Abraham Kuyper: Reformed Statesman

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905.  The influential Dutchman was a brilliant orator and political organizer whose Anti-Revolutionary Party stamped a lasting imprint on twentieth century Holland.  He was a journalist and editor whose multiple newspapers were greatly influential; his writings are back in print thanks to Lexham Press and the Acton Institute.  He was a professor of theology who founded the distinctively Christian Free University of Amsterdam.  But first and foremost Kuyper was a thinker who strove to apply his Reformed Christian worldview to every area of his life, work, and country.  As 20th century Evangelical Chuck Colson was so fond of quoting, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”  The words and notions were Kuyper’s before they were adopted by Colson.

This essay is to be the first of a series of articles detailing the life, the work, and the misunderstood legacy of Abraham Kuyper.  I, for one, am very thankful for the renewed interest in the great man, even if his life and legacy fall short of theological perfection.  My personal vision is to immerse myself in the life and political/worldview legacy of Kuyper, while deferring to his co-laborer Herman Bavinck for a more robust and orthodox systematic theology. Still, some recent biographers assert that Kuyper was generally orthodox in both his theology and political philosophy.

This man, who was so remarkably influential in his particular place and time, was an evidently gifted thinker and reformer whose legacy lasted at least three-quarters of a century beyond his death.  According to Mark J. Larson, Kuyper’s “neo-Calvinism” thought rested upon five pillars:

  1. The authority of God over the nations;
  2. The blessing of God upon those countries that walk in His ordinances;
  3. The fallen condition of human nature creating the need for government;
  4. The need for limits upon political authority;
  5. The value of freedom that must be zealously guarded.

One contemporary podcast host and writer often asserts that “Politics is downstream of culture.”  And the works of Abraham Kuyper bear out this thinking. 

Perhaps Kuyper’s most lasting writings up to this point are contained in his Lectures on Calvinism, arising from the Stone Lectures that the statesman delivered at Princeton University in 1898.  This brilliant series of six lectures (referred to alternatively as Kuyper’s “Stone Lectures” or “Lectures on Calvinism”) explore a series of applications of the developing theology of the Dutch Reformed Church to the various “spheres” of modern life.  The first asserts that Calvinism is a comprehensive worldview and Life-system.  The second explores Calvinism as it relates to other world religions. Next is a look at Calvinism and Politics; then Calvinism and science; followed by Calvinism and Art; and finally, Calvinism and the Future. Historian Mark A. Noll summarizes this approach by stating:

[Kuyper] 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. (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, foreword, x).

Plainly, Kuyper the reformer, writer, politician, professor, university president, and Prime Minister was a passionate believer in not only the Christian worldview as a relevant life-system, but also an indefatigable worker to push back against degeneration and the Fall of mankind in the 20th century West.  He was many things, but an abject pessimist or easy-chair Pietist is certainly not a plausible criticism of this Calvinist!

The Dutch statesman stood both in line with Calvinian ideas on natural law, total depravity, social renewal, and republicanism.  Yet there remains a real distinction between John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper on the issues of religious liberty and national church disestablishment. Unlike Calvin, Kuyper experienced time in Holland in which his particular denomination was a minority of the population. He experienced social division and church splits, and yet he became an articulate defender of the Reformed Christian vision of church, state, and society at large.

Abraham Kuyper used his massive intellect and top-flight educational achievements to wage war against the destructive forces of Modernism. He wrote, “It must be felt that in Modernism the vast energy of an all-embracing life-system assails us, then also it must be understood that we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power.” He then asserted that the alternative “life-system” was the comprehensive worldview of Calvinism.

In 2021, Modernism is no longer a real and present danger to the Church, and perhaps the danger is not even Postmodernism. I believe that the argument can be made that the most pernicious threat to the faith in the West is the new “religion of Woke,” as cultural observer Albert Mohler describes it.  And if we are to learn from Abraham Kuyper’s relentless battles against Modernism in his day, the Church needs both a robust philosophical attack against the many-headed dragon of Social Justice “racial equity” and the fascist Corporate “Wokeism.”

The life and legacy of relentless action in the face of social degeneration is what really drew me to Abraham Kuyper.  I can see the tendency toward world-forsaking Christian contemplation in both myself and have heard the characterization used against fellow Reformed Christians in the 20th and 21st centuries. So it is with humility and need that I intend to delve into the philosophy, passionate labors, and lasting legacy of this enormously influential Dutchman.  And I urge my readers to not dismiss him because of a tainted popular reputation.

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