Personally, I have never been convinced of the correctness of the way in which Kuyper referred to the Bible and have always wondered whether the direction he pointed Christians regarding their place in society was the correct one. In this article we examine to what extent Kuyper has succeeded in giving concrete form to his beliefs in his personal life.
Childhood and youth
Abraham Kuyper was born on October 29, 1837, as the third child in a reformed minister’s family (Jan Frederik Kuyper and Henriêtte Huber) in Maassluis. Abraham’s father took an intermediate position between liberal and reformed orthodox theology. The reformed churches in the Netherlands were in bad shape at that time. The separatist movement had made it clear that many people longed for Scripture and confession and especially for Bible-believing preaching. The fire of secession quickly spread through the Netherlands, but the secessionists were soon persecuted and oppressed by the government, encouraged by the reformed church. The movement was particularly attractive to people from the lower social strata of the population, later referred to by Kuyper as the Kleine Luyden.
Kuyper himself hardly referred to this separatist movement in the early years of his public appearance. The reason for this may have been that he was in the environment of the notables within his church community who regarded the secession as very marginal or even completely ignored it. Bram (as he was called) was therefore very little influenced by the movement in his younger years.
Bram largely received his primary education at home. He learned the French language from his mother and German from his father. Bram was eager to learn and intelligent, with a great talent for languages.
In 1841 the Kuyper family moved to Middelburg. Bram developed a great love for the sea and shipping here. In 1849 they moved to Leiden, where Bram went to grammar school. He received his diploma in 1855, during which he gave a farewell speech in German on a Gothic translation of the Bible. After high school he went to the University of Leiden, where he supported himself by giving private lessons. In 1858 Kuyper graduated from the purely modernist university, summa cum laude. After this he continued his theological studies, also in Leiden. The most extremely liberal teachers were associated with this course. Bram also had lessons from Rauwenhoff, who taught church history from an evolutionary perspective. The greatest influence, however, came from JH Scholten, who taught dogmatics with one of its most important characteristics: the denial of the resurrection of Christ. In addition to the training in Leiden, Bram also became increasingly oriented towards modernism through contacts with other schools. For example, an important influence came from the humanistic Groningen school and the ecumenical Ethical school. When he finally finished his studies in Leiden in 1863, Kuyper’s thinking was almost entirely modernist.
Conversion and first ministry
Abraham Kuyper’s conversion from modernism to the Reformed faith was of great significance for the rest of his life. There were three events in particular that prepared and made possible the breakthrough of his conversion.
The first event was during his university studies. The University of Groningen had promised a prize to the person who would present the best essay on a comparison between Calvin and à Lasco regarding the church. Kuyper went looking for the original works of à Lasco, but found them nowhere. Until he finally miraculously came across a library of a very elderly preacher who had a large collection of Lasco’s works in the original edition. Partly because of this, Kuyper won the prize. Perhaps for the first time in his life he had experienced supernatural guidance from God and it is likely that this made him receptive to the truth of the Bible.
The second event was related to the first. Kuyper had become quite stressed due to the very hard work on his essay and had gone to Germany for a long period of rest. During his stay in Germany he read CM Yonge’s book, the Heir of Redcliffe. This book emphasizes the relativity of success and the value of humility and simplicity. Kuyper was deeply affected by these insights and would later repeatedly refer to this book, which had made him more receptive to God’s plan of salvation.
The third event was during Kuyper’s ministry as a preacher . He was appointed in Beesd, where he married Johanna Hendrika Schaay. It was a small congregation and most of the members were simple villagers. In his aim to get to know everyone well, Kuyper visited all parishioners one by one. However, much to his dismay, there was one young woman from the countryside, Pietronella Baltus, who refused to shake his hand. When Kuyper insisted, she stated that she wanted to shake his hand as a fellow human being, but not as a brother in the Lord. Kuyper was interested enough in her motives to overcome his offended feelings and visit her repeatedly. She repeatedly told him that he was preaching false doctrine and that his soul would be lost if he did not radically convert by returning to the Bible and to the Reformed confession. Ultimately, Kuyper could no longer resist this urge and gradually gave in. He began to admire Reformed theologians more and more, which immediately had an impact on his sermons and other public appearances.
Kuyper could speak particularly compellingly and when he began to preach Reformed doctrine, in an ecclesiastical climate where this was rare, he attracted a large audience. His sermons were widely accepted and he acquired considerable influence.
Pastor in Utrecht and Amsterdam
In 1867 Kuyper was appointed preacher in Utrecht, in a reformed congregation of 35,000 souls and 11 preachers. Here he became co-editor of De Heraut. Due to the influence of Kuyper, the church of Utrecht made a major swing towards Reformed doctrine, which put it at odds with the classis.
