Kuyper the Mystic
Kuyper the Mystic

Kuyper the Mystic

"A Christianity that neglects the mystic element grows cold and congeals." —Abraham Kuyper

Why personal piety and public life can coexist.

June 1 st 2010
Appears in Summer 2010


The truest truths are never new. And the most important questions are always the perennial ones, the ones that human beings always ask. As my favorite poet, Steve Turner, once put it: History repeats itself. Has to. Nobody listens.

I am an Augustinian, and I am a Bernardian, and I am a Calvinist, and I am a Kuyperian—and in and through it all, with the Puritan Richard Baxter and the Oxbridge don C.S. Lewis, I am a mere Christian. I would not have it be any other way.

What are the Confessions if not an autobiographical yearning, from the first page on, for intimacy with God? I want to know you, and be known by you. Is it possible? The story of Augustine's first 30 years of life is one of an increasingly hard heart, knowing the truth about God and himself, but resisting its metaphysical and moral meaning. And then, strange grace, he was awakened to reality—and his vision of God and the human condition shaped the next millennia, and for many all over the world, the centuries beyond.

Bernard of Clairvaux's marinated meditations on a true love for God, moving beyond creedal orthodoxy and intellectual assent, still echo across the centuries for those with ears to hear. Calvin quoted Bernard second only to Augustine, and when he set forth one of the deepest of all truths in the first pages of the Institutes, we hear him remembering his teachers. We cannot really know ourselves unless we know God; and then he argues, the reverse is also true. Everything else grows out of that thesis. Everything.

But as I am shaped by this story of Augustine, Bernard, and Calvin, I am also shaped by Kuyper.

Almost 15 years ago now I was asked by Prison Fellowship's headquarters here in Washington to come speak to their staff on this particular question: is it possible to have a contemplative life, and live in Washington, D.C.?

We are, after all, the city of the literal and figurative Beltway, with its insatiable hubris . . . and of the two lanes on the Metro escalators, one for very, very busy Washingtonians who are saving the world in five minutes, and one for the out-of-town visitors from Bakersfield and Topeka. A contemplative life here? Especially a contemplative life while honestly engaged in the ideas and issues of the city, and world?

I offered them Kuyper. I talked about his century-ago Princeton Lectures on Calvinism, the seminal vision that has formed a century of reflection on the "all of life" character of Christian convictions. But I also talked about To Be Near Unto God, the 110 mediations on intimacy with God that Kuyper wrote while the Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

Distinguishing "true religion" from "doctrinal abstraction," Kuyper wrote powerfully and expansively on the meaning of one verse, Psalm 73:28. In the best tradition of lectio divina, day after day he dug deeply into the reality of what J.I. Packer called "knowing God, not just knowing about God." I have lived with these for most of life now, and cannot imagine life without them. While I have a large library of devotional classics, it is Kuyper's that I would take to the proverbial desert island.

But it is also Kuyper that I take with me to Capitol Hill, and to wherever I go in the name of vocations that engage the push-and-shove of life. The press of realpolitik in every generation is very weighty, often burdensome and oppressive, and we need the rootedness of live orthodoxy, of living life near to God, if we are to keep on keeping on. From our most personal relationships to our most public responsibilities, the challenge is to be like Kuyper was himself, a contemplative who engaged the world—believing with his whole being that every square inch of the whole of reality belongs to Jesus, who alone is Lord.

Steven Garber,
May 5, 2010

A Christianity that neglects the mystic element grows cold and congeals.

These are not the words of an ascetic or monk, but of the Dutch statesman, journalist, university founder, theologian—and yes, also mystic—Abraham Kuyper, in his famous Lectures on Calvinism. Most know him best for his multifaceted public roles and pioneering public theology. Yet no matter his level of engagement in the public sphere, Kuyper always retreated to be alone with his God.

Was there a relationship between Kuyper's public activity and his practice of personal piety? And more generally, is there a link between Christian public life and Christian spirituality? Kuyper's life and practices—including his morning and evening devotions and daily solitary walks—demonstrate that the answer to both of these questions is an unqualified yes. In his view, personal piety and public life not only can coexist, but must coexist.

