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Going Dutch

Going Dutch in the Modern Age


$78 (CLOTH)

The statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) left behind a rich but complicated and sometimes controversial legacy. At the height of his influence, Kuyper had already started a national daily, mobilized the Netherlands’ first modern party, founded a private university “free from state and church” and stood at the birth of a substantial new denomination, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Throughout much of his life, he found time not only to run for parliament and to be appointed prime minister but to write daily columns and devotionals as well as volumes of theological works. His efforts made Dutch Calvinism the best-organized group of Protestants in modern Europe, a legacy that continued to disproportionately influence Dutch politics and society for decades. It is a legacy that even today, though much diminished, is not entirely extinguished. Kuyper’s legacy did not go uncontested, however. Calvinists who were both more moderate and more traditional than he found him much too radical in his tireless activism, and through his domineering ways he was the adversary his ideological rivals loved to hate. Kuyper’s influence abroad, such as the implementation of his culturalistic hierarchies by supporters of apartheid in South Africa, has induced more recent, and critical, appraisals of his thought.

In the United States, Kuyper’s influence is chiefly measurable in two different if related constituencies. The first, as many readers recognize, finds its center in Dutch-American neo-Calvinism, most decisively in parts of the Christian Reformed Church – even though Kuyper himself sympathized more with the Reformed Church in America. Kuyperianism, with its founder’s assertion that “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!’,” informed these neo-Calvinists’ commitment to exercise a “cultural mandate” in which all spheres of life were to be brought under the lordship of Christ. This impulse has had its most evident fruits in Christian education, which – far more in North America than in Kuyper’s homeland – vigorously advanced “the integration of faith and learning.” The other group is the broader world of American evangelicals, who in recent years have been looking for a public theology that transcends their traditional soteriological concerns. Reading Kuyper for structure, they, too, focus on Kuyper’s cultural mission, often adapting Kuyper’s abiding fear of a too-powerful state and eagerly applying this to the American political situation.

What the North American spiritual descendants of Kuyper seldom discuss, however, is arguably the central conundrum of his work: How should we understand the church? In a country such as the United States where there is a crazy-quilt of faiths, we don’t reflect on the church very much, though in recent years there has been a raft of valuable literature on the subject. We still tend to think of church as a worshipping community that meets on Sundays, even as we acknowledge that “church” can and does take on innumerable forms. Above all, we don’t think too much about it. But for Kuyper in his context, it was a really big issue, and it should be for us as well, in our very different context. This is the topic of John Halsey Wood Jr.’s Going Dutch in the Modern Age. In this book, we get not only a better idea of Kuyper’s central motivations but a deeper historical reflection about how we might think about the church.

In his lengthy introduction, Wood places Kuyper’s question into a theoretical context. Kuyper’s struggle to properly understand and form the church can be seen as part and parcel of one of the fundamental tensions in the history of the Christian church, that is, the distinction between the visible and the invisible church, between the external and the internal side of Christianity. Sociologically, this tension is made manifest in Ernst Troeltsch’s distinction between a broad church, which is the visible manifestation of Christianity in the world, and the sect of true believers, which cares little for the forms but treasures the internality of belief. Wood shows that neither typology fits Kuyper, whose breakaway “pure” church looked like a sect but whose theology aimed at church engagement with the world. This gives us reason, he argues, to have to look at the way that Kuyper did theology and how his changing ecclesiology emerged out of a series of problems he was attempting to solve.


Kuyper began his career in the early 1860s as a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, historically the country’s public church but by this time largely cut loose from its ties to the state, to the regret of many of its members. It was a church harboring the most diffuse convictions, from theological modernists to traditional pietists. A convert to orthodox Calvinism, Kuyper insisted that the Reformed Church must wholly conform to the historic creeds of the confession and that its members be regenerated through the pure preaching of the Word and sharing of the sacraments. Sacraments are important in Wood’s account, for he argues that Kuyper in the 1860s still believed in the efficacious work of the institutional church. Kuyper was already playing with his idea of the “organic” church, that great body of all believers behind, around and in the institutional church, but he still maintained that the institutional church – the Dutch Reformed Church – was an incarnational body, ordained by God to fulfill an unfolding historical purpose. In this body, the sacraments of baptism and communion conferred grace on their recipients.

