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Notable Christians: Abraham Kuyper

Oct 15, 2012

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was an amazing figure in so many ways. He was Dutch Calvinist theologian, pastor, politician, newspaper editor, statesman, journalist, educator, and Christian leader. Historian Richard Lovelace called him the greatest evangelical thinker since Jonathan Edwards.

Although known as a champion of neo-Calvinism, he did not start out that way. He was a pastor’s son, and homeschooled, but his university days saw him embracing theological liberalism and rationalism. But a life-long reverence for Scripture, along with various divine encounters along the way, helped him to shake free of modernism and become a stalwart for evangelical Calvinism.

He was a pastor at several churches before moving in a political direction. To further his political concerns he became involved in journalism. He became editor of a Christian weekly, De Heraut (The Herald) and founded his own paper, De Standaard (The Standard) in 1872. This paper became the voice for the political group he associated with, the Anti-Revolutionary Party.

He entered parliament in 1874 and served in the lower house until 1877. He was leader of the ARP, and at the same time considered establishing a Christian University. So in 1880 he founded the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) of Amsterdam.

In spite of his busy work schedule as a university professor, journalist, and politician, he spent a lot of time in theological and religious writing. In 1893-1894 his three-volume Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology appeared. He also wrote many other important theological, political and devotional books.

For example, he managed to write a 1300-page platform of the ARP called Our Program. He also wrote a three-volume work in the 1890s called Common Grace. And his 700-page volume The Work of the Holy Spirit is still available today.

In 1898 he visited the United States where he delivered his now famous Stone Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton University. Those six lectures really helped spread his worldview into the larger Western world. In 1894 he was re-elected to Parliament, and he served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, and died at age 83 in 1920.

One of his major intellectual contributions was his concept of “sphere sovereignty”. Instead of seeing rights as coming from the state, or from autonomous individuals, he believed we should support the “intermediate bodies” (later called mediating structures) in society, such as the family, church, school, clubs, the press, business and industry, the arts, etc.

Each of these should have their own sphere of sovereignty, to keep in check the powers of the state. He taught that God was the ultimate sovereign and source of authority, but he allowed these other various spheres to make life possible in a fallen world. In what is today sometimes called principled pluralism, he argued, for example, for equal state funding of all religious schools.

As a Calvinist he believed that Christianity was an all-encompassing worldview which should influence every aspect of life. He felt that Christianity was not to be a privatised affair, or just concerned about “spiritual” matters, but something that impacts all areas of life, for the glory of God.

He wrote this statement at the 25th anniversary of his editorship of The Standard: “One desire has been the ruling passion of my life. One high motive has acted like a spur upon my mind and soul. And sooner than that I should seek escape from the sacred necessity that is laid upon me, let the breath of life fail me. It is this: That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to him.”

As he famously said at the inaugural convocation of the Free University, commenting on Psalm 24:1 (The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it): “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’.”

In the same vein he also said, “The curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life.”

And again, “Christianity conceals in its womb a much greater treasure of rejuvenation than you surmise. Until now it has exerted its power only on the individual and only indirectly on the state. But anyone who, as believer or as unbeliever, has been able to spy out its secret dynamic, must grant that Christianity can exert a wonderful organizing power on society also; and not till this power breaks through will the religion of the cross shine before the whole world in all the depths of its conception and in all the wealth of the blessings which it brings.”

Richard Mouw comments, “When God saves us, [Kuyper] insisted, he incorporates us into a community, the people of God. And this community, in turn, is called to serve God’s goals in the larger world. In the life of the church we worship a sovereign God, but that God then commands us to be active witnesses in our daily lives to God’s sovereign rule over all things.

“For Kuyper, every Christian is called to be an agent of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, wherever they are called by God to serve. The system of thought that Kuyper developed was an elaborate spelling out of how we are to understand this call to Kingdom service.”

He was not just a thinker but a doer, as should be evident from what I have written above. And he was certainly a fighter. He also famously said: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”

And his devotional love for Christ matched his intellectual and theological mind: “He is your friend who pushes you nearer to God.” His influence has been widely felt, with such men as Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Albert M. Wolters, Chuck Colson, and Richard Mouw all indebted to his life and thought.

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One of the first English-speaking biographers of Kuyper, Frank Vanden Berg, said this about the man and his legacy: “Because Kuyper always had the national outlook and a profound concern for the spiritual foundations of the national life, he ceaselessly appealed to the nation’s moral and intellectual convictions. The battling and the building of the years altered the face of Netherlands’ politics and to a significant degree the life of his nation. The impact of his career is still discernible everywhere. In Holland’s Parthenon he has his own unique, secure niche. Eliminate Kuyper and you cannot understand Netherlands’ history of about the last eighty years.”

For further reading:

Bolt, John, A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology. Eerdmans, 2001.
Bratt, James, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Eerdmans, 2013
Bratt, James, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader. Eerdmans, 1998.
Budziszewski, J., ed., Evangelicals in the Public Square. Baker, 2006.
McGoldrick, James, God’s Renaissance Man: Abraham Kuyper. EP, 2000.
Mouw, Richard, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction. Eerdmans, 2011.
Praamsma, Louis, Let Christ Be King: Reflections on the Life and Times of Abraham Kuyper. Paideia Press, 1985.
Vanden Berg, Frank, Abraham Kuyper. Paideia Press, 1978.