Kuyper knew there were great risks in encouraging a mystical form of spirituality. He knew how easy it was for mysticism to develop into an unhealthy practice of isolation, and admitted that in its very essence, mysticism was hermitic and aimed at avoiding worldly activities. Naturally, this seemed counterintuitive to Kuyper's world-engaging, all-encompassing worldview (what Comment readers know as "neocalvinism"). Nevertheless, Kuyper fervently emphasized that a unio mystica, or mystical union with Christ, was critical to faithful cultural discipleship.

The nature of Kuyper's private relationship with God is most lucidly portrayed in his written meditations. These meditations were published weekly for nearly a half-century in the Dutch religious newspaper De Heraut (The Herald). By inviting people to glimpse his internal life through these intimate writings, Kuyper established an influence that went far beyond the doctrinal ideas and public positions he is best known for today. Not everyone could grasp the fine points of Kuyper's theology, or all the details of his public speeches, but even the most basic of thinkers could connect with his heartfelt meditations. Consequently, his theological teachings such as "common grace," "antithesis," and "sphere sovereignty" played secondary roles to Kuyper's devotions in rallying people to faithful public action.

As a result, during his lifetime, Kuyper was most widely known and respected because of his personal relationship with God. At his funeral in 1920, he was remembered for his mysticism above all else. In fact, the residing pastor at Kuyper's funeral stressed that he was one of the great mystics in the history of the Christian church. This illustrates that Kuyper's significance extended far beyond his public positions. He wielded an influence that pierced people's hearts and penetrated the deepest places of their souls. For this reason, Kuyper's contemporaries believed that his greatest legacy was not his impact upon society, but rather his personal faith.

And yet, while Kuyper wrote devotionals his entire life, in recent times his emphasis on spirituality has largely been ignored. Many of his successors in the neocalvinist tradition have failed to acknowledge Kuyper's personal spirituality and its critical role in his call to cultural discipleship.

In his 2005 Comment article, "What is to Be Done . . . Toward a Neocalvinist Agenda?", Al Wolters offers an indicting critique of neocalvinists for their silence concerning piety. He writes, "Generally speaking, neocalvinists are more noted for their intellectual ability and culture-transforming zeal than for their personal godliness or their living relationship with Jesus Christ." Wolters insists that in their determination to promote a culturally engaged Christian ethic, and to warn against the dangers of pietism, neocalvinists have vitiated the link between mystical nearness to God and "filling the earth" with culture. Therefore, Kuyper's followers have often—though perhaps inadvertently—concealed his spirituality, believing that personal piety and public life cannot coincide. Yet Kuyper's devotional life reveals that this is indeed far from the truth.

Mystical intimacy in Kuyper's devotions

The most striking theme in Kuyper's newspaper devotionals is his emphasis on mystical intimacy with God, a distinct otherworldly focus in which he often shows little concern for public life. This devotional norm would seem to lead Kuyper to a type of monastic reclusion, but this sort of withdrawn, parochial lifestyle is never his goal. Instead, his goal is that his mysticism "must become reality, in the full and vigorous prosecution of [his] life." This statement elucidates how Kuyper holds seemingly paradoxical otherworldly and worldly emphases together in one belief system. Although his purpose in his meditations (for example in the collection To Be Near Unto God) is mystical nearness to God, Kuyper's strivings for otherworldly transformation always have implications for the external and visible world.

Kuyper explores how otherworldly mysticism comes to bear upon the earthly domain primarily through the principle of Coram Deo—living "before the face of God." Although he maintains the Creator/creature distinction and emphasizes that God resides in heaven, he also underscores the fact that God personally looks upon his creation. Thus, by means of Coram Deo, the Invisible God draws near to the visible world, extirpating the distance between the Divine and human. This has drastic consequences for Kuyper's spiritual life. Union with God is no longer just an otherworldly endeavour, nor is it confined to the afterlife, but should be experienced in the world, by way of the Divine face.

