Saturday Book Review: James D. Bratt

A repost of what we posted Tuesday, just in case you didn’t see it. That post fits in this slot too. It would as easy to exaggerate his influence as it is for some to ignore his influence, but at least a major voice behind all of evangelical political action — from Francis Schaeffer and the Moral Majority to Charles Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Wayne Grudem and then on to even someone like Tim Keller and JD Hunter or Andy Crouch and in other ways in people like Jim Wallis and evangelical progressives — is the Dutch theologian, journalist, pastor, and politician Abraham Kuyper. Many of us know him from his century-long reprints of Lectures on Calvinism, in which Calvinism does not mean TULIP but a comprehensive world view, but now James D. Bratt has written the Life of Lives when it comes Kuyper: Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. All those who care about Kuyper or who want to comprehend his influence on political and cultural thinking will have to absorb the fullness of this complete biography by Bratt.

How to summarize such a full and fast-paced life? Bratt’s words will have to do: “The Calvinist champion was a man of self-will; the man of faith, obsessed with working; the one humbled before God, yearning to be lifted high among men, and succeeding” (375). I suspect many great Christian leaders, Calvinist or not, has similar paradoxes at work in life, but I see the man less as paradoxical and more shaped by a relentless Calvinist ambition to get the world and church in order. He was a man with disciples but no real colleagues when he was at work.

Kuyper was a Titan. “Thus, in terms of the great quarrel in nineteenth-century American Calvinism, Kuyper combined the organization skill of Lyman Beecher, the platform presence of Charles Finney, and the public activism of both with the theological convictions — and no less the theological acumen — of Charles Hodge” (xx). That is the man we encounter in Bratt’s massive and splendidly written, if often assuming too much knowledge of the history of ideas, European history and Dutch politics than most will bring to the book, biography. Now some summary points.

1. Born in 1937, died in 1920. Dutch Calvinist. Suffered a number of nervous breakdowns that were relieved by retreats. At 25 had an earnest evangelical conversion. Married in 1863, a pastor and became a strict orthodox Calvinist. Combined pulpit with political voice so much so that the latter consumed his life while the former never passed away. He became Prime Minister eventually; he managed a newspaper for nearly 50 years; he wrote voluminously about politics, about theology, and also had a number of devotional works. Early in his public career he flirted with and experienced the English holiness movement of Hannah Whithall Smith and others; he backed away from this. He formed the AntiRevolutionary Party. Founded Free University, was a professor there. Was, as can be expected, deeply involved with a number of political issues, like education, the common people, wages, freedom of religion. He gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton, published as Lectures on Calvinism, to less than fifty people. He was more accepted in Michigan than at Princeton. Wrote a big work called Common Grace. A major theme of his life was Christ over and against the tide of modernity.

2. Probably his most influential idea, and perhaps not recognized as present in much of evangelical political thought, is sphere sovereignty. Christ, he believed, ruled over all and “common grace” became a central idea to express his political theology, and that life can be divided into spheres like education, family, church, state, economy, etc.. (Dooyeweerd developed sixteen such spheres with rigor.) Each sphere is its own domain and each has its own philosophy and direction, and Christians were to influence the whole by engaging in the sphere or spheres to which they are called. Reformed friends at times tell me this is “all they hear” and not a couple have told me this sphere sovereignty diminishes the church. I can see that in the history of influence or in the praxis of some, but because Kuyper’s own world was still very much a church-shaped state or a Christian society, though it was changing dramatically as he lived, I don’t see a diminishment of church in Kuyper himself, though his energies were exhausted seemingly in the political realm.

American evangelical politics of influence, which is what we have at most today since the days of direct control are long gone, have been shaped by more than Kuyper. In fact, prior to Kuyper and going right back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop and his ilk, we had an English- (not Dutch-) inspired vision of politics and that English-shape was Puritan, and that Puritan shape had the hope of a Christian nation (what England did not choose to do in the mind of the Puritans) but quickly realized a vision more in keeping with pluralism and the separation of church and state (thanks to Roger Williams). So, the Kuyperian influence we see today is set into a different context altogether once it hits the USA and that Puritan heritage means the Kuyperian vision will have to bend to fit in.

3. This leads to what I would say is the major thrust of Kuyper’s theology/political theology: Calvinism (not TULIP and not a soteriogically reduced Calvinism) is a comprehensive set of ideas that provides perspective on all of life and therefore reshapes all of life under God and under King Jesus (he often uses King Jesus). This is intellectual Calvinism and not just theological Calvinism. Common grace, which stands behind all of Kuyper, is that God rules the world and stakes a claim on it all and reveals through nature and the mind of humans how this world is to work orderly … and Calvinist explains this all. (NeoThomism is a genuine alternative to Kuyper’s NeoCalvinism; Kuyper’s NeoCalvinism has little to do with the rise of Calvinism among Baptists and free church people in the USA. One finds a kind of Kuyperian theology more in someone like Keller, though his Kuyperian stream is far less activistic and far more ecclesially centered than Kuyper.) Kuyper’s famous statement: “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (195). This provided the grounds for Kuyper’s focus on developing a “Christian life- and world-view.”

4. Thus it might be fairest to Kuyper to see his ecclesiology, as the place where God’s grace and the gospel are at work best, as shaping his political theology instead of the latter ignoring and taking off where the former left off. (See chp 9 in Bratt’s book.) He had a robust Trinitarian theology, a classic Calvinistic radical theocentricity, and his theology was always shaped first by the redemptive work of Christ. But this soteriology was very individualistic. Still, his sphere sovereignty and ecclesiology led to his thinking that if this is God’s truth it must be worked out in some form in the public realm. (This is to be distinguished from H. Richard Niebuhr’s much less Calvinist version of Christ and culture.) There was a more free version of the church at work in Kuyper, one more shaped by personal faith and active discipleship than institutional forms or reforms. Thus, “God was still building the Kingdom that Jesus announced, but the church is the ‘scaffolding’ of that construction — dispensable at the end but utterly necessary along the way” (177; I do not know how one can read Rev 21–22 and see the church as dispensable at the end).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Micah Cobb

    Great review! (Point 1 says that he was born in “1937″ and died in “1920.” He’d be quite the remarkable man if that were true, though I suppose you meant “1837″.

  • Branson Parler

    I read this a while back, but just re-read it. What strikes me is the final line, and the fact that Yoder has a quote where he says almost the exact opposite: the world is the scaffolding on which God is building the church. The Bratt quote also seems to hold to a sharp contrast between church and kingdom.

  • scotmcknight

    Branson, you are right on both counts: Yes, Yoder’s the opposite (like Rom 8:21) and there is too much distinction in Kuyper between kingdom (= common grace?) and church.