Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
In 1898 Dutch Calvinist philosopher, theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, which resulted in a volume (still in print) titled Lectures on Calvinism. Exactly a century later, Princeton sponsored a conference on Kuyper in conjunction with the 1998 Stone Lectures, which were given by Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, one of Kuyper’s intellectual and theological descendents. It was something of a surprise even to its organizers that about 400 people showed up for the conference from all around the world. Indeed, it turned out to be one of the largest conferences ever held at Princeton seminary during an academic year.
Who was Abraham Kuyper, and why is his thinking increasingly attractive to so many Christians? This book by James McGoldrick, a history professor at Cedarville College in Ohio, aims to answer these questions, at least in part. It is a semi-popular, topically-arranged account of Kuyper’s theology, social philosophy, and political legacy, both in the Netherlands and abroad. Previous biographies of Kuyper in English are now out of print, and in any event lacked the helpful documentation (most of it also from English sources) that McGoldrick provides. The result is a readable introduction to Kuyper’s legacy, albeit from the perspective of a rather classicperhaps even nostalgicCalvinist. Nick Wolterstorff once memorably analyzed his own Dutch-American subculture as embodying an uneasy tension among “Pies, Docs and Kuyps”that is, other-worldly pietists, theologically-inclined doctrinalists, and world-reforming Kuyperians. McGoldrick’s grid for analyzing and evaluating Kuyper is mainly doctrinal, as evidenced by the fact that he devotes three full chapters directly (and several others indirectly) to theology, emphasizing in particular Kuyper’s doctrines of God, sin, salvation and the church, but also reheating old Calvinist chestnuts such as the debate on supralapsarianism and the meaning of baptism.
But McGoldrick is a thorough enough historian to pay close attention to Kuyper’s social philosophy, with its stress on confessional pluralism and the sovereign rights of institutions such as the family, the arts, science, politics, and education, which is the basis of the “pillarization” of Dutch society. This is the policy of allowing tax dollars to subsidize Catholic, Protestant, liberal, and socialist educational and other institutions in proportion to their numbers in the population, a legacy that continues in America in the public policy work of the Washington-based Center for Public Justice, with its support for the expansion of school vouchers and faith-based initiatives in social services. He traces Kuyper’s political career, including his years as the Dutch prime minister (1901-1905) and his leadership of a Calvinist political party which rejected equally the individualist legacy of the French Revolution and the collectivist vision that would eventually become Communism.
He also documents Kuyper’s work on the doctrine common gracethe notion that God can get God’s work done through whomever God pleases, not just through those who believe in him. Kuyper in fact varied in his stress on common grace throughout his career, sometimes emphasizing it more, sometimes less, than the antithesis between believers and unbelievers. But in either case, he parlayed his Calvinist world view into an astute analysis of the challenges of industrialization and urbanization, and into successful policies that included expansion of the franchise, workers’ compensation, and public assistance to the poor. In this he was in articulate agreement with Pope Leo XIII who, in his 1891 encyclical, rejected socialism while calling for biblically-grounded economic justice towards the laboring classes.
McGoldrick does not lionize Kuyper: he suspects that he drifted from classic Reformed theology in certain ways, and does not avoid mentioning that it was a distortion of Kuyper’s thinking on sphere sovereignty that was partly responsible for the rise of Apartheid in South Africa. At the same time, his book is definitely a species of ‘great man’ historiography, one which treats Kuyper almost as if he had sprung full-blown from the head of Zeus. We hear almost nothing of the influence of gender and class on Kuyper himselfnot even the fact that it was his own finacee who gave him the English pietist novel that led him, in the midst of recovery from a nervous breakdown, to return to his Calvinist roots. Nor do we hear anything about the fact that his large household was run mainly by his wife and servants, a division of labor that was simply taken from granted by middle-class male professionals of his day, and which allowed him to engage in the cycle of workaholism and psychic breakdown that characterized his adult life. For a more fine-grained analysis of these and other issues, readers might consult Luis Lugo’s edited volume from the 1998 conference, Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2000). But for those whose interest in Kuyper and his legacy is still in its early stages, McGoldrick’s volume is a readable and well-referenced introduction to a large and growing literature on this controversial figure.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, WINTER 2004, VOL. 4, #1.
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