Tag Archives: Abraham Kuyper

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.

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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.


Book Review: Abraham Kuyper — Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

Abraham Kuyper by James Bratt

Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.  Paperback, 483 pages, $30.00.

Figures like Abraham Kuyper simply do not exist anymore.  You will look in vain for someone who effectively combines being a Reformed pastor, professor, politician, journalist and much more.  Our day seems incapable of producing anyone like “Father Abraham,” or “Abraham the Mighty,” as he was also called.  This fact alone could make a biography of Kuyper compelling reading.  After all, what accounts for Kuyper’s stature?  What prevents our own time from producing men like him?

James Bratt is a professor of history at Calvin College where he specializes in US intellectual and religious history.  It seems that other aspects of his career have been leading up to this monumental volume.  For example, in 1998 he was the editor of a volume containing new translations of some of Kuyper’s shorter writings (Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader).  He is obviously fluent in Dutch and has worked with the important primary and secondary sources in that language to produce this fine book.

This biography has been much-anticipated and the publisher has not been shy about promoting it as a one-of-a-kind work.  Eerdmans is describing it as the “first full-scale English biography of Abraham Kuyper.”  I was rather amused to read that since some unrelated research recently led me to some issues of The Banner from 1960.  Back then Eerdmans was loudly promoting another biography of Abraham Kuyper as the first of its kind in English.  Yes, Eerdmans published Frank Vandenberg’s biography of Abraham Kuyper in 1960 (it was reprinted by Paideia Press in 1978).  True, Vandenberg’s biography does have a different character and quality about it.  Bratt’s is far superior on most counts.  Nevertheless, I find it intriguing that Eerdmans seems to have forgotten about its earlier “full-scale English biography” that was so vocally hyped back in 1960.  Moreover, Vandenberg gets no mention in Bratt’s book, not even a footnote.

This biography has been published as part of an academic series, “Library of Religious Biography.”  Like the other volumes in this series, Abraham Kuyper is a scholarly work.  It features copious bibliographical notes for each chapter.  It is not written in a popular style for the average person in the pew.  It assumes a fairly high level of existing knowledge about world history, Dutch history, and Reformed theology.  Someone without that background knowledge might still benefit from this volume, but they will need to have some of the character qualities of the Mighty Abraham:  persistence and hard work.

A book review is not the place to rehearse the entire content of the book – otherwise, why would you even bother to read it for yourself?  Let it suffice to say that Bratt has all the bases covered.  Most of the important events of Kuyper’s entire life are recounted in great detail.  Some noteworthy items that I gleaned, some new to me and others not:  Kuyper and his siblings were homeschooled by both parents (18); in his younger years, Kuyper was essentially a Unitarian, denying the divinity of Christ and the forgiveness of sins through his blood (26); his church attendance in younger years was pathetic, but in his older years he again stopped attending public worship on Sundays, choosing instead to stay home and write Bible meditations for his newspaper (129); on his trip to the USA in 1898 he encouraged electors to vote Republican, but then later endorsed Democratic candidates for the presidency (268,274); Kuyper denounced laissez-faire capitalism (224).  Along the way, Bratt also corrects some common errors found in other biographical writings.  For instance, there is the story of how Kuyper providentially came across the works of the Polish Reformer Jan Laski in the library of the father of his professor.  Kuyper embellished the story when he wrote about it in his memoirs and many subsequent biographers simply took him at his word.  Kuyper claimed that, after searching far and wide for six weeks, he finally found a complete set of Laski’s writings in that personal library in Haarlem.  The reality was that he had already found other volumes in Utrecht, but one of the crucial ones that was missing turned up in Haarlem.

The book is arranged according to three epochs in Kuyper’s life:  Foundations (1837-77), Constructions (1877-97), Shadows (1898-1920).  In other words, there is a chronological development.  Bratt often works topically within each of these epochs.  Unfortunately, as a result sometimes the chronology within these epochs can become a little disorienting.  This is one of the hazards of this approach, but given the sheer breadth of Kuyper’s person, thought, work, and times, it is understandable why Bratt would do it this way.

Most of the events in Kuyper’s life are done adequate justice.  However, missing for some reason is a key event in a seminary classroom at Leiden where Kuyper applauded the denial of Christ’s resurrection by his church history professor L. W. E. Rauwenhoff.  Kuyper would later single out this incident as one that caused him great pain, knowing that he had grieved his Lord and Saviour.  Additionally, one might have hoped for greater attention to Kuyper’s role in the Union of 1892 or his contribution to the revision of article 36 of the Belgic Confession.

