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Kuyper and the Book of Revelation

By April 26, 2014 One Comment

Since my posts follow immediately upon Jason Lief’s, you’re bound to get some Kuyper talk every other weekend. Well, the subject’s germane, and the man and his model can use a bit—more than a bit—of interpretive nuance, given the slogans with which he’s commonly bound. So, Kuyper and the Book of Revelation.

Nope, Peyote John doesn’t sound like Kuyper’s best friend, but then he hasn’t been much welcome anywhere in the train of the magisterial Reformation. After all, Luther seemed to prefer that those visions be dumped from the canon right after the Epistle of James; and John Calvin wrote commentary on every book in the Bible except . . . Revelation. Didn’t reveal much, it seems. The lady and the lamb and the dragon and all the rest have always appealed to the marginalized and terminally disaffected, not to those who still had hope that the fallen structures and prevailing forces in this world retained some possibilities for justice and right.

Kuyper—and Calvin, and Edwards, and every thinker I know of in the Reformed tradition—would be in that camp of at-least-modest hope. The Lutherans and Anglicans too; likewise Rome and Constantinople. For aficionados of the Revelator you need to turn to the millenarians and mystics of the Middle Ages that Norman Cohn explored fifty years ago in The Pursuit of the Millennium; then to radical Anabaptists in their early salad days; also the disappointed of England’s Civil War and Puritan Revolution; more recently to dispensational evangelicals and Pentecostals of various stripes. That’s in the Western world. Presumably there’s much more in today’s global South and East.

But there’s a bit in Kuyper too, and it’s a piece worth working over. With all the strait-jacketing of the man into fixed principles of social theory and theology, it’s easy to overlook how urgent and anxious and radically disaffected could be his tone—from very early in his career till very late. In the 1910s, no longer on the hustings for himself but for comrades in his party, he averred to a national convention that, for himself, he would love to be done with the whole process of routine machinations, compromised platform construction, deal-making with other parties to form a winning coalition—to cut it all loose and end his days as a guerilla fighter casting (verbal) grenades at the halls of power, bringing the pompous bluebloods of The Hague down to size, and letting the radical truth of King Jesus rip, electoral consequences be damned.

That was just before World War I. When that folly broke out and continued to roil Europe against all sanity and reason, not to mention Christian ethics, Kuyper thought that the beginning of the end might be in sight. His last long series of articles concerned the doctrine of the Last Things: “On the Consummation.” Not that he indulged in the point-and-tell hermeneutics of the dispensationalists’ daily newspaper reading. Rather, he elaborated on an old theme of his, that the technical aptitude of the West was ever mounting among peoples and nations that were slipping in their allegiance to God; that the righteous remnant would be hard pressed to stay faithful in the consequent looming future of paganism and persecution—and that there would be no rapture to spare them the worst. We’re terminally stuck in the structures and dynamics of power, he thought, and those will wreak great grief some day ahead. So for now, he concluded, work to preserve the good and mount a faithful witness while it was still light.

For Kuyper that witness would necessarily be collective, structural, and institutional as befits a people of God, not a heap of individual “saved souls.” But structural witness requires organization; institutions demand investment; working amid the dynamics of the present order means competing, and competing means you want some wins once in a while for the home team. And after you win you’ll be consulting and collaborating with guys not on the home team, and discover that some of them are pretty ok. Routinization, it’s called, and Christians are just as susceptible to it as any other movement, religious or secular. In those conditions, as Jason suggests, it’s time to read Revelation again. Read it afresh, that is, and not in the tomes stocked in huge warehouses of commentary and right-wing politics on Dispensationalist Street. Just as there’s nothing so ritualized as “non-liturgical” worship, so there’s nothing so routinized as another breathless new-and-shocking trumpeting of the UNObamaRussiaLiberalsHillaryAtheists as antichrist.

For such a genuinely fresh re-reading of Revelation, who knows: maybe Kuyperians actually have something to contribute.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I remember forty years ago reading the last two chapters of The Revelation and feeling very much encouraged in the Kuyperian vision of culture, especially the image of "the kings of the earth bringing their glory into the City." Reference Rich Mouw.

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