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All Thumbs

*Selected Scriptures
Evening service, August 3, 2014
Sean Higgins

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Or, Why Abraham Kuyper Couldn’t Keep His Hands Off of Everything

I first remember hearing the name Abraham Kuyper almost ten years ago. Late in 2004 I listened to a conference message by John Piper who mounted a series of doctrinal portraits to display the glories of Christ. The climax of his exhibition was a quote by Kuyper:

[T]here 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!

I even used that quote at the 2005 Snow Retreat in my message on Solus Christus. It’s amazing what can happen in a decade. Now I know enough Latin to know why, among so many solas of the Reformation (sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia), it isn’t Sola Christa. I also have a much better grip on how narrowly I perceived in the expansive application of Kuyper’s quote. I agreed with the quote, loved it, proclaimed it, and still was mostly oblivious to it.

The quote is great, but it could be better. In fact, it could be translated more accurately. Kuyper was from Holland so he spoke Dutch. The standard English translation (from A Centennial Reader) renders the “square inch” figure, but I asked two sisters from the Netherlands about the phrase een duimbreed. I showed that phrase to one of the ladies and, without words, she pointed back and forth from one side of her thumb to the other. Een duimbreed refers to one “thumb’s width, a common Dutch idiom for a very small distance” (Harry Boonstra, Introduction to Our Worship, xx). What Kuyper said is that “there is not one thumb’s width in the whole domain of human existence” where Christ is not Lord.

Every Christian confesses that Christ is Lord. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). When Thomas saw the risen Christ he cried, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). But what sets Abraham Kuyper apart, what made his salt smack so many lips, is that he spent his life trying to apply the ramifications of Christ’s rulership to absolutely everything, no exceptions.

Kuyper was all thumbs. We usually say that about someone who is clumsy with his hands, a man who isn’t handy. I mean it to describe him as a man who measured everything by thumbs. Kuyper couldn’t keep his hands off of everything. If Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating a Christmas pie, put in his thumb and pulled out a plumb, then every sphere of life was a pie that Abraham Kuyper kept sticking his thumbs into.

In one sense I’ve been preparing for this message for three and a half years (after a conversation with a pastor who recommended Kuyper’s book on worship). I may have read more pages written about and written by Kuyper than for any other person I’ve prepared a biographical message for. Every page has been like licking salt. I wish I had read more, and plan to do it. Theologian B.B. Warfield apparently learned Dutch just so that he could read Kuyper. I feel like I’ve only tasted a teaspoon of his saltiness.

I also know that Kuyper barely meets the criteria for this year’s youth retreat topic: full-time Christians, not Christians in full-time vocational ministry. Kuyper was a pastor for about a decade, but I put him on our list because many of his most salty contributions came from work he did outside the pulpit and after his pastoral work proper. Besides, he didn’t get saved until he was a pastor, so that’s different than the usual order.

Tonight my goal is to provide a thumbnail sketch of his life, then show the major sphere’s that Kuyper stuck his thumbs into, and then finish with what I think made his thumbs so salty.

Kuyper’s Thumbnail Bio

A thumbnail is even smaller than a thumb’s width, and I am trimming it to the quick. As with anyone’s life, summarizing is subject to the editor. Kuyper was a hero, a villain, a visionary, a hard worker, a crank, an eccentric, and a man who loved the Lord Jesus.


He was born on October 29, 1837 in Maasluis, Holland, the first son of Jan Fredrick and Henriette Kuyper. (For some world history context, Charles Spurgeon was born three years earlier, Mark Twain two years before, D.L. Moody the same year, John D. Rockefeller two years after, and Claude Monet three years after.)

“Bram” was a preacher’s kid, but his pastor-dad did not commit whole-heartedly to orthodoxy. Jan’s liberal faith and ministry were typical of the time and Abraham grew up despising the church.