Consequently, Kuyper recognizes that Christians must learn to incorporate both the otherworldly and worldly realms into their lives. A person does not live in one reality to the exclusion of the other. Instead, union with Christ requires living in both realms concurrently. Kuyper's goal (as he wrote in an article titled "The Firstborn From the Dead") is not to "vapourize [himself] into the spiritual," but rather to be "strong in this world, and at the same time inspired and charmed by the world which [is] to come" (as he says in Asleep in Jesus). He admits the difficulty of this task, confessing that most Christians lean too heavily to one side or the other. What may nonplus many of Kuyper's followers is that while he seeks a perfect balance between the Eternal and finite, he feels that if a person has to err on one side or the other, it is better to err on the side of otherworldliness. Hence, eternal life takes precedence over cultural transformation.

Kuyper acutely portrays this idea in his meditation, "Mary of Bethany" (in Women of the New Testament: Thirty Meditations). In this devotion, Kuyper reflects on the Luke 10:38-42 pericope that describes Jesus' visit to Mary and Martha's home. Kuyper describes Mary as a mystical woman concerned predominantly with the internal life, and Martha as a devout woman committed to deeds of service. He affirms that both women—through internal and external acts of faith—behave properly and that both of their actions are necessary. However, Kuyper points out that Jesus is most concerned with whether one knows him intimately: "And it is worth commenting upon that Mary appealed to Jesus more strongly than did Martha." Kuyper endeavours to balance both Mary and Martha's tendencies in his life, yet in the end, he deems Mary's mystical tendencies as most valuable.

We can observe this penchant for mystic behaviour in the midst of public engagement when we note that Kuyper authored the apotheosis of all his meditations—To Be Near Unto God—when he was Prime Minister of the Netherlands. The juxtaposition of his most influential public role and the most comprehensive account of his practice of piety is not an aberration or coincidence. Rather, it teaches us of the indissoluble relationship between personal piety and public life.

Personal piety and public life

To merely encourage people to pay more attention to Abraham Kuyper's devotional life is insufficient. While certainly needed, a simple affirmation of Kuyper's spirituality does not address the nexus between personal piety and the public life that he so clearly relied on. For this reason, readers must also grasp the profound interdependence of mystical nearness to God and the mandate to "fill the earth" with culture.

In this connection, a mystical relationship with the Divine serves to legitimize the call to cultural discipleship. Kuyper warns that cultural activity devoid of personal piety turns his public theology into "beautifully shaped, finely cornered, and dazzlingly transparent ice-crystals." When this type of "freezing" seeps into neocalvinism, he feels that cultural engagement loses its authenticity. On the other hand, the public life of an individual must also authenticate one's private nearness to God. Simply affirming that personal spirituality must come to bear on cultural activity is insufficient, because cultural activity must also come to bear on personal spirituality. The essence of Kuyper's argument is that both piety and cultural discipleship are spurious when forced to stand on their own. In To Be Near Unto God, he professes, "And therefore the mystic has something to learn form the zealot, and the zealot from the mystic. Only from the impulse of both can soul-satisfying harmony flourish."

Kuyper's mysticism need not threaten his call to cultural discipleship; only when the cultural mandate informs and counterbalances piety does piety find its proper expression, meaning, and validity. As a result, personal piety and public life become mutually authenticating, with each guiding and substantiating the other. This forces one to constantly oscillate between Kuyper's meditations and his public theology, viewing his actions in his public life through the lens of his devotional life, and vice versa. Through this back-and-forth process, public life becomes dynamic, properly oriented, sustainable, and ultimately defined by what Christ does in the heart of the individual believer.

A dynamic life system

Mysticism makes the neocalvinist worldview dynamic. It literally breathes life into this life-system. One of Kuyper's chief public aims was to "stir" Dutch Christians from their sectarian worldview of passive isolation so that they could combat the worldview of modernity. In order to do this, Kuyper had to stimulate believers out of secluded inaction in order that they might create culture around Christian convictions instead of modernity's humanistic convictions. Kuyper's call to public action was dynamic because it was accompanied by his tender meditations, a fact confirmed by his contemporaries. This dynamism caused his life system to take hold in the minds and hearts of his fellow citizens, as he was able to connect his system to the life of God himself.