This view changed chiefly as a result of the great conflict that would compel Kuyper and many of his followers to leave the Reformed Church in 1886 and set up their own church. In breaking with the Reformed Church, Kuyper was compelled to develop a new ecclesiology, and only at this point, Wood argues, did Kuyper change his views. Here Wood breaks with historians who believed the shift was earlier or more gradual. Kuyper’s theology understood the institutional church as a gathering of believers, a denomination where membership was wholly voluntary and not, as in the old model, co-extensive with membership in the nation. This shift in ecclesiology went hand in hand with Kuyper’s rather striking commitment to religious pluralism; his denomination was, he insisted, no more entitled to rights than any other religious body. In advancing pluralism, Kuyper brought the Dutch church into the modern age; after the schism, even the Dutch Reformed Church was forced more and more to act like a denomination and not like an established church, as many in it still desired.

This new church vision had repercussions for how Kuyper regarded the efficacy of the institutional church. Wood explores Kuyper’s changed views on baptism, which now drastically reduced its significance. God’s saving work could be presumed to have started in the baby before baptism, given that the baby had been born among God’s people gathered together. But the act of baptism as such neither added nor subtracted from this hidden work, even as it testified to it. Two decades after his death – though Wood does not discuss this – Kuyper’s denomination would be rent by this issue when a group bolted who did believe in the efficacy of baptism. Through the issue of baptism, Wood illustrates clearly just how far Kuyper had moved from the sacramental church of his earlier years, replaced with a believers’ church from which the faithful would draw their weekly inspiration.

But if Kuyper deaccentuated the institutional church – the gathered church of Sunday morning – he placed all the more emphasis on the organic church, that pluriform army of saints who were prepared to contend for Christ in all areas of life. It was this organic church, with its Monday-through-Saturday initiatives in politics and society, that now fully had Kuyper’s passion. This ecclesiological shift, Wood says, explains the change in how he viewed the central issue facing orthodox Calvinists: from a battle over the institutional church to – after the 1880s – a battle over culture. It was no longer about barring modernists from the pulpits but about standing tall against the ideologies of the French Revolution, against liberalism, against paganism, as Kuyper variously framed the struggle. Kuyper privatized the institutional church – it was now nothing more than a private body of believers – but he made public the organic church, calling for its mobilization in all terrains of life.


In this way, Wood concludes in his last chapter, Kuyper answered the question of how the church in a modern, pluralistic world could become public without either being or seeking to become an established church. The church as institution was to remain decisively private, but the worldview of its members, of the organic church, enabled Christians to have a transformative impact on public life.

Anyone who wants to understand Kuyper’s central preoccupation – his ecclesiology, institutional and organic – should read Wood’s book, which is meticulously researched and carefully reasoned. A few minor typographical errors hardly mar its smooth flow and reflective tone. The book, moreover, should be read for further thought over the public nature of the church. Wood himself, in the very last paragraph of the book, seems to suggest (and I agree with him in this) that Kuyper marginalizes too much the institutional church, which has its own public mission through Word and sacrament. But how can the church become public without becoming the vehicle of secular politics? And how might the organic church find in our time new ways to be revitalized? Abraham Kuyper’s ecclesiology might not have answered these questions definitively, but it offers a good place to enter into this discussion.

James Kennedy is the headmaster of the University College Utrecht in the Netherlands. He previously taught Dutch history at the University of Amsterdam.

James Kennedy

James Kennedy is the headmaster of the University College Utrecht in the Netherlands. He previously taught Dutch history at the University of Amsterdam.