In the years of my youth the Church aroused my aversion more than my affection. … I felt repulsed rather than attracted. … [T]he deceit, the hypocrisy, the unspiritual routine that sap the lifeblood of our whole ecclesiastical fellowship were most lamentably prevalent. (“Confidentiality”, 46)


The Kuyper family moved to Leiden largely for the grade school that “followed the traditional classical curriculum of immersing students in the humanities and languages” (Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 19). Even though he detested the life of his dad, he entered the University of Leiden when he was 18 years old to study theology of the anti-supernatural strain. He studied more languages, in addition to his fluency in English, French, German, and Dutch (McGoldrick, God’s Renaissance Man, 16).

He graduated in 1858, started doctoral work, had a nervous breakdown in 1961, and then graduated with his doctorate in 1862. What sort of job did he pursue? A pastorate. But his was an intellectual faith, a ministry of scholarly sentences and sentimentality until he came to the little town of Beesd.


During his schooling at Leiden he met Johanna Hendrika Schaay whom he married in 1863 when he was 26. Throughout their multi-year courtship he felt like Jo was not educated enough, so he kept sending her books to help her be more cultured.


She sent him The Heir of Redclyffe by Victorian writer, Charlotte Yonge. He later wrote that this fictional novel changed his life as he saw himself in the main character, an ugly and proud character.

This masterpiece was the instrument that broke my smug, rebellious heart. (“Confidentiality”, 51)

In the summer of 1863, newly married and newly bestowed as Doctor of Theology, he moved to Beesd.

I’m not sure how large the congregation in Beesd was, but there was a minority group in the church who disliked Kuyper from the start and kept their distance from him. The rest of the members told Kuyper not to worry about “them,” but he felt like he needed to serve them. So he started visiting them and, strangely, he said that he found himself wanting to listen rather than speak. These were people who believed the Bible was God’s Word and that Christ was Savior and Lord. They learned from Calvin, even though most of them didn’t know his name.

One young lady was most memorable to him: Pietje Baltus who once said to him, “You do not give us the true bread of life” (quoted in McGoldrick, 36). “For the rest of his life Kuyper kept of photo of Pietje Baltus on his desk” (ibid, 37).

I observed that they were not intent on winning my sympathy but on the triumph of their cause. They knew of no compromise or concession, and more and more I found myself confronted with a painful choice: either sharply resist them or unconditionally join them in a principled recognition of “full sovereign grace” — as they called it— without leaving room for even the tiniest safety valves in which I sought refuge. Well, dear brother, I did not oppose them and I still thank God that I made that choice. Their unremitting perseverance has become the blessing of my heart, the rise of the morning star for my life. (“Confidentiality”, 56)

Kuyper was converted and more than his ministry was changed.


After his regeneration and reeducation in Reformation theology, it

left him with a daunting personal agenda. Where should he begin? What should he not do? (Bratt, 59)

After a while he was called to a larger church in Utrecht (1867), then to even larger Amsterdam (1870). As he labored to exhort the Christians to exert their influence in the city and throughout the nation, he realized that much work was needed outside the church. So he began working for a newspaper (1871).

He also taught a variety of classes at university and even got involved in politics.

He had three breakdowns that required long time off. Even then, his “collapses from nervous exhaustion…seemed only to bring him back with larger ambitions for longer agendas” (forward by Mark Noll to Abraham Kuyper, ix).

He and Jo had 8 kids. Jo died in 1899 at 57 years old.

As one sort of funny anecdote (with a cartoon image image to boot),

On September 21, 1911 (so he was almost 74 years old), Reuters reported that Kuyper had been arrested for “pacing back and forth stark naked” before an open window in his room at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels. … Kuyper himself hastened to explain: he was following the mandate of Dr. Lahmann to exercise naked every day to respire the whole body , had not realized that his fourth-floor room was visible to the street, and in any case had not (as Reuters reported) been marched to police headquarters under arrest, much less been led there (as caricatured by Albert Hahn) covered with only a strategically held Bible and a top-hat. (Bratt, 354)

He died in 1920, two years after World War I ended and nineteen years before World War II began. He left Holland different than he found it.

