The Life and Legacy of Abraham Kuyper

The man who changed the face of Calvinism. The man who was “the first Christian in a very profound way to come to grips with the fact that the world has been transformed.”[1] The man who influenced the political, theological, sociological, and educational history of the Western World. His name is Abraham Kuyper.

I mentioned this in my Reformation Sunday sermon two years ago, and I want to stress again how history can be summarized. History can be summarized in four stages: “The Church Formed, the Church De-Formed, the Church Reformed, and the Church transformed.” This is how I want you to think of history in this four-fold pattern. This is the view I want you to embrace of the past, present, and future. We are currently in this period of the Church being transformed, and when the Church is transformed, everything else around it is transformed also. The Church’s environment eventually—for the good or bad—becomes the ethos of our culture.

I believe that at the end of history we will look back and see the name Abraham Kuyper as a central figure in this period of transformation. Why? Because Kuyper made Calvinism respectable again. Calvinism, that is the theology that believes in the absolute sovereignty of God over everything, suffered greatly after the death of Calvin in 1564. The trajectory of the disciples of Calvin was not easy as they sought to build a vision based on the Sovereignty of God. There were some abuses, and many great things, but it is safe to say the vision of Calvin was lost some time after the death of Calvin. The missionary revolution of the 18th and 19th century gave new life to Calvinism. The greatest missionary of the last 300 years, William Carey,[2] was both a Calvinist and a Postmillennialism. He brought together these two powerful ideas that God is Sovereign and that the Gospel changes the world. It was during these glorious days that on October 29th, 1837 was born Abraham Kuyper (spelled Abraham Kuijper in Dutch).

Kuyper was Dutch. The Dutch Reformed have been very instrumental in shaping many of our American institutions and seminaries. If you have heard of Cornelius Van Til, Herman Bavinck, Simon Kistemaker, Louis Berkhof, Klaas Schilder, Gerardus Vossius, and others, these are the chief thinkers of the Reformed Tradition, who were all Dutchmen.

I came to seminary as a Presbyterian. But there were also other Dutch Reformed students on campus, and one of my favorite professors at RTS was Simon Kistemaker, a true Dutchman. “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,” was their slogan. Many of them came from the Reformed Church of America (RCA), which is the oldest Protestant denomination[3] in America. But of course, the Dutch Reformed in this country have fallen on hard times. To give you an example of how far they have fallen, the largest RCA church in America is the Crystal Cathedral, once pastored by Robert Schuller,[4] the father of the Positive Thinking Movement.

Kuyper would have been devasted by the false representation of the gospel in the RCA today.

The Early Education Life of Abraham Kuyper

Kuyper was homeschooled by his father who was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. His father was mildly orthodox. He was orthodox, but he wasn’t the type to push orthodoxy as a way of life.[5]

As an undergraduate, Kuyper studied ancient languages, which were an addition to the languages he already spoke English, French, German, and Dutch. What was unique about Kuyper’s study habits is that he avoided “distractions and pursued his studies with diligence.”[6] At the time of his graduation he became engaged to Henrdrika Schaay, and married her in 1863.

Kuyper’s Conversion and Return to Calvinism

Kuyper was influenced by his father’s training. He became as a result enamored by modernist skepticism. One time he said that he joined others in applauding one of the professors who denied the bodily resurrection of Christ. He later went on to say: “In the academic world I had no defense against the powers of theological negation. I was robbed of my childhood faith. I was unconverted, proud, and open to doubting.”[7]

His doctoral dissertation compared Calvin to a modernist scholar. By the end of his dissertation Kuyper ended up despising Calvin. Later on after re-orienting his life towards God he said that the dissertation was the beginning of his thinking on Divine Providence. He hated the idea that God was sovereign over everything, even the human will, but eventually he came to realize that this was what the Bible taught.

sketch.jpgAfter he was married he took on his first pastorate. His congregation in the Dutch Reformed Church did what I hope any congregation would do: they said his preaching and doctrine were unacceptable because they were not grounded in the Bible. This was a unique Church. While the church scene in the Netherlands was completely overwhelmed by liberalism and abandonment of the Reformed Confessions, which were grounded in the Bible, this little Church challenged Kuyper’s orthodoxy.

The Theology and Legacy of Abraham Kuyper

It is no secret that Providence Church has been largely influenced by Kuyper in this respect: that Kuyper believed vigorously in Christian action on the basis of principles. He “regarded Christianity as far more than a doctrine of personal salvation from sin.”[8] He believed in original sin, but he also believed that the Christian faith needs a comprehensive weltanschauung (vein-to-show), a worldview. In his lectures he emphasized that the Christian faith is more than academic studies, it consumes everything. It was at a lecture to the Free University of Amsterdam that he made his famous statement:

There is not one part of our world of thought that can be hermetically separated from the other parts, and there is not an inch in the entire area of our human life of which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!”

