Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

Written by James D. Bratt Reviewed By Scott Culpepper

Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) is probably best known by the majority of evangelical Christians for the stirring quote from his address “Sphere Sovereignty” with which he opened the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880. In this address, Kuyper boldly asserted, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare ‘That is mine!’” Unfortunately, few evangelicals are familiar with the theological and political views that produced this famous quote or the remarkable career of the man who held them. Kuyper’s low profile among evangelicals is ironic because much of his thought in regard to what he called “sphere sovereignty” and what Neo-Calvinists often identify as the “cultural mandate” has had a significant impact on the evangelical academy over the last forty years. That impact has unfolded through the work of evangelical scholars, particularly in the disciplines of history and philosophy, whose work was shaped to varying degrees by the Neo-Calvinist legacy of Abraham Kuyper. For the first time, we now have a comprehensive biography of Kuyper in English that provides an incisive and balanced study of the man, his ideas, his contributions, and his times.

James Bratt has contributed an important addition to the Modern Library of Religious Biography series with Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. He currently serves as professor of history at Calvin College, where much of his teaching and research focuses on religious and intellectual history. Bratt is well qualified to provide insight into Kuyper’s career given his previous work on Dutch religious groups in North America and his familiarity with the Kuyperian intellectual/theological tradition in Europe and America.

Abraham Kuyper was a complex figure. One of the great strengths of this biography is Bratt’s ability to capture that complexity and render it both understandable and relatable. No mere hagiography, Abraham Kuyper chronicles the personality and contributions of a great man who does not always appear to be a nice man. The astonishing variety and volume of his achievements stand alongside the tremendous toll those successes exacted on Kuyper and those closest to him. His expansive theological and social vision rests honestly alongside his nineteenth-century views of race and the inferiority of nonwestern cultures. Noting one of the compelling ironies of such racial views among nineteenth century Christians, Bratt writes, “Without ever explaining the anomaly of his allegiance to the African Augustine over the pale Brit Pelagius, in Common Grace Kuyper bluntly set the white race over the yellow and the yellow over black, with red doomed to extinction in the wilds of North America” (p. 200).

Bratt’s honest appraisal of his subject does not prevent him from fully appreciating the astonishing array of achievements that secured Kuyper’s influence in the Netherlands and internationally as well. From Kuyper’s early career as a Dutch parish minister to the apex of his career as Dutch prime minister (1901–1905), Bratt unfolds the narrative of Kuyper’s career and details the development of his thought in a readable and thorough account. Significant signposts in Kuyper’s career included his conversion from a modernist understanding of theology to a staunchly conservative Reformed theology, his development of the weekly and daily newspapers which gave him a public voice, his advocacy for Christian education which resulted in the development of the Free University, his service as prime minister of the Netherlands, and his delivery of the famous Stone Lectures at Princeton University in 1898 where he argued for the preeminence of Calvinism as a theological system and worldview.

Any biographer of Kuyper writing in English is faced with a number of difficulties. The first is finding and utilizing sources that are primarily written in Dutch. Translations of Dutch theological and philosophical works have been notoriously difficult to render in readable English text. Bratt displays a talent for producing or locating translations of Kuyper that are not only understandable but also engaging to read.

Another challenging issue for Kuyper biographers writing in English is the burden of making the complex religious and political situation of the Netherlands in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprehensible to the uninitiated. Those sections of the text in which Bratt seeks to clarify the positions of various parties and leaders are the most difficult portions of the biography. While Bratt is conversant with all of these factions and describes their essential proclivities well, the reader who is unfamiliar with Dutch culture and politics may find these sections slow plodding.

The rewards are worthwhile for those who invest the time to get to know Abraham Kuyper. Above all, Kuyper represents an important example of a faithful Christian who honestly believed that faith matters in the public square. He sought to creatively implement that vision in his own political and social context. In the course of working to promote Christian ideals in the broader culture, Kuyper was aware of the reality of his pluralistic context and the need for Christians to work in light of it rather than pretend that pluralism could be eliminated. His example of principled Christian advocacy in the midst of a pluralistic context can serve as a valuable corrective to the unhealthy and unrealistic “culture war” models of cultural engagement that have driven many Christian political movements in contemporary North America. Kuyper’s concepts of common grace and cultural mandate underscore the importance of including the whole of human experience as part of our ministry to persons both within and outside the Christian fold. His ideas regarding sphere sovereignty teach us that we should not push God-given institutions to serve purposes they were not intended to serve or distort them to compensate for the failures in other spheres. Abraham Kuyper’s life and career is a vivid reminder to those evangelicals who have expressed frustration with the visibility of “white Reformed guys” in Christian academia that those guys are prominent because their ideas are important. James Bratt has given us a valuable study of an important thinker who demands to be rediscovered in Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.

Scott Culpepper

Scott Culpepper
Dordt College
Sioux Center, Iowa, USA

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