Kuyper’s Nosey Thumbs

Kuyper never met a nail that didn’t need hammering, a pie that didn’t have a plumb for his thumbs. Books were for reading, blank pages were for filling, subjects were for studying, men were for leading, institutions were for building or reforming. There are four spheres especially where he spent his energies and shaped the culture.

Church: New Denomination

Kuyper started a new denomination in order to provide a refuge for the Reformed Church.

In Kuyper’s day, much like in ours, the church was weak. Its pastors, let alone the sheep, cared little for soul-passionate worship and more about tradition, intellectualism, and being comfortable. The Dutch Reformed Church also had an additional problem: The Hervormde Kerk (Dutch Reformed National Church) was intertwined with the State and had been for a century.

Kuyper came to realize that the church was too important for the nation to be tied to the nation’s government. The church should be free from political pressure and money, both in giving and receiving. While he worked hard to care for people on an individual basis, he ultimately realized that he needed to do something at a corporate level.

He also recognized the theological weakness in the church as an attempt to make Christianity more palatable to the scientific world.

Just because your church is sick or crippled, you may not withhold from her your love. Just because she is sick, she has a greater claim on your compassion. Only when she is dead and has ceased to be your church, and when the poisonous gases of the false church threaten to kill you, do you flee from her touch and withdraw your love from her. (quoted in McGoldrick, 93)

So Kuyper broke off from the national church in 1887, and a number of other pastors followed him (at the expense of their financial security, paychecks and retirement program). Their new group was called Doleerende Kerk, from a Latin term meaning sorrow, so “The Sorrowing Church” or De Doleantie, “grieving churches.”

Because so many of the churches were weak and their pastors untrained in the Bible, Kuyper argued for better pastoral education. He spoke and especially wrote to educate them. His book, Our Worship, is a manual for understanding the whys and whats of liturgy. Though he never said it in a single sentence, he believed that culture starts with worship because people are shaped into likeness of what or Who they worship.

The goal of all worship services must be to let the assembled congregation taste that fellowship with their God. Otherwise there may be learnedness, there may be profundity, there may be deep earnestness, but there is no religion and therefore no divine worship. (Our Worship, 15)

He served as a pastor, then as an elder and teacher and devotional/theological writer for the rest of his life, seeking to restore dependence on the Holy Spirit and submission to Scripture. But he did so much more.

School: New University

Kuyper organized a network of Christian elementary schools and started a new university in order to educate Christian scholars.

He truly believed that Christ is sovereign over all. He was no dualist, dividing the sacred and the secular, because Christ is not divided in His interests. Christian education is not just safe, it is superior.

To put it mildly, our undertaking bears a protest against the present environment and suggests that something better is possible. (“Sphere Sovereignty”, 463)

It grieved him that the state schools promoted a godless education and did not allow Christians, or any other religious group, to have support for their world- and life-view.

As truly as every plant has a root, so truly does a principle hide under every manifestation of life. (Lectures on Calvinism, 189)

There is no neutrality. Either a teacher starts teaching believing that God is central or that man is central. “Christian and non-Christian world-views begin with mutually exclusive assumptions which lead necessarily to a contest for dominion in all areas of life” (McGoldrick, 143).

[T]he only two mighty antagonists that plumb life down to the root [are God’s sovereignty or man’s sovereignty]. And so they are worth people risking their own lives for and disturbing the lives of others. (“Sphere Sovereignty”, 469)

Non-Christians have “lost the gift to comprehend the true context, the proper coherence, the system of the unity of things” (“Common Grace in Science and Art”).

