K:JNWTS 29/2 (September 2014):40-41

Book Review

James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013. 455 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6906-7. $30.00.

Abraham Kuyper was a unique man, not only because of his erudition, but also because of his accomplishments. This biography is divided into three sections. The first section of the book covers the beginning of his life from 1837-1877.

He grew up in the Netherlands, was home schooled through the elementary grades, then went to gymnasium and finally received his doctorate from Leiden University summa cum laude. He converted to Christianity in 1861, after reading the book, The Heir of Redclyffe, by Charlotte Yonge. After this, he pastored three churches ending up in Amsterdam in a large Reformed congregation of the state church (Heerformde Kerk). After a nervous breakdown, while recuperating in Brighton, England, he became devoted to the Higher Life movement. However, by 1866, he had become thoroughly Reformed.

About this time, he became interested in politics because of the rampant materialism that he saw all around him, including the secularization of education. Behind this is the development of Kuyper’s view of sphere sovereignty. That is, Christ rules all areas of life and must be acknowledged as such.  Therefore, Kuyper entered politics by becoming a member of Parliament and leader of the Anti- Revolutionary Party. Ultimately, he became Prime Minister of Holland from 1901-1905. 

The second section of the book covers the years 1877-1897. This is the time when Abraham develops the religious and political areas of his life. On the political side, he organized the Anti-Revolutionary Party, became its head and led it to dominance in the country. On the religious side, the liberal denominational leaders removed him from his pastorate in the state church. Consequently, in 1886, he took his congregation and joined with other congregations to organize a new denomination called the Doleantie. In 1892, they united with a group that had seceded from the state church in 1834. This group was called the Christelijke Reformerde Kerken. The united group was called the Gereformerde Kerken.

If this were not enough for one man to handle, he also organized the Free University of Amsterdam (1880) and taught systematic theology as well as other courses. At the same time, he wrote articles for the paper, De Heraut, and founded and wrote for another paper called De Standaard; he also penned a sizeable number of books.

Dr. Bratt, author of this biography and professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explains the thinking of Dr. Kuyper as he interacts with other thinkers of his day. Sometimes this discussion is rather difficult to follow unless you are very well versed in the culture of the late 1800s.  For me, this detracts from the pleasure of reading the book. However, I am sure the scholar who understands what various philosophers and historians were teaching would find the discussions helpful.

The third section of the book covers the years 1898 until his death in 1920. Kuyper traveled to the United States to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary at the invitation of Geerhardus Vos (on behalf of the faculty).[1] At Princeton, they were worried about his making it to the seminary on time, since he was hiking in the White Mountains of New England. But he did arrive on time and gave the lectures from October 10-21, 1898 to an audience of approximately 50-60 people. These lectures are still in print for those who want to read them.[2] B. B. Warfield was in attendance and his comment was: “I never comprehended the epistemological revolution Kuyper had suggested” (264). From New Jersey, Kuyper went to Western Michigan and the heart of Dutch country to continue speaking. Then he traveled to Chicago and spoke to a crowd of 2,000. After he spoke in Cleveland, Ohio and Rochester, New York, he returned to the Netherlands and wrote a book about his trip.

Dr. Bratt includes Kuyper’s reflection on various subjects: death, evolution, the war in South Africa and racism. He describes his time as Prime Minister; his defeat for a second term as Prime Minister; and his trip around the Mediterranean Sea with reflections on Judaism, Islam and advice to the people of God about living in the new order of things. He includes the problems that Kuyper faced after his trip, problems both political and personal. He finishes the biography by describing the final years of Kuyper’s life and his legacy.

Dr. Richard J. Mouw, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, who is also from Dutch heritage, says in his recommendation on the rear cover of this book: “At last! This is what many of us have been waiting for—a careful, detailed, and highly readable (!) biography of Kuyper in all his human complexity. Jim Bratt has given us the comprehensive study of ‘Father Abraham’ that will serve English speakers for years to come.”

I agree with these sentiments except possibly with the “highly readable” remark. And don’t confuse the term ‘Christian Democrat’ with the American Democratic Party. You will have to read the book to understand what that means (hint, see p. 268).

—J. Peter Vosteen

[1] Cf. the letter exchange in The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr. (2005) 195-201.

[2] Lectures on Calvinism.