In 1870 Kuyper accepted an appeal from the church community of Amsterdam, a community of 140,000 members and 28 ministers. This was the largest and most prestigious municipality in the Netherlands. Wherever and whenever Kuyper performed, the halls were full. He preached the Reformed doctrine in a way that touched the hearts of the common people, the little ones. The strongest opposition, predictably, came from his fellow preachers. But ultimately no one could prevent the church of Amsterdam from becoming a powerful center for the spread of Reformed doctrine under Kuyper’s leadership. Although there remained modernist opinions and preachers within the church, the Orthodox believers obtained the vast majority.
Journalist and Writer
The great influence that Kuyper had during his life was partly due to his many publications. Kuyper was a very disciplined person who considered writing his highest priority. Initially, he was particularly interested in historical literary subjects. He published and edited works by à Lasco (see above) and also by Junius and Voetius. In 1871 Kuyper became the editor-in-chief of De Heraut (a weekly magazine) and in 1872 of De Standaard (a daily newspaper). He held these positions until the age of 82, a total of almost 50 years. Kuyper himself wrote frequently in both magazines and therefore had considerable influence, even at national level. Many of his written articles have subsequently been published in book form.
Kuyper wrote about a wide range of topics. His dogmatic treatises (and speeches) were published under the title Dictates Dogmatics. He also wrote many meditations that are still considered by many to be his best publications. He also wrote treatises on the confessions, of which the one on the Heidelberg Catechism has become the most famous. After a tour through the Mediterranean, he wrote two voluminous volumes about the geography, history and culture of the people there. Some of his works are sometimes classified under the heading of Reformation mysticism. The booklet Being Near God is probably the best known of his works in this area.
After his conversion, Kuyper became a fierce opponent of the modernism that so dominated the universities and churches in the Netherlands. The secession movement had been a real reformational breakthrough, but had few theologically and organizationally strong leaders. Many secessionists had also left for America under the pressure of poverty and persecution. Furthermore, the movement was greatly weakened by internal divisions.
Kuyper waged his fierce battle against liberal modernism inside and outside the reformed state church. One of the key points in this battle was the resistance of the Amsterdam church council to the broad admission policy for ministers and communion goers. Five ministers (including Kuyper), 42 elders and 33 deacons were subsequently deposed by the classis. Furthermore, the classis took over the management and administration of the municipality of Amsterdam. Immediately after this there was a national reaction, in which approximately 200 congregations split from the mother church: the Doleantie, 1886.
Kuyper had spoken rather negatively about the Secession until the Doleantie , but now he increasingly began to seek closer relations with the secessionists. Ultimately, approximately 300 congregations of the Doleantie and 400 congregations of the Secession came together under the name: Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. However, the theological differences that existed between the two partners, especially with regard to the covenant, caused many tensions. In some places this led to people not even recognizing each other (the A and the B churches).
At a national social level, Kuyper has become most famous for his political activities. He advocated a total social reform, based on reformatory principles. All areas of life were to be submitted to the will of Christ and one of the most effective ways to achieve this, in his view, was through Christian politics. In 1869 Kuyper threw himself wholeheartedly into the Anti-Revolutionary Party, together with Groen van Prinsterer. This party stood for a democracy in which rich and poor, on their knees before God, are consumed by the zeal for the glory of his name, in contrast to the French Revolution, which was a common action against God.
After several defeats, Kuyper was elected to the House of Representatives in 1874. On this occasion he gave up his position as a preacher to devote himself fully to politics. In 1875, shortly after his re-election as a member of parliament, he was stressed for the second time and was in rehabilitation for 15 months in Italy and Switzerland. Upon his return, the Liberal Party appeared to have become so strong that the ARP had no choice but to form a coalition with the Catholic People’s Party. This coalition won the elections in 1888, but lost in 1891. In 1901 the coalition won again and Kuyper became prime minister. However, the government did not last under him and the ARP-KVP coalition lost sharply in 1905. Kuyper subsequently served two more times for short periods in the first and second chamber, but his age and his illnesses increasingly began to work against him.
Kuyper’s political activities are strongly criticized by some biographers and some even believe that he thereby renounced his calling as a church leader. However, it must be remembered that for Kuyper, being involved in politics or in any other sector of society was of just as much spiritual importance as being involved in the church. He supported this view with the idea of common grace. According to this idea, elaborated in a three-part work of the same name, nature and its development through human efforts have an intrinsic value in the service of God. The unfolding of the earth is a task for man and everything that contributes to this (from housekeeping to genetic research) is in accordance with God’s purposes for creation and brings Him glory. As a Christian you therefore do not actually have a fundamentally different assignment than anyone else, except that, because of the private grace that has been granted to you, you will be much more motivated to carry out that assignment and you will do everything you can to use all the talents that you have. to develop fully. This idea of Kuyper, who relies on earlier church leaders such as Calvin, has been one of the pillars of Reformed politics for about a century.