If we console ourselves with the thought that we may without danger leave secular science in the hands of our opponents, if we only succeed in saving theology, ours will be the tactics of the ostrich. To confine yourself to the saving of your upper room, when the rest of the house is on fire, is foolish indeed. … Everything astronomers or geologists, physicists or chemists, zoologists or bacteriologists, historians or archeologists bring to light” must be done for Christ. (Lectures, 139)

So he began to speak and write for the place and support of Christian grade schools. He worked to establish a base of support, then to establish government laws, and also to educate educators. He rallied parents at school convention meetings.

He also realized that Christians needed a place for even more training, a place for research. Christians needed a university. He believed that true scholarship would not be hindered by faith, but that worship of Christ enabled better scholarship. It makes a difference if you believe man is created in the image of God or if he came from monkeys. What kind of medicines and treatments will you provide? Will they respect image-bearers? It makes a difference if there are objective morals or not for law. Every subject, not just theology, should be pursued for Christ: philosophy, law, literature, politics, science.

So he helped to found the “Free University” (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) in that it was free from the controls of state and church.

It was in his opening address for the Free University in Amsterdam that he gave his thumb’s width quote. He knew that they were mocked, that they didn’t have many resources, and he knew that they must work and sacrifice for it anyway.

As surely as we loved Him with our souls, we must build again in his name. And when it seemed of no avail, when we looked upon our meager power, the strength of the opposition, the preposterousness of so bold an undertaking, the fire still kept burning in our bones. (“Sphere Sovereignty”, 489).

Could we permit a banner that we carried off from Golgotha to fall into enemy hands so long as the most extreme measures had not been tried, so long as one arrow was left unspent, so long as their remained in this inheritance one bodyguard—no matter how small—of those who were crowned in Golgotha? To that question—and with this I conclude, ladies and gentlemen—to that question a “By God, Never!” has resounded in our soul. (“Sphere Sovereignty”, 490).

In 1880 there were only eight students and five professors (Bratt, 123), but the school is still running today (though it has abandoned Kuyper’s core convictions).

Journalism: New Paper

Kuyper founded and ran a new newspaper in order to inform and rally the Christian public.

In 1871 he became the editor in chief of a once-weekly paper called De Heraut, “The Herald.” This Saturday edition was usually a devotional or theological article with about 5,000 readers (Bratt, 116). He turned this old magazine devoted to “Jewish evangelism…into an organ devoted to ‘a free church and a free school in a free Netherlands.'” (Bratt, 61).

But shortly after, he realized that this was not enough. So he founded and edited a daily newspaper, De Standaard (“The Standard”) in order to rally the Christian public.

I have been most surprised by Kuyper’s full court press. More than another other single thing, it was Kuyper’s steady drip through over 20,000 newspaper articles in which he informed, educated, and rallied Christians in Holland. Most of these articles were later sown together into books. These are no lightweight subjects either.

He wrote and edited while teaching in the University, while doing some traveling, and while doing a lot of this from his home office. Some of his enemies were bitter about this publishing platform. But through the pressures of deadlines and critics and a full schedule, Kuyper helped create categories and terms for the public. “By this means he shaped an audience and a cause” (Bratt, xxvii).

The Standaard editorship was the one post Kuyper would hold for the rest of his career, and the role where he could combine all the others through which he passed in the meantime — preacher, teacher, and politician. The paper was the only place where most of his followers ever heard him, but there they heard him to great effect. For many it provided a post-elementary school education, a sustained induction into politics, culture, and social affairs. In the process Kuyper not only promoted a party but organized a movement and shaped a people. (Bratt, 83-84)

He wrote his last article in December 1919, ending a 47 year career as a journalist.

Politics: New Party

Kuyper founded a new political party in order to mobilize the Christian citizenry.

He arrived in Amsterdam as a pastor but within a short time people believed that Abraham could and should use his leadership in the national government. He served in both the upper and lower houses of Dutch Parliament.

He was convinced that the government was a good sphere, a sphere established by God. He also believed that government worked best when it recognized God, submitting to His supremacy and His standards. Again, there is no neutrality. So the state should protect marriage and family, punish those who do evil, encourage worship, and support Christians educating the next generation.

