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Whose Kuyper? Which Inheritance?

By January 1, 2014 No Comments

James K.A. Smith

In certain sectors of North American Protestantism — sectors, I would say, that seem to have disproportional influence on public discussions — everyone wants to hitch their wagon to Abraham Kuyper. From Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live? to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, evangelicals have found in Father Abraham a model for robust public engagement rooted in unapologetic Christian orthodoxy. Kuyper is the exemplar of a Christian visionary and pragmatic scrapper, one who spent a lifetime sketching “principial” programs while also delving into the nitty-gritty of implementation.

However, the inheritance of Kuyper is often selective. Some are eager to embrace his affirmative notion of common grace but are a little hard of hearing when it comes to Kuyper’s invocation of the antithesis. Click to punchase book Others champion the intellectual vision of this university founder but are either ignorant of or embarrassed by Kuyper’s lifelong piety. Some are thrilled by the champion of a “free” church and a “free” university and assume that Kuyper would share their enthusiasm for unfettered “free” markets — ignoring some parts of his corpus that complicate this picture a bit. Still others are happy to piggyback on his vision of cultural engagement but do so as if it could be simply unhooked from his orthodox, never-waning Calvinism. Perhaps it almost has to be the case. Someone of Kuyper’s stature looms over us like the elephant in that proverbial room of blind men. We’re all just feeling our way around different aspects of his enormous legacy.

But there is something at stake in being sure that we inherit the whole Kuyper. In particular, as more and more of Kuyper’s works are being translated into English, North American readers need to be wary of a particular version of Kuyper landing on our shores in the twenty-first century — a Kuyper cut to the measure of the libertarian leanings of his translation sponsor, the Acton Institute. This particular patron of his legacy is invested in painting a very specific picture: the Tea Party Kuyper. And unless readers and students have resources to see the gaps and excisions, that selective portrait might become the de facto authorized version.

Hence my concern for inheriting the whole Kuyper. Rich Mouw’s marvelous little book Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011) is a good start. But Jim Bratt’s magisterial biography is now the definitive measure for our understanding Abraham de Geweldige.

That’s not to say that Bratt’s biography is partisan. This is not a reactionary picture trying to recover or protect Kuyper. To the contrary, it is just the sort of capacious, well-researched, comprehensive account we need, steadfastly resisting a “presentism” that would haunt Kuyper’s story with our ghosts. Reading it reminded me of my awe in reading George Marsden’s award-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards. Bratt has done the same for Kuyper.

Bratt’s prose is lively and engaging, characterized by the same verve and wit he exhibits in person. One of his colleagues, the film scholar Bill Romanowski, recommended that Bratt organize the biography like a screenplay, and that is reflected in the book’s dramatic pace. It was, hands-down, my favorite nonfiction book of 2013.

Bratt’s mastery of the archival materials is remarkable. He takes us back, for example, to early sermons and captures their key themes in ways that bring Kuyper to life beyond his published legacy. So, again, in the spirit of retrieving the whole Kuyper, Bratt gives us insight into not only Kuyper the theologian and prime minister but also Kuyper the student and pastor.

Perhaps above all, in Bratt’s biography I finally met Kuyper the human being, in all his beautiful brokenness and tortured complexity, which begins to emerge in Kuyper’s love letters to his fiancée, then wife, Jo. As Bratt puts it, “Father Abraham” was a romantic in more ways than one. But the humanity emerges in the failures, too.

You can feel the loneliness that was a product of Kuyper’s combative personality — the same trait that led him to accomplish so much (recalling, for me, the Steve Jobs we met in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography). Even one of his closest friends, Alexander Idenburg, lamented this aspect of Kuyper’s legacy. No one else could have accomplished what Kuyper did, he recognized. The times required “not only someone of great knowledge and great competence, or extraordinary talent as a thinker and writer and speaker, but also someone with an iron will, with a thick skin, and with a rock-hard head.” But these virtues came with their defects, too. What Idenburg saw at the end was something “extraordinarily tragic” — that “a man who has done so much, and so much good, should toward the end of his life by his character-traits place himself outside the circle of those who have been formed by him, and thereby lose his power and influence.” In the end, Idenburg said, Kuyper had “disciples but no colleagues . . . sheep but no watch-dogs.” Equally moving and sad is some later correspondence with Kuyper’s prodigal son, Jan Frederik, who went to dental school at the University of Michigan but then settled in the East Indies, ending up in “the courts of theosophy,” as Bratt puts it. As his father lamented, “his soul sleeps . . . in Theosophical dreams.” Dad was heartbroken by the son’s wandering from Reformed orthodoxy. And yet, sadly, “Freddie” seems to have found a peace that his father did not. In a 1905 letter, he offered something of his own prayer for his father: “I would love to see you spend your future years in peace and easier affairs. You have battled your whole life and undergone much strife; [you have accomplished enough] for at least three lives; have experienced successes almost exclusively in your ventures; have reached the highest rung on the ladder. Let it go, then, dear Father.”

Kuyper never quite achieved that ease, the peace of letting go. On the other hand, here we are a century latter, still trying to get a measure of the giant. Perhaps finitude will always mean there are prices to be paid.

In this limited space, I won’t even try to touch the breadth and complexity of Bratt’s portrait, except to counsel: Receive other “Kuypers” with healthy suspicion until you have let Bratt’s tour of his life and work orient you to the whole.

James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview and is the author of sixteen books.