Book Review: Abraham Kuyper — Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

27 June 2013 by Wes Bredenhof

Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.  Paperback, 483 pages, $30.00.

Figures like Abraham Kuyper simply do not exist anymore.  You will look in vain for someone who effectively combines being a Reformed pastor, professor, politician, journalist and much more.  Our day seems incapable of producing anyone like “Father Abraham,” or “Abraham the Mighty,” as he was also called.  This fact alone could make a biography of Kuyper compelling reading.  After all, what accounts for Kuyper’s stature?  What prevents our own time from producing men like him?

James Bratt is a professor of history at Calvin College where he specializes in US intellectual and religious history.  It seems that other aspects of his career have been leading up to this monumental volume.  For example, in 1998 he was the editor of a volume containing new translations of some of Kuyper’s shorter writings (Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader).  He is obviously fluent in Dutch and has worked with the important primary and secondary sources in that language to produce this fine book.

This biography has been much-anticipated and the publisher has not been shy about promoting it as a one-of-a-kind work.  Eerdmans is describing it as the “first full-scale English biography of Abraham Kuyper.”  I was rather amused to read that since some unrelated research recently led me to some issues of The Banner from 1960.  Back then Eerdmans was loudly promoting another biography of Abraham Kuyper as the first of its kind in English.  Yes, Eerdmans published Frank Vandenberg’s biography of Abraham Kuyper in 1960 (it was reprinted by Paideia Press in 1978).  True, Vandenberg’s biography does have a different character and quality about it.  Bratt’s is far superior on most counts.  Nevertheless, I find it intriguing that Eerdmans seems to have forgotten about its earlier “full-scale English biography” that was so vocally hyped back in 1960.  Moreover, Vandenberg gets no mention in Bratt’s book, not even a footnote.

This biography has been published as part of an academic series, “Library of Religious Biography.”  Like the other volumes in this series, Abraham Kuyper is a scholarly work.  It features copious bibliographical notes for each chapter.  It is not written in a popular style for the average person in the pew.  It assumes a fairly high level of existing knowledge about world history, Dutch history, and Reformed theology.  Someone without that background knowledge might still benefit from this volume, but they will need to have some of the character qualities of the Mighty Abraham:  persistence and hard work.

A book review is not the place to rehearse the entire content of the book – otherwise, why would you even bother to read it for yourself?  Let it suffice to say that Bratt has all the bases covered.  Most of the important events of Kuyper’s entire life are recounted in great detail.  Some noteworthy items that I gleaned, some new to me and others not:  Kuyper and his siblings were homeschooled by both parents (18); in his younger years, Kuyper was essentially a Unitarian, denying the divinity of Christ and the forgiveness of sins through his blood (26); his church attendance in younger years was pathetic, but in his older years he again stopped attending public worship on Sundays, choosing instead to stay home and write Bible meditations for his newspaper (129); on his trip to the USA in 1898 he encouraged electors to vote Republican, but then later endorsed Democratic candidates for the presidency (268,274); Kuyper denounced laissez-faire capitalism (224).  Along the way, Bratt also corrects some common errors found in other biographical writings.  For instance, there is the story of how Kuyper providentially came across the works of the Polish Reformer Jan Laski in the library of the father of his professor.  Kuyper embellished the story when he wrote about it in his memoirs and many subsequent biographers simply took him at his word.  Kuyper claimed that, after searching far and wide for six weeks, he finally found a complete set of Laski’s writings in that personal library in Haarlem.  The reality was that he had already found other volumes in Utrecht, but one of the crucial ones that was missing turned up in Haarlem.

The book is arranged according to three epochs in Kuyper’s life:  Foundations (1837-77), Constructions (1877-97), Shadows (1898-1920).  In other words, there is a chronological development.  Bratt often works topically within each of these epochs.  Unfortunately, as a result sometimes the chronology within these epochs can become a little disorienting.  This is one of the hazards of this approach, but given the sheer breadth of Kuyper’s person, thought, work, and times, it is understandable why Bratt would do it this way.

Most of the events in Kuyper’s life are done adequate justice.  However, missing for some reason is a key event in a seminary classroom at Leiden where Kuyper applauded the denial of Christ’s resurrection by his church history professor L. W. E. Rauwenhoff.  Kuyper would later single out this incident as one that caused him great pain, knowing that he had grieved his Lord and Saviour.  Additionally, one might have hoped for greater attention to Kuyper’s role in the Union of 1892 or his contribution to the revision of article 36 of the Belgic Confession.

While he might be lacking on some of Kuyper’s ecclesiastical contributions, Bratt certainly gives ample attention to his political philosophy and activities.  Without a doubt, this was a big part of Kuyper’s life and legacy.  Commendably, Bratt carefully lays out the social and political context which a twenty-first century North American reader needs to understand the significance of Kuyper as a politician and social-political commentator/philosopher.  An entire chapter (15) is devoted to Kuyper’s term as prime minister of the Netherlands and Bratt ably lays out the events contributing to his rise (and eventual fall), as well as the policies by which he governed.

This is a critical biography.  While Bratt admires his subject, he is also not reticent with respect to his weaknesses.  In the Introduction he gives his own frank evaluation:  “Abraham Kuyper was a great man, but not a nice one” (xxii). Some personal flaws are exposed, but Bratt also takes note when the man grows in holiness.  Theological, philosophical, political, and historical flaws also receive attention and the author sometimes evaluates and offers his own perspective – one with which readers might not necessarily agree!   Bratt also gives his own take on the legacy of Kuyper and, there too, readers might take issue with his conclusions.  Let me give this one example:  “Neo-Calvinism is the only resource available besides neo-Thomism to rescue American evangelicalism from cultural irrelevance, to unite the warm heart at which evangelicalism excels with the furnished mind that public engagement requires and the responsible pluralism that modern society demands” (380).  When an author uses the word “only,” he is almost begging for someone to disagree with him.  Are there no other viable options besides neo-Calvinism and neo-Thomism?  But more importantly, should we even want to rescue American evangelicalism from cultural irrelevance or meet the demands of modern society?  More such questions could be asked of this and other similar statements.

Abraham Kuyper was a stimulating read from cover to cover.  The Mighty Abraham is presented as the complex, sometimes paradoxical, larger-than-life figure that he was.  We see him also as a child of God working through enormous spiritual struggles – by God’s grace, and through providential people and circumstances, he goes from being essentially a Unitarian to Reformed in his convictions.  God used him to reform the church and also to bring together those believers who belonged together.  Readers will come away with a greater appreciation for all the nuances and details that made him a giant in our heritage.  You do not have to appreciate or endorse the idiosyncrasies of Kuyper’s theology to understand that he has a played a huge role in shaping who we are as Reformed people today.

Bratt has produced an impressive and well-written volume.  I don’t often get to write this, but the book is also absolutely immaculate in terms of typos and other such formal errors.  Eerdmans and its editorial staff can be commended for their obsessive attention to detail.  This volume might not be the only English work on the life of Kuyper, but it is definitely the new gold standard.