Kuyper argued that government should be driven at the local level and the federal government should be representative, not a bunch of detached so-called experts. Kuyper appreciated the United States in this regard.

But the government of Holland was not like this. So Kuyper helped form and presided over the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in 1879, named because they did not want to be anything like the French Revolution. The French Revolution was God-denying, self-exalting, and nation-destroying. Kuyper knew that things needed to be changed, but not according to the principles of humanism. Instead, life should be shaped by Scripture.

He was eventually elected to the position now called Prime Minister, an office he held for one term from 1901-1905.

A new denomination, a new school association and University, a new daily paper, and a new political party. Most of these were “baby institutions” (George Grant, “The Kuyperian Vision of Christ’s Lordship”).

Kuyper’s Salty Thumbs

One of the words associated with Kuyper is worldview. He used the term weltanschauung, which he always translated into English as “world- and life-view.” After he became a Christian, Kuyper started paying attention to, and submitting to, God’s Word. He found much help in the works of John Calvin, especially with Calvin’s relentless emphasis on the gracious sovereignty of God. This affected not only personal salvation, but everything, his entire world- and life-view. One of the reasons that Kuyper’s ministry was so fruitful is that it started with God and aimed for God’s glory and depended on God’s wisdom and power for its effect. There are two reasons why I think his worldview was/is so salty.

His Calvinist Convictions Were Exhaustive and Unrelenting

If God is sovereign, that means that He controls and cares about all things 24/7. In his famous “Stone Lectures” given at Princeton University in 1898 (in book form and audio book), Kuyper argued that Calvinism is the only system of thought that enables progress in the visible and invisible realms, the physical and the spiritual spheres, the things of earth and the soul.

[T]he persuasion that the whole of a man’s life is to be lived in the Divine Presence has become the fundamental thought of Calvinism. By this decisive idea, or rather by this might fact, it has allowed itself to be controlled in every department of its entire domain. It is from this mother-thought that the all-embracing life system of Calvinism sprang. (Lectures, 26)

Every thumb’s width belongs to Christ, so is all craft and industry, architecture, agriculture and horticulture, science, economics, employment, entertainment, ethics and law, medicine, national and foreign policy, schools.

The dominating principle [of Calvinism] was not, soteriologically speaking, justification by faith, but, in the widest sense cosmologically, the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. (“Sphere Sovereignty,” 488)

Against Evolution

Evolution offers a world- and life-view that promises progress but only to the strong and without providing any good reason. Modernity, with its machines and technology, makes many things better but only for a few more days, not for any spiritual or greater cause, and the side effects gut the soul.

Kuyper may have been the first person to use the word Modernity. He believed that modernity was just a mirage, a temporal reflection of what is true (argued in his address, “Modernism: A Fata Morgana in the Christian Domain”). It offered nothing substantial, sort of like opening a 7-11 with no merchandise. With enough advertising it might seem cool to hang out there for a while. He “argued that belief in evolution leads to a materialist view of life in which people demand panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’, i.e., sustenance and entertainment)” (McGoldrick, 105).

Common Grace

He did recognize that unbelievers could learn and produce helpful things. He called this common grace, though perhaps we could call it God’s kind providence. There is grace—freely given favor—that God gives to all men (like in the sun and rain, breath and brains and new babies). In fact, there are, sadly, some unbelievers who think better and work harder than believers. But even the credit for non-Christian work must go to God.

Explains World Problems

Calvinism especially explained why and where from for all. Calvinism also explains what is wrong with the world: sin. Kuyper relentlessly returned to the need for regeneration, for personal discipleship to Christ.

Particular Grace

Instead of natural selection Kuyper argued for divine election.

Everyone needs redemptive grace, the effectual call of the Spirit out of spiritual depravity because of the sacrifice of Christ for sake of enduring worship and obedience. Calvinism is the Synod of Dort, and also the sword that cuts down dualism.