There are a host of implications to this statement. Kuyper’s point was that every sphere: Church, Family, and Government do not derive their authority from itself, but rather from God. For Kuyper, this was a way of preventing totalitarianism. No sphere is entitled to rule absolutely. The Church, Government, and the Family had their limitations. The Church could not interfere in the business of the State. The Church, as Kuyper believed, could speak to the issues of the State, but she could not force her hand and have the State in her pocket, and most certainly the opposite is true. The State could not dictate or take away the religious freedom of the Church.[9]

Kuyper believed that a country where spheres operated within the confines of God’s authority, those countries would succeed. He said that in countries where the influence of the Protestant Reformation was present they would flourish, but in France and Russia where there was little trace of Protestantism left they would fall into despotism. James McGoldrick wrote of Kuyper’s vision in the Netherlands: “Kuyper’s desire for the Netherlands was that the nation would revive and persevere its Calvinistic heritage, with its doctrine of limited government that respects the autonomy of all spheres of authority and thereby guarantees the freedom of its citizens.”[10] Kuyper believed that unless a society acknowledges the sovereignty of God they will not be free. You need to acknowledge the freedom of God first before being free yourself.

There are a couple of areas where I think Abraham Kuyper left a lasting legacy:

First, Kuyper re-introduced a very powerful way of defending the faith. Some would call it “Presuppositionalism.” He was at the forefront of defending the faith in his own day, and many of us use his model as a way of communicating and defending the faith against unbelievers. Kuyper’s view was that we cannot argue someone into the kingdom of God. We cannot debate with an unbeliever on his own terms. We cannot assume for a second that God does not exist for the sake of the argument. You cannot assume God does not exist because God would be the author of your assumption of His non-existence. It’s like an orator trying to talk about the nature of the tongue while exhorting you to assume you don’t have one for the sake of the argument. Kuyper said that when believers and unbelievers agree on a particular aspect of creation, they still disagree about principles, such as the doctrine of creation itself, “because they approach the study of the world with mutually opposing assumptions.”[11]

Second, Kuyper was instrumental in thinking about education and culture from a Christian perspective. Kuyper opposed the Anabaptists who believed that we need to retreat from the world. We need to seclude ourselves. Kuyper believed that Christians needed to equip themselves and then to “push the development of this world to constant agreement with God’s ordinancesand in the midst of corruption upholding that which is honorable, lovely, and of good report among men.”[12] Kuyper said that the way to establish a Christian culture is by educating a Christian populace. He said you can’t teach math apart from God, because math implies order, and God is the creator of order. He founded the Free University of Amsterdam as an example of his vision for a holistic Christian culture.

He encouraged the founding of Christian Schools. He would have been very pleased with the rise of some Christian schools that stress a high view of Biblical authority and God’s sovereignty.

Finally, Kuyper taught that our labor is important to God. Whether we paint, preach, or plant trees, Kuyper taught that these things are spiritual activities. The day to day travel to work and home, the diaper change, the duties of children, the playing, the plucking, the plowing, etc. Our labor in the Lord are not in vain, as Paul says. The job of the minister is not more spiritual than yours. Poverty is not to be treasured over riches. Riches is not to be treasured over poverty.

How Now Shall We Then Live?

First, Kuyper believed that isolationism was not an option. That life was not to be divided up into little sections or pockets: “Here is my piety on Sunday, here is my work on Monday, here is my feasting on Friday.” No. Everything needed to be oriented/directed towards the glory of Jesus Christ. Your piety, feasting, and golfing needed to submit to King Jesus. This is still very foreign to our modern culture. We are not used to thinking about life is this comprehensive fashion.

Second, Kuyper believed Jesus was king. He said that we need to nurture cultural patience. We can’t change the world overnight, but we need to slowly plow. We need a faithful presence in this world.

Third, Kuyper was a localist. He believed in limited government. And the reason he believed the government was to be limited was because he believed that freedom is exercised best at a local level. Change is tangible locally. He certainly wanted to see things changed nationally. He started his own political party: The Anti-Revolution Party. He believed that socialism and totalitarianism were a threat to the well-being of a society. Kuyper said that the kingdom of God is present in those local activities. Changing the world does not demand running for politics or becoming a priest, changing the world begins in your own home. Kuyper was referred to as the “bell-ringer for the common people.”[13]He advocated the “theology of the laity.”[14] Kuyper wanted the Church to be a sending out station. He wanted the Church to be the place from which men and women were trained to go forth and change their communities.

Finally, stressing this point at another level, Kuyper was a theologian of the people. His young disciple, Herman Bavinck[15] pursued a scholarly agenda. Some people do need to reach that group. Some people are called to reach a specific intellectual elite that common people and pastors cannot reach. But Kuyper had a different agenda. He wanted to reach the masses. And as a result he ran as the leader of a political party, a founder of a denomination, and a newspaper editorialist. [16] If Kuyper were alive today he would start a Christian version of the Drudge Report. He would run for office. He would be engaged in local activities, and He would be faithful to our Protestant Reformed heritage. I commend to you the life of Abraham Kuyper as a model for civil and cultural discourse in a day when Christians have given up on the world. Abraham Kuyper would say: “No, this world belongs to Jesus, and I will give my every breath to see the world submit to him.”

[1] Robert Godfrey, Heroes of the Faith #07: Abraham Kuyper

[5] The thought crossed my mind that his father’s mild orthodoxy may have influenced Kuyper’s pluralistic tendencies at times.

[6] James McGoldrick, God’s Renaissance Man, 16.

[7] Ibid. 17.

[8] Ibid. 62

[9] A topic that is much discussed in our day.

[10] McGoldrick, 69.

[11] Ibid. 216

[12] 220.

[13] Richard J. Mouwl, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal History, 95.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Perhaps the greatest Dutch Reformed Systematician.

[16] Though it is also true that Bavinck was more irenic in his engagements, while Kuyper was a true polemicist.


About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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3 Responses to The Life and Legacy of Abraham Kuyper

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