Tag Archives: Abraham Kuyper

Quotable Church History: “Not a square inch…”

This is the ninth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

The man behind today’s quote once also wrote this about Jesus Christ:  “He is not God to me, for my religious sense teaches me to know but one God.  To me he is a man and nothing but a man.”  Abraham Kuyper wrote those words to his fiancée Johanna Schaay in about 1860.  He was a doctoral student in theology, but clearly not yet a Christian in the biblical sense of the word.  That would come later — after his ordination to the ministry.  God would use a number of different means, including a spinster church member named Pietje Baltus, to bring Kuyper to true saving faith in Jesus Christ.  You can read more about all that here.

Eventually God used Kuyper in a powerful way to bring about a reformation in the Hervormde Kerk (the Dutch state church).  Kuyper was the leading figure in the Doleantie of 1886.  However, prior to that, he was also the driving force behind the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam.  He had a vision for a university free from the bonds of church and state.  It would be a Christian institution, certainly, but not beholden to the powers which had caused so much decline in the Dutch state universities of the era.  The Free University of Amsterdam opened its doors on October 20, 1880.  It had five professors and eight students.

Kuyper delivered the opening address.  Entitled “Sphere Sovereignty,” it encapsulated his vision for the university.  It laid out how the Free University was going to be different — holding to a Christian worldview ethos in which every aspect (sphere) falls under the sovereignty of God.  It was a masterpiece of Kuyperian rhetoric.  The famous quote comes towards the end of this address:  “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”  These are undoubtedly Kuyper’s most famous words — they’ve been quoted by Tim Keller, Chuck Colson, and numerous other luminaries.

Quoted as often as it is, is it true?  Colossians 1:17-18 speaks about Christ in the same way:

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

Christ is to be preeminent in everything because, as the Holy Spirit points out earlier in Colossians 1, Christ is the One through whom all things were created.  Everything belongs to him and he is sovereign over it all.  Jesus is Lord over all and Kuyper’s words powerfully expressed that biblical truth.  There’s a good reason why he’s called “Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).

Kuyper is sometimes regarded a villain in church history because of the role his views would play in later church controversies in the Netherlands.  However, on the point of Christ’s sovereignty over all human endeavours, we all ought to stand with “Father Abraham.”  It’s amazing to think that this man went from denying Christ’s divinity in 1860 to preaching Christ’s divine sovereign prerogatives in 1880.  In those 20 years, God not only transformed his heart and mind, but also the hearts and minds of countless other Reformed church members.  Since then, Kuyper’s words and the thoughts behind them have gone on to inspire many other Christians to take Christ’s claims seriously.  For that we should praise God’s sovereign grace, but also take those claims seriously ourselves in every area of life.

Quotable Church History: “If I had to add a single sigh to my salvation…”

This is the eighth in a series on famous quotes from church history.  We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

By the late 1700s, the Reformed church in the Netherlands had largely become anemic.  Unbelief and liberal theology ran rampant.  There were few gospel preachers and only scattered handfuls of true believers.  Instead, what dominated was the type of religion emphasizing Jesus as the good example for a moral life.  Doctrine was  sidelined, along with the creeds and Reformed confessions.

This was the story in the tiny village church of Ulrum coming into the 1800s.  Ulrum is located in the north-west of the Dutch province of Groningen (one of the two most northern Dutch provinces).  In 1826, Ulrum received a new pastor in the person of Petrus Hofstede de Groot.  De Groot was the typical minister of his day.  In one place he summarized his belief:  “Christianity is no doctrine, it is power, spirit, and life, for the enlightenment, warming, sanctification, and perfection of man.”  His message was moral improvement.  While some delighted in the pablum he offered in his weekly preaching, others in Ulrum saw the sad reality.  Several Ulrum members refused to make a public profession of faith with de Groot as their minister.  Thankfully, de Groot’s ministry was short:  he left to teach at the University of Groningen in 1829, only three years after arriving in Ulrum.

De Groot handpicked his successor.  Hendrik de Cock was his good friend and a like-minded preacher.  He arrived in Ulrum in October 1829.  At first his preaching was much the same as de Groot.  However, he did make some changes.  For example, prior to his arrival, Ulrum consistory meetings were never convened or closed with prayer.  De Cock introduced prayer at the beginning of the first meeting of the year and prayer at the end of the last meeting of the year.  It was a small step.  Nevertheless, despite being a minister and quite religious, de Cock was really no different than de Groot at this time:  both were missing the gospel, and both were lacking in true faith.