[N]ot only the church, but also the world belongs to God and in both has to be investigated the masterpiece of the supreme Architect and Artificer. A Calvinist who seeks God, does not for a moment think of limiting himself to theology and contemplation, leaving the other sciences, as of a lower character, in the hands of unbelievers; but on the contrary, looking upon it as his task to know God in all his works, he is conscious of having been called to fathom with all the energy of his intellect, things terrestrial as well as things celestial. (Lectures, 125)

His Application Attempts Were Exhausting and Unflinching

In some ways, Kuyper lost more than he gained. Because of his commitments he lost friends, he lost positions (including reelection to the Prime Minister position in 1905), he lost respect, he lost influence.

Sometimes the taste he left was bad. We was wrong on a variety of issues. He was wrong on race as an explanation for culture, arguing too closely that biology affected the development of a people more than the presence of the gospel. He was wrong on Germany’s threat to Holland, to Europe, and even to the world. He took internal party affairs public (see Bratt, 356). He “insisted on delivering the last word on everything” (Bratt, 356).

I believe, based on the biographies I’ve read, that he could have been more patient. I believe that he should have been more personal, in that he could have cared for more individuals, even some that could carry on the work after him. I also believe this can be demonstrated by his family. His three adult daughters didn’t marry, three married sons with only seven kids, one less than he himself had with Jo (Bratt, 363). In other words, Kuyper did not enculturate much of a family heritage.

Yet he seasoned every room he ever entered, left salt on every page he ever penned. He cared for orphans (McGoldrick, 42), he spoke with world leaders, and attempted to shape the world- and life-view of every image-bearer in between, even when the cost was great.

When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy with all the fire of your faith. (quoted in McGoldrick, 39).

There can be no denying that he was a man of conviction and love for Christ. He fought and taught and wrote and wrote and wrote. He gave up ease and esteem from many because he wanted something more: the exaltation and implementation of Christ as Lord. He gave himself, win or lose, to that endeavor. He died to bring life to a nation. His life salted the world.


He died in 1920, a man of “titanic energies” (Bratt, loc 163) and a “skilled agitator” (loc 379).

We have no Kuypers among us. We do not have his insight, his foresight, or his persistence. But we do serve the same Lord as Kuyper. We do have the work of his thumbs to learn from and enjoy. God doesn’t call us to be Kuypers, even if we ought to be Kuyperian Calvinist Christians (whether we use those terms or not). What would that look like?

First, we would love Jesus Christ. We would repent from sin, submit to Scripture, and walk in the Spirit for the sake of His glory. We would keep believing and loving and worshipping the God of the gospel.

Second, we would worship God in His sovereign grace. We would worship our infinitely powerful yet personal, patient, loving, sacrificing, glorious Triune God. We would work on our theology from the Bible and never tire of lifting up His name.

The church plays a starting and sustaining role for Christians. The church is the only group with roots and fruit. We are light! We are leaven! We are salt! So what if we are planted in a field of unbelieving, pluralism? Love it! The rest will fail. We have a public role, a cultural role. So what if the White House and the movie studios think they can make meaning?

Third, we would see everything as a way to honor the Lord, and we would not deviate or even bend away from using our giftedness.

You have thumbs. God gave you thumbs. You put your thumbs on a thousand things every day. That means that you put your thumbs on a thousand things Christ created. Give Him thanks! It also means that you put your thumbs on a thousand things that Christ cares about. What are you doing with your thumbs?

Are you turning pages of a book? Read by His light. Scratching your pen across paper? Write to reflect Him. Texting or tweeting or updating your social status? Starting a business? Teaching? Feeding kids? Interested in politics? Making art? Sewing, knitting, playing piano, writing a song?

Let us stop sucking our thumbs, whining that we don’t know what to do. Let us stop sitting on our thumbs. Let us wipe the malaise off our thumbs. Ordinary work is fine, not working is not.

Christ cries, “Mine!” over it all. What are you doing with His stuff with your thumbs?