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On Education, by Abraham Kuyper

28 August 2020

This public thinker has English-speaking fans, reports John Gay

ABRAHAM KUYPER (1837-1920) is a significant figure in the history both of modern Protestant theology and of the Netherlands. If ever there was a multi-tasking polymath, he was it. A person of great intellect and energy, Kuyper led both the formation of a breakaway denomination from the Dutch Reformed Church, of which he was an ordained minister, and the movement to create Reformed elementary schools. He also founded a political party and a university, and served as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. Furthermore, he was a prolific author, writing theological treatises, biblical and confessional studies, historical works, social and political commentary, and devotional materials.

Believing that Kuyper’s work is a significant and underappreciated resource for Christian public witness, in 2011 a group of scholars formed the Abraham Kuyper Translation Society. Their shared conviction is that Kuyper’s works hold great potential to build intellectual capacity within the Church internationally: hence the need for its translation into English.

In all, there are 12 volumes under the generic title of Kuyper’s Collected Works in Public Theology, this final one on education being published in his centenary year. Its layout does not make it the easiest of reads. It begins with three introductions of increasing focus, then each of the 17 selections from Kuyper’s writings is given its own text introduction. The selections are taken from his university and parliamentary speeches, newspaper articles, and other educational talks and writings. For those not already familiar with Kuyper, this sectional layout can make it difficult to gain a coherent overview.

One of Kuyper’s main educational achievements was the radical restructuring of the Dutch school system according to the principle of religious liberty. This was finally achieved in 1920 when a new education Bill was passed that established three types of publicly funded schools: Catholic, Calvinist, and “neutralist”. Further types have been added subsequently, but, 100 years on, the same principles remain. Although the foundational roots are very different, and there appears to have been little cross-fertilisation, the Dutch and English systems of schooling have key similarities.

AlamyAbraham Kuyper, in a caricature drawn by Patricq Kroon, dating from between 1900 and 1920, and now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Kuyper also led a group of Reformed who established the Free University of Amsterdam, the first Calvinist university in the Netherlands, in 1880. He became one of its professors of theology and also its first academic president. The university was free both from state and Dutch Reformed Church control, and it did not receive any public funding until 1970. Kuyper’s conservative Evangelical Calvinism may well explain why he is not so well known in England. In North America, however, he has come to have something of a guru status among some of the more theologically conservative Christian schools, colleges, and think tanks. One of the colleges has even changed its name to Kuyper College.

This is a complex book, especially for a readership brought up in England, but matching a very complex character, who will be well known in the Netherlands and in sections of North America — as the very useful bibliography attests. But this is an indispensable reference book, nevertheless, which helps to explain why theologically conservative Christians are often suspicious of the implications of a state monopoly of educational funding and control which can restrict the part played by the family, especially in the areas of moral instruction and Christian education. At a very reasonable £43 for a 400-page hardback, it is a good buy.


The Revd Dr John Gay is Research Fellow at the Department of Education, in the University of Oxford, and Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.


On Education
Abraham Kuyper
Lexham Press £43*
*available direct from lexhampress.com

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