Politics and Prose: Abraham Kuyper

Each Monday we feature one article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

 Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat
James Bratt (Eerdmans; 2013)

On Kuyper: A Collection of Readings on the Life, Work & Legacy of Abraham Kuyper
Edited by Steve Bishop & John Kok (Dordt College Press; 2013)

The Center for Public Justice is broad-based citizen movement drawing on a variety of political theorists, theologians, and public intellectuals.  In this column, I am delighted to review an assortment of books that help us think more fruitfully about politics and justice in the public square.  We read widely, think deeply, and act as we can, hoping to forge a perspective other than standard-fare liberal or conservative options.

However, CPJ and its leaders stand within a particular political tradition, shaped by the socially engaged neo-Calvinism that generated spiritual revivals in Holland in the late nineteenth century and the Christian Democratic political movement that emerged from it. Abraham Kuyper, a pastor, scholar, journalist, political organizer, and eventually prime minister, was the titanic figure of this movement. His 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary (Lectures on Calvinism) remain a legendary example of his claim that Christ is King of all areas of life, inviting us to witness to God’s grace across “every square inch” of His creation. These two new books about Kuyper are essential reading for those wanting to understand the Kuyperianism that animates the political witness of CPJ.

Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat by James Bratt, a renowned historian teaching at Calvin College, is nothing short of magisterial.  No other biographies of Kuyper have approached the comprehensive scope of this extraordinary work. As the forward by Mark Noll puts it, Bratt has given us a landmark work that answers the question “who was Abraham Kuyper and why should we care?”  Some of the most renowned writers within this tradition (Mouw, Wolterstorff, Marsden) insist it is “indispensable,” “marvelous,” “a page-turner,” which “many of us have been waiting for” which will “undoubtedly become a classic.”

This wonderfully researched and well-told book tells the thrilling story of a complex and controversial character set in the context of a changing era. It is a superb exploration of Kuyper’s Reformed worldview and its implications for politics.  Kuyper was a tireless organizer, a “volcanic” force who started a newspaper, a university, a political party, and more.  His insistence on alternative political organizations within a robust societal pluralism and his insightful balance of seeing what is often called “common grace” and “the antithesis” remains very fruitful for our own time.

While the book chronicles the genesis and development of Kuyper’s many ideas and efforts, it is essentially a biography, including, as Bratt says in his brilliant introduction, “warts and all.”  Abraham Kuyper is a must-read for those of us committed to CPJ, as it helps us to know “Father Abraham,” his warts and all, as well as Kuyper’s fascinating, generative ideas and the strategies he used to see some of these ideas come to fruition.

On Kuyper: A Collection of Readings on the Life, Work & Legacy of Abraham Kuyper is an indispensable resource for those wanting to discern the implications of Kuyperianism for contemporary thought and social action. While it may not be a page-turner like the epic new biography by Bratt, it is the best anthology of essays about Kuyper to date. Compiled by individuals deeply rooted in the neo-Kuyperian movement, the collection features some of the most astute Christian intellectuals of the last half a century ruminating on, and in some cases incisively dissecting, important details of Kuyper’s perspective and programs.

John Kok, an esteemed philosopher at Dordt College, and Steve Bishop, a feisty cultural critic and teacher who maintains the neo-Calvinist website allofliferedeemed.co.uk, have brought together in one major volume the world’s finest Kuyperian scholars, from philosophers like Dooyeweerd, Zuidema, Klapwijk and Strauss to theologians, churchman, political theorists, and historians.  The collection also has excerpts from biographies, scholarly articles, and popular speeches, along with several pieces never before published in English, and a few introductory essays about Kuyper’s life, including one by his daughter, Catherine.

Many of the chapters explore specific aspects of Kuyper’s work such as Mary Stewart Van Leuween’s detailed study of Kuyper’s writings on women, Del Ratzch’s report of Kuyper’s view of evolution, Peter Heslam’s chapter on Kuyper’s view of the arts, and George Harinck on the legacy of Kuyper in South Africa. There are numerous pieces on the tradition of Christian Democracy, Kuyper’s statesmanship, and anti-revolutionary politics. James Skillen’s chapter shows how Kuyper’s framework shaped CPJ’s significant contribution to welfare reform.  

Pondering the treasures of these two new Kuyperian books will help us clarify how to think about and propose fresh policy initiatives in ways that are different from conventional liberal or conservative ideologies and will help CPJ be true to its heritage and calling.  

-Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.