Kuyper thus offers an important corrective for neocalvinists today. Just as he connected most deeply with his readers while on his knees in prayer, neocalvinism can develop a more robust understanding of the call to public life by incorporating piety as a necessary tool for engaging the world. By acknowledging that the call to cultural discipleship must be a natural expression of secluded prayer, neocalvinists too will instill life back into their life-system. Then, for instance, the call to be a businessperson or musician will not emerge out of a vapid philosophical system, but rather a dynamic relationship with the Divine. This does not mean that the philosophical system is negated, but only that it is engendered, vivified, and properly oriented by personal nearness to God.

A properly oriented life system

When the dynamism of one's "relation to God" comes into contact with one's public life, the call to cultural discipleship becomes rightly oriented. Neocalvinists frequently point to the importance of creation and its "development" in their theology. Without personal spirituality buttressing this effort, neocalvinists risk being unable to properly develop the earth. For Kuyper, this proper development of creation involves correct orientation, which must be derived from intimacy with and imitation of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God (see The Death and Resurrection of Christ: Meditations for Good Friday and Easter). And if this is ignored, Kuyper's call to cultural discipleship may be interpreted as a mandate to triumphal domination of society and its "spheres," such as business, politics, art, and education.

Kuyper commonly references Jesus in his theological writings and public speeches as the "ascending Christ," as James Bratt observed in his Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader. Kuyper views Christ as the King who stands above the French Revolution and its claims of humanism. Moreover, Christ is the King who rules immediately over all areas of human interaction and who triumphs over Satan.

Yet when Kuyper's public theology is read alongside his devotions, his notion of the triumphant Christ is balanced by his experience of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Kuyper's call to develop the earth begins to be characterized by death to self, taking up one's cross, and following "Christ crucified." In his meditations, Kuyper falls to his knees and views "Christ the King" as "Jesus the suffering Lamb." Kneeling before his self-emptying Savior, Kuyper finds equal footing with his audience. He is no longer the stately Prime Minister or learned theologian; he too is a broken sinner, bowing down before his suffering Lord. Neocalvinists, too, must investigate the relationship between Jesus the Sacrificial Lamb and Christ the King, and its relevance to properly oriented cultural cultivation.

In addition, Kuyper's devotional emphasis on the eternal and otherworldly realms is pivotal to the proper development of creation. In Keep Thy Solemn Feasts, Kuyper warns his devotional readers to "be on guard" against the lie that cultural engagement is the entire calling of the Christian. Eternal life must always take precedence over the mandate to "fill the earth" with culture, while at the same time not interfering with or abating it. In Kuyper's view, the Christian eschatological hope of the new heaven and new earth should not draw people away from the world and into an insular form of existence. It should inspire people to approach cultural cultivation with even more earnestness—since, as he said in one of his most famous speeches, "only he who reckons with an eternal life knows the real value of this earthly life" (Christianity and the Class Struggle and The Problem of Poverty).

This is where neocalvinists must distinguish Kuyper's view of heavenly contemplation from a narrow perspective that only focuses on a future life of individual salvation. While Kuyper affirms the importance of eternal life related to personal salvation, he also emphasizes eternal significance in light of the present call to create culture. As a result, mysticism gives Kuyper an eternal outlook by placing infinite value on earthly life and all earthly activities. As neocalvinists move forward, they can have confidence that even in his devotions, Kuyper's otherworldly focus never abrogates the biblical mandate to develop and cultivate creation. This, in addition to an orientation toward Christ-crucified, makes the cultural mandate vision sustainable.

