Given my previous review of George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, in which he concluded the work with a Kuyperian approach to religious pluralism in the public sphere, it seemed fitting to take a look at James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013).
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was born to a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Following his father, Kuyper studied theology at Leiden and then entered the ministry. In addition, he served as the longtime editor of De Heraut and De Standaard, in which he contributed many articles promoting his reformed theology. In opposition to political and ecclesiastical authority, he founded the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880, where he served as a professor of theology. As the leader of the Christian Anti-Revolutionary Party from 1879 to 1920, he lobbied for public funding of religious schools and educational reform. As member of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, he took office in the Dutch Parliament and became the country’s prime minister from 1901 to 1905. In 1898 he travelled to America to give the Stone lectors at Princeton Seminary. Amidst his duties as editor, theologian, and statesman, he was a prolific writer, earning him the title father of Neo-Calvinism.
Since Kuyper’s thought continues to influence society, it is surprising that a critical biography of the former Dutch prime minister did not exist before this present volume. Richard Mouw’s Abraham Kuyper is, as stated in the subtitle, a short introduction to Kuyper. While still a good read, the brevity of the volume does not allow for a full examination of the thought and life of Kuyper. Jan de Bruijn’s Pictorial Biography is a welcomed addition. Through the use of interesting and personal images, the book presents Kuyper in a new light. Nonetheless, as part of the Library of Religious Biography Series, edited by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch and Allen Guelzo, Bratt’s volume is the definitive biography of Kuyper.
As a biography, Bratt does well in providing a historical contextualization of Kuyper’s thought, rather than merely providing a shallow depiction of Kuyper accompanied by personal assessment or bias. By recounting the ins and outs of Kuyper’s activities as a journalist and statesman, Bratt avoids reading Kuyper in isolation from his time or anachronistically from ours. Bratt describes Kuyper in his day when he writes, “He cultivated a baroque voice to overcome Victorian sentimentality; he clung to Victorian order to enter the Modern age; he used the Modernist moment to cultivate a Calvinist stance. Such multiplicity of poses was the mark of the emerging age” (249-250). Hence, Kuyper is not only presented but also interpreted within his nineteenth and early twentieth century world.
It becomes clear that Bratt is well-versed in the Kuyper’s writings and life. His previous work on Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader shows. Utilizing sources beyond Kuyper’s Stone lectures, which is a common source due to its notoriety and availability in English, Bratt provides a comprehensive discussion of his corpus. For example, in addition to familiar topics such as Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty (132-135), Kuyper’s case of Calvinistic art is also discussed (240-244).
Simply put, Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper is the definitive biography on Abraham Kuyper. It is a must read for anyone interested in Kuyper. It provides a critical introduction to Kuyper’s life, writings, and thought, but is also a resource for those already familiar with Kuyper. A small warning, the volume is not a simple read and may require a slight learning curve for readers completely uninitiated with Kuyper. I end this review as I began it and ponder, given Bratt’s depictions of the historical context of Kuyper’s social engagement, one wonders if Marsden’s appropriation will be successful in today’s climate.