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11 Responses to Notable Christians: Abraham Kuyper

  • Bill, you are probably aware that Kuyper’s ideas were brought to Australia by ‘Reformed’ Dutch immigrants post-WW2. Sporadic efforts have been made over the decades since then by various activists to translate Kuyper’s vision into the Australian context most notably in Christian schooling. Around Melbourne, Christian parent-controlled schools have been established at Doveton (Maranatha), Mt Evelyn (Mt Evelyn Christian School), Donvale (Donvale Christian College) and Monbulk (Mountain District Christian School). All these, though influenced by Christian Reformed Churches to greater and lesser amounts, were constituted as separate from official church involvement. Such an understanding rested on the heritage of Abraham Kuyper and the idea of ‘sphere sovereignty’ to which you refer.
    The Free University had two outstanding philosophers in Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven whose work also has influenced the number of Christian academics in Australia, Canada and the US as you point out.

    Ian Ridgway

  • Correct, Ian, and of course there are others in Victoria now, as well as in the other States.

    Sadly, those Christian parent-controlled school ideals have been undermined by government funding and the lack of anything equivalent to the Free University to train teachers in Christian world-view modes of thinking.

    And the Christian home education movement was another attempt to free education from the stultifying influence of liberalism and secularism. But it is also suffering from too much government interference.

    John Angelico

  • I find his work difficult to read so its good to get a bit of a summary view thanks .

    Having spent most of my life advising industry and government bodies, its clear that we could a lot more to extend our understanding and resolve to think Christianly about each and every nook an cranny. The public service can be one of the best places to work and being a believer in there means you can have a clearer view of the limits and possibilities of its power.
    As he suggested, the wise direction of thought and action is not always obvious ( hidden ).
    This is most evident to me in practice with too many young Christians hooked into the Greens modus operandi and heretical theology in their approach to earth stewardship. The matter is serious because a lot of tax to do good in this area is simply wasted on tokens. http://designwithnature.blogspot.com http://dogood.blogspot.com

    John Modra

  • Bill, do you have any teaching on the reformed beliefs? has come up recently with someone who has their kids at a school that is reformed… What is the best way to describe someone who is reformed in their beliefs? thanks so much,
    Liz Gee

  • Thanks Liz

    Very, very briefly, this refers to the Reformer John Calvin, and those who followed him (today the Presbyterians, etc). Their emphasis in on the sovereignty and glory of God. Predestination, election, the inability of man to save himself, are some of the emphases. Some subscribe to what is found in the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and the Perseverance of the saints. It has a high view of Scripture and takes the importance of biblical doctrine seriously. It sees the Lordship of Christ as applying to every area of life (see above as to Kuyper’s views).

    It tends to be the opposite of what is known as Arminian theology, which puts much greater emphasis on man and what he can do in his own salvation. But this is a very quick and superficial explanation of what is much more detailed and nuanced.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • thanks Bill, that’s very helpful…
    Liz Gee

  • “It tends to be the opposite of what is known as Arminian theology, which puts much greater emphasis on man and what he can do in his own salvation”.

    Sorry Bill, but that is “quick and superficial” to the point of being quite misleading.

    Arminian theology certainly differs from Calvinist theology, but is not its “opposite”.

    Arminian theology is not about “man”, but about God and his grace, and it does not teach that human beings can “do” anything in their salvation.

    You appear to be doing inadvertently what some unscrupulous Calvinists do deliberately, ie conflating Arminianism and Pelagianism.

    Bill James

  • Thanks Bill

    As I told Liz I was offering a very brief and sketchy overview, one that needed to be teased out much further. Thus it is not necessary for someone to pick a fight over this when none was intended. Arminianism of course does place a very high premium on human free will in distinction to Reformed thought – certainly in understanding doctrines such as election.

    And of course just as those in the Reformed camp include far more than just Calvin, those in the Arminian camp include far more than just Arminius – people such as Wesley of course come to mind here. So what I said was roughly accurate, given all the qualifiers I had already mentioned. But if you want to get into a big debate about all this, you might save it for a post which deals with that topic specifically.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill for this article on a man who, although prominent in his day, is scarcely known to Christians today. This is a great pity for, as you point out, he has much to teach us still, by word and by example. His deep love for his nation and his passionate desire to see it turn from the godless secularism at that time invading from France in particular (thus the Anti-Revolutionary Party) and to embrace again the Reformed faith of an earlier chapter of the history of the Netherlands is nothing short of inspirational. Where in this nation are we to find the leader of tomorrow who aspires to the highest office in the land, but who has the breadth of vision and the heart of compassion that Kuyper demonstrated, one who is fully committed to the truth of God’s Word and its application to all areas of life rather than just in the church?
    Graeme Mitchell

  • Thanks for this article, Bill. You have summarised Kuyper well. I have just recently completed a dissertation on Kuyper’s political theory at Monash University (of all places!), and have found Kuyper’s writing stimulating, and his ideas powerful. He certainly fought hard against the creeping secularist agenda, and founded a movement which spawned many excellent figures, some of which you listed. I thank God for Dr. Kuyper!

    His 1898 Stone Lectures have been more recently published as Lectures on Calvinism, and are available at Koorong, and online. I would consider that volume his most readable and comprehensive, especially as an overview of his thought. An excellent book, which serves as an analysis of the lectures and a biographical account of Kuyper, by Peter Heslam is Creating a Christian Worldview. Highly recommended.

    Simon Kennedy

  • Thanks for the tip Simon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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