While he might be lacking on some of Kuyper’s ecclesiastical contributions, Bratt certainly gives ample attention to his political philosophy and activities.  Without a doubt, this was a big part of Kuyper’s life and legacy.  Commendably, Bratt carefully lays out the social and political context which a twenty-first century North American reader needs to understand the significance of Kuyper as a politician and social-political commentator/philosopher.  An entire chapter (15) is devoted to Kuyper’s term as prime minister of the Netherlands and Bratt ably lays out the events contributing to his rise (and eventual fall), as well as the policies by which he governed.

This is a critical biography.  While Bratt admires his subject, he is also not reticent with respect to his weaknesses.  In the Introduction he gives his own frank evaluation:  “Abraham Kuyper was a great man, but not a nice one” (xxii). Some personal flaws are exposed, but Bratt also takes note when the man grows in holiness.  Theological, philosophical, political, and historical flaws also receive attention and the author sometimes evaluates and offers his own perspective – one with which readers might not necessarily agree!   Bratt also gives his own take on the legacy of Kuyper and, there too, readers might take issue with his conclusions.  Let me give this one example:  “Neo-Calvinism is the only resource available besides neo-Thomism to rescue American evangelicalism from cultural irrelevance, to unite the warm heart at which evangelicalism excels with the furnished mind that public engagement requires and the responsible pluralism that modern society demands” (380).  When an author uses the word “only,” he is almost begging for someone to disagree with him.  Are there no other viable options besides neo-Calvinism and neo-Thomism?  But more importantly, should we even want to rescue American evangelicalism from cultural irrelevance or meet the demands of modern society?  More such questions could be asked of this and other similar statements.

Abraham Kuyper was a stimulating read from cover to cover.  The Mighty Abraham is presented as the complex, sometimes paradoxical, larger-than-life figure that he was.  We see him also as a child of God working through enormous spiritual struggles – by God’s grace, and through providential people and circumstances, he goes from being essentially a Unitarian to Reformed in his convictions.  God used him to reform the church and also to bring together those believers who belonged together.  Readers will come away with a greater appreciation for all the nuances and details that made him a giant in our heritage.  You do not have to appreciate or endorse the idiosyncrasies of Kuyper’s theology to understand that he has a played a huge role in shaping who we are as Reformed people today.

Bratt has produced an impressive and well-written volume.  I don’t often get to write this, but the book is also absolutely immaculate in terms of typos and other such formal errors.  Eerdmans and its editorial staff can be commended for their obsessive attention to detail.  This volume might not be the only English work on the life of Kuyper, but it is definitely the new gold standard.


2013 Ministerial Conference

This afternoon I returned from a refreshing couple of days with colleagues at a retreat a couple of hours north of here.  Most of the brothers in attendance were CanRC, but we also enjoyed the company of a URC missionary and a pastor from the Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ).  We heard presentations on the following topics:

American Revivalism (presented by yours truly)

The Pastor’s Role When a Parishioner Dies (Garnet van Popta)

The Homosexual in the Church (Rev. J. DeGelder)

Hemorrhaging Members to Credo-baptist Churches (Rev. E. Kampen)

The Book of Jeremiah as Decalogical Lawsuit (Dr. J. Smith)

It was a good range of topics and the presentations were followed by some lively discussions.  The highlight for me was the last presentation by Dr. Smith.  In this thought-provoking paper, he proposed that the book of Jeremiah is structured along the lines of the Ten Commandments.

One of the regular features of these conferences is the sharing of good books.  Let me pass on to you the titles mentioned by me and my colleagues at the conference:

Abraham Kuyper:Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James Bratt

Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett

The Anglican Agenda series of booklets

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, Paul David Tripp

Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, Russell Moore

Finishing Well to the Glory of God: Strategies from a Christian Physician, John Dunlop

Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will, Kevin DeYoung and Joshua Harris


Let Christ Be King

I just finished re-reading this little book by Louis Praamsma.  It’s an excellent and fairly reliable introduction to Abraham Kuyper.  There are just a couple of places where I placed question marks.

