At long last, we have a full-length biography in English of the Dutch Reformed thinker and activist Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Kuyper had enormous energy and self discipline, engaging in four careers simultaneously. He was a church leader who formed a new denomination, an academic theologian who founded the Free University in Amsterdam and wrote over 200 books and pamphlets, a journalist who submitted daily articles and a politician who became the first Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901-05). So why has it taken so long for his biography to appear in English? Perhaps because Kuyper does not fit easily into any of our modern categories.
James Bratt, professor of history at Calvin College, explains that Kuyper was a strict Calvinist who engaged in liberal politics, supporting education reform, a broader suffrage, and better working conditions for laborers. Though theologically conservative, his religious views were not in line with what would eventually be called Fundamentalism. His social views are generally considered enlightened, yet his thoughts on race would later be used to justify apartheid in South Africa. And he might be seen as a Dutch version of Woodrow Wilson except that he took Germany’s side in World War I.
As a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, Kuyper served as a pastor in three congregations until, in 1886, he led a conservative faction out of the church because of its failure to maintain Reformed standards for office holders. The dissenting group, known as the Doleantie (grieving ones), merged in 1892 with another schismatic group to form the Christian Churches in the Netherlands.
Amid an already crowded career of journalism, politics and church leadership, Kuyper also found time to become the father of Dutch Neo-Calvinism. As a Reformed theologian, he emphasized God’s Sovereignty, famously saying, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Bratt places him in the “extroverted, Puritan, New-School tradition” that easily led to his social and political engagement.
Bratt admires his subject. Kuyper, he writes, “combined the organization skill of Lyman Beecher, the platform presence of Charles Finney, and the public activism of both with the theological convictions — and no less the theological acumen — of Charles Hodge.” Nevertheless, Bratt’s biography is no hagiography. Though Bratt finds Kuyper to have been immensely talented, insightful, and productive, he also sees him as ambitious, unnecessarily polemical, often incapable of working with equals, and impatient with the details of political policy and theological discourse. “Abraham Kuyper,” he concludes, “was a great man but not a nice one.” Readers, however, are free to form their own judgments; and Bratt’s richly detailed, balanced and readable biography will give them more than enough data to ponder.
In the forward to this latest installment of Eerdmans’ “Library of Religious Biography” series, historian Mark Noll asks the imminently sensibly question, “Why should we care?” The answer lies in Kuyper’s theological reflections, especially his concepts of worldview, common grace and “sphere sovereignty.” For modern Reformed thinkers seeking to integrate every aspect of life into a comprehensive theological vision in which God redeems all of creation, Kuyper may yet be both an inspiration and a guide.
MICHAEL PARKER is a professor of church history in the Middle East