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A Modern Calvinist: An interview with James Bratt on Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper was one of the most important and influential figures of the 19th century and early 20th century. Kuyper was not only a Dutch theologian, writing several works of theology that we still have with us today, but a politician, journalist, and statesman, being the prime minister of the Netherlands at the start of the 20th century. In this fascinating interview, Matthew Claridge, editor for Credo Magazine, had the opportunity to talk with James Bratt, author of the new book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Bratt is an award-winning professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. His other books include Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture and Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader.

How does your description of Abraham Kuyper in the subtitle of the book—“Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat”—capture his essential qualities?

Kuyper became a self-conscious devotee of the Calvinist tradition in his early career as a pastor, impressed by the deep piety of some of his village parishioners but also deeply troubled at the reductively materialistic philosophy being propounded at the time in elite circles. He needed the security and certainty that Calvinist theology offers, and he thought that Calvinism’s vision of God and creation was the only fully adequate antidote to the rising naturalistic threat. But he also insisted that Calvinism had to be re-articulated in terms understandable by people of his own day. Thus, he worked for the whole rest of his life for a modern Calvinism. This blend of old and new, of tradition in conscious address to current situations, of hard conviction and supple application, fits Kuyper all the way down—in thought, word, and deed.

Likewise, modern progressive political forms like democracy were held in suspicion by traditionally minded Christians in the Netherlands, being associated with the French Revolution’s theoretical and practical radicalism. So Kuyper set out to understand and ground democratic politics within a Christian framework instead. He was the greatest Protestant architect of Europe’s Christian Democratic tradition, which flourished from the late 1800s through World War II. Here Kuyper showed tremendous organizational talent as well as remarkable theoretical acumen—and a creative, productive interweaving of the two.

Was Kuyper a conservative or a liberal in terms of his theological and political views?

He was too liberal (adaptive, innovative) for the traditional conservatives in his era and too conservative for the full-out liberals. He was traditional in his assertions of Scriptural authority and confessional orthodoxy, but could practice a progressive hermeneutic upon them. In politics, he wanted to raise Christians off the standard left-right spectrum of his time and have them articulate an independent position grounded in biblical principles and their own political traditions. The actual policies he laid out were populist, communitarian, and democratic, defying sheer libertarians, free-market enthusiasts, big-government champions, and socialists alike, then and now.

Kuyper was certainly a unique and novel thinker, but in what ways were his distinctives in epistemology, ecclesiology, and political theory also a product of his times?

This is a major theme in my book, putting Kuyper in the context of his times for better understanding, so I could go on and on here. To keep it brief. Epistemologically, Kuyper was part of a generation dissatisfied with positivism and convinced that positivism failed on its own merits besides. He and James Orr thus came to the ‘worldview’ construction at the same time that Wilhelm Dilthey, the ultimate exemplar of this approach, was bringing it to its highest sophistication. Kuyper’s typology of intellectual work done within different, incommensurate and axiomatically grounded frameworks had some resemblance to the ideal types being proposed by Max Weber at much the same time.

Kuyper’s ecclesiology turns out to have roots in Schleiermacher’s proposals from early in the 19th century, so this champion of Calvinism was drafting off the father of Protestant liberalism! In wanting the church to be involved in every domain of everyday life, rather than bottled up in a Sunday cloister, Kuyper resembled Richard Rothe, the mid-century German liberal. But Kuyper kept himself from Rothean conclusions by postulating a church as organism outside of the church as institute, thus preserving the church’s separate identity while maximizing church people’s involvement with public affairs on a Christian basis.

In political theory, he was one of many thinkers and practitioners who—amidst high-powered industrialization, urbanization and the resulting emergence of a mass society—were trying to find a way between ‘big-state’ and laissez-faire conceptions of political economy; between moralism and materialism in ethical theory; between individualism and the anomic mass in society; between religiously endorsed authoritarianism and secular-based radicalism in politics. Thus, his was a Calvinist version of small-government communitarianism that hoped to protect and enhance local, bottom-up empowerment of people to stand their ground against big business and big government alike.

Christians continue to struggle with the feeling that they must keep their faith private and out of the public square. How did Kuyper try to confidently maneuver around this axiom of secular orthodoxy?

Quite simply, he championed separation of church and state, but thought that separation of religion and politics, or of faith and reason, was not only impossible but would be bad even if possible: unfair to religious believers, corrosive for society and academy, and intellectually deceitful. He sharply differentiated between formal institutions, especially those with official legal authority, and domains of human activity. In some of the former, religion must be given no preference, but in all of the latter faith would necessarily, and beneficially, come to expression.

As you emphasize, one of Kuyper’s distinctive theological contributions is in the area of “Common Grace.” Could you briefly describe this aspect of his thought and how it relates to another long-standing tradition mediating Christian and non-Christian interaction in terms of “Natural Law”?

Kuyper eschewed Natural Law terms and substance because of Calvinism’s insistence on the broad and deep ontological and noetic consequences of sin. That is, the fabric of law is badly damaged, and our unregenerate ability to apprehend it with confidence and clarity is seriously impaired. Plus the approach puts too much emphasis on unaided human capacity in any case. Common grace, which taught the preservation and sustenance of creation as well as unregenerate capacity to create and understand with many positive results, puts—according to Kuyper—the emphasis where for Calvinists it belongs: in the active, gracious work of God.

Kuyper built his political reputation on the inherent good of a commonwealth consisting of diverse worldviews. At the same time, he argued that only the Calvinistic worldview could maintain this balance. Would you explain this relationship and if and how Christians today can maintain this balance?

To give each faith/worldview community its fair share of public funds and space is the demand of biblical justice, Kuyper thought. But biblical norms were the surest—maybe the only—foundation of or warrant for a shared sensibility that would acknowledge and abide by these rules of the game. Some common operational loyalties are needed for an equitable pluralistic society to thrive, even endure. Rightly or wrongly, Kuyper saw the natural rights and human rights warrants typically offered for this role to be ineluctably premised in the biblical tradition. The Bible is the tree or canopy in the shade of which this sort of public order can live. Remove the tree and the shade will soon be lost.

What do you see as the greatest lessons we can learn and avoid from the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper?

Cautionary side: God doesn’t need you to work God’s will. Kuyper said this too, but didn’t practice it consistently enough. Especially in his late career, he pushed would be successors out of the way, leaving a thin bench when he finally departed the game. In the mediations he wrote in his Sunday paper, Kuyper was very insightful about the danger of believers inflating their egos to the place, role, or even status of God; but he had a hard time remembering that truth in the hurly burly of everyday life. “God may use us but he does not need us”—so his financial backer wrote him when Kuyper was off recuperating from one of his several nervous breakdowns. It is very good for us to remember that!

Exemplary side: to think and venture boldly and broadly, updating a tradition for current use, fathoming the hidden connections between disparate domains via a theologically informed critical sensibility. To endow his followers with a method that can effectively critique his own errors. To bring the highest-level intellectual capacity to the aid and education of ordinary people, and to show them how the big themes of Scripture apply in the routine detail of everyday life. Kuyper was remarkably perceptive and innovative amid the quickly changing scene of his own day, and saw how his faith tradition could speak a prophetic, challenging but also comforting word anew amid those circumstances.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has two children, Alec and Nora.

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