One of them is in regard to his discussion of common grace.  He quotes the synodical declaration of 1942 in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands on the subject and then states:  “What must be stressed, however, is that in 1942 there was unanimity in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands with regard to the common grace issue, and that this unanimity was in line with Kuyper’s insights” (144).  That’s not a fair representation of the history.  A synodical declaration does not equal unanimity.  The page before this he mentions Schilder’s critique of Kuyper on common grace, so even Praamsma acknowledged that there was dissent.  So far as I know, Schilder didn’t abandon his critique of Kuyper because of the synodical declaration in 1942.

That being what it is, this is still a helpful read.  You can find a free electronic copy in .pdf format right here.


Devotional Literature

I get a lot of requests from people looking for devotional literature.  The one person wants a book of devotions for retired couples.  The other wants a book for engaged couples.  Still another is looking for something for their teenage son or daughter.  I used to search high and low for things I could recommend for these niche needs.  No longer.  Now I recommend that people just start with reading the Bible prayerfully.  Why is it that everyone feels they either need to be spoon-fed or they need someone to make the Bible relevant for them?  It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the stereotype of the medieval church:  everyone talks about the Bible but no one reads it for themselves.  The thought seems to be that the Bible is a deep and mysterious book and we need someone else to interpret it and apply it for us.

Nevertheless, I do think there is a place for devotional literature.  I think there is a place for authors to share their meditations on sacred Scripture.  There is a place for us to learn from our forebears how to pray and to think Christianly.  The thing is that these things ought never to replace our going directly to the source for ourselves.  They should be supplementary.  Moreover, we should lose this (post-)modern idea of niche devotionals — the devotional for the unemployed single mother, the devotional for the engaged couple, etc., etc.  This trend is reflective of the narcissism of our day:  everyone needs something crafted exactly for their personal, individual needs.  Whatever happened to the catholic church?  Whatever happened to the communion of saints?  Whatever happened to being able to think and apply general truths to your individual needs?

So with those caveats, let me recommend some of the devotional literature that I’ve found helpful.  This list is not exhaustive.  There is a lot of good stuff out there, although most of it was written by dead old guys.  Sorry!  There just hasn’t been a lot of thoughtful and at the same time faithful devotional literature written in our day.  In no particular order, these are some of the resources I can suggest:

The Valley of Vision has long been one of my favourites.  This is a collection of prayers from Puritans and Puritan-minded folks.  Prayers are here from Thomas Watson, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon and many others.  My only complaint about this volume is that it doesn’t tell you where the prayers are from or who wrote which prayers.  This book is also available in a bonded leather edition.  It would be a great gift for young people doing public profession of faith.

Still on the subject of prayer, there’s this volume from Johann Gerhard, a Lutheran theologian from the seventeenth century.  I just recently discovered this and it’s beautiful and powerful.  Throughout Gerhard is either quoting Scripture or working with scriptural concepts.

Thomas Watson is my favourite Puritan.  People who have a stereotype of the Puritans as obscure and difficult to read need to take a look at Watson.  I recently picked up this one and I’ve been enjoying it tremendously.  Here’s a sample quote:  “Let us get love to Christ.  Love is a holy transport.  It fires the affections, steels the courage, and carries a Christian above the love of life, and the fear of death.  Many waters cannot quench love (Song of Sol. 8:7).  Love made Christ suffer for us.  If anyone ask what Christ died of, it may be answered, He died of love” (10).

Thomas Watson is so good that he gets double mention on this list.  This volume is an arrangement of short devotional readings from his book Body of Divinity.  There’s enough here for an entire year.  The language here has been slightly modernized for ease of understanding.

Near Unto God is an abridgement by James Schaap of a classic volume by the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper.  I’ve been reading it for some time and have found it to be remarkable in places, puzzling (and almost bizarre) in others.  It’s hard to tell where Kuyper is being interpreted by Schaap.  Unfortunately, I don’t have either the Dutch original or the earlier English translation to compare.

Finally, also from our Dutch Reformed tradition, there is this classic by Petrus Dathenus.  If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was involved with the production of our liturgical forms as well as an early edition of the Genevan psalter in Dutch.  As Joel Beeke aptly summarizes it on the back cover, “This succinct treatise lets the light of Scripture shine clearly on the practical issues involved in teaching and living the doctrines of sovereign grace.”  Dathenus powerfully points Christians to an all-sufficient Saviour as the true “pearl of great price.”