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Abraham Kuyper


Calvinism is one of the great ideas in the history of humanity and like Marxism, indeed like 'Christianity' itself, it contained many possibilities that would have been surprising to the founder. We in Wales could be said to be living among the ruins of what had been a great Calvinist culture and as such it may be difficult for us to see to what extent Calvinism - particularly in its evangelical and pentecostalist developments - is still resonating throughout the world, in particular in Africa and in the Far East. This missionary impulse did not come from Geneva or from Holland but from Britain and North America. Calvinism provided the foundation for what is most distinctive within the British religious tradition and thence of course it provided the foundation for what is most distinctive in the North American religious tradition. And it is still, in its evangelical and pentecostalist extensions, for good and for ill, the leading North American religious idea.

In trying to understand the enormous resonance of Calvinism I want to make use of the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was one of the leaders of a Calvinist renewal - for reasons  that will soon be obvious I avoid use of the word 'revival' - that occurred in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century. A little background is necessary. In addition to the expansive tendency I've referred to Calvinism also contained within itself what might be called a tendency towards dissolution. By the nineteenth century the English Presbyterian tradition had become almost wholly Unitarian and a similar development was well established in the Ulster Presbyterian tradition that was the subject of my own academic studies.(6) In calling this a tendency towards dissolution I mean dissolution of the basic precepts of Calvinism. I'm not here criticising Unitarianism or liberal theology in themselves. A major theme in Kuyper's understanding of what Calvinism did in the world is an opening up of intellectual and cultural freedom and that of course includes a freedom to criticise and depart from Calvinism itself.

(6) My thesis Controversies in Ulster Presbyterianism, 1790-1836 is available on the Cambridge University Library website at or in a perhaps more easily readable form on my own website - I have also published a general history - Ulster Presbyterianism, The historical perspective, 1610-1970 - originally Dublin (Gill and Macmillan) 1987, republished Belfast, Athol Books, 1994.

Something along these lines had occurred in Geneva itself and in the Netherlands. In 1887, Kuyper was one of the leaders of a separation from the mainstream Dutch Reformed Church calling itself the 'Sorrowing Church'. In 1898 he went to North America, to Princeton Theological Seminar, following an invitation to deliver their annual 'Stone' lecture series. His topic was Calvinism, which he inscribed in an overall view of the progress of human civilisation, seeing it as a mighty river whose origins lay in Mesopotamia but which had achieved its full magnificent flow in North America. Regarding other parts of the world and their religious traditions (including Eastern Orthodox Christianity) as essentially stagnant, he identifies four major religious impulses as having contributed to this growth of civilisation - paganism, Islam, Romanism and Calvinism. 

He is insistent that it is 'Calvinism' he is referring to, not 'Protestantism' as such: 'In Lutheran countries,' he says, 'the interference of the magistrate has prevented the free working of the spiritual principle. Hence of Romanism only can it be said that it has embodied its life-thought in a world of conceptions and utterances entirely its own. But by the side of Romanism, and in opposition to it, Calvinism made its appearance, not merely to create a different Church-form, but an entirely different form for human life, to furnish human society with a different method of existence, and to populate the world of the human heart with different ideals and conceptions.'(7)

(7)  Abraham Kuyper: Calvinism, Six lectures delivered in the theological seminary of Princeton, Stone lectures 1898. I have this in a Kindle edition which is uninformative as to publisher or page numbers. Until otherwise notified these extracts come from the First Lecture - Calvinism as a life system.

'In the Roman Catholic Church everybody knows what he lives for, because with clear consciousness he enjoys the fruits of Rome's unity of life-system. Even in Islam you find the same power of a conviction of life dominated by one principle. Protestantism alone wanders about in the wilderness without aim or direction, moving hither and thither, without making any progress. This accounts for the fact that among Protestant nations Pantheism, born from the new German Philosophy and owing its concrete evolution-form to Darwin, claims for itself more and more the supremacy in every sphere of human life, even in that of theology, and under all sorts of names tries to overthrow our Christian traditions, and is bent even upon exchanging the heritage of our fathers for a hopeless modern Buddhism.' 

