Abraham Kuyper, Part I

Recently, I read James Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.

It is almost impossible to imagine how Kuyper accomplished so much in one lifetime. He was ordained as a Calvinist minister, founded a newspaper and wrote for it daily, penned many volumes of books, started a political party, founded a university, served in parliament and was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. Like his contemporary Pope Leo XIII, he brought his theological tradition to bear on the challenges posed by modernity in new and important ways. One stands in awe of his accomplishments.

I am not in a position to craft a review of this work because I do not know enough about Calvinism nor about the Netherlands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to assess the work. But, I found it fascinating and wish to encourage others, like me, who are unfamiliar with Kuyper, to read this book. So, in lieu of a review, for the next few days, I will pull some of my favorite quotes from the text and note briefly why they struck a chord.

From the chapter on Kuyper’s education:

How he and others packing Scholten’s lectures had grasped at the parade of German philosophers who there passed in review, Kuyper recalled: “People turned their gaze on the hieroglyphics of Kant’s oracular language, bathed in Jacobi’s streams of feeling, raved a while about Fichte’s Idealism of the Ego and Non-Ego, hoped for a moment to find firmer ground in Schilling’s gnosticism, and at last gaped at the dizzying mental gymnastics whereby Hegel won admiration as an athlete.” None of it had worked, the now orthodox Kuyper of 1871 concluded, but that did not lead him to dismiss it all as a bad dream or to celebrate the succeeding Realist turn instead. Rather, the latter represented a deeper sinking still, “back to the lowest level of spiritual existence…fashioning an idol out of gross empiricism.” The new “realism threatens us with a real danger,” Kuyper continued. “The distance from its base to the fatal abyss of materialism is easily measured, and we are well on our way to it.”

What’s not to love about someone who so deftly captures the sophomoric infatuations, fleeting alas, with which a student grasps at the various theories presented to him at university? Even more, I admire his unwillingness to dismiss it all as “a bad dream” but to discern in the various authors encountered, and dismissed, a grappling, a striving, after the real that was more real than the Realists who followed.

In the chapter on Kuyper as a young pastor:

“Modernism has saved orthodoxy in the church of Jesus Christ,” Kuyper argued, since without its challenges, “we would still be groaning under the leaden weight of an all-killing Conservatism.”

And, on the next page:

There is “a poisonous snake which seeks to enter the hearts of us all,” Kuyper warned, where it “sucks the last drop of lifeblood from our veins.” Indeed, “that monster has wrapped itself around our age and crept into its breast.” This beast was not the Morgana of Modernism but “Addiction to Doubt,” not illusion but disillusion, and Kuyper shuddered at the toil it was taking: “I have seen its victims, have seen the enervated souls, the weak of heart who float along with the crowd, powerless to resist the tide, people who know only the momentary flush of excitement but are inwardly dying so that only a dissembling life can, for the moment, conceal their spiritual death.

My affection for the first quote should be obvious: The challenges of modernity, insofar as they are human challenges, should serve as a prod to believers, not a threat. The graver threat is, as Kuyper insists, “an all-killing Conservatism.” And, the threat of “Addiction to Doubt” also rings true. We all wrestle with doubt, to be sure, but it is the addiction to it that so cripples modern man, skepticism as a first principle, a doubt that ceases to seek answers or denies they do, or even can, exist, and which ends in a “dissembling life.” It pains me to say it, but we all have encountered such dissembling among those who cling to a Christian way of thinking after the Christian faith has been pushed from its central claim upon our hearts and minds.

From the chapter on Kuyper’s dabbling with the Holiness movement and his emotional breakdown:

The lofty standards of God’s righteousness, the prospect of laboring for a lifetime against inherent sin, the struggle with one’s divided will, the relapses that occur precisely upon some exceptional achievement – all these were so discouraging that believers were tempted to accept the two false measures that perfectionists erect: “Of the holiness of God they have much too low, and of the corruption of sin much too light, a view.”

Kuyper could be commenting today on the reaction in certain circles to Pope Francis’ repeated calls to repentance and conversion. Too many on the Left think all that talk about repentance will harm their self-esteem and too many on the Right abide in a self-satisfied, upper middle class, bourgeois piety that is a counterfeit of authentic Christian spirituality.

From the same chapter:

However much they disagreed on theological substance, Kuyper argued, Ethicals and evangelicals both tended toward atomism, focusing on the discrete self, deed or thought; toward sentimentalism, drifting with moods and feelings; toward subjectivism, orbiting around human experience; and hence toward superficiality, enchanted with appearances. Scripture and history supported the Reformed profile instead: a holistic approach that sought out the organic unity behind the individual parts; a probing in depth that got to roots and sources; a rigor willing to sacrifice any human need and hope to the judgment of revealed truth; and above all, a God-centeredness that put everyone and everything in proper perspective. The three parts and 650 pages of The Work of the Holy Spirit thus return relentlessly to the big picture and ultimate forces, and enthusiastically – perhaps even with a “subjective” relish – to the bar of divine decree….The Spirit-work most visible to history was calling forth the Scriptures, the person of Christ (“conceived by the Holy Spirit”), and the church as instruments of re-creation.

Sound familiar? “Subjectivism, orbiting around human experience”? “Superficiality?” Kuyper anchored his entire work in firmer soil, the soil of Calvinism, which is “willing to sacrifice any human need and hope to the judgment of revealed truth.” How much richer our Catholic discussion of, say, immigration reform or same sex marriage, would be is we, too, tethered our needs and hopes to revealed truth? How much less slipping and sliding there would be if the Catholic commentariat really wrote and spoke as if it believed that the church was an instrument of re-creation, not a sociologically decrepit patriarchy? We are not fundamentalists. Neither was Kuyper. But that does not mean there are no fundamentals. In page after page of this book, it is this which I most admire about Kuyper, his insistence that all of his projects and plans and ideas be rooted in the Reformed tradition to which he was heir, not in any nostalgic way, not at the expense of engagement with the world – far from it! – but because he believed in every fiber of his being that his tradition carried within it the revealed truth about God and, consequently, about human kind.

More tomorrow. N.B. I am traveling today so no links. 


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