One of the members who had refused to make profession of his faith with de Groot was a working-class brother by the name of Klaas Pieters Kuypenga.  In due time, de Cock urged Kuypenga to come by the Ulrum manse for an hour a week to receive further instruction.  Kuypenga agreed.  But what happened was remarkable.  Kuypenga became one of God’s instruments to bring de Cock to true faith in Jesus Christ.  During one of their sessions, Kuypenga remarked to his pastor:  “If I had to add a single sigh to my salvation, I would be eternally lost.”  This language stunned de Cock and it put the proverbial stone in his shoe — he couldn’t stop thinking about what this meant.  In due time, God would providentially bring other factors into play so that de Cock would become a Christian and start preaching like one.  De Cock would go on to challenge the liberalism of the Dutch Reformed Church and be instrumental in a reformation known as the Secession (in Dutch: Afscheiding) of 1834.

One would think it rather obvious that Kuypenga spoke biblical truth to his pastor.  Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse…”  Adding anything from our works to Christ’s work would place us under a curse.  Or one could think of Isaiah 64:6 which insists that even our so-called righteous deeds are like unmentionables in the sight of God.  Furthermore, Romans 3:28 reminds us that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  We have nothing to contribute to our salvation except for the sin which made it necessary.  The moment you seek to add something to the perfect work of Christ, you are holding to a different gospel, a false gospel which will damn you.  Klaas Pieters Kuypenga had been trained by the Holy Spirit to speak his truth.

It wouldn’t be the last time God would use a regular church member as a powerful instrument to bring reformation.  He did something similar with Abraham Kuyper and a lady named Pietje Balthus.  Both Hendrik de Cock and Abrhaham Kuyper were exceptionally learned men, scholarly pastors — and yet God used these “little people” to turn their worlds upside down for the gospel.  These episodes in church history illustrate that 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 continues to hold true:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.


New Kuyper Resources Added

One of the hats I wear finds me teaching church history again, this time to Grade 7-10 students at our John Calvin School here in Launceston.  Tomorrow they’re beginning a research project on Abraham Kuyper.  To assist them, and for anyone else interested, I’ve just added a couple of articles on Kuyper.  These two pieces were originally published in the November 2013 issue of Reformed Perspective:

Abraham Kuyper: Larger than Life

Kuyper’s Legacy: For Better and For Worse

Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.

John Calvin and Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus

Today I’ll share another excerpt from my Reformation Church History course that I recently taught in the Philippines and, before that, in Brazil.


Now we come to the most controversial event in Calvin’s life – the case of Michael Servetus.  Because it’s so controversial, I want to spend a little more time on this one.  Through the years, scholar after scholar has castigated Calvin for the trial and execution of Servetus – usually without any consideration of the context.

Servetus was approximately the same age as Calvin and was a native of the Spanish region of Aragon.  Not much is known about his early life.  In 1531, he made a name for himself by publishing a book which denounced the doctrine of the Trinity.  The book was widely condemned.  Like Bolsec, Servetus was also a medical doctor and as such he was the first to discover and correctly describe pulmonary circulation.  However, the thing for which he is most remembered is a book he published in 1553, Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity).  This book proposed to fix all the errors in Christianity which were preventing Christ from establishing his millennial kingdom on earth.[1]

While working on this book, he began to correspond with John Calvin.  The two had written back and forth before, so they already knew one another.  Calvin was not impressed with Servetus.  They argued especially about the doctrine of the Trinity and the pantheistic tendencies of the theology of Servetus.  Calvin sent Servetus a copy of the Institutes, which Servetus promptly returned with “critical, dissenting and contemptuous annotations.”[2]  Calvin had little patience with this Spaniard.  He wrote a letter to Farel stating that if Servetus were ever to come to Geneva, he would not allow him to leave alive.

In the meantime, Servetus was arrested in France and tried in Roman Catholic ecclesiastical courts.  He was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to be burned to death at the stake.  However, somehow Servetus managed to escape from prison and so he was merely burned in effigy.  He was now a fugitive, wanted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.  There was no safe place for Servetus in Europe.

His only hope was to disguise himself, use pseudonyms, and wander from place to place.  He spent some time in southern France, and from there decided to make his way to Naples in Italy.  Geneva happened to be on the way and he stopped there for a rest.  He was only there a few days when he was recognized and arrested.  He seemed to be looking for a confrontation.  He showed up at Calvin’s church on the afternoon of Sunday August 13, 1553.  Someone recognized him and pointed him out to Calvin.  Calvin then reported him to the city authorities and they took him into custody.  He was given the opportunity to be sent back to France, but he begged to be tried in Geneva instead.  The city granted his request.  Be careful what you ask for…

The charges against him were mostly theological in nature, but yet he was going to be tried by the civil government.  Servetus had a defense lawyer, none other than Philibert Berthelier.  Berthelier continued to harbour resentment against Calvin and would do anything to oppose him, even if it meant defending an obvious heretic.

The trial was held before the Little Council of Geneva.  The views of Servetus regarding the Trinity and his pantheism were all discussed in detail, as was his denial of infant baptism.  Servetus was adamant and obnoxious in his defense.  The Council struggled with what to do with him.  They sought the advice of other Swiss cities such as Bern, Zurich and Basel.  Their advice was unanimous:  Servetus must be executed.

