"A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper's American Public Theology" by John Bolt

David VanDrunen
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2002

The energy and accomplishments of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) are undeniably impressive. After beginning his career as a Reformed pastor and theologian, he expanded his work into the realms of journalism, education, and politics. His ultimate achievements included the formation of a new ecclesiastical denomination, the founding of a university, and a stint as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Interpreting such a complex man-who was also a voluminous writer-presents many challenges, but his influence and appeal demand that such interpretation be offered. In A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper's American Public Theology, John Bolt of Calvin Theological Seminary presents a stimulating analysis and appropriation of Kuyper's work, even if it is not, in the end, the book on Kuyper that we really need.

Bolt's volume is ambitious. It is long and yet is clearly such because of the author's deep affection for his subject-he calls Kuyper "the dominant spiritual-intellectual-theological figure in my life." Bolt not only attempts to interpret Kuyper within his own historical context, but also compares his thought and work to many other European and American intellectual-cultural figures of the past centuries (including Burke, Tocqueville, Acton, Leo XIII, Edwards, Rauschenbusch, and M. L. King) and presents a case for why American evangelicals need to learn from Kuyper for their own cultural and political endeavors.

Bolt has two primary purposes, one of which I judge to be much more successful than the other. The first is to offer a new interpretation of Kuyper's public theology. Bolt proposes that Kuyper's work be viewed first of all from a "rhetorical and mythopoetic perspective," and not solely, or even primarily, from the perspective of his philosophical or theological ideas. Bolt portrays Kuyper as a man who captured the imagination of the Dutch Reformed people and who moved them to action more by stirring biblical imagery and national mythology than by logically developed intellectual concepts. Bolt's second purpose is to appropriate Kuyper for the American scene, particularly for the confused world of Evangelical cultural engagement. Kuyper, Bolt believes, offers needed "theoretical and strategic help" for marginalized American evangelicals who find themselves in a social position somewhat analogous to that of the orthodox Dutch Reformed volk whom Kuyper led.

In pursuing the first of these purposes, Bolt is quite insightful, helpful, and persuasive. His portrait of Kuyper, the poet, helps to explain why Kuyper's writings can be so compelling without being entirely coherent, and more moving than lucid. Kuyper's thought is not easy to systematize, and Bolt himself acknowledges several points of inconsistency in it. Yet Kuyper stirred the soul of a nation-as only a poet can do. Bolt's analysis brings to light a theme that is clearly evident even in some of Kuyper's writings that have appeared in English translation, namely, that Kuyper was at heart a Dutch patriot, a man who loved the Dutch language, history, and customs. Kuyper the patriot wished to stir Dutch patriotism, and it is in the heart rather than the mind where patriotism resides. For Kuyper, however, Dutch patriotism was inseparable from his theological-ecclesiastical concerns. In calling for a renewal of Dutch culture, Kuyper hoped for renewal of a "Calvinist" culture, for he believed that historic Dutch culture was thoroughly Calvinistic. This is an aspect of Kuyper's work that is too easily and too often overlooked. Though Kuyper is the common source of inspiration for appeals to "transform" culture, his calls for transformation were more a conservative plea for renewal of an already latent force than a program for foisting something new on his society.

The second purpose of this book, the appropriation of Kuyper for American Evangelical public life, is less satisfying. To be sure, Bolt does offer a number of helpful critiques of various religiously inspired political agendas that compete for the allegiances of American Christians, and Kuyper's work certainly offers useful correctives for many of their excesses and shortcomings. Nevertheless, this is a book that appropriates Kuyper critically only on the surface. This claim is not meant to imply that Bolt is simplistic or nave in his project, for he is not. But Bolt does little to probe the foundation upon which Kuyper builds his larger cultural program, and instead virtually assumes the theological solidity of the foundation. This foundation is the idea that there ought to be a specifically Christian sociopolitical task and that emerges out of some Calvinist worldview. To his credit, Bolt includes some brief discussion of a few contemporary critics of Kuyper who questioned his claims to be a rightful heir of biblical, Reformed Christianity on such matters. This discussion does not appear until an appendix, however, where it is safely removed from the argument of the book. The very fact that Bolt can relegate such concerns to an appendix says something about the present theological environment and the degree to which Kuyper's assumptions have also become the assumptions of not only the Reformed world but also of significant sectors of Evangelicalism.

For readers of this magazine, for whom the Protestant Reformation is dear, Kuyper's assumptions need at least to be acknowledged as fundamentally different from the "two kingdoms" perspective on social life offered by Luther and, yes, even by Calvin. For these reformers, social institutions were legitimate and divinely ordained, but were never to be confused with or transformed into the kingdom of God. Those still sympathetic to the reformers may look at Bolt's work as nearly 500 interesting pages in which the biggest questions are never asked. Readers who do not assume that there is a distinctively "Christian" cultural-political task, or that the kingdom of God is the measure for all earthly kingdoms, or that the present social order is supposed to be transformed, or that Reformed Christianity is a Calvinism consisting of a "life-principle" or worldview, will probably come away having eaten much but not finally satiated. The book that we still need is one that critically challenges rather than promotes the Kuyperian captivity of the church.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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