A sustainable life system

When neocalvinism jettisons the otherworldly and cross-centered orientation that emerges from personal piety, the cultural mandate loses its ability to endure. This is because activism alone cannot sustain a flourishing Christian life. In his meditation "Walks Among Those Who Stand Before God," Kuyper confesses that a certain level of "heaviness" accompanies public engagement in the world. If this heaviness is not counterbalanced, it will distort and make the cultural mandate too substantial to bear. For this reason, Kuyper insists that Christians must consistently "escape earthly heaviness, and . . . have walks among the angels before God's Throne, that strengthened by this access to God's Throne, [they] may return to [their] life-task here below." Kuyper is saying that "escape" from the world—and into an otherworldly and eternal place—is foundational to being able to enter the world in a sustainable fashion. He contends that the only way to achieve this "escape" is through the practice of personally drawing near to the Divine.

Christ's work in the heart of the believer

Dynamism, the proper development of creation, and sustainability culminate with one central idea: unless "filling the earth" with culture is the result of Jesus' work in the individual life of the believer, then the goal of cultural transformation loses its purpose. The challenge for neocalvinists today is to emphasize the Divine/human mystical union as much as they do cultural activity. In doing this, they will have to discern how to take mystical intimacy with God into public space as the basis from which to transform culture.

In his biographical introduction to To Be Near Unto God, John Hendrik De Vries admits that he is fascinated by Kuyper's "phenomenal power." The power he speaks of refers to Kuyper's public accomplishments, which he calls "almost superhuman." He then asks, "What [is] the secret of this almost superhuman power?" De Vries directly links Kuyper's public influence to "the more deeply spiritual undercurrent in his life," that is, Christ's work in Kuyper's heart. Neocalvinists must cultivate this same type of private spirituality, as this is the "undercurrent" of the call to transform culture.

Looking forward

As neocalvinists look to the future, they must reclaim Kuyper's emphasis on a personal relationship with God— which must be the "starting point" of the entire neocalvinist worldview, as he writes in Lectures on Calvinism. This does not mean that they have to accept every aspect of Kuyper's devotional theology. The dualism and negative view of the material world in his meditations does at times directly contradict his nuanced theological concepts, a seeming paradox worthy of investigation and debate. However, a neocalvinist reclamation of Kuyper's mysticism mean that personal nearness to God must somehow connect to public theology. This connection—which ultimately consists of interdependence—is fundamental to fulfilling the cultural mandate and thereby, transforming culture.

The best place to start concerning this process is Abraham Kuyper himself—more specifically, his devotions. Kuyper exemplified the profound relationship between personal piety and public life through his own life and daily practices. His legacy therefore extends far beyond his public positions and theological publications. In light of his myriad of devotions, Kuyper's legacy also includes his role as a mystic. His mysticism did not diminish his public activity or his public theology; rather, it strengthened it. Kuyper's aim was not to become privately devotional in order to become less publicly involved, but to consistently retreat from his worldly responsibilities so that he could become even more publicly engaged.

Kuyper's most poignant illustration of the mutually dependent relationship between mysticism and public life may come in his To Be Near Unto God meditation entitled "My Solitary One." In this devotion, Kuyper utilizes the Old Testament tabernacle as a metaphor for the human soul. He asserts that the soul has three parts— an outer courtyard, a holy place, and a holy of holies. Only God can enter the holy of holies, "where in utter solitude the soul abides." For neocalvinists and Christians in general, the call to cultural discipleship ultimately depends on what happens in the holy of holies, between God and the individual heart of the believer. When people come to this realization in all of their cultural responsibilities, they will echo Kuyper by affirming, "For everything hinges on that nearness, on that feeling, 'It is good for me to be near unto God!'"

Clay Cooke
Clay Cooke

Clay Cooke was born and raised in small town North Carolina, where he received a B.A. in Religious Studies from North Carolina State University in 2004. He completed his Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in March 2010, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Ethics and Historical Theology. Clay currently serves on staff at his church, Grace Pasadena.

Steven Garber
Steven Garber

Steven Garber has a classroom among many people in many places. As the director of The Washington Institute, the heart of his own calling is the longing that people understand the integral character of faith, vocation, and culture. Author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (Second Ed., 2007), he writes frequently for various journals, and in addition was a contributor to the volumes Faith Goes to Work: Reflections From the Marketplace and Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue, as well as to the Mars Hill Audio journal, Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Work of Michael Polanyi.


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