On October 26, 1553 the Little Council reached its verdict:  Servetus was guilty and he was to be burnt at the stake.  Calvin pleaded with the magistrates to give Servetus an easier death by beheading, but the Council persisted in wanting to have him burnt.  Calvin went to visit with him in prison to try and convince him to recant, but Servetus stubbornly refused.  The next day, October 27, 1553, Servetus was brought to a hill top in Geneva and suffered a horrific and painful death.  The executioner was an amateur and had problems getting the fire going.  Eventually, however, Servetus succumbed and left this world.  He reportedly died saying, “Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.”  It was the end of Servetus.

But it was not the end of the controversy.  Sebastien Castellio and others condemned Calvin and the rest of Geneva for the way this affair was handled.  It is worth noting that many of the arguments of Castellio are still around today, and they have even been used by some Reformed critics of Calvin’s actions, including Abraham Kuyper.[3]  Castellio thought it absurd and deplorable to execute someone for having differing views in matters of religion, and many modern critics have agreed.

As we look at the situation from where we stand today, there are a few important things we need to remember:

First of all, just because we are Reformed does not necessarily mean that we are bound to follow and believe everything that Calvin did.  We are not bound to Calvin, but to the Word of God.  Calvin was a fallible human being and we should be open to the possibility that he was wrong on some points.

Next, what happened in Geneva is exactly what would have happened in any other place, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.  The consensus across Europe was that blasphemy and heresy were the worst possible crimes and had to be dealt with accordingly.  Correct doctrine was a matter of life and death.  As we’ll see further in a few minutes, in Geneva, Calvin argued that the penalties in the Mosaic laws required contemporary magistrates to punish blasphemy and heresy with death.[4]  Castellio understood this to be Calvin’s teaching and he then tried to argue that Calvin’s beliefs (and Geneva with him) compelled one to undertake a colossal massacre of Roman Catholic countries.  What this argument failed to account for was some further qualification on Calvin’s part.  Calvin argued that magistrates had this responsibility with regard to heretics, but only in their own jurisdiction.  Calvin maintained that God’s command did not bind Genevan magistrates to go on a crusade to slaughter Muslims or Jews, or Roman Catholic apostates.  It applied only to those who “having received the law become apostate.”[5]

Another important thing to note about the Servetus affair would be the political implications of what Servetus was promoting.  By attacking the doctrine of the Trinity, he was also attacking the foundations of civil society in Geneva and elsewhere.  He was perceived as attempting to disintegrate the whole notion of a political covenant.  It was a frontal attack on established political power.[6]  As historian W. Stanford Reid once wrote, the views of Servetus “were not merely erroneous religiously, but also subversive politically, which meant that the state had the right to intervene.”[7]  And not only the right, but also the duty.  Politically, sixteenth-century Geneva was a much different world than we know today, one in which theology played a crucial role in providing stable foundations.  Undermining those foundations was considered to be treasonous and definitely a matter for the civil government.  It was a totally different context and when we comment on it, we need to keep that in mind.

With that context in mind, we can note that Calvin did argue for the eternal validity of laws prescribing punishment for those promoting heresy and for those who blaspheme.  In 1554 he wrote a book defending Geneva’s punishment of Servetus and in this book he constantly refers to the Old Testament punishments for these crimes.  Calvin wrote, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.  This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his church.”[8]  But there is some tension there, because what is a perpetual rule for his church really ends up being an action carried out by the civil magistrate.  Did Calvin really envision that the consistory would put heretics to death?  There is no evidence of that.

And there are more tensions in Calvin’s thinking and speaking about this affair.  Later on Calvin tried to distance himself from the death of Servetus.  He said, “I never moved to have him punished with death.”[9]  It might be literally true, but Calvin carried a considerable amount of influence in Geneva by this point in time.  That was the reality.  Calvin never disapproved; moreover, much of his teaching and writing certainly supported what the city of Geneva did with Servetus.  Did he actually kill Servetus?  No, no one can say that and do the situation justice.  It was far more complicated.  Calvin was part of an ecclesiastical and political system where this was a common response to heresy.  For him to object to this kind of response in this era would have placed him more as a political revolutionary than a Reformer.

[1] Williston Walker, John Calvin: The Organiser of Reformed Protestantism, 328.

[2] Walker, John Calvin, 329.

[3] Kuyper wrote, “…I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after-effect of a system, grey with age, which Calvinism found in existence, under which it had grown up, and from it had not yet been able entirely to liberate itself.”  Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1931), 100.

[4] La pensée politique de Calvin, Marc-Edouard Cheneviere (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1938), 289.

[5] J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1928), 87.

[6] Selderhuis, John Calvin, 204.

[7] W. Stanford Reid, “Calvin and the Political Order,” in J. T. Hoogstra (ed.), John Calvin: Contemporary Prophet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), 252.

[8] As quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Vol. 8), 791.

[9] As quoted by John T. McNeill, History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford UP, 1954), 175.