Opinions differ about what Kuyper has achieved politically . Probably the most important result has been the equation of Christian education with secular education. His attitude towards colonialism is quite controversial. In any case, it is clear that he worked for the Christianization of the native population in the colonies and for better working conditions for native subordinates.
One of Kuyper’s greatest achievements was the founding of the Free University on October 20, 1880. It was an education for and by orthodox Reformed Christians, free from all interference from the government and the church. Five disciplines were taught: theology, medicine, law, biology and philosophy. Kuyper taught dogmatics until he could no longer do so due to health problems.
Kuyper was a theologian who, on the one hand, could debate with the great theologians of his time and, on the other, spoke the language of the common people. But, perhaps partly because of his many other interests and activities, contributions to the field of theology have on balance proven to be rather limited. There was often outright speculation and Biblically insufficient substantiation. Examples of this are the theories of supposed rebirth and common grace. Furthermore, his ideas sometimes seemed at odds with each other. For example, he passionately taught the antithesis between Christians and non-Christians and fought for the strict separation of Christianity from the world (Christian education, Christian science, Christian politics, etc.). At the same time, with his common grace, he paved the way for the two to rise together. Defenders of Kuyper’s theological views have often argued that the ideas of common grace nicely balance each other. But even if this were true and even if in practice one could deal with two opposing ideas that operate as each other’s counterbalance, this does not mean that the Biblical substantiation is correct.
Kuyper tended not only to promote Calvinism because of its Biblical correctness, but also to look for confirmation in history. However, in this he was often very inaccurate, as for example during his lectures in America, where he claimed that America was founded entirely on Calvinist principles. This is a very questionable statement and he received many critical questions about it. Kuyper’s theological-historical view on the development of the human race has also earned him little credit. He argued that under Calvinism the human race has taken a great step forward because this theology would have greatly promoted the mixing of races by breaking the isolation of population tribes. Theologically and historically this is not strong, genetically it is downright incorrect.
Kuyper contributed greatly to Calvinism being widely understood by Reformed believers. Calvinist theology was, as it were, taken out of the limitations of ecclesiastical and dogmatic events and applied to society as a whole. His idea of sovereignty within his own circle should not go unmentioned. The basis for this sovereignty is Christ’s rule over all domains of existence. God delegates this sovereignty to people, in the contexts in which they exist: family, business, church, agriculture, etc. In practice, this means, for example, that in the field of education the school has a say and in the field of justice the state. The power of the state is therefore limited to its specific domain(s). When the state goes beyond that, such as when it interferes in church affairs, it goes beyond its powers and the church will never be able to develop properly.
In recent years
Kuyper was used to working extremely hard and remained productive until the end. In 1899 his wife died. From that moment on it can be said that he became a truly elderly man. Some character traits became sharper and he became more intolerant. Conversations with people who thought differently increasingly resulted in harsh confrontations and bitter feelings. All in all, his last years were not easy. Kuyper died on November 8, 1920.
Evaluation and learning points
It is downright a shame that Kuyper, theologically speaking, did not always seem to be able to build his positions in a solid manner from the Bible. Other theologians, such as Herman Bavinck, who further adapted and developed parts of his ideas, were able to do this much better. Kuyper probably simply had too many activities and responsibilities at the same time to really carefully determine his positions.
Nevertheless, we may conclude that Kuyper has generally set a good tone for reformed Netherlands. First of all, he succeeded in bringing large parts of the church back to the Bible. Furthermore, his attitude is optimistic and his approach integral. All life in all its facets is intended to bring glory to God. Rich and poor, great and lowly, all are equal in that respect under the Lordship of Christ. This is a positive and truly Biblical position and it was very necessary in Kuyper’s time of colonialism and class differences to proclaim this with verve, which Kuyper was entrusted with.
Another good point of view of Kuyper is the idea of sovereignty within one’s own circle. There would have been no need at all to attempt to substantiate this position Biblically. It’s simply a very useful insight that counters unbridled expansion of power and can be very beneficial to society.
The most important learning point for me from this study concerns the way in which Kuyper gained so much influence. Due to the inner inconsistency in Kuyper’s work, I have never been very impressed with it and this has not changed during the making of this piece. For me, theoretical accuracy is usually an absolute condition for agreeing to something. But for the vast majority, including many people much more intelligent than myself, this apparently does not apply. People also look at personality, the strength with which something is asserted, the volume of books, the orator’s talent, the multitude of arguments. Kuyper worked extremely hard throughout his life and focused on achieving concrete and visible results. Together with his appearance and many talents, this has made him a great man. Several biographers call his life more than exemplary and even worthy of imitation. For me this goes too far. It seems sufficient to me to conclude that God used this remarkable man, despite his shortcomings and personal ambitions, to help a large proportion of Christians find their way back to the Bible during an important period of the social and ecclesiastical history of the Netherlands .