By Andrew M. McGinnis
Review of Abraham Kuyper, Honey from the Rock: Daily Devotions from Young Kuyper, translated by James A. De Jong (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018). P. xviii – 741.
In the academic world there are several well-known “twoness theses”—arguments by scholars that there are in one historical person two identifiable and contradictory lines of thought that warrant depicting the individual as divided. Perhaps the most famous of these is the now discredited “Adam Smith Problem,” which understood the Scottish philosopher as divided against himself because his two major works seemed to stand in opposition to each other in fundamental ways. Students of theology may be aware of the “Two Bavincks” hypothesis regarding the life and work of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, who was supposedly divided between traditional orthodoxy and modernity. Even the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin have been subject to academic bisection.
It seems that anyone who writes and publishes enough material will be susceptible to a twoness thesis. In some ways it is a mark that you have made it as an author. It means you have published, lectured, or preached so much that people can find contradictions in your work and pit you against yourself. The Dutch Reformed pastor, theologian, and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) certainly made it as an author. Much like Luther, Kuyper seems not only to have thought about everything, but also to have written nearly all those thoughts down and published them for all to see. So, naturally, we find scholars referring to “two Kuypers” or worrying about “other Kuypers.” The recent appearance in English of Kuyper’s meditations, Honey from the Rock, may add fuel to the fire for those who want to set Kuyper against himself. In these meditations we seem to find a different Kuyper than many of us thought we knew. We do not find Kuyper the public theologian striving to redeem all of life—and every sphere—for the sake of Christ the King. Instead we find Kuyper the pastor, Kuyper the exhorter, and—if we can use the term in a positive sense—Kuyper the pietist. Is this a different Kuyper
The translator, James A. De Jong, notes that Kuyper wrote a weekly meditation as part of his Sunday devotional exercises for nearly fifty years. He produced over twenty-two hundred such meditations in his lifetime. Some of Kuyper’s mediations from his later years were published in English in the early twentieth century as To be Near unto God, which has since gone through many reprint editions. The two hundred pieces in Honey from the Rock first appeared weekly in Kuyper’s Dutch religious newspapers from 1877 to 1882. Kuyper collected these meditations and published them in two volumes, appearing in 1880 and 1883, respectively.
The precise nature of these short reflections is hard to pin down. De Jong says that the writing of these devotions was a “profoundly spiritual experience” for Kuyper (xiii). That may well be true, but it seems a stretch for De Jong to claim that through these mediations we “look into [Kuyper’s] soul” (xiv). In fact Kuyper provides us with no self-examination or introspection here whatsoever. He does not pour out his soul or unveil his personal doubts, struggles, and experiences. The pronouns he uses are plural and inclusive: “we,” “us,” “you,” and “you and I.” Although Kuyper was no longer a pastor when he wrote these mediations, his tone is pastoral and exhortative, though this often turns preachy and rebuking. This tone and style, perhaps more welcome in the nineteenth century, may prove wearisome to today’s readers, who might wish to read these mediations at the rate in which they first appeared: only one per week. It is not unusual to find entire paragraphs consisting of rhetorical questions. There are innumerable punchy exclamations, interjections, and ardent cries of “Oh!” In sum, these meditations are something other than private devotions and ruminations on divine truth. What was Kuyper doing?
Kuyper was writing for an audience. He was writing for the readers of his newspapers, for the people in the pews of the Reformed church. We must remember that Kuyper wrote these meditations in the years of the build-up of his orthodox movement in the Dutch state church, the movement that would become known as the Doleantie (the “aggrieved”). Kuyper was taking up the battle against a church that he believed was awash in formalism and was compromising theologically. These devotional writings are therefore aimed at building up the faithful and combatting the spread of unbelief and dead orthodoxy that Kuyper saw all around him. And yet they do this with very few explicit references to the events or figures in the Dutch church of the time. Kuyper surely aims at fostering Christian devotion, but he also presses his readers hard to make their lives match their profession, to deeply (even painfully) examine their motives and behavior, and to stand and fight against the forces of evil and unbelief in themselves and in society. Each meditation begins with a Scripture text, which Kuyper regularly uses in whatever way he fancies. His tendency to let his mind run free on a word or a phrase without much regard for the original context and meaning of a passage will frustrate many readers, especially those who value careful exegesis. This is not to say there are no strokes of genius and insight, but readers may not want to let Kuyper lead them down every path of interpretation
The themes in this collection run the gamut of Christian doctrine and life, but there are some recurring motifs. Kuyper is relentless in emphasizing human depravity. He chides his readers: “you’re still thinking much too highly about human beings” (280). And Christians do not escape his rebuke. He often calls out believers’ hypocrisy and spiritual stupor. “Jesus loves you too much to accept . . . empty flattery,” he says about those who praise their own or others’ generosity (34). Further, Kuyper exposes “the vanity of our half-heartedness and the unworthiness of our pretentious, haggling, and calculating behavior” (354). Given Kuyper’s ecclesiastical context, we are not surprised to find him attacking dead orthodoxy and formalism. “What a horrible delusion!” he cries, when Christians think their traditions and doctrinal statements will save them and their children (362). And given that Kuyper wrote these reflections as part of his Sunday devotional practices, it is fitting that many pieces touch on themes of work and rest. In what may strike some Kuyperians as strange, it is often the Sabbath rather than weekday work that gets the greater praise: “what is noble for God’s children is that after they have been at work, they return to their real glory found in Sabbath rest” (442).
It is precisely these themes, however, that remind us that we are not dealing with a different Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s career was saturated with a passion for the church. In the late 1860s he underwent a “conversion to the church,” as John Halsey Wood Jr. has argued in his introduction to a collection of Kuyper’s ecclesiological works. This passion would never subside even in the midst of Kuyper’s projects as a public theologian, politician, and university founder. One could argue, in fact, that all of these endeavors were for the sake of the church. As Wood summarizes, for Kuyper “the church was the mother apart from which no one can have God as Father, and it stood as a rampart against the overwhelming state. Such a church should be Reformed in its confessions; democratic rather than patrician; free instead of coerced; independent of the state; and all this in its doctrine, worship, and work of mercy.”
The meditations in Honey from the Rock have a different style and goal than many readers have come to expect from devotional literature. The subject matter and genre is also not what many readers of Kuyper have come to expect from him. But this is not a different Kuyper. This is the one and only Abraham Kuyper, the man who called the church his mother and whose great passion was the communion of saints that stands as a buttress of truth; the believers who struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil; and the suffering faithful who persevere to the end.
Andrew M. McGinnis (Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is editorial director and a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he also serves as the book reviews editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is co–general editor of the second series of CLP Academic’s Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law. He has written and lectured on topics in the fields of Reformed and Presbyterian theology, history, and social thought, and he is coeditor of Abraham Kuyper’s On the Church (Lexham Press, 2016), editor of Franciscus Junius’ The Mosaic Polity (CLP Academic, 2015), and author of The Son of God Beyond the Flesh (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).