Any distinct life system must first 'find its starting-point in a special interpretation of our relation to God. This is not accidental, but imperative. If such an action is to put its stamp upon our entire life, it must start from that point in our consciousness in which our life is still undivided and lies comprehended in its unity - not in the spreading vines but in the root from which the vines spring. This point, of course, lies in the antithesis between all that is finite in our human life and the infinite that lies beyond it. Here alone we find the common source from which the different streams of our human life spring and separate themselves. Personally it is our repeated experience that in the depths of our hearts, at the point where we disclose ourselves to the Eternal One, all the rays of our life converge as in one focus, and there alone regain that harmony which we so often and so painfully lose in the stress of daily duty. In prayer lies not only our unity with God, but also the unity of our personal life. Movements in history, therefore, which do not spring from this deepest source are always partial and transient, and only those historical acts which arose from these lowest depths of man's personal existence embrace the whole of life and possess the required permanence. This was the case with Paganism, which in its most general form is known by the fact that it surmises, assumes and worships God in the creature ...

'Mohammed and the Koran are the historic names, but in its nature the Crescent is the only absolute antithesis to Paganism. Islam isolates God from the creature, in order to avoid all commingling with the creature.'(8)

(8) Kuyper probably wasn't well acquainted with Sufi poetry or with the love songs addressed to 'Ali in the Shi'i tradition.

In the case of Romanism 'God enters into fellowship with the creature by means of a mystic middle-link, which is the Church - not taken as a mystic organism, but as a visible, palpable and tangible institution.'

Calvinism, on the other hand, 'proclaims the exalted thought that, although standing in high majesty above the creature, God enters into immediate fellowship with the creature, as God the Holy Spirit. This is even the heart and kernel of the Calvinistic confession of predestination.'

He goes on to talk about 'modernism' - exclusion of God from practical life - as a fifth life form, but let's concentrate here on what he has to say about Calvinism. He presents it as a very direct one-to-one relationship between the individual and God. Perhaps the same could be said of Islam but in the case of Calvinism in Kuyper's view the relationship is not just direct but also very intimate, precisely because Calvinism is Trinitarian, consequently it believes that the Holy Spirit, which takes up residence in our hearts - or at least in the hearts of certain people - is God, and that the Person we can get to know and who dies for us - or at least for some of us - is also God. Classic trinitarian doctrine - three Persons in one godhead.

We might complain that the relationship is not quite as direct and unmediated as Kuyper complains. In all the different tendencies that flowed from Calvinism, the preacher or minister has an important role to play. Then there is the Bible. But insofar as the Bible is God's Word, reading it can also be interpreted as a direct experience of the presence of God. Kuyper describes the process very beautifully:

'In Paradise, before the Fall, there was no Bible, and there will be no Bible in the future Paradise of glory. When the transparent light kindled by Nature, addresses us directly, and the inner word of God sounds in our heart in its original clearness and all human words are sincere, and the function of our inner ear is perfectly performed, why should we need a Bible? What mother loses herself in a treatise upon the “love of our children” the very moment that her own dear ones are playing about her knee, and God allows her to drink in their love with full draughts? But, in our present condition, this immediate communion with God by means of nature, and of our own heart is lost. Sin brought separation instead, and the opposition which is manifest nowadays against the authority of the Holy Scriptures is based on nothing else than the false supposition that, our condition being still normal, our religion need not be soteriological. For of course, in that case, the Bible is not wanted, it becomes, indeed, a hindrance, and grates upon your feelings, since it interposes a book between God and your heart ...

'God regenerates us,that is to say, He rekindles in our heart the lamp sin had blown out. The necessary consequence of this regeneration is an irreconcilable conflict between the inner world of our heart and the world outside, and this conflict is ever the more intensified the more the regenerative principle pervades our consciousness. Now, in the Bible, God reveals, to the regenerate, a world of thought, a world of energies, a world of full and beautiful life, which stands in direct opposition to his ordinary world, but which proves to agree in a wonderful way with the new life that has sprung up in his heart.'(9)

(9) From the second lecture, 'Calvinism and religion'.

According to T.H.L.Parker's biography: 'God in his kindness, says Calvin, speaks to man in the language that he understands, like a mother using baby talk to her infant.'(10) One could love Calvin for saying that, whatever else he might have said.

(10) Parker, p.93. Unfortunately he doesn't give a precise source.