March 7, 2021
Or, Historical Marrow for Bewildered Bones
Series: Centers and Circumferences #13
I have always believed in the value of naming things well. When we arrived in Marysville in 2001, the name of the youth ministry was “GY” – Grace Youth. I thought we could do better. A website I really liked at the time was called antithesis.com (which, for what it’s worth, is where I read “What Would Jesus Drink?” that convicted me about my lack of drinking wine. Not only that, but anthesis turned out to be a major emphasis in Kuyper’s life though I had never heard of him at that point). The antithesis is the opposite, the contrast with something else. At the time I decided that I didn’t want to focus on the negative, to act as if someone else could claim the center, the thesis, to which we had to respond. Did we really want to be known for what we were against?
Over the last year we’ve heard a new push. We are being exhorted with a modern demand (actually with many demands, but there’s one in particular). We are told that it’s bad to be just not a racist, we are told we must be anti-racist. Part of what they mean is that we need to spend more time proactively thinking about how wrong it is, not just dealing with it when it comes up.
I don’t agree with what “they” mean by anti-racist, but I’m beginning to think there is a lesson for Christians here, a lesson that Abraham Kuyper helps with.
I first gave a biographical message about Kuyper at a TECY retreat in 2014, and then shared that biography at an evening service later that year called “All Thumbs.”
There is real importance in biographies, and history. God’s Word itself makes a certain sort of biography necessary for obedience:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
When I started paying more attention to biographies I remember hearing John Piper talk about how he had an instructor who encouraged his students to select one theologian and make that man his mission to know. I haven’t written it down, but I have a tentative goal of reading everything Kuyper ever wrote that gets translated into English. I’ve been reading 5 minutes most days for a few years of something by Kuyper. I’m not even close to finishing what’s been translated, and I’m less close to finishing appreciating what he did.
He was born in 1837 in 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, John D. Rockefeller two years after, and Claude Monet three years after.)
“Bram” was a preacher’s kid, but his pastor-dad did not committed 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 the city of Leiden largely for the grade school that “followed the traditional classical curriculum of immersing students in the humanities and languages” (Bratt), though a recent Wikipedia edit says he was homeschooled. He entered the University of Leiden when he was 18 years old to study theology of the anti-supernatural strain.
He graduated when he was 21, started doctoral work, had his first (of three) nervous breakdown in 1961, and then graduated with his doctorate when he was 25. 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.
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. Kuyper wrote as part of his testimony:
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)
As a pastor he finally got saved! 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 inside the church.
In 1887 he helped start a new denomination of churches called the Doleerende Kerk, from a Latin term meaning sorrow, so “The Sorrowing Church.” 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; more than homo sapiens, “rational” men, we are homo adorans, a “worshipping” species. That book is one of the reasons why I can’t stop talking about the church as an assembly.
He had also realized that much work was needed outside the church. He knew that there is no neutrality, there is thesis and antithesis. In particular, a teacher necessarily starts his lesson plans believing that God is central or that man is central. Kuyper began to speak and write for the freedom 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 and teachers at school convention meetings.
He also realized that Christians needed a place for further more training, a place for research. Christians needed a university. Every subject, not just theology, should be pursued for Christ: philosophy, law, literature, art, politics, medicine, science. So he helped to found the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 with only eight students and five professors, himself included.
Before that, in 1871 he became the editor in chief of a once-weekly paper called De Heraut, “The Herald.” But shortly after, he realized that this was not enough. So he founded and edited a daily newspaper, De Standaard, “The Standard,” in 1872 in order to inform and rally the Christian public. He wrote his last article in December 1919, ending a 47 year career as a journalist.
Notably he was invited in 1898 by B.B. Warfield to give a series of lectures at Princeton University, which became Lectures on Calvinism (and here’s the link to a free audiobook version if you’re interested). It is reported that Warfield learned Dutch just so that he could read Kuyper.
But the thing I’d like to talk about for just a bit more relates to Kuyper’s life in politics.
He arrived in Amsterdam (1870) as a pastor but within a short time people persuaded Abraham that he 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, as in 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 Christian worship and morality, and support Christians educating the next generation.
Kuyper argued that government should be driven at the local level and that 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; a change was needed. So Kuyper helped form and presided over the Antirevolutionary Party.
Think Kanye’s “Birthday Party,” but more serious.
The book is titled, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto. It was published as regular features in De Standaard from April 1878 to March 1879, collected into a book later in 1879.
An antirevolutionary stood opposed to the ideology embodied in the French Revolution of 1789 (less than a hundred years between).
