At different moments and on different subjects Kuyper was “progressive and conservative, principled and adaptive, modern and traditional” (xix). The rest of the book demonstrates this.
Other insights offered early on include noting that Kuyper, as the “father of Dutch Neo-Calvinism,” claimed “a relevance for religion across the whole spectrum of public life” (xiv). His “most creative move” included
devis(ing) a system whereby those loyal to each of the Netherlands’ salient belief-blocs – Reformed or Anabaptist, Roman Catholic or Jewish, liberal Protestant or labor-socialist – could assert their claims in public affairs without apology, but also without aiming to take over the whole and subordinate the rest. (xvi)
This process alone could make Kuyper a very timely subject of inquiry for our present world. Similarly, “Kuyper taught that in a modern society religious pluralism had to be respected, but the individualization and privatization of faith had to be avoided” (xvi). It may be clear to many readers that these sorts of social forces and needs remain a present reality. Again, these challenges keep Kuyper’s legacy significantly relevant.
The rest of the book tells Kuyper’s story. Bratt was encouraged to “think like a screenwriter” as he worked on this book. Readers can judge for themselves to what degree Bratt embraced this advice. The book is not an easy read. In fact, it is written at a rather high level and may not be the best place to begin one’s study of Kuyper. It is the book to which one will want to get eventually. But the author assumes an audience of high education and some familiarity with the people, places, and issues addressed (especially Modern Church history in Europe, politics, and the Reformed tradition).
The layout, though, is attractive and makes sense. It follows and analyzes Kuyper’s life in good chronological fashion, organizing the various seasons of his life under particular themes. Bratt understands his role as a biographer to be one of contextualizing the subject, rather than evaluating or analyzing their work. He applies this method consistently in such a way as to provide a valuable resource for just that – a contextualized account of Kuyper’s life and work.
The first section of the book, “Foundations,” covers 1837-1877 and introduces us to Kuyper as a young person, including his education and early career as a pastor and politician. It also discusses his first nervous breakdown. The second section, “Constructions,” covers 1877-1897 and discusses Kuyper as a brilliant organizer, a political theorist, and a church reformer. Bratt shows Kuyper to be a theologian of both church and culture. By bringing together his faith and political vision, Kuyper was a “Christian Democrat” who sought “the broadening of popular influence” (232) in his country. Additionally, Kuyper is also shown to be a cultural critic – of a Victorian sort. The final section, “Shadows,” covers 1898-1920, including Kuyper’s term as the head of national politics (an early equivalent to Prime Minister). This section also discusses Kuyper’s trip to America, including his Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. The reader learns of Kuyper’s mixed assessment of America at that time. We also learn about some of Kuyper’s policies, his successes and failures, and his decline from public life as each of his positions of influence is gradually handed over to new leaders. Kuyper continued to work relentlessly throughout his life even up to his final years, but lost a lot along the way. His legacy has been especially appreciated in America by the Christian Reformed Church, namely his roles as a church builder and scholar.
The book is so well researched that it is sure to become the standard work on Kuyper for those who want to engage with him seriously. I highly recommend the work to anyone who has interests in theology, politics, and history. It is a fascinating story about a rare person. Kuyper’s intellectual powers and organizational skills were exceptional, and the relevance of his contributions is hard to deny. For those who are at home in the Reformed tradition, especially the more conservative expressions, Kuyper will prove to be a helpful, if challenging, guide. He defies simple categorization, especially in the contemporary American context. This should encourage a healthy dose of humility, even as it also encourages a strong confidence in the Reformed faith.