Kuyper had a particular group in mind that were Revolutionaries, but a group prior to the rioters. He mentions a group multiple times called “The Encyclopediests” in multiple works, that I apparently just kept reading over.
The leading figures behind the enterprise were Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and contributors included Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire, sometimes known collectively as the Encyclopedists. They worked on this project in France especially between 1751 to 1756.
They sought to sever the ties between God and men, God’s Word and men. They called for a new humanity to make a new world. Even in the 18th century that included hatred of the nuclear family, and it has metastasized to hatred of heterosexual marriage, the hatred of offspring (through abortion), and the hatred of gender.
So an antirevolutionary stood against Enlightenment, rationalism, modernism, secularism, humanism. He stood against willy-nilly feelings and topsy-turvy riots. He stood against paganism, and anti-Christian worldviews. These necessarily have moral and political implications, again, as seen in the idea-makers/marketers that led to the Revolution.
An antirevolutionary stood for submission to God, not independence from God (contra the cry of the French Revolution: “No God, No masters”). There is no neutrality (Kuyper called it “the fungus of neutrality” (310)). He saw the sacred in all of life and God as the only absolute authority, the one in whom total sovereignty resides. Then that personal faith and worship must be linked to broader work. So the positive name for his party is the “Christian-historical” party.
“If ‘Christian’ therefore stands opposite ‘humanity,’ the addition ‘historical’ indicates that our situation cannot be created by us at will. It is the product of a past that, independent of our will and apart from our input, is fashioned by Him in whom we live and move and have our being.” (278)
“We are therefore at heart a militant party, unhappy with the status quo and ready to critique it, fight it, and change.”
For what it’s worth, Kuyper has entire sections on contagious diseases and epidemics (around page 246-247), opposed to mandatory vaccination, the “government should keep its hands off our bodies” and referred to it as a “form of tyranny hidden in these vaccination certificates.”
“And if we succeed sooner or later in having a free Christian university for gathering a circle of intelligent law students around professors in antirevolutionary statecraft, then perhaps, by God’s grace, a future generation may be in a position to rely on a group of solid statesmen to inject the marrow of the antirevolutionary confession into the dry bones of our currently lifeless political institutions.” (374)
He was eventually elected to the position now called Prime Minister, an office he held for one term from 1901-1905.
On his Wikipedia page I count 7 significant losses for political offices, not to mention his patience with how many times his policies were rejected.
He had his problems. He and Jo had 8 kids, and I’m not convinced he did right by them. As the saying goes, he worked like an Arminian, and his three nervous breakdowns required significant time for recuperation. He did get distracted for a while by a kind of mystic pietism that taught the possibility of Christian perfection in this life, though he turned away from that after a while.
But for his weaknesses, we could use more of his titanic immunity against the virus of man-centeredness.
Consider the coronavirus and our culture. Listen to this description of the virus itself:
“corona connects to a specific receptor on its victim’s membranes to inject its genetic material. The cell, ignorant of what’s happening, executes the new instructions, which are pretty simple: Copy and Reassemble. It fills up with more and more copies of the original virus until it reaches a critical point and receives one final order: Self-destruct.”
Isn’t this a perfect medical metaphor for our cultural destruction? Not just in lungs, but in legislators; ignorant self-destruction is happening. As Christians, we see the virus affecting lungs, we see it affecting our political leaders, but we must not let it infect our hope.
A virus cannot survive without a host, and it prefers a weak one. A physical virus will die, but the cultural virus will eat the culture until there is no more. Changing analogies, the fire of envy will not die out, it must be opposed.
It may not be enough to be pro-reformation. You must be that and anti-Revolutionary.
We are awake, but anti-woke. We are ready to submit to lawful authority, and not easy to command. We are against State monopoly on information, ideas, education, and media. We oppose media pressure and refuse to swallow dis-iniformation. We know that The Ministry of Truth is a lie, and we will not serve them.
We will be preppers, not mostly hoarding gallons of water and toilet paper, but of books and even more, if they burn our books, in our memories. We will not forget our identity, as image-bearers, as Christians, as Protestants, as Americans. Jesus is Lord. Jesus and Him crucified is our world-and-life-memory.
“A nation, too, must struggle for its existence. Its independence does not come free but has to be conquered or defended, and reconquered after losing it.” (254)
Kuyper died in 1920 (two years after World War I), 101 years ago. The outcome of his way of life is worth considering, and imitating, as we remember his teaching from the word of God that Jesus is Lord.